Our gifts for God’s kingdom

a sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Lectionary 3B]

Mark 1:14-20



A song came out this last year, in 2017, that still gets played on popular radio a good bit. It’s by a British band named Coldplay, and it is co-written by another band called the Chainsmokers. The song is called, “Something Just Like This,” and though the tune is fairly catchy, the message of the song is pretty good too. It’s actually a love song about worrying like you don’t measure up, that in order to have a worthwhile relationship you have to possess some kind of superhuman skill or special status. The opening lines go like this:

“I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
Spiderman’s control
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list”

I don’t believe that Andrew and Simon and James and John would see themselves upon that list either. They’re just fishermen in Galilee, regular everyday people who blend right in to everyone else around them. They don’t really stack up with great warriors like Achilles, who supposedly had a shield made of enchanted gold, or Hercules, who had unbelievable strength. And a movie made about the first disciples would not contain amazing, dazzling visual effects or cool tools and cars and weapons. They would just have boats. And some fish. And scene after scene where they hang out with their father and pull their nets onto shore and fix them.

The Call of Andrew and Peter (Duccio, 1311)

The first disciples are not myths and legends in any sense. And they’re certainly not made up in the way people invent comic book characters as a way to project their fantasies. They were actual, ordinary people, with nothing special to commend them to any type of world-changing movement…and yet they end up mattering. Jesus chooses them, of all people to begin his kingdom. Here, when the going gets tough—because his cousin John the Baptizer has been arrested down in Jerusalem, and times are dangerous for people taking on the powers-that-be— Jesus goes up into everyday Galilee and finds these fishermen to follow him.

None of the gospels writers give us any kind of backstory to what’s going on here. We know next to nothing about these first four disciples. We don’t know, for example, how good they are at fishing, although some researchers say that the fact that the Zebedee brothers and their father have a dragnet, a boat and a fishing crew means they must have doing fairly well for themselves. However, in terms of what—if anything—else happened which pushed towards this new vocation of following Jesus, the gospels are silent.

For example, did they know of Jesus beforehand and had inwardly developed an interest in being nearer to him, should the opportunity present itself? Were they miserable in their work and looking for something different? Did Jesus just have that kind of hypnotic pull over people so that when he walked up and locked eyes they couldn’t resist? Different scholars and historians have come up with several different ideas about what might have happened and have given us a little peak into the life of a first-century middle eastern fisherman. But ultimately what the gospel writers are concerned about is that Jesus calls them. Jesus enlists them, not the Achilleses and Herculeses of the world.

He finds them right in the middle of what they’re doing, not auditioning for kingdom-building school, not filling out a form for a change in job, but while they are just being themselves and doing what they can do: their gifts for God’s kingdom.


Jesus drives this particular point home by telling Andrew and Simon that he will make them “fish for people.” What they are already able to do will be put to use in a slightly new way in order to bring more people into a relationship with God through Jesus. In fact, Mark tells us that James and John were mending the nets, but a better translation of that word is preparing the nets, meaning that they were in the act of venturing out to work right as Jesus comes by. When they become followers, we can think of their task as people who go into the world and help prepare others to receive God’s grace. They help prepare others not by performing feats of strength or superhuman control, but just using what they already can do. They discover God has already given them exactly what they need to help bring in his kingdom.

The call of Jesus’ disciples becomes the theme for our Consecration Sunday: our gifts for God’s kingdom. As we set aside our own gifts and contemplate how God might be calling us to give of our time and talent through the ministries of Epiphany the disciples remind us we don’t need to be on the list with the myths and legends of old. We don’t need to be on any list of any kind. God calls us all. Everyone has gifts and abilities for God’s kingdom. There’s no such thing as too small or too ordinary when it comes to helping the kingdom of God come near, because Christ can be reflected in all. And, truth be known, the smallest and weakest reflect Christ the best.

child Head

When we start talking about gifted-ness, I know that there can be a lot of anxiety around the way school systems identify only certain kids as gifted. As a parent, I know it’s almost a taboo subject to bring up in mixed company because our culture places so much emphasis on certain specific academic abilities. Our children undergo tests, assessments, get tracked into certain curricula. And I’m not intending to criticize any of that because I’m not an educator, but I do know that here, in this place, everyone is identified gifted. And these are gifts that matter. They are not consolation prizes. They are things that come naturally to you, talents you have developed that improve the lives of those around you. And when you pass through these waters you are called to use those gifts for the advancement of Jesus’ kingdom each and every day.

There was one summer when this really dawned on me. I was on staff at Lutheridge and had I decided I would try to work as a counselor for a week or two with the special needs campers. Lutheridge has a long history of offering summer programs for folks with diagnoses like Down Syndrome, autism, and other cognitive or developmental delays. I was nervous about it because I had never worked with those populations before. I realized I had always thought about them mainly in terms of how they were different from me. We were in one of our orientation sessions where we were learning how to care for them and I’ll never forget what the director of the camp programs said to us as he began. I had assumed he was going to begin by telling us basics about what to do around them or what they’re diagnoses meant or how to handle certain situations that might arise that we might not be prepared for. Instead, he looked at us and said, “You need to know these people have gifts.” And then he repeated it, “The Spirit has given these people gifts. You will come to see them.” He didn’t wax schmaltzy or schmoozy. He just stated it as a fact, which it absolutely was.

a week that changed my life sometime in 1994

Now, that was groundbreaking. For a twenty-year-old who was incredibly entitled and self-centered college guy and who, to be honest, thought he had a lot in common with Hercules, that was revolutionary. That was a moment when all kinds things about God and the world and myself shifted radically into place, I’m still trying to make sense of it all, still trying to take that to heart about everyone, but when I hear again and again the call of Andrew and Peter and the Zebedee brothers it enables me to re-hear was Eric Fink said that evening. We have gifts because that’s our God. He has created them in us and they have been redeemed through Jesus and sanctified for his kingdom coming by the Spirit.

Our hope is that today as we celebrate Consecration Sunday—and this year as we focus on a year of our congregation’s service ministry areas—will be a time you can reframe your own self-understanding in terms of how you are gifted. And we also hope that these may be times when you can hear again the call of Jesus to share those gifts. You are on the list.

Speaking of being on the list…in the spring of last year the worship team recruited some new people in the congregation to serve as worship assistants.  One member mentioned to me several times how nervous she was to be serving in this capacity and yet how she felt it was God’s call for her to give it a try. She had served in many other leadership capacities in the congregation but never as a lay reader or communion assistant. Some of you may know this person—it’s our outgoing Council Vice President Amy Boyle. About a month before she was to serve as a worship assistant for the first time she spoke to me and felt she needed some encouragement. She was afraid she’s spill wine on someone or that she’d trip in the robe or unknowingly do something around the altar that wasn’t respectful. I told her that she had nothing to worry about. I unknowingly do things that are disrespectful around the altar all the time. She’ll fit right in!  She had the gifts and it was, in fact, surprising to me that she wasn’t already serving in this way. Her anxiety still had her worked up but I think I had her convinced that she, Amy, had the gifts for this and that she was ready to give it a whirl.

Then, on the week before she was to serve for the first time the bulletin had incorrectly listed her name, and no one had caught it. We had only messed up one letter, but it was an important letter. She showed it to me and said something like, “If you think I’m qualified for this role, why is my name listed as “Any Boyle”?


We’ve had some good laughs about that. Any Boyle will do! Send any one of them up! And yet, in some ways, that is the message we hear as God calls any fishermen…and then any tax collector…and then any people who initially hate church like Paul…and then any people who intend to go into other fields, like Martin Luther…and then any people like you and me. People who become, when put to work in God’s kingdom and when following Jesus’ footsteps to the foot of the cross and then past the tomb of Easter, even more gifted and more powerful than Hercules.


Been reading books of old
And bulletins of today
Disciples of the past
Everyone who can pray
They look so very plain,
Such ordinary folk
But when God calls them then his kingdom’s underway


Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

of missed calls and God moments

a sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B]

1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51


It seems about once a week I misplace my cell phone. I’m sure many of you are not surprised. I’m a bit attached to it, and I walk around with the thing either in my hand or in my pocket, and it’s within an arm’s length if I’m sitting down somewhere. Typically when this happens I retrace my steps and find it pretty quickly, but after last Thursday’s staff meeting I was not having any luck. I had no idea where it was. Beth, our volunteer coordinator, was in the office, and as Beth is always ready and willing to help anyone with anything, she jumped up and said, “Why don’t I call your phone you listen for it to ring.”

And I said, “Beth, that’s a great idea, but, first of all, the church is large and I’ve been several places this afternoon and, second of all, I’ve put it on ‘vibrate.’”

Before I could answer she had already dialed my number and was standing there, waiting for it to ring somewhere. She said, “Maybe if you’re really quiet you can hear it vibrate.” So for the next several minutes, Beth stood in the office, repeatedly calling my cell phone number while I tiptoed around the church, standing in different places, and trying to strain my ears to hear that “vvvvvvvvt” sound. I stood in my office. Nothing. Then I went and stood for a while in the Commons. Nothing. Then I started to walk down the hall, listening, concentrating. Finally, after a few minutes, I heard a distant, muffled, but familiar cell phone ring. As it turns out, the ringer was not on vibrate. There, locked in the locked and darkened chapel, lying on the top of a chair that had been scooted underneath the table, was my phone. And when I picked it up, it said I had missed three calls already. All of them were from Beth. I answered it and now I know I should have said, “Speak, Beth, for your servant is listening.”

Just as young Samuel learned when he was lying down in his darkened chapel years ago, serving the priest Eli, the call of the Lord can take several times to get through. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, Scripture tells us, which is a small but important detail slipped into the story. Experiences with God were rare for Samuel and his people, which meant they were not accustomed to hearing or discerning how God was moving and speaking in their time. Apparently even priests and people who slept in the temple of the Lord were not quick on the receiving end. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, which meant God called Samuel four times before he finally responded.

young Samuel and Eli in the temple

And even when he responded he needed the help of Eli, his mentor, to perceive it and discern it. Kind of like I needed to have Beth’s help to locate my phone, hearing and responding were not things Samuel could do in isolation, with no one else around him to mediate and articulate what the call meant. What’s more, the story tells us Samuel didn’t even yet know the Lord. That is, Samuel hadn’t had a chance to develop his own relationship with God and come to understand God’s character. Too young, perhaps, or too inexperienced, Samuel was not the kind of person who most would expect to be getting direct communication from God. But that’s often how God works: choose the unexpected, the overlooked. He’s essentially just the acolyte, and yet Samuel is told he can respond, just like anyone else, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

The call of the Lord is not always easy to hear and pick up on, and so often we are deaf or clueless to it because we’ve essentially put the ringer on vibrate and walked away. Maybe we don’t want it to disturb us. Maybe we’ve got preconceived notions about how God calls people and what it might feel like when his Word comes. Somehow we get in our heads that knowing and hearing God has to feel a certain way, or such an experience can only happen to certain kinds of people.

In our confirmation classes each year we always take time to address questions about God and faith and the church that the confirmands themselves have. We then attempt to build those questions into the curriculum by answering them together as a group. This year one of the questions that confirmand submitted led to a very fundamental faith conversation and at least three said on the test it was the most important thing they learned all semester.

The person asked, “I’ve never had a God moment. How or why do you believe?” Responding to that question required some deep-thinking on my own part, and as we talked about it in the group, we realized that knowing God is going to feel and look a bit different to everyone. Some experience faith more in their heart as an emotional sensation of closeness with a higher power while for others is it more based in the brain or in their thinking, as they come to a deeper and gradual understanding of something they understand to be true about God. Both are valid experiences with the Word of the Lord, but to say that having faith means having one common standardized experience limits the way God speaks and calls his people.


Sometimes I worry that the church defines having faith solely in terms of one or the other, that if you go on a mission trip or a youth event and don’t feel the same way others say they’re feeling then you are missing God’s call. Something one person might label as a “God moment” may not even move the needle for someone else. The important part to remember (if there is one important part), is to stay open to possibilities, to be ready to walk around and concentrate on listening, to be willing to be surprised and to wonder. It also means remaining in community with Elis and Beths, those who have experience hearing and listening and discerning what God is up to.

And that brings us to Philip and Nathaniel under the fig tree. Jesus’ ministry begins in Galilee, a place where many people might have said the word of the Lord was rare. A relatively far-off place, Galilee was a land where different cultures and languages and customs intersected. That is, it was not thoroughly Jewish, not all that sophisticated. It was quite rural, and many towns were too small to have a synagogue. Places like Nazareth and Bethsaida were especially off the beaten path, not regions where one would expect God to be particularly vocal. Yet this is the area where Jesus begins to meet and find followers. It’s good to keep in mind, probably now more than ever, that the face of God’s Son often first appears in the places we’ve written off, the areas we think are beyond or beneath us.


Wherever it breaks in—Galilee, Henrico County, Hanover County—Jesus’ ministry and call is issued with the most simple and open-ended of invitations. “Follow me,” is what he first says to Philip. “Come and see” is another one that Jesus uses over and over, and it’s that one that Philip himself uses when he finds his friend Nathaniel. Would Philip and Nathaniel have described their encounter with Jesus as a God moment? Perhaps so. Nathaniel certainly has his socks blown off by his encounter with Jesus and calls him Rabbi and Son of God and the King of Israel. And Philip, who sounds more like the head-faith type, is excited that Jesus lines up with what they’ve expected from the law and the prophets. In both cases the more important part is that they’re open to a further relationship, even when Nathaniel is initially throws shade on where Jesus is from.

So often I believe we want and expect the call of Jesus to be “Do this and you’ll get that.” We look for clear parameters, definite boundaries, a spreadsheet of what this will entail and where it will end, kind of like some version of the Field of Dreams theology—“Build this one thing and this will automatically happen.” And, to be honest, occasionally the Word does operate like that. But Jesus more often says “Come and see.” It is an invitation to stay engaged, to be gradually let in on something, to hang on and see where it leads.

come and see philip nathanael

And we can notice that God is still calling people into encounters with his Son Jesus. The Word of God is not rare anymore. It is walking around, it is ringing off the hook, it is wide open like a book. It has people serving on Saturday mornings handing out food from our narthex, it has thirty youth showing up on a snow day to play games and hang out with friends in Price Hall. It has called four people within the past five years to discern a call to seminary, and has sent one to South Africa to serve as a Young Adult in Global Mission. It comes to numerous people who volunteer their time through agencies like GraceInside prison ministry, Lutheran Family Services, and Crossover Ministries, the local faith-based medical clinic that offers aid to the underserved populations in our area. And the word of God rings and rings and rings in each home and workplace, calling us to respond in kindness and gentleness in moments of conflict and misunderstanding.

Youth hearing the call to form the shape of a guitar and responding together

I think one of the challenges in the life of discipleship is to be more of a Philip and a bit less of a Nathaniel. It is to position ourselves in terms of what might be rather than what definitely can’t be. It is to keep doors open to another encounter with Jesus rather than shut them. It is to run along the way rather than stay seated under the fig tree. It is to remain open to God’s gracious calling and issue it to others rather than to say it’s over and issue judgment that’s premature. Because, truth be told, any judgment we make about someone or their faith in God this side of the resurrection of the dead is going to be premature. No one’s story is finished. No one should be written off. God calls again and again. And God uses us, again and again, to bring people to Jesus.

And, truth be told (again), God’s Word knows how to deal with rejection. It gets rejected over and over again, thrown out of the synagogues, spat upon and laughed at. It is mocked, considered unmodern and opposed to science. You know, it has even been nailed to a cross and left there to suffocate and bleed out.

And, come on. We know by now what it does when that happens. Risen, the living Word of Christ still finds a way to come to us, opening heavens of possibilities, beckoning us to follow, to give it a listen. Ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing—“vvvvvvvt!”—it is ready to show us even greater things than these.

And if you, like I, still having trouble hearing it, finding it, knowing where it might be or even what you’re looking for…head or heart…go see Beth…or someone like her. They’ll hook you up!



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.