Key player

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent [Year B]

Isaiah 40: 1-11 and Mark 1:1-8


At home we have a set of those matryoshka dolls that make up a nativity scene, and our 20-month-old has discovered they nest almost as perfectly in his hands as they do within each other. He can twist the smaller dolls open and fit them back together, one-by-one. That’s the genius of matryoshka dolls. They’re like a puzzle and a figurine at the same time. It’s really cute because he’ll walk around the house and show you who Joseph is, who he calls “Doh,” and which one is Mary, and which one is the baby.

Unfortunately sometime this week the bottom of Mary went missing, and it has thrown our house into upheaval. We have turned the place up and down and I know it sounds funny and maybe borderline sacrilegious, but we can’t find Mary’s bottom. No matter how we say it when we’re looking for it, it sounds weird: the bottom of Mary. Mary’s lower half. The rest of Mary.

Whatever the case, we’ve discovered that’s the downfall of the matryoshka system. Each figurine has two different components to keep up with and when even one of those is missing, the whole set doesn’t fit together like it’s designed to. Mary is kind of a key player in the Christmas story, if you know what I mean. You have to have Mary for it to fit together and make sense. Thus the upheaval. We’re still searching.

You could say the same for John the Baptist, even though I’ve never actually seen a nativity set containing a little John the Baptist. But here he is, every Advent, on about the second week, right when we’re ready to sing Christmas carols, shouting at us with his camel hair and locusts. If you glance through our hymnal, John is referenced or directly mentioned in about half of the hymns in the Advent section. John the Baptist is and has always been a key player of our celebrations and devotions at this time of year because John is the precursor to Jesus. John is crucial not just because, as Jesus’ cousin, his own birth was miraculous and timed just before Jesus’, but because in every story of Jesus that we have, John comes along announcing Jesus.


All of the early Christians and people of faith and even Jesus himself saw John the Baptist—or John the baptizer, as Mark calls him this morning— as the bridge between the prophets of Israel’s past and the present ways God’s kingdom was breaking into their midst through Jesus. He is Jesus’ same age, but his preaching is taken from Isaiah and some of the other ancient prophets. John’s role seems to be primarily to get the world ready to receive Jesus, to wake us up, to prepare the way for the Lord. He shakes things up, gets people talking and coming out into the wilderness at the River Jordan to begin again. Since preparing to receive Jesus does not just mean replaying his birth story over and over, perhaps playing with the little dolls and marveling at how they fit snugly together, John the baptizer becomes the perfect person to help us do what is necessary to make room for Christ in our lives now.

There are many ways that process of preparation takes shape, and as I spent a while at church yesterday morning, I realized that many of you are excellent models of this. It was fascinating to walk among you as you were all involved in essentially some form of preparation. Before I even parked my car, for example, I noticed that a couple of men were trying to remove several rather large tree branches that had fallen under the weight of snow into the driveway. They had already loaded one branch into the back of a pickup truck and were hitching another larger branch to the back so they could haul it out of the way.


John the baptizer might tell us that an essential part of preparing the way of the Lord in your life and in the world is removing things that are in the way. Now, I know sometimes it’s hard to decide what’s actually in the way, but sometimes it’s obvious, and it’s surprising how long we’re just content to let it stay there. Often it remains until something out of the ordinary happens to us and it comes crashing down.  Preparing for Jesus involves cutting back and hauling away things that weigh us down in our walk of faith, places in our lives that aren’t productive anymore. Perhaps it’s the unnecessary dependency on a relationship or a habit we’ve developed. Maybe it’s moving overgrown routines around so we can experience life a little differently.

Isaiah, whom the Baptizer quotes, says that every valley will be lifted up and the mountains made low, the rough places made plain. This is serious earth-moving here that God calls us to do: dismantling the obstacles to faith active in love that prevent the world from perceiving Christ’s presence among us. It’s work out in the world. It gets us sweaty and dirty sometimes, causes discomfort. But in the end it is rewarding.

As I actually came into the church building, I happened upon the HHOPE pantry volunteers who were setting up their tables and bags of food for their distribution day. Our HHOPE ministry has a very well-rehearsed and well-run system for greeting guests, getting them registered, and giving them their food. Their system actually begins the night before when a group of volunteers meets to divide food into bags and set them out for easy access. Then on Saturday morning more tables are set up with additional items and people stand ready to receive whoever comes. There are youth here, adults, sometimes even younger children: they all have a role to play and a job to do.

HHOPE Pantry volunteers, ready to serve

John the baptizer might tell us that part of preparing to receive the good news of Jesus involves serving. It involves putting ourselves at the foot of our neighbor in need. When we do that, when we make ourselves available to the brokenness of the world, we see more clearly the brokenness that Jesus comes to address. Serving helps us place our self-centeredness to the side, which is an important and life-giving thing to do in this individualistic and narcissistic era.

We realize we can be an important part of the comfort that God announces to his people through the prophet Isaiah. At one point Isaiah even says, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.” Literally feeding those in our community and receiving them in our church building is a reminder of the kind of Savior John the baptizer announces and prepares the world to receive. How can you make feeding other people—serving them, carrying them in your bosom—a part of your journey of faith, not just at Advent time but throughout the year?

I left the HHOPE volunteers and came upon Ms. Cheryl, our Faith Formation Director. She was in the hall, going through our old costumes closet and trying to get props and clothing ready for the children’s Christmas program today. She had the behind-the-scenes task of matching what we had to what was needed There are types of preparing like that which are more hidden, less glamourous, but just as important. They involve taking stock of what’s in one’s life, reflecting on its usefulness and bringing it to the front.


This is an essential part of repentance, which is the core of John’s preaching. To repent doesn’t just mean saying sorry. It is more like a change of mind, or a turning around, seeing things for what they really are, going in a new direction. The new life that Jesus brings will take deeper root and wash over us more fully when we’ve taken the time to turn around and face it, to stand ready to receive it. Just like Cheryl had to stand there and go through the costumes and props and creatively think about how they could be used, part of preparing for Jesus means consciously thinking about which parts of my life can be pressed into service for Christ’s kingdom. Are there gifts or talents, certain stories you’ve pushed to the back of the storage closet that can actually be brought out to let God’s light shine on it? This can prepare the way for Christ to enter your life and someone else’s.

The final place I came to yesterday was the sanctuary where Kevin, Alice, Donna, and Scott were all helping the children prepare for their Christmas program today. I didn’t want to stay too long and distract them from what they were doing, but as you can imagine, they were running through their lines, singing the songs, and learning the moves and stage directions. They were working hard because they want to get things right for the final show. They want to tell the story well. The prophet Isaiah says that part of preparing is announcing good tidings. “Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem…do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” What the kids taught me yesterday is that a vital part of preparing for Jesus is knowing the story. Part of making things ready for Christ means refreshing ourselves with Scripture, God’s story…learning how it goes, that it is good news that Jesus comes to us.

rehearsing for “The King and Me”

That, in fact, is how Mark begins his whole account of Jesus. “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is good news that he comes to remove the sin that gets in the way. It is good news that he comes to feed us and serve us like a shepherd cares for the sheep. It is good news that our God comes and gives us chances to turn around, to repent, and have a new direction.

And so we prepare by telling and re-telling the story, rehearsing our lines of witness, to remember that we are heralds of good tidings. We remember that in a world that often likes to imagine God as vengeful and angry we know one who speaks “Comfort, comfort O my people.” We tell of this more powerful one who comes after John so we can remind ourselves of just what this power looks like. When this God carries us in his bosom, he carries us on the cross,  in his very body. Our Savior comes not to bear arms, but to bear all our burdens, all our fears, all the ways we don’t feel we fit together inside by handing over his life.

That’s the reason why John the baptizer is so central, such a key player, why the matryoshka doll of the whole Jesus story isn’t complete without him. He helps us bridge an important understanding: that is, the way we prepare is for the Lord. It is his road and he comes on it, not us. But the preparing does something for us, too. From the top of the high mountains to the bottom of the low valleys, it does something for us, all in God’s grace. Or, you might say: right from the top all the way to the bottom…even if you can’t find it.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Time loop

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37


Last weekend, after we returned from a trip to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, Melinda and I looked at the family calendar and quickly realized that if we wanted to do any Christmas decorating we were going to have to do it right then. We weren’t really ready to do any Christmas preparations. Emotionally we just weren’t there yet. We wanted to wait a bit longer. Also it was 70 degrees and sunny. I was more prepared to go to Lowe’s and get stuff ready in the garden.

Nevertheless, on Saturday and Sunday I found myself traipsing up to the attic and bringing down our boxes and bins and laying everything out on the family room floor. And that’s when it hit me: Nothing I do in the course of a year makes me feel more caught in a time loop than decorating for Christmas. Forget Groundhog Day! The real re-run holiday is Christmas. As I dragged the first box down I was sure I had just packed it and put it back up in the attic yesterday. When I was pulling out the cardboard that we lay beneath our trainset I knew exactly which two pieces we needed because it felt like I had just slipped them back in their storage place that morning.

Laying out the decorations. Last year’s photo of the same thing is almost identical

Do you get that feeling this time of year, or is it just me—like the rest of the year didn’t really happen? And if it did, it suddenly collapses into the span of a few seconds once you start trying to wedge the Christmas tree into its stand? I think that’s especially true if you’ve lived in the same place for several years and you don’t move anything around. To some degree, this aspect of Christmastime is comforting to many of us. We like these traditions, we like these rituals and handling the artifacts of our families. They have an anchoring effect. I think it is engineered, in part, to impart a sense of timelessness, that things may change, but these aspects of our lives won’t ever be any different.

However, if the truth be told, that’s not really where we need to be. We don’t really need to be drawn back into a loop of the same-old, same-old, however soothing and reassuring it may be. We don’t really need to find comfort in hauling out the old boxes of memories and the rerun of our cherished moments. We don’t really need the sense of timelessness amidst a changing world. I know that can come off as kind of harsh and insensitive, and even a bit hypocritical since even here in the church we even prepare this time of year to run through our own list of rituals and time-honored customs.

When we take a good, hard look at the world around us, when we take stock of our own lives and our own brokenness, we find the best place to look for hope and comfort is not the attic, or the shopping mall, or the traditions that warm our hearts. The best place to look is outside of ourselves and our own endeavors—from outside of our world. The fact of the matter is we shouldn’t want everything to be the same as last year or the year before. We want things to be different. And I’m not talking about small incremental, quaint change. It needs to be dramatic, sweeping, unmistakable. What we and the whole world needs is for God’s power to return in a way we can understand once and for all.

If the truth be told, it’s the words of the prophet Isaiah that give us the best outlook not just for this time of year, but for any time. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” he cries. We can see him with his arms open in an act of pleading and apology: “as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil!” This is not “let’s get out the garland and tinsel and make things look pretty.” This is wholesale rearrangement of everything—action that has swift, clear results.

Russian Orthodox icon of the prophet Isaiah

As it happens, these are the feelings, the perspective of the people of God a few thousand years ago after they returned from exile in Babylon. They had had high hopes for what going back to live in their old Promised Land home would be like. They’ve been there several years, gone through the rituals several times. They’ve gone up into the attic and lugged down the boxes, lit whatever candles of their Israelite traditions that are supposed to make things OK.

But things are not OK.  None of their own efforts have really helped bring about the righteousness they’ve longed for. In fact, they’re own attempts at right relationships have become like “dirty rags,” Isaiah says. Enough of their own lackluster attempts at tax reforms and health care legislation and addressing the opioid crisis! Enough of their own half-baked platforms and diplomacies and strategies for governing themselves. Enough of the inability for men and women to treat each other and their bodies with respect.

And so they find themselves looking beyond their immediate control, looking to the heavens for a time when God will somehow break in and straighten everything out. The prophet Isaiah helps them realize that what they’re really waiting for is not a re-run of the best parts of the past. What we all need is for God to tear open the heavens and come down here among us. It’s like that song by singer-songwriter John Mayer from about ten years ago: “So we keep waiting for the world to change.”

Lyrics by John Mayer (“Waiting on the World to Change,” 2006)

Jesus actually borrows this kind of imagery when he speaks to his own disciples about how they’re to live once he is crucified and risen. They’ll be waiting for the world to change, living in anticipation and expectation for God’s power, not just replaying the best parts of the past. Jesus talks about himself in the language ancient Israel had used to describe the end of all time. They will look to the heavens and see the Son of Man descending from the clouds, this great deliverer who will establish his reign of righteousness on earth.

All this confusing talk of the four winds and the elect and the clouds is not necessarily meant to be taken literally. It is the best way Jesus can explain at that time that true redemption is not going to be something they themselves can drum up. God alone, through the compassion and mercy of Jesus, can bring this about.

When I think of the “Son of Man coming in clouds,” I think of how every week I probably see no fewer than five sunrises or sunsets on social media. As modern as we are now, there is still apparently few things as awe-inspiring and other-worldly to us as clouds arranged dramatically across the sky. People are captivated sunsets and sunrises. I am one of them! I posted one this morning before church started and it already has twenty likes. True and complete deliverance will get worked out when Jesus returns, and it will be from God’s realm once more breaking into ours, and this imagery is something even Jesus’s audience found captivating.

sunrise on the first Sunday of Advent from the top of Monument Avenue, RVA

The good news for us is that Jesus says he is at the gates. It’s not much longer now. In the ancient world, and for much of human history, people who lived in cities new they were protected by large walls that surrounded them. Depending on the size of the city, there were several gates in that wall leading in and out of the city which were typically kept closed. When a coming delegation or army would approach, the gates would be closed. However, if they knew what was good for them, they would go ahead and prepare for those gates to be opened. Even though the delegation wasn’t actually inside the city—and in many cases couldn’t even be seen as they encamped outside—the residents of the city had to begin living as if the gates were open and the advancing army was already among them. They needed their life together to match what it eventually would be.

St. Stephen’s Gate, Old City Jerusalem

Jesus says that’s how his followers are to live as they await his final arrival. Know that he is near, at the very gates. Begin living now, inside your city, as if Jesus, in all his power and glory, is right outside the gates. Keep awake, stay alert, put your faith into action.

As some of you know, one of our members lost her brother in a tragic, sudden death two days before Thanksgiving. He had been living in another state far away, and so she and her parents had to travel quite a distance in order to take care of his final affairs and arrange, if possible, a memorial service for him. Unfortunately, they did not know anyone out there and our member’s brother did not have a church home. Through some contacts here in Virginia, the family was able to set something up at a Lutheran Church in that city.

Everything, as you might imagine, was very last-minute, and as it turns out, one major complication was that the women’s group at that church had already set up the entire sanctuary for their annual Christmas tea. Hosting this memorial service for a group of out-of-town, mourning family members who was quite literally at their gates of their church was not on their agenda. It meant all the decorations had to come down and all the tables get put up before they were supposed to. But they did it without complaining and gladly, as if it were on their agenda. Because they were waiting, ready. Ready to put faith into action. In the matter of a few hours, the church was prepared for the memorial service and they welcomed these strangers at their gates in with open arms. A member of the church choir offered to sing a solo for the service, and the assistant to the bishop of that synod even showed up to lend support to the grieving family and to help lend vocal support to the hymn-singing.

We cry out for God to stir up his power and we have faith he is at the gates. We live now in the world as if he is already among us at the end of time, full of grace and truth. We lend support to the singing, keep alert, we move tables, we feed the hungry, we wrap the presents, and if we have to, we put up the decorations, and we take them down.

But we know it is only for a brief spell. Our tea time, all our traditions, will abruptly come to an end. And those who have come to know this King, who may have been baptized—we are no better than anyone else, but we do know we really have no fear of him as he stands at the gates, like a sun just before it peeks over the horizon.

We have no fear because he is the one who first came for us on the cross, who has already laid down his life for us, who sought us out in our brokenness, in our waywardness, and gave us mercy. He is the one, above all else, who brings us comfort, who doesn’t just make things OK but who makes all things awesome, makes all things new—who promises to hold us in his potter’s hands today, this year, and until the last time loop has come to an end.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Final Appraisals

A sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 28A]

Matthew 25: 14-30

Outstanding Evaluation

At one of the men’s lunch groups this week, the topic of year-end performance appraisals came up. This particular men’s lunch group is made up of men who are not yet retired, and I deduced from what they were sharing that the month of November brings with it a certain anxiety. Before the end of the year bonuses are decided and before raises are figured out each of them is going to have to sit down and have some type of reckoning within their teams of employees. One gentleman shared that one of his primary anxieties came from trying to figure out how to phrase and frame his evaluations of employees when the decision about that employee’s raise had already been made by people higher up in the organization. How do you break the news to someone that they will only be receiving a slight raise when they’ve clearly been getting wonderful reviews all year? And perhaps even more challenging: how do you explain an overly-generous raise to someone who hasn’t quite exceeded expectations. In the professional church world the year ends with a congregational meeting, then Advent and Christmas, a mad scramble to plan and decorate, print extra bulletins, learn more music, write more sermons. In the business world, there are reviews and appraisals. I’m going to stick with my end of the year!

It’s the appraisal of all things that is on Jesus’ mind as he approaches his final days in Jerusalem. Perhaps sensing his own days might be numbered at that point, he sits with his disciples and wants to talk to them about it, and let them know that there will be some kind of reckoning. The Son of Man will return. I find that not much of modern day Christianity likes to touch on this aspect very much. Unfortunately, we have tended to leave talk about the end of time and things like the judging of the living and the dead to Hollywood. Maybe it’s because we feel it doesn’t fit our overly scientific worldview. Maybe it’s because deep down it brings fear. Regardless, one of the topics that Jesus brings up with a good deal of regularity during the time with his disciples is his return at the end of the ages to claim his kingdom of righteousness in full. To take Jesus seriously means taking to heart what he says about the future.


What he says this morning about the future is often called the parable of the talents, and I don’t know if it’s just a sign of the influence of the times is having on me, but doesn’t this read like an episode of “The Apprentice”? A man plans to go on long trip, but before he leaves he decides to leave his slaves in charge of everything. He gives each of them a different portion of the estate, kind of like when you go on vacation for a while and you hire one person to take care of the yard and but find a neighborhood kid to come in and water your plants and feed the cat.

Talents were a way of grouping money in the ancient world, and it is estimated that one talent was worth about twenty years’ wages. So to the first slave the man gives control of about one hundred years’ of wages. The second slave gets the equivalent of forty years’ wages, and the last slave about a year’s worth. So in the end this isn’t just like leaving the neighborhood kid in charge of the plants and cat food. These are vast sums of money, and with them comes vast responsibility and authority. Jesus says the man entrusts the slaves with it. One translation says he “handed over” his property to them, which means it is implied they are supposed to do something with it. In fact, it sounds like they are supposed to do with the man’s property whatever he would have done with it while he’s away.

So off they go. We learn the one who was given one hundred years’ wages uses it to develop a cool new technology that enables people to carry around little computerized phone cameras in their pockets. Pretty soon everyone in the world buys one and uses them to share photos of what they’re eating and get into political arguments with each other. He doubles the money that was given to him!

The second slave decides to go the toy route and uses the forty years of wages given to him to create a little three-pronged plastic and metal device that operates on ball bearings and can spin forever on the edge of your finger. People think he’s silly and that he’s just throwing his master’s money away, but look who’s laughing now! He finds people will part with $10 on one of these things! He, too, doubles his money in no time.

A million dollar invention. kinda reminds me of the Trinity.

The third guy is nervous about this whole responsibility thing. He knows better than to go risking his master’s money on anything. And he’s definitely not going to spend a dime of it on something as frivolous as a smartphone or a fidget spinner. So he figures the best thing to do is just find a shoebox, put the money in there, and shove it under his bed until the master comes back.

Well, it takes a really long time for the master to come back. The amount of time is never the issue, and the slaves are not told to figure out secret codes or read the Bible a certain way to predict his return. The point is that there is some sort of performance appraisals when he does. The first two slaves are rewarded. How does the master phrase his evaluation? “You will be entrusted with even more responsibility and property!” More than that, they receive the joy of their master. The third guy? Not so much, and as it turns out the master is not all that worried about how he spins this appraisal. Wicked, lazy, and worthless is what he gets called, in no uncertain terms, and then the master looks at him across the boardroom table and says, “You’re fired!”


The issue, of course, is that the third slave misjudged his responsibility because of a fundamental misunderstanding about the master. The slave lived in fear. For whatever reason he thought his master was harsh, unscrupulous, although it’s hard to know why a man who left slaves in charge of so much could ever be thought of as harsh. The master is generous and giving, willing to take enormous risks. And so if the slaves are to follow the master’s lead, they, too, should be willing to risk, to see time not as something to be endured, passed through, but as potential for growing, changing, learning. To tend his gifts, to safeguard them, means to use them even if you’re not really sure where it might take you.

This is Jesus’ lesson about the future for his disciples. In the time when they’re waiting for his return, they should be working, serving, taking risks. Sharing the gifts God has given wisely but generously is precisely what our heavenly Father intends for us to do. Preserving and protecting our lives, keeping everything as-is simply because that’s how we received it is not our mission as disciples.

And neither is focusing too much on the amount of talent or treasure we have received For this parable is not really about money at all. It’s about the whole of our lives, our heart, our joy. As one famous English clergyman from the 1800’s once said, “The greatest of all mistakes is to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can.”[1]


Putting ourselves and our unique constellation of gifts out into the world, into the service of our neighbor, is precisely what we’re called to do as Jesus’ followers. And the thought we could somehow ever lose what God has given us is a lie the devil tells. Risk is part of the kingdom’s strategy. Risk is factored into the whole shooting match, right from that first moment by the fishing boats in Galilee to the church capital campaign. Look at the risk God himself takes by sending Jesus! On the cross, God goes all in for us, lays it all out there, investing everything God has for the sake of you and me. And even though it looks like Jesus loses it all—even though it looks for a moment or two that his decision to live for God’s kingdom and not Caesar’s was terribly unwise—he doesn’t. On the third day he rises, promising to us all the joy of his Master. This is not harsh at all. This is grace, for you and me.

One of my favorite things to do each week is to read the obituary in the Economist magazine. I find it inspiring and fascinating to find out how different people around the world have invested or shared their lives. And the writing of the obit editor, Anne Wroe, is brilliant, impeccable. She chooses one person each week who has recently died and attempts to capture the essence of their life and their contributions to humankind in 1000 words.  Only about a quarter of the time do I recognize the subject of her obituary. The other three-quarters are people I only learn about for the first time as I’m hearing of their death.


For example, about four weeks ago her obituary was of Joseph Schmitt, a humble man from rural southern Illinois who ended up doing all the maintenance on NASA’s spacesuits, from Chuck Yeager to Alan Shepard, to John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and the first of the space shuttle crews. The unpretentiousness with which he shared his formidable gifts was amazing! The obituary she wrote for Fats Domino was also enlightening. Some of the lives she shares are more tragic than, others, of course, but most seem to contain at least somewhere an element of a life that was not buried in the ground.

Moved by her talent at writing, I wrote her a card about three years ago to express my adulation and my thanks. To my surprise, Ms. Wroe sent me a handwritten note back on Economist letterhead. The only fan mail I’d ever sent in my life at that point was to a person who writes death notices. In any case, I found the words of her note even more enlightening:


How very kind of you to write. I’m delighted that you enjoy the obits. They are a great pleasure to write, and fill me with wonder at the sheer variety and ingenuity of human beings. I hope, too, that they may make a small appeal to incorporate death into life—to embrace it, and to celebrate (as I deeply believe) that the spirit cannot possibly decay with the body, but moves on to even more extraordinary adventures. Unfortunately, Western society finds it so hard to face death that we cannot even find advertisers to go on the page opposite mine!                


“Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years away,” goes the hymn we sang this morning. Anne Wroe done preached me a sermon! Do we approach the suspense of our death—or of Jesus’ second coming, whichever comes first—with a sense of fear and foreboding, that we can put it off indefinitely, that we can stop the ever-rolling stream, or do we approach the suspense of our deaths and Jesus’ return with the sense of duty to grow and share and serve the world with joy? Can we incorporate death into life, the final appraisal into each daily task?

It seems that’s what Jesus is up to, in fact. Passing around the cup and the loaf on the night he was betrayed. Weeping at the tomb of Lazarus before he calls him forth to life. Offering forgiveness and compassion even as he hangs there dying. We incorporate our own death to sin in baptism into life for the world around us.

Therefore, called forth by this master, let us do with our talents what God himself would do with them if he were the one waiting. Let’s live as the bold advertisements that can go on the opposite page to death…advertisement that say loud and clear, with each breath that what is given by God is more great and generous than we could ever imagine…that say with each day that what is given by God can never be truly lost, but only goes on to more extraordinary adventures.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Sydney Smith, 1771-1845

Who is This Crowd?

A sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year A]

Revelation 7:9-17 and Matthew 5:1-12

22886231_1611820422213153_2683707184795344742_nIn 2005 National Public Radio featured a short essay by a New York attorney named Deirdre Sullivan that went on to become one of the most popular pieces National Public Radio has ever featured. It’s something I return to time and time again. It’s called “Always Go to the Funeral,” and in it she relates how her father’s greatest gift to her and her family was how he ushered them through death. She talks about how he instilled in them the importance of expressing sympathy to people who are bereaved by always going to the funeral or the visitation hours, no matter how much it inconveniences you or how uncomfortable it makes you.

Sullivan goes on to explain that always going to the funeral is actually a philosophy she has expanded and adopted in the rest of her life. It means rather than waiting for the chance to make some grand, heroic gesture, she looks for the “small inconveniences that let her share in life’s calamities.” She explains how most days the battle isn’t between good and evil. It’s between doing good versus doing nothing.

Her short piece then movingly concludes with her own father’s funeral and a particular moment that takes her breath away. Numb for days from her grief, she remembers turning around briefly and taking a look at the church, packed with people, behind her. She says, “The most human, powerful, and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00pm on Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.”[1]

Perhaps some of you have experienced that, and exactly like Deirdre Sullivan says. I have seen it, too—even here this year—and had my own breath taken away. Crowds of people coming on a Thursday afternoon, a Saturday morning—some larger than others, of course—but always containing at least two or three you didn’t expect to see, people you didn’t think could or would make it—to support a grieving family and lean on the promises of God as they gather in worship at one of the hardest moments of their life.

cucumber sandwiches, a staple of the funeral reception

I have seen some of you wear choir robes, too, on those days, often not that personally close to the deceased, but still bound by duty and by love to be numbered in the crowd, to sing praise and thanksgiving in the face of death. Others of you make cucumber sandwiches and chocolate macaroon bars, fill up the lemonade dispenser and coffee carafes and wash them out once the reception is done. You set the tables in Price Hall and take down the chairs, sometimes when you don’t even know who the family is.

Or you’re a member of the marching band at Atlee High School, and although you may not have known fellow bandmate Dylan Murtagh all that well, you put on your band uniform anyway like everyone else and squeeze into the church for his funeral so that his parents see that he was one of you, one of the gang.


Like Sullivan, I’ve seen these crowds—or I’ve heard of them and read about them—and of the miraculous and meaningful presence of people you didn’t count on.

Right or wrong, that’s my handle for making sense of what we have written for us in the book of Revelation this morning: miraculous and meaningful presence of crowds you didn’t count on. Revelation is such a strange book, and we often don’t know how its truth has any meaning for us in these days. Its visions and images sound so fantastical with things like thrones and Lambs and four unnamed creatures, and they don’t speak to us directly. Yet there he is, John, the writer of Revelation, standing amidst a huge crowd and he doesn’t know where they have come from. It’s like he’s glanced back at the church pews behind him, and sees they’re filled with a multitude from every nation, every tribe and language. They are singing and worshiping, holding palm branches in their hands, an ancient symbol of victory.

An elder who is there witnessing it with him seems taken aback. He turns to John and asks, “Who are all of these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” as if to say, his breath taken away, “Who are all of these, bearing cucumber sandwiches?” “Who are all of these, dressed in their band uniforms?” One of our members sent me photos yesterday of the lawn at Hatcher Memorial Baptist Church, which is blanketed this weekend with white crosses, one for each person in Virginia who has died this year as a result of addiction. It too, is breathtaking, but in a somber way. The elder might ask of us, “Who are all of these, dressed as white crosses, and where did they come from?”

marker project

We learn that in the case of John’s revelation vision, the crowds are not there to see him. In fact, they are looking upon the crowds of those who’ve died. The elder tells John they are the ones who have come through the great ordeal.

Now, in the time John wrote this and got it aired on NPR, people would have known exactly what that meant. They would have known that the great ordeal was the time of great persecution that followers of Christ were undergoing in parts of the Roman empire. Those who professed that Jesus was Lord of all were being thrown in jail and exiled and being made into lion food. That’s a large part of why Revelation is so inaccessible to us in these days of unparalleled comfort. But when you have no ability to rely on your own powers to make a way for yourself, your perspective on the world and your place in it becomes very different, something many of us I doubt can identify with. You begin to look to other sources of hope and salvation outside your own intellect and strength.

“The Adoration of the Lamb” (Ghent altarpiece, Jan van Eyk, 1432)

In John’s vision, the crowd robed in white is a bold reminder of that hope and salvation—they are those martyrs who ended up witnessing to their faith in the handing over of their life. This crowd is the group of fellow believers who died before Jesus could return to claim them for his eternal kingdom. They are the ones who sacrificed it all, their tragic lives lost to the records of time (or so they once thought) and yet here they are in John’s vision, waving palm branches and singing praises. They are not gone forever! They’ve taken their robes made them pure and white by washing them in the Lamb’s blood. He’s the one they’ve come to see and support, as he sits on his throne of triumph. And because he is risen and triumphant over death and the grave, they can worship him in the knowledge that one day there will be no more hunger and no more thirst. He will shelter them. He will love them and provide for them, his own grand, heroic sacrifice covering their sins and making them clean again.

John’s Revelation says something we need to hear, even if we are not living in the time of its original audience: God is able to bring his people through their great ordeals. That is God’s standard operating procedure, in fact. We don’t know how God manages, but he counts out every soul he has created, he reclaims each and every one of them from the tragedies of life, and brings them to himself through the throne of the Lamb. God was present with his Son as he died on the cross, and so we know He is present with us in our ordeals of life, no matter how insignificant or magnificent they may be. God is ultimately victorious over it all, which is something that all who undergo suffering and trial at some point must wonder.


God is establishing a kingdom where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, where every sheep will know the loving care of the Shepherd. It is a kingdom where the humble are blessed, not the ones filled with pride. It’s a kingdom where those who make peace and those who show mercy are blessed. It is a time and place where those who understand their need for God are the blessed ones, not those who are sure they can do it all on their own.

A few Sundays ago my colleague was sitting in his office, staring out his window worrying about the quality of his sermon (as we do) when he caught sight of an elderly man helping another elderly widower button his sleeves. No more worrying about the words of the sermon. The kingdom’s being established right there—the kingdom of the the meek, the pure in heart. Where every loose sleeve cuff is buttoned, and every tear is wiped away from every eye.

So often we tend to label as saints only those who’ve used their life to make some grand, heroic gesture for the good. However, today we remember again that the saints are that crowd too numerous to count, that crowd that takes our breath away, the saints who live beautiful sermons in the life of the world each day. Today we name our dearly departed, and we remember them as saints, too, because God showed up and supported them in their ordeals…the ones everyone knew about and the ones they struggled with privately.

We remember those who showed us that real decision of faith more often lies between doing something good versus doing nothing.

We remember those who struggled with the ravages of cancer, with the worry of unemployment and what it was like to stand in the bread line with your children, those who dealt nobly with the breakdown of their marriage. We remember those who suffered with the estrangement of family members and the death of a child, the terror of depression and unresolved anger. We remember those who waged a war with addiction.

And today we have hope they’ve all come through the ordeal because God has loved them and knows he first claimed them in baptism.

And we look for that day when we, too, will turn around and look back for a moment and see them all standing with us, all in our white band uniforms, sleeves buttoned, eyes dry. All of us, marching for our Savior. All, counted out because he’s brought us through the ordeal, our lives sheltered in the shadow of the cross. Palm branches in our hands, and maybe cucumber sandwiches, too, before the throne of the Lamb, who saves us by his grace.

Rejoice. Be glad. For ours is the kingdom of God. And we will always go…we will always go to the victory feast of the Lamb.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Back to the Basics

a sermon for Reformation Sunday (October 29, 2017)

Romans 3:19-28

Luther (2)

Here we are gathered on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, which ended up being a truly world-changing movement. I do not hold a degree in history, but I know enough to know that the Protestant Reformation, which for all intents and purposes took off that final day of October 1517, quickly became one of those few events in the course of history that eventually touched on just about every aspect of human life, one of those events where everything after ended up being significantly different than what came before. Ideas and yearnings for change had been brewing prior to that October in 1517, but now we know things really took off when Martin Luther, a relatively unknown monk and college professor, began circulating 95 specific ideas for discussion on the door of a relatively unknown backwater town in a depressed part of northern Germany. He had had enough of certain teachings and practices of the church—a church which he deeply loved—and felt emboldened to get people to talk about it.

If you’ve ever had to take a class in European or world history, you’ve learned about the Reformation and Martin Luther. You don’t have to be Lutheran or even Christian to appreciate the world that Martin Luther’s Theses and hammer helped bring about. Historians often argue that were it not for the Reformation, other movements like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment—the widespread flourishing of the arts and humanities and the concepts related to the “rights of man”—might not ever have come about in the ways they did. Political scientists and economists say that the Reformation is what made possible the organization of people into nation-states, which is still the system governments are arranged by now. Rather than things like empires and independent cities with their own armies, the world has countries and capital cities which run them.

luther nailing

But all that is for debates among the experts, and, truth be known, none of those reasons is why you and I are gathered here today. We are gathered in this place on any given Sunday because this congregation, for better or worse, is still associated with Martin Luther’s original message. When we cut past all the ties each of us may have to the Lutheran movement through our heritage and history, this congregation still finds something about Luther’s core teachings that we think is invaluable to Christian faith and the ministry to which God calls us. This congregation is still built on the belief that, even if we don’t intentionally reflect on it all that much, and even if we don’t do a good job with it 100% of the time, that there are basics about the gospel that must be gotten right. The Reformation that happened 500 years ago this week and the message the Spirit helps us embody every Sunday hence is aimed at the basics about God and Jesus and the life of faith.

On Reformation Day twenty years ago I found myself gathered in Wittenberg itself, the city where it all began. I was living in Germany at the time, in a small village not too far away, behind the former Iron Curtain. Almost no one identified as a Christian those days because the Communist Party had been fairly successful in stamping out the church. But I was surprised that in Wittenberg they were pulling out all the stops. There were organ recitals, worship services, lectures scheduled all day long. We even watched puppet show (for some reason lost to us it was “Puss in Boots”). What took me really off guard was that on every street corner people were handing out copies of Luther’s Small Catechism. That struck me as very peculiar, especially in a land where almost no one went to church or really professed belief in God.

In Wittenberg on October 31, 1997, with a friend (Lauren). The city church where Luther preached is in the far background. The Luther statue is behind me on my right.

For those who may not know, the Small Catechism is probably Martin Luther’s most well-known book. Catechism is a fancy church word for a teaching book, and Luther wrote it in 1529 to teach the basics of the Christian faith. It contains concise, easy-to-read explanations for the five things Luther considered central to Christian faith: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.  It was little in size and the writing was very accessible. His hope was that families would use around the dinner table at night.

I’ve owned this catechism I got in Wittenberg for 20 years, but only this week did I notice that the very back page is the multiplication tables. It seems very non-sequitur for me: what in the world do fundamental arithmetic lessons have to do with teachings about the church? Thanks to someone in this congregation who did a little research, it seems that printing the multiplication tables in the Small Catechism was Luther’s original idea. Just as parents would drill their children on their basic math facts each night, they were also to help them learn their faith basics. Sounds like loads of fun, right?

the front cover of my German Small Catechism (left); the times tables on the back page (right)

Luther and other church theologians could fill volume upon volume  in their thinking about God and the church, but when he had to boil it down to the basics, he got the Small Catechism. And if you could get these five things down pat, then you had the foundation for building the rest of your faith.

But for Luther, of course, there was something even more basic than memorizing the catechism. And that’s what that original Reformation Day was about. Luther believed deeply that when you’re talking about God, the basics have to be grace. That is the way that God builds a right relationship with us. God always reaches out to us in our sin, in our brokenness, in our frailties and failings. That is God’s basic nature and character, the foundation of his relationship with each and every one of us. It is so easy to begin thinking that God will only accept and love us if we are morally perfect, or if we are sincere about wanting to be morally perfect. It is even possible to read Scripture and come to the conclusion sometimes that our relationship with God is primarily about what we do. Luther had been taught that by the church of his age, and it had led him into some very dark places. But when he stepped back and reflected on the life of Christ and the gift of faith the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to see that the basics always had to do with God’s free gift of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

solagratia.fw_He found this reassurance especially in the letters of the apostle Paul, who himself had struggled with the relationship of his works of righteousness to God’s unconditional love. For a long time Paul had believed, just like the rest of his people, that in order to be in a good relationship with God you had to do the right things. A person had to work hard in order to stand justified before God. This is what Paul means by “living under the law.” To deal with human brokenness and the sin of the world, God had provided a system of rules and commandments that we could learn and follow. But that had all become obsolete once Jesus was given as a gift. His death and resurrection was a true world-changing moment, altering everything that came afterwards, because it meant that God was pouring out himself for the life of the world. Rather than sitting back and waiting for humankind to reform itself through the law of good works, God was moving towards us in grace. Grace had brought us into existence, and grace was now freeing us from the burden of sin.

And if you understood that, if your faith seized upon that, then you were justified—that is, you stood before God cleansed and free and forgiven. As Paul put it, for we hold that a person is made right by faith apart from works of the law. Or, as one modern translator phrases it, God does not respond to what we do, but we respond to what God does.[1]

SART-2015-09-13-1090x639And if that is the basic foundational understanding of who God is and how God works, then the church has to make that basic, too. When we are out and about in the world—maybe not standing on the street-corners, but sharing and living our message—it is vitally important that we keep God’s grace the basic, main message in all we do and say. Luther called this the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. And by that he meant that if the church can’t proclaim this clearly above all else, then it will cease to contain anything about God. By returning to the basics of God’s Word Luther helped return the church of his day to the message of grace.

And Luther knew that the church always carried this responsibility of reforming itself, of holding its message up to the living Word of Jesus. How does the church remain relevant? By proclaiming God’s grace in Christ clearly and lovingly. It’s so tempting to think that reform is about bringing things up to date. We can fall into the trap of thinking reform simply involves cleverly responding to the times or revising rules and procedures. Reform of the church actually doesn’t have anything to do with making things more modern or up to date, although it may have that effect here and there. Reform always has to do with helping the church mirror the grace of God in Christ as closely as it can. Reform first takes us back to our roots, takes us back to our fundamental understanding of how God interacts with us in Jesus Christ before it takes us anywhere else. We continue in his word and it makes us free—free to stand on the street-corners, free to stand at the end of Monument Avenue, free to love and serve our neighbor out in the world.

I distinctly remember sitting here several years ago during the children’s sermon. I can’t remember who was responsible for giving it that Sunday, and I certainly have long forgotten what it was they said, but I have clear memories of one little Sarah S. D. who was about 2 years old at the time. As some children are prone to do during the children’s sermon, she had gotten up and was walking around and inspecting things. I watched her climb up on the step behind the person delivering the children’s sermon and walk along the little step underneath the altar as if she were pretending to walk along the steepest mountain ledge.

It caught my eye because most kids who go up there face the altar, but she was facing outward, and she almost looked afraid to do it. And then, suddenly, she spread her arms outward to brace herself as she inched along the ledge. And as the words of the children’s sermon continued, we had there before us an image of the basics of faith. The mighty fortress of God pressed tight at our back, we find ourselves balanced, faces looking outward into the world. It is not our own doing, but Christ who makes us able. We stand before God by our faith in God’s grace, apart from any work we do. “We tremble not, unmoved we stand,” as Luther’s hymn goes. And there we stand, facing outward, forgiven and free, to engage the world and serve our neighbor. But always because Christ’s grace anchors us. It is the basics, the church’s number one task to live and proclaim.

So on this day, we’re gathered, 500 years after the movement started moving, to remember where God has placed us, to remember where God always places us: in the water, where we are cleansed and renewed. At the table, where we are fed and forgiven. And at the viewpoint of faith, ready to show the world how strong and how gracious and how freeing our God really is.


[1] The Message (Eugene Peterson)

Straining forward, pressing on

A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Philippians 3:4b-14 [Proper 22A]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarlier this week the chair of our archives team, which is the ministry responsible for cataloguing and keeping track of our congregational history, sat down in my office and said, “Pastor, we’ve found some slides of Epiphany’s first couple of decades and we’d like to  convert them to a digital format. It sounded like a great idea because if they remained slides, we reasoned, no one would ever end up seeing them. Curious, I asked how many he was talking about.

“Oh, about 1800.”

1800 slides taken of ministry in this congregation just in the first couple of decades of its life! That is a lot of slides for any organization or individual. We agreed that before any were converted to digital format, he and his team would go through all 1800 and determine if there were any duplicates or any that weren’t worth keeping. That’s quite an undertaking. Who knows what stories they’ll uncover by going through them.

Some people love to do that kind of thing—love to pore over the images and words of the past—and we’re the better for it. I suppose all of us like to dwell on the past, to some degree, but as we were talking I kept thinking about that number: 1800 slides. Even if that comprises slides taken during just two decades, it amounts to only 7.5 slides per month, which is not too bad. But then I sat down at my laptop after he left and realized just on my computer I have about 8,000 photos from my almost 9 years of ministry here. That’s what happens when you carry a camera in your pocket every day and you don’t have to pay to have film developed. I have photos of the last nine Vacation Bible Schools we’ve done and just about every youth group event, too. The photos go all the way back to the day I was installed in February 2009. I haven’t been able to bring myself to delete a single file! I still occasionally like to look back at the things we’ve done. So who am I to scoff at 1800 slides?

oldest photo on my hard drive – my installation on February 8, 2009

There is something about the past, our history, our so-called glory days that entices us to hold onto it. Pictures can do that, especially in this image-drenched era we live in where we have Throwback Thursdays on social media. And to some degree that’s OK, because these things can become a way of telling our story, of reminding us of important things. It’s good to remember how we’ve grown and changed. But sometimes, and often without our even realizing it, the past can become something we worship or something we use to justify ourselves. We cling to things like photos and past experiences as if to boast, finding our self-worth in these things we’ve done or these things that have happened to us. Just to be clear I’m not saying the archives team is guilty of such a thing, even if we save all 1800, but it is a trap that any organization or culture or individual can fall into.

And for the church, Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, this can be especially problematic. It can be problematic because the life of the Christian and the Christian community is one that is ever leaning into the future. In fact, Paul would even go so far as to say that the life of the people of God is primarily about pushing into what lies ahead. It’s one of its defining characteristics. It is a journey where more emphasis is placed on where Christ might be calling us to go, than on where we’ve already been. It’s a life where whatever Christ is calling us to be is more interesting, more important, more influential than where or what we’ve already been.

cross with clouds Epiphany
Epiphany’s cross at the end of Monument Avenue

This understanding of the faith can be found throughout Paul’s writings in the New Testament, but it really crystalizes in his letter to the Philippians. He writes to them in the midst of some sort of conflict they were having. We don’t know the exact nature of that conflict, but one of the main thing he urges them to do in the face of it to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. That is not to say that they should forego any necessary forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather they should focus on the gift that is Jesus and how Jesus always gives them a goal of working into the future.

As it happens, the ancient Greek and Roman cultures were prone to boast about their own pasts and their own prizes. They didn’t collect pictures in order to tell their stories, but they did tout their pedigrees. Things like who their family was, which tribe they belonged to, and where they had been educated got a lot of traction in the ancient world. It was what we call an honor-based culture, and people accrued these badges of self-worth or honor like some of us do photos on our hard drives or smartphones. Paul makes it clear that he has quite a list of those badges of distinction. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find someone in the ancient Jewish world with a pedigree to match Paul’s. He can literally check off every box in the list of things that would make him stand out. It is list that anyone would want to have to boast in.

And yet, he says, he counts all of it as loss, as nothing, as rubbish compared to the value of knowing Jesus Christ his Lord. In fact, the exact translation of the word he uses to talk about his pedigree—skubala—is a word that really can’t be repeated in polite company. His elevated status, his resumé, are all left behind—he pushes delete on all those wonderful photos—because he’s gained Christ and the righteousness that comes through a relationship with him.

“Paul Writing his Epistles” (Valentin)

Now this is significant because typically the people at the top of society—the ones with the most relative status to everyone else, the ones with the greatest power in relation to the world, the ones with the best access to resources that provide for an easy living—they are the ones who typically find the least usefulness of faith. Privilege often provides some insulation from having to look outside oneself for meaning and help. Paul would have fallen into that category, and yet he is so moved by the love God has had for him in Jesus Christ that he can throw all that away. Even as he languishes in prison, his message for the Philippians is that this love has been lavished on them, too. The power of faith and the promise of resurrection from the dead is worth all of those badges of privilege and more. They can move into the future with the confidence that God is calling them there, that God is waiting for them there, that God will reveal even more as they press on.

And this is all possible, of course, because that is what Jesus first did for them. Just prior to this section of the letter, Paul has used this wonderful hymn about how even though Jesus was equal to God Jesus did not exploit or use that status to his advantage but instead emptied himself.

Jesus leads the way in letting go of self-glorification and self-preservation in order that others may live. That’s the whole message of the cross—that Jesus Christ has made us his own. He has given all that he is, even his very life, in order to conquer all that separates us from God, even death. For this reason none of us needs to live to him or herself. We can forget what lies behind and empty ourselves for the life of those around us.

large logo

Today our congregation kicks off a special campaign that will help this congregation strain forward into the future God is preparing. Most people would probably say that Epiphany is a strong, vibrant congregation. We have a rich history of serving our neighbors in the Richmond area, and a strong legacy of building up God’s kingdom in the lives of people who come here. But Paul would surely tell us this morning that this congregation’s best days are still ahead of it. Paul would say, “1800 slides is nothing! God is urging you to take 18,000 more in the years to come.”

Paul would love, for example, the conversations I overheard in the Community Service Team meeting last week as the leaders brainstormed about how to get more people in the congregation involved in our marvelous outreach ministries. Paul would commend the HHOPE Pantry team as they seek ways to expand their reach into the often invisible immigrant communities in our midst. And he would likewise help us understand that sometimes certain ministries need to die so that resources and energy might be freed up to envision even greater opportunities. When a community is built around Christ, of course, resurrection and new life is what we can anticipate. The stone that builders rejected has become the cornerstone. He is the risen leader who beckons us into the future as we Brighten our Light.

Jasper straining forwardIn my office is a wooden carving of Jesus praying at Gethsemane. It was given to me by Jim DeLesDernier. It’s the ideal figure to rest on the little table that lies between the chairs where people sit when they visit me. My 18-month-old loves that figurine and somehow he already knows who it is. When he comes in my office it’s usually the first thing he goes for, but it’s just at the height where he has to strain forward and reach out his arms as far as they’ll go. It’s Jesus who’s determining his height and his reach. It’s Jesus who’s stretching him to his capacity, helping him grow. That is what we pray will happen here as God Brightens Our Light, stretching our community into greater potential.

This past week I was visiting one of our homebound members who until fairly recently used to join us in worship each Sunday. She is now confined to her bed and a wheelchair in the nursing home. She is a delight to visit, always asking about how my family is and how things at church are coming along. She’s had to downsize quite significantly to go from a house of her own to the double room she now shares. I imagine she’s had to leave behind quite a few worldly possessions. I was shocked, however, to see that one of the things she keeps close at hand, rubber-banded to her daily planner right on the tray table by her bed is a Bible devotion book that once belonged to her father. The book was published in 1900 and all of the pages are falling out, each one containing handwritten notes from her dad from his youth and young adulthood. She was glad to let me hold it and thumb through it.

It kind of struck me that this little devotional booklet was the one thing she had requested her family bring her in the nursing home, and how symbolic that it was rubber-banded to her calendar, with its days of potential stretching into the future. Even at her stage in life she is still joyfully pressing onward, still walking that journey with Christ, wanting to know more, wanting to strain forward to the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

20171005_131008It made me think: I wonder what I’ll have by my bed when I’m in the nursing home, should I be blessed to be there one day? 10,000 photos of all the things I’ve already done, the places I’ve already been, the days I’ve already spent? Or, like Margie, words for each brightened day from the Lord Jesus Christ who has already made me his own?

And what about us? As we ask God to brighten our light, can she be our model of faith, and Jim DeLesDernier, too, and those who have gone before us, whose stories and slides, put together, would tell of nothing other than the surpassing value of knowing Christ our Lord?


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

when he saw their faith

There is a story in the Bible
of a man
whose friends remove a roof
to bring their friend to Jesus

they lower him on his mat
above the heads of the people
and drop him at the Healer’s feet.

Today in church
I watched a girl–
no more than 6 years old–
and return during a hymn
carrying a walker

took both hands
pulled up to her chin
legs clanging against the pews

but it got her grandma to
the communion rail

Some say the stories in Scripture
never happened

I say not true

How can they not have happened
when they are still happening?

The Least Favorite Parable

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 20:1-16 and Philippians 1:21-30 [Proper 20A]



The parables Jesus tells are often people’s most favorite parts of the New Testament, and I think that’s because so much of the time the parables give us characters and stories that we love. Just think, for example, of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. People love the Good Samaritan. That story challenges us, for sure, but it also leaves us with a nice, warm feeling at the end: the stranger that everyone is supposed to hate and have low expectations for ends up being the hero!

And people love the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That’s the one where the no-good, ne’er-do-well son asks for his inheritance early and goes off to squander every penny but when he comes home to grovel—surprise!—he’s graciously and joyfully welcomed back by his loving father. The son was lost, but now is found! Nice, warm feeling.

Even the parable we heard last Sunday, from the gospel of Matthew, which Jesus tells in response to his disciples’ questions about forgiveness is a popular one. People like it. It doesn’t really have a nice, warm feeling at the end, but it doesn’t need to. It makes sense and justice is served. This is the parable where the one guy is forgiven a huge debt by his master and then turns right around and rakes some other dude over the coals because he owes him a couple bucks. Nobody wants that guy to win. He was a jerk! And sure enough, when word gets back to the master, the guy gets thrown in prison for being so unforgiving!

Be all that as it may, I find not many people like today’s parable. No one says this is their favorite, and it definitely doesn’t impart a nice, warm feeling at the end. There are no characters that really win our heart, and there’s no sense of justice or fairness, that people get what they deserved. Perhaps more than just about any other parable that Jesus tells, the parable of the workers in the vineyard disrupts our sense of reality, of what’s right and fair and equal.


That’s especially so in America, where we appreciate a good work ethic, where we make fun of giving out trophies for participation, where any policy proposal that we think smacks of socialism—or, even worse, communism!—gets lambasted in public debate. Just look at how the discussion over health insurance is going. We’re having a difficult time figuring how to make that issue right and fair and equal—or even if it needs to be right and fair and equal—but we’re positive the other side’s ideas are wrong and will mess everything up.  As humans, we are all but programmed to think of accomplishment and achievement in terms of merit and worth. We don’t like the thought of people getting more than they deserve, especially in comparison to other people, and even though it’s not a lesson on how to run a nation’s economy, this parable about the kingdom of heaven messes us up. The first will be last and the last will be first.

It starts with a landowner who goes out to find people to work in his vineyard. I lived in Cairo, Egypt, for a while, and I remember there were certain street corners in the city where day laborers would wait with their tools for someone to come hire them. I was a kid from the suburbs, and that was a sight I had never seen before, all these guys quietly standing there together, waiting for someone to want them. I imagined it to be a fairly precarious way to support yourself, much less a family. So the landowner goes down to the street corner and asks as few of these guys to help him. They’re thankful to be selected, even though it will be backbreaking work, and he agrees to pay them whatever the going daily rate is.

Fine. Makes sense.

But then for whatever reason—maybe he misjudged the amount of work he had to get done, maybe they’re not working as quickly as he hoped—he goes out about three hours later and hires some more. He doesn’t give many details about what he will pay them. There’s no contract or anything, but he does say he’ll pay them “whatever’s right.” Again, they’re happy to be selected, and so off they go.


This goes on and on all day until it’s almost quitting time, when the landowner goes out one more time and finds a few guys who haven’t gotten any work. They’re still standing there, tools around their waist, faces looking long and realizing they’ll be going home to their kids without any food that night. The landowner asks them why they’re not working and their response is sad to me: “because no one has hired us.” It’s like the say, “No one wants us.  We feel unimportant, unvalued, worthless.”

And then the landowner asks them to go in, too, and at this point we like this landowner, and we are liking this parable. We’re getting the feeling that he is more concerned with pulling people into his vineyard than he is with anything else. Good feelings are starting.

But then the whistle blows. It’s the end of the day, and the landowner has his manager pay everyone in the most interesting way. Those who had just barely broken a sweat because they came into the vineyard one hour before sundown get the full daily wage. And then, as the payout goes down the line, everyone gets the same thing! If he had some confidential payroll practices things might go a little better. Hello, direct deposit! Understandably, this upsets the guys who got hired first because they naturally think that they’ll be paid, like the landowner said, “whatever’s right.” At the end, they’re the ones feeling undervalued, unappreciated…well, at least once they compare themselves to everyone else.


As it turns out, this landowner guy is not about equal pay for equal work. It’s like he considers working in the vineyard more of a reward than the paycheck he gives. The opportunity to be called and to serve is the most important part of it all. And his enterprise works on a system of surprise generosity that no one can see coming.

It reminds me a bit of my high school graduation, where there were no valedictorians or salutatorians and no student speeches at all. The principal of R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, NC, was a man by the name of Bob Deaton, who was actually a long-time member of my home congregation. He had served as principal at Reynolds for thirty years and apparently relatively early on in his tenure he had done away with any and all accolades at graduation. No one was allowed to wear any sashes for such-and-such honor society or any extra tassels or badges or anything else that might make them stand out above anyone else. We all wore identical white gowns so that if you were in the audience, you were looking at one big group of equal graduates. There was no way you could tell class rank or athletic prowess or how active anyone had been in extracurricular activities.

R.J. Reynolds High School class of 1992. I’m somewhere smack in the middle because my last name begins with “M-a.”

I thought all of this was normal but I found out that Mr. Deaton’s decision to do this was controversial at the time—and I think it would still be considered countercultural—but he was adamant that on graduation day, everyone look the same. Someone told me that it was the parents of the top achievers who initially didn’t like it. In the eyes of the world, thought Deaton, a diploma was a diploma. The achievement was graduation itself, no matter how you’d gotten there, and that’s what that principal wanted to communicate.

So it is with the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says. God’s gracious decision to include usin his kingdom does not operate on principles of capitalism or merit or any kind of do-goodery. Grace cannot be calculated or estimated and it definitely doesn’t work when we try to compare ourselves with others, if we start to think we or anyone else is more or less worthy of it. God is moved towards those who feel undervalued, who haven’t been chosen, who stand through life wondering if they’ve got any worth. God wants people in the vineyard, in the kingdom. There are no ribbons or tassels or sashes here, no signs that anyone is more special or treasured, just the life that Jesus offers on the cross. That is a generosity that no one can see coming.

And if that is what the kingdom of heaven is like, then the church bears the responsibility to proclaim and embody that as best as it can, with the resources it has been given. We take heed of the messages we’re sending, both intentionally and unintentionally, and ask if those messages communicate God’s grace in the same way as that vineyard. We look at the programs we run, our personal interactions and relationships here and in our daily lives, we assess the use of our building spaces and church grounds, and wonder, “Might certain people feel more valued here than others?” “Might there be ways to draw more people into the kingdom work?” “What message are we sending when we do things this particular way?”


People are telling us that there is an increasing number of people in our culture, in our daily life, for whom the gospel is new, for whom Christian community is not a given. How can congregations respond, especially congregations like ours that are made up to a large degree of people who are lifelong Lutherans or lifelong Christians?

Can we find ways to tell and show to all people, whether they’ve been in the vineyard since childhood or whether they just received Christ, that all gifts are welcome and valued?

Can we work to assure each person that there is a way for them to fit into the glorious work of the body of Christ..that here, as Paul says, “we strive side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel”?

Can we hold in fruitful tension the need for longevity and experience, for the gifts of elders and those who bear helpful institutional wisdom as well as the new energy brought by people who’ve only been in the community for a little while?

Can we remember, like Jonah in our first reading, that that this God is generous and forgiving in ways that sometimes may make us uncomfortable sometimes because it won’t make sense to us. It won’t seem fair. It won’t feel equal. But it will be right.

Only those who’ve ever gone into our sacristy have probably ever seen that our altar care team has put up a helpful little card to explain how much wine the communion assistants are to pour into each little glass. There’s even a little sample glass and someone has colored on it with magic marker up to a certain ideal fill line. I’m not sure where the need for this came from. Perhaps there were complaints that some people were getting too little. Maybe some were getting too much! However it came to be, I’m kind of proud of that little sign. It’s a good reminder that we’re all equal here in a really important way. At this rail, at this meal, at the foot of this cross, each person, regardless of who they are and how useless they feel—even if they think we sing too many old-timey hymns or not enough, even if they feel they don’t have the right clothes to be here or that we don’t make folks feel welcome—every one of us is graciously called forth and given purpose for God.

No, Itthis may not always be people’s favorite parable, but how can you really show preference when it comes to God’s grace? There are no sashes here, no special ribbons or accolades. Maybe from time to time a nice, warm feeling. But always:  a generosity you’ll never see coming.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.



requiascat in pesto

There needs to be a ritual
for clipping the last basil
for the last batch of pesto
for inhaling that last ephemeral blast of slower days
as the blender grinds

like last rites for the summer
a funeral
here in mid-September

something to comfort us
amid this foreign rigid schedule
and the last ripe tomato
lingering on the windowsill

something to remind us
all this homework
will come to an end
and we will play once again in the sunshine
yes we will
just taste it

“Whenever two or three”

A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:15-20    [Proper 18A]

Sala Chapel behold our light 2

“Jesus said, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them… but sometimes it’s going to be really, really awkward.”

Of course, Jesus didn’t say that last part, but it’s always what we’re bound to feel whenever we show up for worship or for a church meeting and there is only one other person there. Or two others. You had expected more, in most cases, and you each glance around wondering and waiting if this, in fact, will be all there is. Awkward.

That’s what happened last Sunday, in fact, at our 5:30 pm service. The attendance at that service has been rather low through the course of the summer, which puzzles us, to be honest, but last Sunday only one person showed up. And so, together with Ben Droste, who was serving as the usher/communion assistant, and the musician, Kevin Barger, there was a total of four of us. Ben, who had already attended worship in the morning and therefore had heard the sermon, was sitting in the chair nearest to the door waiting on possible latecomers. Kevin was sitting back behind the piano, and he had already been to both morning services and had heard the sermon twice, poor guy. That left good ol’ Rob Hamlin to sit by himself on the front row, just two seats down from where I was, so when it came time to preach, I just basically ended up standing up, turning around, and talking right to Rob, like he was getting his own private sermon. I’ll be honest: it was a little awkward. I felt like I didn’t really know where to look. For a moment I thought about trying to make it a bit of a dialog where I asked questions and got him to respond, but I quickly felt like that would make it even worse. Like an interrogation.

Overall it went fine, I think, but I discovered I was comforting myself throughout the entire thing with these words of Jesus from Matthew 18, that even though everyone else was off doing Labor Day weekend things, Jesus was with us there because there were at least two or three.


That’s how this verse often gets used, I find. It’s become like a lowest-common-denominator for what constitutes a worship service. Are there two of us here? Check. OK, we’re good. Then we can count Jesus present too. In some respects, that is an accurate understanding or use of this passage. In this era of megachurches and arena-sized worship services, it is especially comforting to know that Jesus assured his presence with the small and seemingly insignificant. For years the comfort from these words sustained the small, demoralized congregations that were behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Germany as the Communist Party tried to strangle out communities of faith.

However, to use this statement only as some kind of quorum for attendance at worship or other church events is not doing it justice. As you can see, Jesus doesn’t say this during some long passage about building a church. This doesn’t come in the context of a discussion about going out and spreading the good news. He says it in a discussion about church discipline. He says this in the midst of a very long and detailed passage about forgiveness and resolving conflict in the church.

As if that’s ever going to happen, right? Conflict? In the church?? Why, yes. In fact, we could just as easily re-word this reassuring statement to say “For whenever two or three are gathered, there’s eventually going to be an argument about something.”

The truth is that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus get as detailed about a specific subject as he does when he’s talking about forgiveness in the community of believers. Nowhere else in the gospels does Jesus issue such precise instructions about something. As we know, most of the time Jesus gives very open-ended commands, allowing us to dream and imagine how we might fulfill them and embody his love out in the world. But when it comes to sin and how it can break and harm his community, Jesus lays things out very nicely: first, try this. Then, if that doesn’t work, try this. It’s like the process of carefully gluing back together the pieces of some valuable heirloom or, better yet, watching people put their lives back together after the destruction from a hurricane.

And, in many ways, it is just that. The church is God’s prized possession. It is the body of his own Son, the men and women and the children God has redeemed through Jesus’ suffering and death. Brothers and sisters, we are precious to God, and it makes sense, then, that God would want to protect us against the harm that comes from conflict and to ensure that our community can be healed when it is hurt by the wrongful things we can still do and say to one another.

The process for repairing these relationships may be very methodical, but notice how in each step the word “listen” is central. Jesus knows the way to healing hinges on people taking time to hear one another out. Repentance, that change of mind and heart which allows reconciliation to take place, is most likely to happen when people stop and have dialogue. Communication consultant Nate Regier, who is an expert at guiding different groups through conflict, says that resolving conflict is most successful when people who are at odds temporarily suspend their own agenda and listen to the other’s agenda. “You’d be amazed,” he says, “how flexible another person can become when they feel heard.”[1] Besides that, how many times do we find out that a conflict is actually due to a simple miscommunication between people, and not because of real intended hurtfulness?

In the end, if all the listening in the world doesn’t solve the problem and repentance does not come, then Jesus says to handle the person involved like you would a tax collector or a Gentile. At first blush, that sounds very demeaning and distancing, until you realize how Jesus himself deals with tax collectors and Gentiles. He extends mercy to them. He eats with them and reaches out to them in lovingkindness, not heavy-handed judgment or condescension. Even in the midst of harm, Jesus’ call is one of suffering for the sake the other, of seeking to pull someone in rather than push them farther away. Jesus himself dies on the cross in order to extend God’s love to us, even, as the apostle Paul says in Romans, while we were still sinners.

forgivenessYes, Jesus is very specific about these instructions in dealing with sin because we are precious to him but there’s another reason. In the church, how we conduct our human resources is our best P.R. Our most effective form of evangelism—that is, telling others the good news about Jesus and receiving them into his body—is being able to model repentance and forgiveness with one another. By the same token, one of the top ways the church drives people away is by being a terrible laboratory for handling interpersonal conflict. The world already does a pretty terrible job of equipping people in the face of conflict. If Jesus’ followers can’t offer a loving, practical way of healing relationships, then why bother being here? If the members of the church are content with just letting unresolved grievances slowly corrode the quality of our community, why be a part of it?

Forgiveness, the often painstaking path of reconciliation binding people into repentance and loosing them in grace, is the crux of Jesus’ whole life. And so whenever that kind of life-giving work is going on—even when’s just among two or three people who are patching things up—Jesus promises us he’s going to be there. Therefore, to say that “Christ is here with us”’ is not a remark about some warm fuzzy feeling of the presence of God in the room that we’re supposed to get. It is a comment about the character of life among the people of that community. It is that notion that forgiveness is valued, that mercy to the sinner is treasured.

I recently came across an article about a robot that has been designed to perform funeral ceremonies in Japan. As it turns out, they were funeral ceremonies of another faith tradition, but I took it as just one more example of how computers and what they call “artificial intelligence” are slowly pushing aside the role of humans in the world. I always thought my job as a pastor would be safe against the coming robot onslaught. I guess I need to think again! I suppose I’m just as replaceable as any other function out there, and having a robot lead worship on Labor Day weekend when attendance is down might actually have its benefits for everyone. (Robotic voice: “The Lord be with you.”) I mean, people get daily devotions through email, which is essentially a computer, right?

And yet, the ability to be hurt, to have a relationship broken, to have emotions wounded—those are things unique to human beings. The brain can’t simply be re-programmed when things like that go wrong. The work of truly listening and responding in kindness and understanding will never be something we can outsource to anyone or anything.

17-03-19-ReconciliationSt. Francis of Assisi, the author of our Gathering Hymn this morning, words it so well. He was a renowned lover of nature, and his hymn reflects that, including all the different aspects of creation and how they praise their Creator. Animals with their voices, clouds and rain as they grow things, fire and water, earth and even death. But notice when we get to the verse about humans how they are to praise the God Most High. It’s not by how they create things or display their ingenuity and innovation. It is not as they celebrate their diversity. Rather, St. Francis writes, “All who for love of God forgive, all who in pain or sorrow grieve. Christ bears your burdens and your fears. Still make your song amid the tears. Alleluia! Alleluia! Allelu-u-uia!” I especially liked the translation of this hymn in the old green book: “O, everyone with tender heart, forgiving others, take your part.” The chief way that humans can take part in returning praise to their Maker by reflecting Christ in their forgiveness and mercy.

For he has borne our burdens and our fears…and all the mean things we can do and say to one another, and all the ways we’ve tried to embody compassion and kindness for one another and had it go unrequited. He has borne all the ways the cross of suffering is shared between you and me. He is there. Even with just two or three, he is there. He lives for that stuff, repairing that which has been broken because he loves us and he wants us together.

As it turns out, there is really nothing awkward about that at all. Alleluia! Alleluia! Allelu-u-ia!


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Christian Century. August 30, 2017 pg 9