Getting along

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter [Year B]

1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8


There is a new Kenny Chesney song that just came out on country music radio that has caught my ear. The song is called “Get Along,” and it’s not a terribly deep or profound song, but it’s catchy and fun to sing along to, and the message is wholesome. It’s about getting along—not just getting along down the road, but getting along with one another, giving love the upper hand, which is certainly something the world and definitely our country can hear more of at the moment. When I see images of the leaders of South and North Korea shaking hands, and smiling and stepping over the border into one another’s countries, it makes me hopeful for others’ learning to get along. And it makes me think about how the effort and importance of getting along seems to be underrated these days. We’ve focused more on getting ahead, and I think that’s what Mr. Chesney’s song tries to get us to see.

In any case, the lines in the song that bridge the last verse to the chorus are the ones I keep noodling on. He sings, “We find out when we die the keys to heaven can’t be bought/we still don’t know what love is, but we sure know what it’s not.”


I bet that resonates with so many of us. What is love, really? We seek and are offered so many definitions and versions of it that it leaves us confused. And it’s true that in the English language we have one word for a concept that other languages have several. There’s romantic love, and brotherly and sisterly love, as well as love for your homeland, like a feeling of patriotism. And we can experience any of those, sometimes very deeply, and still not be able to articulate exactly what their essence is. We know love is important, that it is somehow the key to heaven, and we know enough to be table to tell when love is lacking, but we’re left speechless when we have to sum it up.

But then along comes the writer of 1 John, who has no such trouble at all, with all due respect to Mr. Chesney: “God is love,” and “in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be a sacrifice for our sins.” For John, the writer of this letter that comes near the end of the New Testament, it is very easy to define and describe the essence of love. As he explains, it is found in the gift and the act of Jesus, the offering of his life so that we may be forgiven and made one with God. To know what love is in its purest, most powerful form we look to the cross of Jesus, look to the God who pours himself out for humankind.

In fact, John cannot talk about God without talking about love, over and over again. In the fifteen verses of chapter four we read this morning, the word love is used twenty-four times. Everyone who loves, he says, is born of God and knows God. One paraphrase of these verses put it, “you can’t know God if you don’t know love.”[1] Furthermore, we can’t even know or practice love ourselves, he goes on to say, until we have experienced it first, until we have realized how much God has loved us.


This, I find, is very easy to understand, even when faith in God is difficult. Love is only something we can give when we’ve first received it. This is an overly-simplified example, but it’s kind of like those long Starbucks lines where everyone pays for the person behind them in line. Once you realize someone has paid for your drink, your gratitude spills over into paying for the next person. Somewhere, someone early on started it all, but once you’re caught up in it, it just kind of flows along. John would say the first lover was God, and in Jesus God’s love for us has spilled over, like an overloaded latte, each gesture of self-giving and sacrifice producing more and more so that it may continue to abound, intertwining us all, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, casting out fear, placing us at the feet of another neighbor, just like he did on the night he first gave us that commandment.

Love and God are intertwined. Love always grows, increasing, producing more, seeking another person down the line, including new folks, which is probably why Jesus reaches for the image of the grapevine when he’s talking to his disciples about it. In Jesus’ day, grapevines would have been a very common sight, covering a great deal of the countryside.

Of course, I believe that in this country, when most people think of vines they think of tomato vines. Because of the way that vines grow, no matter what variety, they need support and attention. There’s always been a bit of a debate in my family about that. I prefer to stake my tomato vines and let them form one long main vine, if possible. To do this I have to constantly snip off the suckers, the little branches that grow between the stalk and each leaf, and I also have to repeatedly fasten the stalk to the stake as it goes up. My wife, on the other hand, grew up a tomato-cager. Caging tomatoes lets the vines grow a little more liberally. You don’t have to prune quite as often, but you have to make sure that the cage stays upright. I’ve never scientifically tested the difference between staking and caging in my own garden, but my experience is that staking gives you bigger tomatoes, but not as many as caging.

What has been surprising to see is that sometimes the weight of a tomato or bunch of tomatoes will cause a branch to twist or even break. Sometimes I’ve worried that I’ve lost some tomatoes when a storm comes along, but as long as a branch of tomatoes is connected to the main vine, they grow and ripen just fine. That is, they “get along” just fine. That is the beauty of vine-tending.


Jesus wants his followers to know that they can produce fruit, that they will be able to “get along” in love because he has first loved them. He is the vine, and they are the branches. The heartbeat, the essence of what we are as disciples, is the love we have for each other. Sometimes that finds expression in the ways we serve and love our communities through projects and works of charity. Sometimes that love shows itself through the music and art we are able to make together through our worship of God. But more often than we probably realize the fruit of love we produce comes in the ways we listen to each other, learn about each other, practice patience with each other, and care for one another, especially in times of need or times of grief. We glorify God and we produce good fruit, sometimes big and sometimes lots of smaller ones, when we abide with one another just as Christ abides in us. In order to abide in one another members of a community need to be together and be intentional about interacting with one another on a regular basis. Roman Catholic social worker Dorothy Day put it very bluntly when she said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”


In child development there is a concept called parallel play versus interactive play. Young toddler start to engage in parallel play, which means they will play at the same time and sometimes in the same activity, but not really with each other. As they grow older, though, they begin to interact with one another as they engage in the same activity. Sometimes congregations can essentially arrange and accomplish parallel play pretty well. We organize all kinds of group activities that point us in the same direction and accomplish a lot. Integrative play and integrative activities, though, are ones where we actually learn about what one another is struggling with in life, to get over that fear of sharing, to ask for and practice forgiveness when needed, and see where God has overlapped our lives in ways that may not appear evident on the surface. They provide the chance to abide with one another and abide in Christ the vine, who has taken the time to twist himself around us, and intertwine his body and heart into our relationships, to know us and love us to the point of offering his own life. After all, when the writer of 1 John is trying to explain the essence of the community’s life, he does not say, “Beloved, let us do amazing peace and justice stuff together.” He says, “Beloved, let us love one another.”

Abiding allows us to be pruned, too, without any harm to us in the long run. When we are connected to the vine and growing alongside other branches, we can become aware of the parts of us that aren’t producing much fruit so that they can be removed to let those areas which are doing well to thrive even more. This is a natural part of any congregation’s growth and expansion. As we consider what fruits of love God has called us to produce in the coming years at Epiphany, we must be ready for Him to prune our ministries, which means, of course, some things won’t stay the same. But we know that as we abide, as we dwell with the risen Lord, new life will always be possible.


Several weeks ago my family gathered for a birthday party for my parents at a winery down in North Carolina not too far from where they live. Our daughters were very interested in how grapes were grown and what a winery is, and as we drove in, winding our way on the road through the vineyard itself, they kept asking, “Where are the grapes? Where do they grow?” It was early April, and things were still dormant. Expecting lush growth, I suspect, they were unable to recognize the grapevines, themselves, as they passed within a few feet of the window of our car. And I had never noticed it before until they asked me, but grapevines in the off-season are shaped exactly like crosses. Pruned back to their core, to their absolute essence, they come up out of the ground with their gnarled, brown trunk and then branch into two perfect branches that are parallel to the ground. They look dead. There is not a green part on them, in fact, but yet they must be full of life, those vines.. All the leaves, all the flowers, all the grapes, and all the wine that will come from Jones von Drehle Winery this year and next…all the bottling and drinking, all the winery tours, all merriment at the special events, the late afternoon conversations with friends on their winery patio, all the surprise birthday parties gathering friends from near and far will come from those dead-looking crosses that we could see on that hill.

May it be so with Christ’s followers, and for Epiphany. We can’t say for sure what love is for each of us in every situation. But we know that all our life, all our real future growth, our desires and our need just to get along, all our truest love will come from nowhere else but the one and only vine, the ever-growing love of Jesus.

Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Message, Eugene Peterson

Sheep is sheep are sheep

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year B]

John 10:11-18


Today, since we are a flock, and since the Good Shepherd has gathered here as one, I’d like to reserve several minutes here at the beginning of the sermon for us all to share some pasture time with our fellow sheep. If you could, please find a worship bulletin and turn to the Question for the Car Ride, which you’ll find on page 11. The question is “If you were to be a hired hand on a farm, which task or type of work would you choose to do and why?” Spend a few seconds thinking that over to yourself. I won’t give any examples because I don’t want to limit anyone’s imaginations. And I’m going to set aside several minutes for you to introduce yourselves to the people sitting around you—on your pew or maybe just behind you or in front of you—and to share your answers to that question. Get to know one another, move around a bit if you need to.

[pause for conversation to happen]

Just this past Monday I was visiting with someone in a nursing home and several of her family members were already there. Four generations, in fact. They all happen to be members of this congregation and so it was good to catch up with them, and as we were talking one of them, a young man, explained that he had the day off because he had been in class all weekend long. Knowing this young man was a firefighter, I assumed he meant some type of continuing education course where they were catching up on new codes or new equipment guidelines.

“No,” he informed me, “we were out in the field for this class. It is called ‘Rescuing people from confined spaces.’”

“Oh, yes, that class,” I retorted.

Interested, I asked him to tell me a bit about it, and he said, “Well, we actually practiced rescuing someone stuck in a silo. We had a dummy placed inside a tight silo compartment high off the ground and we took turns climbing up there with a harness on, hoisting it out, fastening it to a zip line structure we had set up and lowering it to the ground that way. It’s all very technical and very dangerous.”

grain bin rescue training

He said each scenario is different because no one gets stuck the same way. The rule or procedure, if there is one, is to figure out how to perform the rescue as quickly as possible while maintaining a level of safety for the rescuer. Although we often hear about those things on the news pray those kinds of risky things go well for everyone, there is always the realization this young man or another firefighter like him may end up laying down his life for another.

If I were to be a hired hand on a farm, I don’t think I would choose to work in the silo, but I’m glad there are people getting trained to put their lives on the line if I did.

This morning we hear about the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is speaking with his disciples and the other people who have begun to follow him and he is setting himself as an example against the other caretakers of the people of God through the years who had been reckless and neglectful of their needs. Jesus says he is the good shepherd—the noble shepherd, the genuine shepherd, which are two other meanings of this Greek word translated as “good,”—because he lays down his life for the sheep.


According to Jesus himself, that right there alone is what makes him good or noble or genuine. We know does a lot of things we would call good—he heals people, he extends God’s embrace and is sure to include in God’s love and forgiveness those who’ve been marginalized, he’s got solid teachings about how to live. But in the end his goodness is not based on any other quality or trait other than the fact he will offer his life for the sake of the sheep. He is selfless. He will sacrifice his own well-being. Other people who watch the sheep, the hired hands, tend to look out for themselves. They don’t look the wolf in the eye. They don’t climb the silo to pull someone out.

Jesus’ followers would have known that their people had a long history of those kinds of leaders, the leaders who really looked out only for themselves, who thought of ways to enrich themselves on the backs of the people they were supposed to be serving. Jesus will not respond to leadership and responsibility that way. He recognizes that those in his care are his own. There is a connection there between him and us that he either can’t or won’t ignore or deny. He says, “I know my own and my own know me.”

There are two main ways you can know something. One way is to learn information about it through seeing or hearing it. Babies come to know their mother and father by seeing their faces over and over again. We come to know a lot of information in school through seeing words and notes and diagrams our teachers give us.

But there is also the knowing that we get through experiencing something, through actually being a part of it and doing it. People learn to perform rescues from confined spaces this way. When the firefighters have classes all through the weekend they aren’t sitting in a classroom reading about the technical aspects of it or looking at pictures of silos. They are actually experiencing it. Climbing up and climbing back down.

To match INSIGHT-In would-be Palestinian state, a dose of reality
a modern-day Palestinian shepherd

Jesus’ knowledge of us comes from being made flesh and dwelling among us. He doesn’t just look from afar at what we go through, or study some textbook about what it’s like to be a human in a broken world. Left to die on the cross, abandoned by his friends, and feeling forsaken by God, Jesus experiences a life that needs rescue. He knows his own people because he’s in some way been there with them in it all.

It stands to reason, then, that part of our knowledge of Jesus will come through experiencing that relationship. We can learn facts about Jesus in Sunday School. We can chew on words of sermons. We can read theology and read Scripture and come to know Jesus that way. But sheep know a shepherd by getting up and following, by moving along, by experiencing his loving leadership. That is, at some point, our faith in Jesus must become more than just knowledge about God. It is stepping into relationship with him. It may mean involve saying to ourselves in some way, “I am one of the people Jesus laid down his life for. I don’t understand it the way I’d understand algebra or the Civil War, but it sounds good and I trust it and I will continue to walk and talk with him.”

Of course, the issue is that walking and talking with Jesus is not something we do alone. A group of rescued individuals all with their own privatized relationships with their Creator is not what he’s going for. It’s not what any shepherd goes for. The good shepherd works to keep his flock together, and this part is vitally important. The laying down of his life and taking it back up again is not done primarily for you and for me, but for the sake of all us—a community, a whole.

Interestingly enough, there is no difference between the singular and plural words for sheep. In both Greek and English, the word sheep is used both for one and for many. All other livestock I can think of have different words. One cow, many cows. One horse, many horses. One pig, a bunch of swine. One ox, many oxen. But sheep is sheep are sheep, and it’s true that sheep do naturally flock more than most other livestock. I don’t think it’s an accident of language. It’s plausible to me that the ancients didn’t really conceive of sheep as single animals, really.  I think it indicates there is something fundamental about our identity as God’s people that comes from realizing we’re all one. Jesus has laid down his life because we belong together, not scattered. In fact, research shows that even singing in groups, like choirs and in congregations, is good for one’s mental health, regardless of one’s own singing ability!

[image by Carmen Doherty Photography]
We essentially live scattered lives nowadays. Single congregations situated in suburbia, pulling from multiple municipalities, have an especially challenging time embodying the one flock nature of following Jesus. Few of our lives overlap in meaningful ways throughout the course of the week. Typically we don’t even see each other. We spend a large portion of our lives in work situations where speaking about faith is either looked down on or even illegal. We gather for an hour or two on Sunday mornings and that’s about it, and so it’s very easy to begin thinking our spirituality is individual, that as long as we are tending to our relationship with God, we’re doing our part.

But sheep is sheep are sheep, and entering into meaningful relationships with each other here is part and parcel to what the Good Shepherd lays down his life for. We are one flock.

shepherd window
The “Good Shepherd window” at my home congregation, Augsburg Lutheran Church in  Winston-Salem, NC

Furthermore, there are even others out there, Jesus says, not of this fold that are being brought together with us. Early on, Jesus’ followers may have interpreted that to mean the Gentiles or the Samaritans or others that were not part of the household of Israel, but now Jesus may mean anyone not of our Christian flock.

We may not always know how to interact with others not of our fold—people who don’t acknowledge the lordship of Jesus, people who don’t believe in God, people of different faiths and religions—but Jesus clearly sees himself as their shepherd too. Who knows which folds he is talking about? But he is in the process of leading them into some kind of unity with us. We may not understand how or when, but it does mean that our stance toward others, even those who seem to be outside our household of faith, should likely be one of love and patience and dialogue. Even as we trust in the name of Jesus, even as we gather and help grow our congregation or our outreach and service ministries to the community, even as we grow in our love for God’s creation, even as we grow in our singing, we know that others who do not share our specific beliefs are still in a fold that Christ cares for.

Because to the Good Shepherd each sheep is one of many sheep. Each person is someone for whom Jesus has died, whether they know it or not, and each person is one of a group, no matter how lonely they feel. He has laid down his life for them. On the cross he climbs up into your silo for the rescue and leaves himself there so that we can be free. You are his own. He knows you.  And he hasn’t just learned your face. He is walking with you, with us…because we are his flock.

It is we who he loves.

He is the good shepherd.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No foolin’!

A sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day

Mark 16:1-8



“Hark! The Herald Angel Sings; Glory to the Newborn King!
Peace on Earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”

Please excuse us, but we figured that was too good of an opportunity to pass up! Besides, people are always saying we need to sing more Christmas carols, anyway. We knew everyone would be gathered this beautiful morning to sing hymns about resurrection and the empty tomb, but it’s also April Fool’s Day, so why not throw in a favorite Christmas carol? We knew everyone would be filing in this morning, on this fresh new day of spring, expecting nothing but Easter lilies around the altar but it’s April Fool’s, so why not arrange for a Christmas tree? And we knew that the last time so many of us were gathered together like this was on Christmas Eve, but today’s April Fool’s Day so why not just play a little prank and roll the two days into one? Christ is born…Christ is risen…which one is it? They’re both good news, right?

The fact of the matter is, the carol works remarkably well, as if it is written as much for Easter as it is for Christmas. Listen again:

“Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n (that’s the word!) with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that we no more may die,
Born to raise each child of earth,
Born to give us second birth!
Hark! The Herald Angel Sings, Glory to the Newborn King!”

Today we realize that the journey which began in Bethlehem reaches its intended conclusion in Jerusalem. The joy that we first beheld at the manger is only amplified as we see the stone rolled away. Angels announced his arrival in the stable, and now an angel announces his absence from the grave. There was no room for him that night, but there is no him for the tomb today. Because Jesus was born for me and you we know that he was born to die and rise again. The two days are connected and cannot be separated, and one leads inevitably to another, through a cross and then a tomb.


It makes me think of a Christmas a few years ago when I was on an errand in Dollar Tree. As I wandered the aisles I noticed that one of the store clerks was high up on a ladder switching out the large holiday decoration signs which were hanging from the ceiling. As I watched what he was doing, I noticed he was removing the red and green “Merry Christmas” placards, sliding them out of the holder, flipping them over and then sliding them in again to show what was printed on the other side. To my shock, they were not for Valentine’s Day, but were instead all yellow and pink and read “Happy Easter.” It was December 27. Easter that year was going to fall on April 20. We were two days in and they were ready to move us to Easter…a whole four months early! We may sneer at the commercialization of our holidays, but Dollar Tree had some seriously good theology going on there!


And so, April Fools to you this Easter day. May you know God’s love for you is eternal, that the Newborn King is born again today. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

All that is nice and clever, but it still really doesn’t deal with the elephant in the room—that is, the Easter message actually feels a lot like an April Fool’s prank. Whatever happens, as Mark tells it, especially, sounds exactly like a cruel joke, and the candid camera is off in the bushes somewhere. First of all, we’ve got some perfectly unsuspecting victims. Every April Fool’s prank needs unsuspecting victims. The three women are all ready to come to the cemetery that morning and do exactly what they’re supposed to do with their spices and their prayers after someone has died. They’re walking right into this one!

Second of all, someone’s been messing with the tomb. As they walk along, they even wonder about the stone covering its entrance. Who’s going to move it?  How will they get it out of the way? But then they get there and it’s already out of the way! Someone must really want to get them good.

Most of all, of course—the body they’ve come to anoint is missing! Good April Fool’s pranks typically involve replacing something usual with something people would not expect, and this definitely fits that standard. A mysterious angel figure at the tomb says that Jesus is risen, something that’s never happened before, and essentially tells them to continue to prank on Peter and the other disciples. He’s like, “Yes, yes, yes…go on to Galilee, ladies. He’ll see you there. I promise.” And if there had been anyone else there he would have winked and given a nudge. Then it ends perfectly when the women run off, frightened and amazed. Perhaps they’re embarrassed. They don’t say anything to anybody! Someone got them good.

mark-16-1-8-resurrection-carracci (1)
“The Resurrection of Jesus” (Carracci)

Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection is particularly abrupt and a bit ironic. It’s abrupt because it just ends as quickly as it began. It kind of leaves us hanging. We never hear whether they bump into him up in Galilee. And it’s ironic because the women don’t say anything to anyone even when they’re specifically told to do so. Throughout Mark’s story of Jesus, Jesus has tried very hard to control the message about him. Many times he performs a miracle or completes a teaching and immediately he tells people not to say anything about him. He acts as if everything he is doing is a secret, that things won’t make sense until the end. And each time he does that along the way, people go and blab about him anyway. Now, when we’ve apparently reached the end and they are instructed to spread the news…they clam up.

Easter feels like a prank, and if it weren’t for the other gospel writers and the apostle Paul, who did see the risen Lord and who give us other accounts of what happened that day and in the week that follow, it’s not altogether clear that we’d be here this morning.  All the same, are we fools for believing this? Have we been suckered into thinking that Jesus is risen, that our sins are forgiven, that death is defeated, when there might be a more logical or ordinary reason for the unexpected events at the tomb? Is this really plausible, that God would physically step into creation like this in the person of Jesus and make it new?

For as long as there has been the news of Easter there have been doubters and nay-sayers, people who hear the message and figure it’s just a fun tale or who, like those first women, don’t really know what to make of it. I don’t know where each of you stand on it. If you’re like most of us, you probably find your faith fluctuates from time to time. You waver, you question. You find yourselves in need of gathering now and again with others who’ve come to trust the story. You find yourselves digging a little deeper, listening once again a little harder, hoping to have belief rekindled. Or maybe sparked to start with. That’s fair.


The fact of the matter is that the first people to experience the news of Easter moved from fear and amazement to bravery and insistence very quickly. They ended up so convinced they’ve actually encountered Jesus, wound up so persuaded they were dealing with real resurrection of his body, found themselves so sure that God had changed the course of history by raising their teacher and leader from the dead that most of them ended up dying for their faith. These were not powerful or influential people, by any means. The women at the tomb and the disciples were essentially nobodies, and yet they were so sure and so emphatic that the Jesus who was crucified had risen and appeared to them they were willing to give up everything in order to spread that word. That is no prank, my friends. People don’t allow themselves to be handed over to ridicule and torture, to the jaws of hungry lions and death by the sword in order to continue circulating a silly rumor. An outlandish message entrusted to some women does not within a generation become a worldwide movement of new life if it’s some idle tale about an empty grave. Christ is risen, and through him God is bringing about new life to all of creation.

If there is a prank somewhere in all of this, then the brokenness of the world is at fault. It’s the evil one trying to pull the wool over our eyes each and every day. Easter and Jesus’ new life are the real deal and every day we wake up surrounded by forces that are trying to fool us—trick us into thinking that this life is all we’ve got, that putting self before others is the key to happiness. It’s as if every day we’re being tempted to believe that God can’t forgive our sins, that love doesn’t win, that through every death and darkness is just emptiness and more despair.

But today and every Sunday, in fact, we hear the real version of things once again. Sin is the fool! Let us not be unsuspecting victims to its clever wiles! Let us gather to be reminded in the (real) water of baptism…in the real bread and wine of his meal…in the real comfort of God’s Word and friends’ prayers…that God in Jesus has conquered death and flipped the sign around to reveal the message. And now we go out and share that, too:


That…Christ is by highest heav’n adored,
He is the everlasting Lord.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail, incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus, Our Emmanuel!

Hark! That herald angel sings, “Glory to the RISEN King.”



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.