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.

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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.