The Pentecost-iest Pentecost

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year A]

Acts 2:1-21

“When the day of Pentecost had come,” goes our first reading from Acts, “they were all together in one place.”

Ouch. That hurts this year: “They were all together in one place.” And we…well, we aren’t at all. It’s like the Scriptures are rubbing our faces in it! The beginning of the church, the arrival of the Spirit of God which will enliven the faith of all people and bring Jesus’ ministry to life begins as a real, physical gathering.

“Where is everybody??”

This is significant. When the Holy Spirit makes its big entrance, it is not first to individuals with their Bibles laid out on kitchen tables or to people in their homes with their heads bowed in prayer but rather to a group of disciples gathered as one, breathing the same air, hearing the same words, bumping elbows and shaking hands in the same rooms.

It is hard for me to read this story—and really almost any story of God’s people in Scripture, but especially this one—and not be struck by the differences to our current time. For one, we’re watching this worship on a screen. It’s not even live.  I’m at home with my family on the couch in the weird position of watching myself deliver this sermon and trying not to cringe too much. For once I may actually get to leave and use the bathroom during my own sermon!

The governor of Virginia has declared in his Phases for reopening that houses of worship may gather physically according to certain restrictions, and yet many, including ours, are still assessing the risks of doing so. Nowhere in the Pentecost story does it explicitly mention what the church should do in a pandemic.

So hearing this story of the church’s beginning makes me miss so much about our physical gatherings when we’re all in one place. They have become the things I associate deeply with church nowadays.

I miss the crucifer leading us down the aisle and then turning so Joseph and I can bow before we go to our seats and trying to make sure we bow at the same time.

I miss Ms. Betsy perched at the end of a low wooden table holding court with a gaggle of two-year-olds.

I miss having my blood pressure read by Carla Schwertz or Carolyn Kronk and then hearing them say, “Wow, that’s pretty good considering it’s Sunday morning for you.”

I miss Dan Byerly getting there almost as early as I do and filling up the big coffee urn and then hearing it groan and gurgle as it gets ready like the rest of us.

I miss Gail Lyddane and Allison Worth hitting the high notes on some of the special hymns. I miss passing the peace with the Hammer family because they always sit close to the back where we’re getting ready to come down the aisle.

part of my church family

I miss the sun coming through the stained glass window at just the right angle during the 8:30 service so that the Sizemores, sitting on the opposite side of the church, have to squint through parts of the service.

I miss the acolyte and an acolyte parent in the sacristy furiously searching for a robe that will be the right length and then the click-click-click of the lighter not working right just before they go out.

I miss Matt Greenshields shouting “Thanks be to God” at the end of the dismissal.

I miss getting the church giggles and not being able to stop them. Oh, the church giggles! That might be one of the reasons why onlookers on that first Pentecost thought those first believers were filled with new wine.

Perhaps more than anything else, however, I miss the unique way each person approaches the communion rail and kneels or stands and sticks out their hand to receive the bread. This strange separation, this strange way of worshiping apart from one another, so unlike that first Pentecost, has dragged on much longer than any of us probably anticipated, and we’re not finished with it yet. We long to be gathered again in one place as the body of Christ and the vessel of God’s Holy Spirit that can move in and through us.

And yet, in some ways, this may be the Pentecost-iest Pentecost of our lifetimes. Our inability to gather because of the spread of a virus places us literally out in the world, which is precisely where God’s Holy Spirit first drives the first believers. They begin together, but then they separate. They start in one place, in Jerusalem, but within months, if not weeks, they are all over the place, in Judea, in Samaria, in Asia Minor and beyond. Fast forward several centuries and the believers are here, in the Piedmont of Virginia, setting up churches, starting ministries, and proclaiming through word and deed that the kingdom of heaven has come near.

And the believers begin as a microcosm of the known world at the time. That’s the meaning behind that laundry list of difficult Bible names that we hear in the Acts reading. Luke, the writer of Acts, is making sure his readers understand that the church, at its start, was a diverse, multi-racial and multicultural community. It may have been born from the unique story of Jesus’ people, the Hebrews, but the Spirit intends to gather and involve all of God’s people. The Elamites, the residents of Mesopotamia, residents of Egypt, and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene—these are all ways of saying that at its birth the church contained people of every skin color in the same room and there was no indication they viewed each other as anything other than equal—equal in God’s eyes, equal dwelling places in which God’s Spirit of freedom and life could reside and breathe.

Today we are reminded that those are our roots. As much as we may miss all the things about 1400 Horsepen Road and long for them to return, we should miss even more the things about that day of ours in Jerusalem when God’s Spirit was poured out upon all flesh, and the young men and women saw visions and the old men and women dreamed dreams. We should miss that legacy we were given that put all colors of people on an equal playing field, where God’s image was acknowledged to the same degree in each person. Our own city, of course, has complicated and sensitive issues surrounding race and culture and history that we need to confront. May the Spirit lead us through those conversations with humility to the image that God provides for the church.

Members of the church don’t need to be in the building to do that work. Quite frankly, that work might happen better when we are out of those walls, learning to lay our prejudices down and sometimes our sacred cows for the sake of the one who laid his down for us. As the words of our middle hymn this morning put it, “where deceit conceals injustice, kindle us to speak your truth!”

And that is the reason why fire is such a compelling image for the Holy Spirit, why fire is seen on that first day and as people told the story later they remembered the fire on people’s heads. We should take to heart that fire can rarely be controlled, especially in the ancient world before running water and fire engines. Fire, once loose, spreads and goes wherever it wants, wherever there is oxygen to inhale.

So it is with Christ’s church. No one can close the church because the church can’t be closed. No one needs to re-open the church because the church is always going to be open. And our ministry is and has always been essential because through the Spirit’s power we embody the crucified and risen Savior to the world, and that is the only life that is life. Our buildings may be temporarily unusable for worship, but the church itself is always on fire.

And this is not the first time the church has found itself in this situation, which is something I think we in our era have forgotten. Just several hundred yards from here is the site where Chimborazo Hospital stood. Built by slaves during the Civil War, Chimborazo went on to become the largest hospital in the world during its time, treating tens of thousands of soldiers.

Chimborazo Hospital, Richmond, VA

It was a cutting edge facility. But many hospitals up unto that point were in other buildings, including churches. Several churches in Richmond were converted to hospitals during the Civil War. And we could never count the number of church buildings in Europe or Africa or Asia that have temporarily halted worship so that the sick and wounded from wartime or plague could be treated.

When those times arose, the church did not understand itself to be closed. The church was just at work in a different, special way. And I’m not just playing with words here. When Jesus greets his disciples after his resurrection, he doesn’t say, “Go build a church building.” He says, “Forgive. Go forth with peace.” I see the church in a similar way in the current circumstances. I know that there are differing viewpoints as to the level of crisis this coronavirus may eventually be, but right now our church buildings are not unlike the hospitals of previous eras and our approach toward worship is not unlike worship during those other special times. The Spirit will gather us back, but for the time being we are the church being the church outside of the church building.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the account of Pentecost but never have the divided tongues of fire stood out to me so much. The sign of the Spirit’s presence that day was not in one large fire, or like the bush that Moses saw, but in individual flames. Each person had his or her own. The Greek word for “divided” here is “to be cut into many pieces” in the way that a butcher cuts meat. So from the beginning, the church is gathered together and meant to gather as one, but within that unity is a breaking apart. We are each a part of that glorious, creative fire of God’s love whether we are physically in one place or whether we’ve been divided up for the world to have. Like a loaf of pita bread, which starts as one on the altar, but then is broken into parts and handed out at the rail, the church is constantly being gathered up and then broken up for service.

icon of Pentecost

And this is when we’re broken up for service now—a little longer than we had hoped, perhaps, but no less bright. No less powerful. Putting on a facemask may control the spread of a virus, but it can’t do anything about the spread of the church, the movement of the gospel.

This is where I’m going to ask you to do something that may seem a little out of the ordinary, but go ahead and use the template we sent you, which is also downloadable from the front page of our website, and make your own divided tongue of fire handband. Get your children to make one.  You can either cut out construction paper or color the pattern we sent you. Once you have it made, put it on and take a selfie or have someone grab a photo of you out and about or even in the comfort of your living room, and post it on social media or send it to our church office and we’ll do it for you. Use the hashtag “churchneverclosed,” and let’s see those tongues of fire, divided, but yet united, throughout the region. And then, more importantly, may God give us the humility and courage to enter into the conversations about racism and privilege and unity that need to happen in our country and to work toward that first reality of the church, our family. Together let’s make sure the world knows that Pentecost 2020 may, in fact, be the Pentecost-iest Pentecost we have ever experienced. Who knows? We may even give someone a case of the church giggles.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Preparing Rooms

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

John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says,“believe in God, believe also in me.” My guess is that most of us have heard these words before while we’ve been standing at a gravesite or as a part of a funeral or memorial service for someone we loved. When our hearts are troubled, it is good to be reminded that Jesus recognizes our sadness and that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us in God’s eternal care. In my seventeen years of serving as a parish pastor, I can say that when families ask for a specific gospel text to be read at a funeral, this one is mentioned more than any other. It is such a good one. People find great comfort in these words of Jesus as they say farewell at death. I do too.


As it happens, these are the words Jesus himself uses as he begins his own farewell to his disciples. It is the night before his crucifixion and he has gathered his closest followers. Judas has already left to betray him. Peter has already been informed by Jesus in front of everyone that Peter will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows in the next day. Things are heavy and things are strange and things are somber. We can imagine there was a sense of dark unknown and looming disaster in the air that evening. And the first thing Jesus does is acknowledge their misgivings and their troubled hearts. His first words of good-bye are of hope, of comfort, focused on them and their fears. What he’s saying in this farewell talk is something like, “Yes, this is hard. Something really bad is about to happen. Your sense of looming disaster is not unfounded. It’s going to be horrific, and you probably aren’t going to know what to make of it. But God is nevertheless going to be with me. Trust me on this. God, our Father, will see us through and his glory will shine.”

It occurs to me that these are good words for Jesus to speak to us now. We may not be at a graveside or a funeral, but many of us are living with a sense of that dark unknown and maybe even looming disaster. People in authority give us information, but so much of it seems to be conflicting or incomplete and there doesn’t seem to be a good way forward, let alone a clear one. We wonder and worry about so many things related to this virus. Conspiracy theories are on the rise.

Into the midst of all this dark unknown Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Into the helplessness of not knowing what to do or whether our actions matter, Jesus says, “The one who believes in me will do the works that Jesus does and in fact even words that are even greater!” Into the blur of information Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”
“Last Supper” (Valentin de Boulogne, 1625-26)

A lot of us are used to living our lives on our terms, on looking at big chunks of time, knowing—or assuming with a fair amount of accuracy what’s coming down the road. This virus has shortened all of our perspectives. Each day and each week is about all we can concentrate on. That is disorienting and troubling. And just as Jesus’ first disciples had to adjust to a change in plans for what kind of leader Jesus would be and how his kingdom would come about, so do we need to hear that God shows us the way. No matter what the phases of reopening bring, no matter what we discover about this virus, nothing will change the way, the truth, and the life that we have come to know in Jesus.

Jesus describes the next days in front of him, the days of his suffering and death on the cross, in terms of preparing rooms. You know, we at Epiphany know a bit about preparing rooms. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last year here with our construction, and for the two years before that as we dreamed and prayed about how God is calling us to new ministries and relationship-building. I’m standing in one of those new rooms right now, in fact. There are lots of new rooms! And refurbished ones! This is our administrative suite, where the staff will work.


It takes a lot of work to prepare rooms, and it also takes time and certain skills. Members like Bill Hockman and Carole Alfriend and Linda Swartz have helped us figure out how to use space and furniture to make things welcoming and inviting. For most of the past week Stephanie Hamlett came in and volunteered her time to help pack up our church offices so that we would be ready to move into these new rooms this coming week. And our construction manager, Steve Collins, has spent incalculable hours on-site making things move along well. Everything looks so new and fresh, but behind these walls are hours of electrical work and HVAC duct work and security wiring and plumbing. And before that there were walls studs and a foundation. Within a month, all of the work will be done, we’ll hang a few pieces of art on the walls, and God will help us, at some point, welcome everyone back and new people into our community. And because we’ll have so much more space, both inside and out, and more rooms, we’ll be able to socially distance like we never before!

The dwelling places and rooms that Jesus talks about preparing for us are not physical spaces with walls and electrical outlets but a place within God’s love. He goes to create a spot for us within the relationship that Jesus shares with his Father. That’s what’s been so hard for the disciples to grasp but which they are coming to trust: God the Creator of all is present in a new and powerful way in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and knowing Jesus is the same as knowing God. And that’s not all. The Father and the Son have such a deep love for one another that eventually the whole world will find home within it. That’s preparing rooms.

At one funeral service of one of our members several years ago the son of the deceased gave a brief talk, and as he talked about his mother and what she was like he realized he had to talk about his father also, because the two of them loved each other so much. To know one was to know the other. He shared one of his fondest memories from growing up was when he and his siblings would come into the kitchen and happen upon their parents in an embrace in front of the sink or table. It was just a typical love of a married couple, perhaps he had just gotten home or work or they had just been talking and decided to share a hug and maybe a kiss. The kids, when they were young, thought it was gross or awkward so, being silly, they’d wedge themselves between their parents legs and try to push them apart. But instead of relinquishing, their parents would hug and kiss even more, and it became this playful, boisterous scene each time it happened, where mom and dad would try to get closer together with their embrace at the same time as all three children would squeeze within it, trying to spread them further and further. I love that image. I can imagine why that was a great memory for that son as he said goodbye to his mom.


Jesus says, you can’t talk about me without talking about my Father. You can’t know my Father without knowing me. You get one of us, and you get the other. We’re that close, Jesus says, and the love and devotion we have for one another isn’t going to be just for my Father and me. It’s going to have space inside for all of you. Rooms upon rooms in this love. Let’s get another kid in here. The love that Jesus shows for his Father in offering himself on the cross and the love that the Father has in raising him up is the embrace that envelopes all of humankind no matter how hard we try to deny it or push it away.

You and I have room there. Our loved ones who have already died have room there. People who come to worship here at Epiphany and people who worship at other churches have room there in the love of God. In fact, there is room there for people who haven’t come to trust Jesus or God yet. That’s how large and amazing this love is, and how tight the Father’s embrace of his Son is. Nothing can tear them apart. They receive all.

So when Jesus says no one comes to the Father except through him he means that this outpouring love is the key to understanding how God functions, how God is experienced. Sometimes these words come across as sounding exclusive to us, but Jesus is not making an evangelism statement here. He is not making a comment about what other people of other faith traditions believe or what their ultimate destiny might be. Jesus is speaking to a group of followers who are already persecuted for trusting Jesus and who are about to witness God act in a completely new way and he wants to reassure them of his mission.


We know that Jesus never shames people for not following him or believing him. Jesus never forces people to come to faith. Jesus never excludes anyone on account of who they are. His love is never forced on anyone or turned into an argument because it is built on self-giving. He is the way, and to take that way will involve offering one’s self for the sake of others. He is the truth, and he comes that we may know the heart of God is love. He is the life, and in the embrace of God we will always be alive, and now that death has even been embraced by Jesus on the cross, then we shall live forever in him.

It seems all our questions right now center on the way, the truth, and the life. We want to know the best way forward—how to open up, how to resume some sense of normalcy. We want to know the truth—the truth about coronavirus statistics, the truth about “what works” in terms of prevention. And we want to know what is life going to be like in the future. Those are great questions, and I don’t have any specific answers. But we do know that Christ has prepared a room for us, and that Jesus says we will do greater works than he did, and that if we ask for anything in his name, he will do it.

The best way forward, then, is to offer ourselves to our neighbors. The most reliable truth is given to us in Jesus’ words. And the life is found in trusting in God and sharing the gifts he’s given us. It is in squeezing more people into the wide rooms Jesus has prepared that are so numerous they could never be counted.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Good Gate

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

John 10:1-10 and Acts 2:42-47

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says to his disciples, “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”

 I am standing here by the new gate at our house, finished by some excellent handymen just last week. When we bought this house eleven years ago, a fence already enclosed the entire yard except for this section here and another one like it on the other side of the house. With a four-year-old who likes to go on many adventures, we decided it was time to keep him safe (and us sane) by finishing off the fence and making a gate that we could shut securely. Last Friday, when the last nail was driven in and the gate was ready to be tested, our son managed to find a way to climb up the back of the gate door, open it, and get out…while the construction workers were still here!! Needless to say, it was one of those moments where we all felt completely helpless. The workers eventually found a way to make sure the gate stayed fastened shut, but for a while there we were absolutely astounded at his abilities, and, considering Jesus’ words, a little concerned about our son’s future career path.

gate 2

What I’ve learned over the past week is just how tricky a gate actually is. I can’t tell you how many gates I’ve actually passed through in this life, but I can bet you I’ve taken every single one of them for granted, along with the work it has taken to build a good gate. I’ve learned a gate has to do two things and do both of them well. A gate has to let people or animals in and out. And a gate has to keep people or animals inside and safe. Really a gate just has to do those two things, and do to them there will need to be things like hinges and latches and level ground involved. It sounds basic, but these two things are actually difficult to get right, and a good, solid working gate is something to treasure. And being a good gate is hard work. It gets a lot of use. And a lot who pass through it probably take it for granted.

I believe these are precisely the things Jesus is talking about when he compares himself to a gate. He sees himself as that important combination—a person who can open up and lead people to abundant life and someone who can keep people safe and secure.

The kind of gate Jesus has in mind would have been readily accessible to the imaginations of his followers. He is talking about a gate of a sheepfold. In the morning, when the shepherd comes to take the sheep out to pasture, the gate of the fold needs to open easily. The sheep go out and find grass to eat and water to drink and exercise for their legs. Jesus calls this abundant life. When they’re in the fold, the sheep are still alive, of course, and could stay there for a while, but to live the way they were intended, to really flourish, they need to be out in the open, out where food is plentiful. That is abundant life, life in its fullest sense.

Of course, right now a lot of us are probably thinking: if I could just leave my house I would live life in its fullest sense! In a way, we’re waiting for the gatekeepers of public life to say, “Open up! Go be out in public again,” even though we know resuming some sense of normal pasture life will likely take a long time and different complicated phases and stages. Families and individuals look to these people in authority to offer guidance on sheltering at home and aspects of social distancing just as business owners wait for governments to give a pathway for greener pastures.


But that’s not mainly Jesus is really talking about here. Jesus isn’t talking about the life afforded to us when we get to gather in large groups or go out to graze in restaurants. Life in its fullest sense is that life we experience in God’s kingdom, in each and every moment when God’s glory in Christ is revealed. There is something about Jesus’ relationship with us, whenever and wherever we are, that lets our hearts roam free to love, that lets our minds explore ideas, that lets our relationships with others develop and grow through forgiveness and reconciliation.

The grace of Jesus is a gate—it opens us up to faith when we encounter doubt and despair. The compassion of Jesus is a gate—it hinges on self-giving and empathy. The risen life of Jesus is a gate—it breaks open the great reality that there is more beyond this life. This is abundant life, and any good shepherd wants this for his sheep.

Last week in our Coffee and Doughnut Time one of our homebound members who is on complete shutdown in her living facility on the Southside logged on through Zoom and shared with us that one of our college students had sent her a letter and how much that had meant to her. And this woman also shared how nice it was to be able to worship with us on-line from the confines of her apartment. That was a taste of the abundant life—Jesus, the open gate, allowing the compassion and service of a college student to find her and make her feel part of our flock.



And likewise, the gate sometimes must be shut. The gate keeps the sheep—the vulnerable, easily scattered sheep—safe from forces that would bring them harm. I think of ways that people’s faith have been helping them in this time when we all feel so vulnerable. Many of you have shared stories about how prayer and regular devotional time or meeting on Zoom with a Women’s Circle or a small group have helped give a sense of safety and solidarity with one another. Some families with young children have shared how they sit down at the dinner table each evening or the breakfast table each morning and watch video devotions together, and I bet for just a few minutes the crazy, dangerous world feels shut away. Or perhaps the crazy, dangerous world feels a little more understandable. That is Jesus, the gate, the one who with his words gives us life who keeps us sheltered and safe from those who would climb in and try to take us—things like anxiety and fear and loneliness.

A large part of being safe is being together, especially if you are a sheep. Safety is found in numbers, in being with the flock. We hear in Acts how at its infancy the church thrived on gathering as a body. Each of the four main things to which they devoted themselves were all community-based activities: fellowship, breaking bread, sharing prayer requests, and listening to the apostles’ teachings. Those still form the core of the church’s life today, and it is hard to do them in social isolation.

Safety—physical safety—isn’t in numbers now. For a while safety is in isolation, and so there is this tension in our faith. I can give thanks for the ways our digital communications are bringing us together but I am also in mourning because there are uniquely ways God shepherds us when we’re physically together that we’re not experiencing now.


Regardless of our separation and the loneliness of little individualized pastures we’re grazing on now, the one who stands by the gate does call us by name. We are each known to the shepherd and as we go out and come in, as we venture into new and renewed relationships and as we find shelter from forces that would harm us, we are greeted and called by the God who knows our stories, knows our identities, knows who and whose we are.

This week I got to speak on the phone with George Allan, a member of our congregation who is still hospitalized with COVID-19, but who is improving. He was telling me about the night he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He had fallen in the night and wasn’t able to get back on his feet. Alone and weak, he inched himself near to his Alexa device and said, “Alexa, call 9-1-1.” Alexa said, “George, I cannot call 9-1-1.” Apparently Alexa devices are prevented from making emergency calls. (I was not aware of that, but it’s good to know). So George said, “Alexa, call Steve.” Steve is George’s son, who lives in Oregon. Alexa said, “George, do you want me to call Steve’s home number or cell phone number?” George told him to call Steve’s cell phone number, Steve answered, and was able all the way from Oregon to get George the help he needed. Because Alexa knew the sound of George’s voice, and because Alexa was so near that George could call out and be heard, George was able to be helped. In fact, his life was probably saved.


I’m glad to say George is able to laugh at it now, but that is like the relationship we have with our God, who stands by the gate and loves each of his sheep. And saves them. One by one he calls them, and they come to know his voice because they are near him and trust him. You see, at some point faith is more than knowing about God and is more about stepping into a relationship with God. It is about sharing the experiences of faith with other sheep of the sheepfold and figuring out ways the same God has been active in all our lives. This is how we learn the voice of the shepherd who saves us.

May you know his voice as you walk with him and talk with him under quarantine. May you rest in the confidence that on the cross, Jesus truly opens the gate to every bit of abundant life you need even in the valley of the shadow of death. The thieves and bandits have already killed and destroyed him. And all of us have taken him for granted, to some degree or another. But he has come back for us, risen and alive, to claim us and call us by name.

May you be safe—safe in the security of Jesus’ eternal words and within a love that will never let you go.


Thanks be to God!

gate goofy

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.