All Hallows’ Eve

Behold October’s final garden flower:
defying frost, contrast with autumn’s umber,
Upright it stands in fading daylight hour,
Refusing to submit to winter slumber.
You foolish daisy, clueless to the season!
Why cling to summer, pine for yesterday?
This late warm spell, soon finished, is no reason
To protest the embrace of sure decay.
Yet are we also not by death surrounded,
Our hope and joy absurd to some, but brave—
So rooted in a soil of life unbounded
Whose Finest Bloom has sprung from darkest grave?
Deemed foolish by the world his praise we sing
And serve as heralds for the coming spring.

garden daisy

Punch line: Justified

a sermon for Reformation Sunday [Proper 25C/Lectionary 30C]

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus said, “I tell you, this man—the tax collector, the despised and commonly mistrusted tax collector—went down to his home justified rather than the other.”

So goes the punch line to one of Jesus most controversial parables. It’s a parable where two polar opposites go into the Temple to pray.

It’s a parable where if the start doesn’t catch us off guard, the outcome certainly does, for it is the tax collector—and since we don’t really have much of an association with tax collectors anymore, you can insert your own shady stand-in, maybe a drug dealer, maybe a loan shark, maybe an Astros fan—whatever it is, that shady person is the one who returns from prayers at the Temple one day justified. It’s not the Pharisee who is justified, the religious professional, the one with the seminary degree who has checked all the right boxes, but that tax collector. This is kind of a big deal because no one listening would have seen this punch line coming. If anyone was a candidate for justification, it would not be the tax collector.


As it turns out, justification is also the punch line to the Protestant Reformation. It’s a funny word, a churchy word. Not many people really use this word anymore, but just as it forms a line between those two in the Temple that day, justification became the dividing line of the church in the west. The idea of how one becomes justified before God was what led Martin Luther to reform the Catholic church, beginning with the posting of the 95 Theses in 1517. And in 1999, when the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics found themselves back at a table for discussions, the concept of justification is what had brought them together.

In fact, it may not just be the punch line of this parable, or the punch line of the Protestant Reformation, but indeed the punchline of Christian faith. As the apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “we are justified by God’s grace through faith, apart from works of the law.” Or, to put it in the language of Jesus’ parable this morning: Those who trust in themselves to right their relationship with God are going to come up empty-handed, but those who depend only upon God’s mercy are the ones who wind up justified.


All that having been said, most of us nowadays, when we hear the word justification, probably think not of 16th century theological arguments, but of margins on a typed document. With one simple click on the computer screen, we can justify the margins on the left, or we can justify them on the right, or we can justify them on both the right and the left, leaving a nice flush line along the sides. And so it is with faith, as we work to understand the punchline to this parable: What is it that makes us flush with God? What takes our raggedy, mismatching edges and lines them up all nice and clean? What sets us in alignment with God’s heart and favor?

In the end, it is nothing we can do ourselves. We can’t click any little icon. God’s grace alone can do it. God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, sets us in line and makes us right with God. When we are aware of our imperfections, when we give voice to our brokenness, then we are open to hearing and receiving how God’s grace sets us free. We are justified by God’s grace through faith, apart from the works we do ourselves.


And that’s what the Pharisee doesn’t understand, for all his religiosity, for all his fancy do-gooding. He is pleased with himself and his own list of accomplishments. He fasts more than is required of him, not just once a week but twice. And he gives ten percent on everything he acquires, which, according to many of the tithing laws of that time, is considered going above and beyond what is expected. And if all of that that is not enough to set him apart from all the others in the Temple, he also stands apart from everyone, alone, beginning with a prayer of thankfulness that he is not like all the others.

That’s, of course, where justifying ourselves with God or being pleased with our own status ultimately goes—to constantly comparing ourselves with others. We think, maybe even just to ourselves, things like “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like those people who don’t return their shopping carts.” Or “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like those who cheat the welfare system.” Or “Dear God, I’m thankful I’m not like one of those white supremacists.” And even if we check ourselves against thinking and praying those kinds of things, even if we know better than to look down on others, we can still, if we’re not careful, finish hearing to Jesus’ parable and think to ourselves, “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee.”

I found myself this week sitting at the Division for Motor Vehicles. I was there because at some point in the last several weeks I had lost my license, but I also thought it could be time to go ahead and get the Real ID, since it will be required for all domestic flights in about a year. The DMV does not probably rank on anyone’s list of favorite places to be, and it is not on mine, but as I sat there and sat there and sat there I found myself admiring its atmosphere of equality. We were all huddled in one large room, first in a line and then in rows of chairs. There was no way for any of us to set ourselves apart from anyone else, even if we wanted to. All different races, ages, income levels, probably even different legal statuses. The couple with a child in front of me were speaking a language I couldn’t place.


It occurred to me that rarely are any of us in such close proximity to so many different types of people as we are when we’re at the DMV. In a sense, we were all there to be justified—not by God but by the state. As we waited, even our names were omitted, each of us reduced to a letter and a number. I was I202. And as I sat there, trying to figure out the pattern the numbers and letters were going in, I glanced around the room and realized some Pharisee-like thoughts drifted into my head. I watched. I observed, I imagined myself in their skin, what their stories might be. And found myself thinking, “At least I’m not like these people who are on their smart phones all the time. See, God? I brought a book to read.”

But when I202 was finally called and I proudly sauntered up to the counter, I discovered, to my horror, that I was missing one proof of residency. The lady shook her head at me and sent me home, unjustified by the Commonwealth of Virginia. I have never felt so rejected in my life, but it was my own fault.

We had a professor in seminary, the one who taught us pastoral care, who began each semester not by discussing the syllabus, but by standing up in front of the class by announcing, “Hello, I’m Tony and I’m a sinner redeemed by the cross of Jesus.” It seemed so strange to me at first, but then I realized it helped all of us hear him later when he would have to cover very moralistic topics and warn us against certain behaviors or practices we might take on as ordained pastors in the future. To start with his own confession and have that always before us helped us receive his lessons because we knew though he was much wiser and more experienced, he was still just one of us, full of brokenness.

What Jesus means with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is that the life of faith is about only being concerned with my own sinfulness, with my own lack of credentials, when it comes right down to it. There really is no part of Christian faith that involves comparing ourselves with others. There is no part of following Jesus that involves looking at my neighbor and setting myself against her in any way, good or bad, unless in so doing I find myself at her feet in service to her needs.


We do live in time where we love to call out other people (it’s called Call-Out Culture), where we love to confess other people’s sins. We live in a time where self-promotion is the name of the game. Its self-exaltation all the time, on Facebook, Insta, Twitter. We show our best sides, our fanciest dishes, our vacations. We forge our own identities, display the sides we want others to notice.

Before God, however, we can only humble ourselves. In the eyes of the Almighty, there is no profile photo, no avatar other than our own shortcomings. And yet in spite of that, God comes to our side to love us, to lift us up, so say it’s OK that you have no credentials, that you’ve forgotten your proper paperwork. He still receives us. As Martin Luther said, “God doesn’t love us because of our worth. we are of worth because God loves us.”

It’s difficult to know what kinds of questions people are asking about God these days. We know the issue of justification was the central faith question of Luther’s day 500 years ago. People constantly wondered, “How do I get right with God?” I’m not sure that’s the question people ask these days. In fact, I wonder if people are asking many questions about God at all, and if we are, the questions are all over the place, questions like, “Is God real?” and “Can I expect God to work in my life?” and “How do I pray to God?” Statistics show us that in the United States church worship attendance and church membership are dropping off sharper than people initially projected just several years ago. An article in the Wall Street Journal last week reported that every age group, racial group, and region of the country is less Christian than a decade ago.[1] By some calculations, the ELCA will no longer be the largest Lutheran denomination by worship attendance in just a couple of decades, a sobering fact we heard this week at a pastors’ conference.

But as worrisome as all that may sound, I’m not sure it’s our problem to be concerned by those numbers, or even be concerned with them. The gospel has never been about winning popularity contests. The gospel is about telling the truth about God and God’s love for the world. It’s about leading the world in honesty with ourselves because we trust a God who is a mighty fortress but who also lifts up the lowly and exalts the humble. Whether or not we continue to dominate the culture numerically is no concern of ours (unless, of course, we want to compare ourselves like Pharisees do).

Perhaps, then, the reform the church needs today is to remind itself of its call to be more like the DMV where all people can come and not feel compared to one another, where all races, income levels, neighborhoods can be ushered into the presence of the holy God, where, as the Psalm states this morning, even those among us as fragile as sparrows and swallows can find shelter.

Perhaps the best reform we can commit ourselves to today is to hear God’s word and then realize the church is a place where all sinners belong, where we all step to the counter empty-handed and receive a righteousness for free.

Perhaps the best answer we can offer a questioning world is the punchline that is saving us: here, in God’s kingdom, we have come to understand we are seen not according to any status but our brokenness, and then still, out of grace, assigned our true identity: child of God. Forgiven. And yes…justified!


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] “Religiosity, Church Attendance Fall Sharply” in The Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2019 pA3

The Ministry of Healing

a homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C/Lectionary 28] and reflection on Stephen Ministry

Luke 17:11-19 and 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

One of the unmistakable aspects of Jesus’ ministry and really of his whole life is healing. Everywhere Jesus goes in the gospels, healing occurs. Healing but also being made whole as an individual is an undeniable sign of God’s reign, and, indeed, that fact reaches back far before Jesus’ life. We can hear in this reading from the Old Testament today that Naaman experiences healing for his skin disease by washing in the waters of the Jordan, which is the river that formed a border with Israel and which had been so identified with God’s people that it was a symbol for God’s presence. It is a crude excuse for a river, apparently, but it still has amazing healing powers for him.unit13-session-3

In the gospel lesson we hear that Jesus’ healing even occurs outside of Israel’s territory. And that is completely understandable, since everywhere Jesus goes, healing occurs. In this case he is travelling with his disciples around the border of Samaria, which is kind of like enemy territory for Jewish people. Surprisingly enough, the group encounters some lepers who from a distance shout out for mercy. For some reason they already know he is their path towards wholeness and healing.

Their shouting is an important aspect of the story. In ancient times, people with visible diseases or body issues were regularly sequestered and separated from the rest of the community. It was very isolating to have something wrong with you, to be in the need of healing. If you were a person with leprosy or a skin disease, which was especially feared in those times, you not only had to live outside of town with other lepers, but you also were required to announce your presence (technically-speaking, your quarantine) by shouting whenever you moved about. This only exacerbated the isolation of one’s situation. Talk about stigma!

When Jesus encounters these shouting lepers, he says to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” This is because only the religious leaders had the authority to restore people into community, which is part of healing. Physical or medical healing is one thing. Social healing, feeling that you are received and welcomed into society and into community, having your stigma removed—these constitute another very important part of the healing process. By reporting to the priests, these lepers understand that all of that kind of healing will occur. With their social isolation removed they will be restored. One of them, of course, returns to thank Jesus. His healing is even more profound. Jesus praises his faith.


Nowadays we approach diseases differently. We understand so much more about physical healing and mental healing, about things like microbes and allergens and carcinogens. We also don’t typically sequester people who are sick other than in ways that are leading to their healing, like in a hospital. However, it can still feel isolating to be carrying wounds. When you’re going through a hard time you can still feel completely disconnected from others. Perhaps it’s something tragic that’s happened to you or some kind of trauma or struggle you are dealing with. They may be wounds of an actual diagnosis you’ve received or a treatment you’re undergoing. Or they may be internal wounds—a significant relationship in your life has been broken, an event that has left you shattered, a grief from the death of a loved one.

Jesus still heals those wounds too. He walks where we walk still today, through the borderlands of our lives. We know through his death on the cross that Jesus is willing and does walk into any human condition, shares in any human suffering. He restores people to wholeness and brings people together in community. His forgiveness does that. His mercy accomplishes that. His compassion diminishes the distances between us. He gives us each other to point the way towards that healing. It was the unnamed Israelite slave girl who tended Naaman’s wife initiates the whole message that leads to Naaman’s healing.

In a congregation, people who are hurting may often “show themselves to the priests,” seeking out the priests (or the pastors) for counsel and for sharing their wounds and their desire for healing. This is natural. We go to pastors to help rid ourselves of the isolation that brokenness often brings. But pastors are not the only people who can lend a caring, listening ear. Any one of us who has been touched by Jesus’ healing is able to turn and lend care to others. In fact, we all have an obligation to share our neighbor’s burden in some way. It is one of the gifts the Spirit brings to life within us. There’s a line of Scripture often quoted right at the beginning of most funeral services. A pastor stands before a crowd of grieving people and proclaims this truth:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).


We are able to console others. We are able to offer healing compassion to those around us, even if we aren’t a priest. We are blessed at Epiphany because we have a group of thoughtful, dedicated congregation members who have received special training to offer this kind of consolation. They are called Stephen Ministers, and they work together with the pastors in confidence, to help others bear their burdens, to listen carefully and caring-ly, to offer assistance with some of the inner wounds that still isolate us. Because wherever Jesus is, there is healing.

I am thankful we have this sign of God’s reign here at Epiphany. Through Stephen Ministry, people are experiencing healing, being made whole. They are truly encountering Jesus. And for this good news not just one in ten of us may return and praise God, but all of us can say together, “Thanks be to God!”

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


The Nature of Faith

a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22C/Lectionary 27]

Luke 17:5-10 and 2 Timothy 1:1-14

The other day our 3-year-old son was in the living room of our home and he got up and walked into the kitchen, stood in the middle of the room with his face turned up toward the counter and said in a clear voice, “Alexa, announce: Mom, I need you down here. I’m thirsty.” And Alexa did his bidding! Melinda was upstairs reading in our bedroom. We have another Alexa device next to our bed, and within a second it snapped on, chimed its little tone that signals a message is coming through. Then came Jasper’s voice, as clear as a bell, “Mom, I need you down here. I’m thirsty.” We got a kick out of it, of course, but mainly we were blown away. We didn’t even know that he knew how to use that function on Alexa. None of us taught him that. I suppose he has watched us use it and has figured out, at the ripe old age of three, has figured out the power of technology to do his bidding.

It is tempting to think of faith like an Alexa skill. While faith, no doubt, is really a complex subject, I find that I often treat it or talk about it like it’s a power or an ability or a capacity that I can use to our advantage to make life easier. Many of us think of faith as this quality or this force we can possess that can get stuff done. And, if so, we’re in good company, then, because Jesus’ disciples seem to think of it in this way.


One day, after they hear Jesus give them a particular hard-to-digest set of guidelines for living in God’s kingdom—guidelines about forgiving people that sound particularly difficult—they naturally respond, “Increase our faith!” Teach us more skills on the Alexa! Fill up our tank. Insert a chip with more gigabytes, Jesus. That will certainly help us get the job done. And we can’t blame them, can we? In all my years I’ve never, ever heard anyone say,  “Man, I wish I had less faith.” Faith may be the one thing people would say they always want more of.

Yet, based on his response to the disciples, Jesus doesn’t really want us to think of faith in those terms. Jesus doesn’t talk about faith like it’s a skill or a force or a power or a microchip embedded in us that gets us to function the right way. I was recently reading an article about how the third main age of computing is about to be upon us and it will totally remake the world. In this next age we will see mini-computers and micro-ships implanted in just about everything. They’ll be in our clothes and communicate directly with the washing machine on how to clean them. They’ll be used to make traffic lights be more functional to traffic flow in the moment, detect early signs of disease in farm animals. They’ll be in toothbrushes, beehives, and pacemakers.[1] A child won’t tell Alexa to get his mother when he’s thirsty. A device on the refrigerator will alert her that he’s dehydrated.


The idea that there’s this little seed in us that can have so much power and affect our reality blows our mind to think about. And on the surface, Jesus seems to speak of faith in the same way. He doesn’t say microchip. He says mustard seed, which is very similar. The point is that it’s an incredibly small thing that contains great potential. He tells his disciples that’s all they’ll need  to be able to get a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Or, to speak a different language, it’s all they’ll need to raise the X-Wing fighter from the swamps of Dagobah.

If you’re like me, you’re probably fascinated with the idea of something so small having so much power. The problem is that Jesus is actually joking with his disciples here. He’s exaggerating, playfully mocking their request for more faith in order to make a point—a very, very important point. Because whether the analogy for faith is a mustard seed or a microchip or some kind of entity residing within us like “the Force” in the Star Wars movies (which is what it can feel like), the point is we’re coming at it wrong. Faith is not a tool. Faith is not a special ingredient we possess that makes everything better, or that makes the impossible possible. Faith is not a substance that God checks to see if we have before God does certain things for us because ultimately, if that is the case, God really isn’t that important. If faith is just a tool or a seed or something I possess that can get the job done, then faith is really all about me and my powers, isn’t it?

In those scenarios, I become the Luke Skywalker that can overcome my obstacles, and God becomes, at best, just a person cheering me on from the sidelines. At worst, God becomes a cruel landlord or supplier who supposedly requires us to have something—faith—which he alone is dispensing to us. Getting a mulberry tree to uproot and plant itself in the ocean is not an example of how faith can accomplish the miraculous. It is a ludicrous exaggeration to say perhaps faith doesn’t work that way at all.


The very next thing Jesus tells his disciples is this little story about a slave coming in from working in the fields. No one, says Jesus, would say to the slave, “Go ahead and have a place at the table.” And no one gives the slave any credit for what he or she has done. That’s not the place of a slave. Setting the table and preparing dinner is what a slave is supposed to do. No one tells a slave to stop being a slave and start relating to the Master like an equal. The slave has a role to fill and tasks to complete. The slave understands who he or she is in relationship to the master.

We may find it a little awkward that Jesus speaks about slavery this way, especially given our country’s particular history with it, but in Jesus’ day slavery looked a bit different, and we have to use the lesson he provides. The point he is making is that faith is a relationship, not an entity. It is better thought of as a set of tasks, a role we assume, a to-do list. When it comes to faith, it’s not about quantity, and it’s not about quality either. It’s about doing something. It’s about seeing that God is in charge and we have a role to fill as disciples.

After all, that’s how Timothy, in this middle lesson, gets his faith: first it lives in his grandmother Lois and then his mother Eunice. It was through tasks built on a relationship they understood they had. Faith isn’t based on genes or chromosome and get passed down that way. Nor is it a virus that spread through contact with other people. Faith not something we “have” at all, but something that’s done. It’s heard, seen, copied, perfected, adjusted. Faith is discovered when we take stock of what is right in front of us and, quite frankly, getting to work, living out the next step in our relationship with God…as one post I saw on Facebook this week…do to the “next right thing,” even when we’re disillusioned. And sometimes those tasks and that role are not going to be a walk in the park. A famous theologian and scholar from the early 20 century, G.K. Chesterton, once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

Sometimes it may feel like faith is what is powering us, but sometimes we may feel empty. Regardless, the relationship is still there, Jesus says. God is still providing, still guiding, still loving. We are still his children, his sheep, his disciples. And our part, even in those cases where we feel we’re not up to it, is to go on to the next task.

One time at seminary Susan Briehl came to campus to give some lectures. She’s a well-known Lutheran pastor and hymn-writer who has mainly served congregations on the West Coast. Some of her hymns are in our hymnal. She told the story of when she served as a campus pastor at a major university. She shared that some students would come to see her after a few semesters at school and complain their faith was slowly being chipped away at. Maybe it was the pressures of school life and being away from home. Maybe it had to do with confronting thoughts and rival beliefs in a new way. One particularly dejected student came in one day and said, “You know, pastor, when I came to college my faith was strong and vibrant. It was like a house I lived in where I was comfortable and it made my life better. I liked that house of faith. But I feel like everyone—my professors, my friends, the new subjects I’m learning about—they’re all trying to take apart my house of faith. At first, they came and took all the doors off the hinges. My house had no doors! I could keep things inside our outside. It was annoying! But, I still had the house, so I just got used to it.

And just when I got used to my house having no doors, they came along and took off the roof. At first, I thought I was ruined. I thought, ‘What’s a house without a roof?!’ But eventually I adjusted. I still had all the other parts of the house. It was still fairly recognizable as a place to live. It was colder and I didn’t have the protection I did before, but I got used to it.

Then someone came and took all the furniture. That was hard. I liked that furniture. It took some getting used to. But I figured: I can just sleep on the floor. Plenty of people do that. And just when I got used to my house of faith having no doors, no roof, and no furniture, someone came and took the floor. I can’t have a house without a floor. It went right out from under me and now I’m falling, pastor. I’m falling in my faith and I’m scared where I’ll land. What do I do?”


And Pastor Briehl looked at the student and said, “I’m sorry you’re falling and feel so helpless. I don’t know when you’ll stop falling, but I can tell you this: as your falling, pay attention. Look out for hands. People will be sticking out their hands as you fall. And in their hands will be bread. Go for the bread. Grab that bread and keep falling. You’ll need that bread. It will keep your faith alive. It will sustain you. And eventually, you will land. And once you land, you can begin building a new house of faith. But until then, watch for the hands and go for the bread.”

That message came at a time when I really needed to hear it. Some events of my first semester at seminary had started to undo my house of faith. But Briehl’s words refocused my attention—and maybe it can refocus yours—like a slave that needs to know what job is next.  Sometimes that task is just looking for those hands. There were hands for me—plenty of them—reaching out with bread. In fact, every Thursday evening in the Chapel there was bread at our worship service…just as, in fact, there is bread here this morning and every week, and hands reaching out to give it to you, forgiving you. There are hands all over the place, offering sustenance to keep going, once you begin to look for them.

Instead of worrying about what our faith looks like, or whether we have enough, whether the mulberry trees will ever move like we want them to, whether a given situation will end up like we hope it does, the best thing to do is just to reach out, to grab the bread, to serve, to know the grace will abound no matter where we are, no matter what we think we lack. We are God’s and he will provide. Because even the cross of Good Friday, when Jesus himself is falling, falling, falling, reaches the solid new floor of Easter morning where all can be rebuilt.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] “Chips with everything,” in The Economist. Volume 432, no 9160. Sept 14-20, 2019