a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent [Year B]

Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37

Right after graduation from high school I took a trip to visit a friend who lived just outside of Paris. We basically just hung around the city a lot but one day he wanted to show me this expansive forest just outside of town where there was good hiking and nature. After several days in the bright lights of a big city, it sounded like a nice change of pace. He packed his camera and I packed snacks and we set out on the commuter train, which we had gotten fairly comfortable at riding.

At one of the stops on the way there, three nefarious-looking characters boarded our car and started to stare at us. Just before the doors opened at the next stop, they jumped us. Right there in front of everyone, trapped with nowhere to run, we got mugged, and all of the other passengers just watched. They beat us up a little bit, took my watch off my arm as well as my brand new Yankees hat I had just gotten as a graduation gift and had just gotten broken in. The more we tried to resist, the rougher they seemed to get. They felt our pockets for money and took all of that and they were getting ready to make off with my friend’s camera when the doors to the train opened and they bolted off into the alleys of the city. My friend and I stood there, stunned and shocked. We went from feeling safe and happy, with a full day of fun ahead of us, to being frightened and disheveled and directionless, all in an instant. We had no idea what we were supposed to do, how to take hold of our situation, where we could seek help. We didn’t speak the language, we held no currency. We were foreign men, surrounded by the sounds of people we thought didn’t care.

Never before and never since have I so wanted the sky to open up and be delivered. Never before and never since have I so wanted justice and yet also felt so helpless to do anything about it. I didn’t want to go to the forest anymore. I just wanted to get back home, but neither my friend nor I were able to think straight enough to do that. We needed to wait and hope that someone would recognize the mess we were in and help us.

That, in a nutshell, is how Advent begins. We may think Advent begins with buying a Christmas tree or hitting black Friday sales, or even lighting a candle, but really it begins with a hope that the sky would open and someone would come down and straighten things out. Advent begins not so much with a crime, of course, but with a reality check that we are helpless foreigners here in this life, stuck on a train of misadventure, vulnerable to all kinds of harmful situations and horrible impulses that are larger than we are.

It is not just Advent that is set up this way. Each year, in fact—no, each day of a Christ-follower’s life should probably begin the same way: with an honest assessment of how out of control things are. Each day should probably begin with a sincere confession of just how vulnerable we are because then we would also be aware of just how much God protects us, how thoroughly God loves us, how ready God is to deliver us.

God’s people ancient Israel knew this feeling all too well, and their words are ours today, the first lines of Scripture we hear as a new year begins. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” We find them standing in their own land having returned from many years of exile far away and yet feeling like aliens. None of the dreams of peace and order they had envisioned had materialized. None of the prosperity that had hoped for had come to fruition. There was chaos in their culture and corruption in their leaders. Famine was taking hold. They felt mugged by the rough world and by their own inadequacies. They are at this point aware that there is nothing they can do to change any of it. They cry out to God, from whom they are feeling so distant,“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” And then we have these great lines about God arriving and even making the mountains tremble, the very God who sculpted those mountains. God’s people wait that God to come and remake them like a potter who works clay. Fascinating images of a God who loves the earth but who can smash it and then get his hands dirty and refashion it to his own desires.

My bet is that many of us feel this same way about 2020. By almost all accounts it has been a crazy, out of control year and we want a re-do. Pandemic, economic ruin, societal upheaval, political uncertainty, the Washington Football Team doesn’t even have a real name. In fact, I saw a meme shared on social media this week that featured a photo of a well put together Tina Fey, grinning from ear to ear and holding her knees with confidence as she sits on a desk next to a some photos from from a movie where she is yelling and stress-eating and having a nervous breakdown. Her face is contorted in a grimace and her mascara is running. The contrast between the two is stark, but humorous. Beneath the photo where she is is clean and confident it says,  “Pastors in January 2020” and, as you might guess, the words underneath the worn-out and falling apart Tina Fey say, “Pastors in November 2020.”

It’s certainly not just pastors. It’s teachers and principals and nurses and physicians and moms and dads and school children and small business owners and restaurant workers and government officials and law enforcement officers and the elderly and the immuno-compromised and those who’ve lost loved ones since March and those who believe coronavirus is a threat and those who believe it’s an overblown hoax. It’s just about everybody this year. (Except meme makers. It’s been a banner year for meme-makers). But for everyone else, 2020 began with such hope and now every day seems to drag on and we hear of another thing that we can’t control, another piece of bad news. With all kinds of cracks in our social fabric, the human family is in a situation that is far beyond any human’s ability to straighten out, and we can’t even pull ourselves together, even once the trials of 2020 are over. “O that God would tear open the heavens and come down!”

But when it comes to waiting for God to act we do not wait with fear. When it comes to the mountains quaking, Jesus’ followers have nothing to worry about. As tough as things are both inside of us and outside in the world, we do not wait as if no help will come. We are people who have been claimed by one who has waited for us on a cross, who has already waited through the intense abandonment of crucifixion without any rescue. We know our God is triumphant. Good Friday has over and done with. We are confident our God can tear open the sky and come down because God has already rolled the stone away from a tomb. And in all things we anticipate the return of this risen Lord to who will fully restore the world to the vision of love and justice and prosperity God has for all of creation.

It occurs to me we all happen to be waiting for a vaccine right now. What an Advent symbol! That seems to be the magic cure, if you will, that thing will restore things to the way we’re used to living. In the past few weeks I, like most of you, have been encouraged by the announcements that progress is being made on this front. Testing is almost finished and next will come distribution. Maybe we should have a vaccine wreath. It is at the gates, you might say, ready to be let in.

Guess what?  So is our Lord. He, too, is ready to burst onto the scene with his cleansing and healing power, with his wide embrace to love and restore. Maybe we can learn how to wait for him from the way we are waiting for a COVID vaccine. We persevere, we continue our daily rituals of mask wearing and good hygiene, we encourage one another knowing that eventually, and probably sooner than we realize, it will all be over.

This Lord Jesus himself reassures his followers precisely of this just before his death. It will all be over before you know it. Be ready, and be at work. And even though there will be times of great suffering in the world, even though turmoil will be so great it may feel as if stars are falling from heaven, his words will not pass away. We will always be able to depend on Jesus’ words, no matter how much stay at home orders change and numbers fluctuate. We trust that in the meantime God is still forming us, like a potter, to be ready. God is shaping us to be ready to live in the new normal, the new, perfect, everlasting normal that God has planned.

I’m glad to say that someone did step up to help us that day on the trail terminal. Two girls, of all people, saw our situation and offered to take us to the police. They couldn’t have been older than 18, probably about our same age. We never would have imagined that out of all the people on that train car—the various businessmen returning from work, for example, the older folks who would have been our parents’ age, the women with the large, heavy handbags that clearly could have been used as weapons—that the people who would come to our rescue would have been these two young women. They told us not to be afraid, walked us to the police station and then got in the car with them to go on an elaborate hunt to find the perpetrators, which they never did. Then they gave us money for the train ride back home. My friend and I felt somewhat redeemed, and thankful we did not ignore or turn down their offer to help. Later that week my friend’s dad gave us some money to take them out to dinner to say thanks.

So comes the Christ, unexpectedly, tearing open the heavens (if he has to) and coming down, and most when we need him. Be ready. Watch. And wait.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Abstract of a young woman standing on the edge of a train platform waiting for a train

For God and Neighbor

a sermon for Thanksgiving Day

Deuteronomy 8:7-18

“Come, ye thankful people, come
Raise the song of harvest home.
All be safely gathered in
Ere the winter storm begin.
God, our maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied
Come to God’s own temple come,
Raise the song of harvest home.”

So begins one of the most well-known and beloved hymns sung at Thanksgiving and the end of the year as harvests are collected and families celebrate. Yet this year I’ve been told there is much less coming together, far fewer parties and celebrations of “gathering in.” We have been encouraged (and in some cases ordered) by authorities to refrain from traveling and limit the size of our parties. Many of us may be trying to have a Zoom Thanksgiving, which is probably something I’ll try with my own family later today. The COVID pandemic may as well force us to re-phrase the hymn something like this.

Stay, you thankful people, stay.
That is the best thing today.
Raise your songs and eat your food
With solitary attitude.
Bake and baste with cautious flair
For the germs are in the air.
Wear your masks but ever pray!
Celebrate this way today.

In all seriousness, this may be a very difficult Thanksgiving for some folks. Those who count on big holidays as one of the few times a year they may receive family in their nursing home are likely sequestered away, denied the life-giving visits from people they love.

Some people may be celebrating their first Thanksgiving alone. And yet others may be relishing the chance to do something different, to scale things down a bit, to cook a smaller turkey breast rather than an entire bird.

Whatever the case, our prayers are with those for whom this day seems very strange and they are with those for whom nothing has really changed. No matter how you are gathering and eating today, may none of it get in the way of giving thanks to God nonetheless, for despite the hardships this year has brought, God still crowns the year with goodness. Giving thanks is perhaps our first language of faith. When we look around and see that we have been brought through to another day, when we take even the briefest stock of what is around us that helps us live, we notice that it comes from somewhere besides ourselves. It is not our own doing. It is the gracious gifts of God that sustain us.

That is God’s word to his people ancient Israel as they come into the Promised Land to possess it. In the words from Deuteronomy this morning God gives a different kind of stay-at-home order. God intends for them to enjoy the land they are receiving, for it is a rich land, and filled with many blessings. Pomegranates, olive trees and honey. It’s almost as good as Wegman’s, but not quite. But then comes his order: don’t fail to remember me, God says, and to keep my ordinances. That is, as they are to enjoy their land with its many blessings, they are to always keep in the back of their mind just how bad they had it God brought them out of slavery and through a wilderness with scorpions and snakes. God fed them in the arid wasteland with manna and sustained them with water from a rock.

Don’t forget this, God says, especially when times are good and there is no pandemic and you don’t have to limit the size of your dinner parties. When you’re sitting in your house and life is good, remember God’s commandments because it will be easy to forget. Life in God’s kingdom involves a devotion to God and neighbor, an intertwining of service and love that weaves the whole community together. This the ordinances make clear.

This reminds me of a poem my former bishop in Southwestern Pennsylvania once shared by the Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Runeberg, who lived in the 19th century, is the national poet of Finland, in fact, and this poem is one of his most beloved. It describes the challenging conditions of people living in rural Finland. There was the need of mixing bark with flour to have bread, a staple of life. Today I’d like to share this poem with you, and to help make its message clearer—at least I hope—I’ve done some very rudimentary drawings. Here is “Farmer Paavo,” by Johan Ludvig Runeberg:

High ´mid Saarijärvi´moors resided
Peasant Paavo on a frost-bound homestead,
And the soil with earnest arm was tilling;
But awaited from the Lord the in crease.
And he dwelt there with his wife and children,
By his sweat his scant bread with them eating,
Digging ditches, ploughing up, and sowing.

Spring came on, the drift from cornfields melted,
And with it away flowed half the young blades;
Summer came, burst forth with hail the shower,
And with the ears were half down beaten;
Autumn came, and frost took the remainder.
Paavo´s wife then tore her hair, and spake thus:
“Paavo, old man, born to evil fortune,
Let us beg, for God hath us forsaken;
Hard is begging, but far worse is starving.”

Paavo took the good-wife´s hand and spake thus:
“Nay, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh,
Mix thou in the bread a half of bark now,
I shall dig out twice as many ditches,
And await then from the Lord the increase.

Half bark in the bread the good-wife mixed then,
Twice as many ditches dug the old man,
Sold the sheep, and bought some rye, and sowed it.
Spring came on, the drift from cornfields melted,
And with it away flowed half the young blades;
Summer came, burst forth with hail the shower,
And with the ears were half down beaten;
Autumn came, and frost took the remainder.
Paavo´s wife then smote her breast, and spake thus:
“Paavo, old man, born to evil fortune,
Let us perish, God has us forsaken,
Hard is dying, but much worse is living.”

Paavo took the good-wife´s hand and spake thus:
“Nay, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh,
Mix thou in the bread of bark the double,
I will dig of double size the ditches,
But await then from the Lord the increase.”

She mixed in the bread of bark the double,
He dug then of double size the ditches,
Sold the cows, and bought some rye and sowed it.
Spring came on, the drift from cornfields melted,
But with it away there flowed no young blades.
Summer came, burst forth with hail the shower,
But with te ears were not down beaten,
Autumn came, and frost, the cornfields shunning,
Let them stand in gold to bide the reaper.

Then fell Paavo on his knees and spake thus:
“Aye, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh.”
And his mate fell on her knees, and spake thus:
“Aye, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh.”
But with gladness spoke she to the old man:
“Paavo, joyful to the scythe betake thee!
Now ´tis time for happy days and merry.
Now ´tis time to cast the bark away, and
Bake our bread henceforth of the rye entirely.”

Paavo took the good-wife´s hand and spake thus:
“Woman, he endureth trials only,
Who a needy neighbour ne´er forsaketh;
Mix thou in the bread a half of bark still,
For all frost-nipped stands our neighbour´s cornfield.”

So, from the Promised Land thousands of years ago to the moors of Finland a hundred years ago to the United States in the year 2020, God’s commandments remain the same: In good times and bad we look to God’s presence as well as the needs of neighbors. We are a community, tied together in God’s love. Thankful hearts are aware of both God and others.

No matter how we celebrate this year, or every year, whether we are coming together or staying apart, the gift of Jesus Christ is always the same. He is the bountiful land, the great harvest, the plentiful blessing that God has given to you and to me. And because he has crossed the biggest barrier we could ever know on the cross, we can be confident that he overcomes any separation we feel today.

Like the one leper who has been restored to his community after being healed by Jesus, we return our thanks to God for the ways COVID is being conquered through scientific progress and through the daily sacrifices of millions of people. It is through patience and perseverance, given by God, that our communities will be restored. And it through the courage of many that God’s name is praised as they work in hospitals, on the police beat, in grocery stores, food pantries, on farms, and in other places that build up our society.

Perhaps we’re all mixing a little bark into our bread this year, with the promise that God will not forsake us. So, whether Thanksgiving 2020 it is Come, you thankful people come, for you or stay, you thankful people, stay, may the God who overcomes all hardship and stills the roaring of the seas and the clamor of the peoples bless you and your loved ones today.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Talking Politics?

a sermon for Christ the King [Year A]

Ephesians 1:15-23 and Matthew 25:31-46

Politics, politics, politics. We’ve probably all had our fill of politics lately. We’re tired of hearing about it on the news, tired of hearing it mentioned from the pulpit, and we’re probably afraid how it might get tired over Thanksgiving with relatives whose views differ from each other. After such a contentious election season, and with results still in a strange limbo, we’re so tired of it all, and—good grief!—here we end our Christian church year with what is clearly a political statement: Christ is King.

Christ is King: just saying that carries with it some political images and connotations. It sounds different and bears different weight from saying, for example, Christ is teacher or Christ is healer. Christ is teacher sounds comforting. Christ the healer is intimate. Christ the King expects me to obey and function a certain way in society. Even if we remove the masculine language from it, and say something like “Reign of Christ,” we still end up with something explicitly political.        

And it’s not just the Christian church year that ends on this note. In fact, calling this particular Sunday—the last Sunday before a new Advent begins— “Christ the King” is a tradition that only began in the early twentieth century, which isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of church history. So you could still take this celebration away and still notice that the witness of Scripture ends with these images and phrases surrounding Jesus. He is seated on a throne or holding a scepter and wearing a crown. The writer of Ephesians, for example, says that God has seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places where he is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, and that God has put all things under Christ’s feet. That is very political language, both in ancient cultures and in ours today. Jesus is at God’s right hand, which is not really talking about a particular chair or passenger’s seat in heaven but a type of authority Jesus has now, an authority to judge and rule and make laws.

I’m here at the Virginia Capitol, which is like the right hand of our commonwealth. The elected government officials who work here will enact legislation that will impact the people of Virginia. They do good and important work. And even though the Virginia General Assembly is the oldest continuous law-making body in the western hemisphere, it is still somehow under Jesus’ feet. We give God thanks for good government and healthy democracy, but at the same time the baptized acknowledge that Jesus, crucified and now risen, has authority far above this one and others like it. That is, what Jesus says about us and about the world ultimately bears more weight than any of the authority on earth, even though his power might not always be clear and understandable.

Even Jesus himself brings up politics towards the end of his earthly ministry. In his final parable before he begins his final clash with the Roman and Jewish authorities Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming in glory to judge the nations. He perceives the power of his love not as something that rules just in the confines of our own hearts, not just something that cleanses individuals and makes them whole, which is all we’re often prone to see it as, but something that engages us with the world. His mighty love impacts our relationships with those in our lives, our relationships with everyone around us and the community that God forms among us. It is political—not Republican or Democrat political, and definitely not FoxNews or MSNBC political—but he is a King now and therefore his love is political in that has to do with the ways God wants his people to live together. God sees us as one, as a flock.

And this is what comes as a huge surprise to all the people gathered there before this shepherd King on his throne, Jesus says. His authority, his presence, has been among them, drawing them toward one another and they haven’t even noticed it.

For the past several years our third graders have made bookmarks to accompany the Bibles we present to them in the fall. This year, because we could not meet together and assemble those crafts in person the church office staff offered to make those bookmarks for them. Initially we were just going to forego the bookmarks altogether, but we quickly heard that the third graders had high hopes of getting them, so Hanne and Beth figured out a way to do it. On one side of this special bookmark is a photo of them in third grade, and on the other side is a photo of them at their baptism. We attach them to the bookmark and then laminate it so it’s a bit more sturdy. It becomes a way for these kids to see their own growth and how the church of Christ will come along side of them as they grow and discover the word of God.

Who does she look like all grown up?

Most of these kids are baptized as infants, so this year we got several emails with their baby pictures as attachments, and we had the hardest time figuring out who each photo was. Even by third grade, which is about 8 or 9 years old, people start to look different from when they were just a baby. Hanne, our administrative assistant, said at one point, “If the baby photos hadn’t come to us through their parents’ email addresses, we wouldn’t have known who these kids are!”

Christ is king, and his face is right here among us as we seek to live as God’s flock. Can we recognize it? Can we match the king in our midst with the King we envision on the throne? The only way that may happen is because Jesus has already come to us on the cross. His righteousness has already been placed right in front of us. It has come to us like a star shining over a Bethlehem stable in a dark, dark time, drawing foreigners with their gifts. His holy righteousness has already been given to us, like a full day’s wages in the vineyard when we only worked for one hour. His purity has been poured out for us like wine and bread set before disciples who will betray and deny him. His love has been hung out for all to see, that all may see him breathe his last, as he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is our king, and throughout his time with us, throughout his ministry with his disciples and among the people of Israel, Jesus identifies himself with the weak, the outcast, the excluded, the unclean. This is how we will know and recognize our King’s face and learn to live as the body he has redeemed us to be. That’s the email it came attached to, so to speak. God the Son in the form of tenderness and meekness.

The writer to the church at Ephesus prays that God would give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him. When we encounter the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, the ones who are persecuted, the ones who teach us to forgive, we are not just coming to know Jesus’ face. We are encountering our authority. These are the people who actually reign over the universe. So we listen to them. We heed their commands and pay attention to their needs, because—surprise!—they are righteous and have come to us and made us holy even though we didn’t deserve it. Even though we didn’t know it was him.

Christian writer Sarah Bessey puts it this way: “If you can’t find God while you’re changing diapers or serving food or hanging out with your friends, you won’t find God at the worship service or the spiritual retreat or the regimented daily quiet time or the mission field. I believe God hides in plain sight in your right-now life.”

She goes on to say it takes guts because these encounters are most often uncomfortable, and I’m pretty sure I know what she means. I’ve been with the youth group on service project trips to some places in our country that are pockets of poverty and neglect. When I was there I realized it becomes all too easy to think of the people who live in those locations as merely recipients of our charity, like they’re subjects of the kingdom and I’m the generous lord or baron, higher than them, more affluent and wise than them.

authority figure

But thankfully I come across some people have learned to recognize the hungry and the stranger as holy authorities, that they are actually the righteous face of the King in our midst.  These kinds of servants are around here, to be honest. This week some members of our Community Service Team were busy assembling the donations for the Thanksgiving baskets that people have put together. Now, it is uncomfortable to think about people being hungry or lonely at the holidays, especially one that centers around food and family. But Brenda Barnes and her team were here almost every day, sorting things out and lining things up for distribution. She got positively revved up when she discovered that the nursery school had assembled a whole bunch of food donations. It meant a little more work for her, but she wasn’t bothered one bit. You could tell she was excited to serve. I’ve watched the volunteers for HHOPE and LAMB’s Basket too, curious and interested how they might be able to have more encounters with their clients during a pandemic, since need is probably greater. I’ve seen Eileen and Russ eager to take supplies to the ACTS house and Stew and Marilyn, Katie and Johanna, and many others request more opportunities for Habitat Builds.

Elderly woman on wheelchair with a nurse

None of these folks seem uncomfortable in their service. They are exuberant and blessed. They definitely don’t make it look like politics as usual. Because it’s not politics as usual. It’s politics of the kingdom of love. They and so many others here and in congregations and ministries around the world keep getting surprised over and over again by the presence of the King—surprised that, at least for the time being, the one who is seated at the heavenly places, whose authoritative love and grace is over all, not only in this age but in the age to come shows up right here among us and says, “When you do these things for the least of these, who are members of my family, you are doing it to me.” That one shows up right here among us to show us how to live…together…as one holy and righteous flock.

He says, “Come, enter the kingdom I have prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


a sermon for All Saints Day [Year A]

Revelation 7:9-17

Multitudes. It seems like every time we turn on the news these days we’re hearing about the multitudes, multitudes of people. Multitudes have had to evacuate from their homes in the American West as record-breaking forest fires sweep through various states. Multitudes of engaged and perhaps even anxious voters have already submitted their ballots in the next election—over 61 million—and it looks like turnout will be higher than ever since far more than that will actually stand in line on Tuesday. There will be all kinds of people in those lines— young and old, red staters and blue staters, Democrat and Republican and independent.

long lines at 2020 voting booths

And then there are multitudes we shudder to think about but which are reported daily whether we like it or not. At last count over 45 million across the world, and just over 9 million in the United States. They are the multitudes who’ve received a positive coronavirus test result. And then the grim multitude no one wants to be a part of: well over one million deaths from the disease worldwide, over 230,000 of those in our country. This multitude, too, includes all kinds—members of this congregation, even, families and friends of people we know, teachers, nurses, garbage collectors, construction workers, students. Dave Ottaway’s brother, and Allan Neergaard’s too. My own grandmother. We put on our masks and wash our hands and hunker down because many experts are saying this multitude’s number is about to grow even faster. And, despite the political disagreements surrounding it, the reality is those numbers keep looming throughout our newsfeeds and none of us want to be counted in it.

And then on this day in worship we hear about a different multitude. There are so many of them they cannot be counted—cannot be graphed, registered, or divided into different colored states. They are of every nation and every tribe and language. And they are together and united, dressed alike in white and singing together with one voice. This vision from Revelation gives us such a striking image of unity and glory that we have a hard time imagining it in our present circumstances. Just so hard to imagine.

One reason we have a hard time imagining it is because they’re singing, and that’s one thing we just can’t do right now since it’s a high-risk activity for spreading the coronavirus. Much of Christian worship, in fact, is based on the hymns and songs we find in the book of John’s Revelation, songs like we hear this morning. Worship of God is not grounded in the work of solo singers, but in groups of people, multitudes, raising their voices together because God has redeemed them together out of every tribe and nation. In praise and thanksgiving they sing to the Lamb on the throne, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and power and might be to our God forever and ever!” And yet today we sit in the confines of our homes or silenced in the pews, unable to join in the choir. Don’t you wish we could just hear our voices together? Again, we’ll have to imagine it.

Another reason we can’t envision this multitude is because it’s so different from the world we live in now, a world that is filled with all kinds of divisions, conflict and…ordeals. We inhabit a world that is broken by human sinfulness and suffering of all kinds and yet this multitude in John’s vision is beyond all of it. They’ve been rescued out of it, and they stand redeemed in glory.

I heard a story once that Jimmy Valvano, the late, great basketball coach of the NC State Wolfpack who led the team to the 1983 National Championship started his first practice each season by having his team cut down the nets, an action only reserved for the coming national champion. Before they underwent hours of grueling drills, before they practiced their first free-throw shot, before they had played their first game, Valvano had them imagine and feel themselves as victors, claiming the glory.

That is kind of what John asks his readers to do with these strange and perplexing visions in his Revelation He tells his readers, “Imagine God’s glory and triumph at the end of all time. It will come to us. After the ordeal it will be real.”

We often don’t know what to make of John’s Revelation, but it is basically a book about power. It is a book about who has ultimate power and how that power shown. It is about how the powers of sin and death and chaos in the world often create ordeals we have to ensure—ordeals like disease and oppression and riots and prejudice and dying. Through all of it, John’s Revelation is clear about one thing: the power of God in Jesus Christ will have the final say. The Lamb is seated on the throne. The power of God in Christ triumphs over all the evil and over every ordeal we encounter.

As these multitudes wash their robes in the blood of Christ we hear God’s power is used to cleanse us. We learn the Good Shepherd uses his power to guide us to the water of life. We discover, to our surprise, God wields his power save people of all tribes and nations, not just people who are like us. It is helpful for us to remember how powerful God’s mercy is. It is good for us to speak about and sing about how powerfully good and gracious Jesus is, because we are in need of hope. The multitudes of sad and grief-stricken hearts that we know now will become the multitudes who sing God’s praises eternally around his throne.

Today we remember several of our own who have been through their ordeals and have gone to rest in God’s power. We give thanks for their witness and now place them in that choir that is cutting down the nets and singing the full triumph of Jesus’ sacrifice. We don’t know all of the struggles that these faithful departed endured, but we know they are now over. The heart failures, the cancer, strokes, the lives of hardship—they’ve come through them now and are in God’s care. Four of these people which we name today died during the time of COVID, which means the congregation has not been able to gather as one and lay them to rest and give thanks for their life in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. I’d like to take a moment now to do that.

Joe Meindl was a gift from God, as his wife of almost 60 years, Peggy, calls him. Together they attended the later service almost every Sunday from the time they joined Epiphany in 1965. Originally from Chicago, Joe spent his career as a ceramics engineer. He was a kind man, easy to talk to, and always quick with a smile. He listened to everything you said. Joe was a patient and loving father to daughters Elizabeth and Christine, and he served in a number of capacities within the congregation, including as a teller, usher, and member of the finance team. Joe liked everything in church to look really shiny, and he was famous for fastidiously polishing all the brass candlesticks and offering plates after worship each week. I guess that was the ceramics engineer coming out in him. Metals should not just be cherished but relished. Joe himself now shines with the full brightness of Jesus’ light.

Wanda Umlauf was a southern lady of eminent charm, grace, and kindness. Possessed of a beautiful voice, Wanda spent many years singing in our choir. Her influence was felt throughout the congregation for many years as a member of the Margaret Miller Women’s Circle and as Sunday school Teacher. Together with her late husband, John, she provided the leadership and vision and energy for much of our congregation’s earlier expansions. Strong faith had Wanda, and a giving heart. Everyone baptized here is baptized in the font that she and John gave, and the columbarium was blessed by their generosity too. Their daughters Pat and Ginny grew up here in the warmth of their love, and Wanda was proud to know that Ginny had almost completed seminary before she died.

Lunette Edwards was an artist, a gentle but very perceptive soul who drew and painted the most beautiful pictures and portraits. Her husband, Bob, is a retired professional illustrator. He often worked in pen and ink; Lunette was all color, in both style and substance. Born to share her faith and talent, she taught art to many people in the greater Richmond area. She served on Council here, and was even Secretary for a term, and she also taught Sunday School and VBS. Their sons, Russ and Drew, thrived in her love, and Russ and his family are members of Epiphany. Everyone I’ve talked to who knew Lunette remarks on how she never had a bad word for anyone. We give thanks to the eternal Creator who receives Lunette the artist into his kingdom.

Today, we may number Lunette, Betty, Wanda, and Joe in the multitude. Today, we may give thanks for how God’s power embraces them—a power that gives preference to those who hunger and those who thirst, a power that blesses those who are vulnerable and those who are outcast:the meek, the peacemaker, the poor in spirit. And anyone who has passed through the waters of baptism can rest assured that Jesus, the victor, has already vanquished death, the foe. He has cut the nets down already and the game is won. One day we will know that vision and claim our own place in the host that is robed in white.

The other day I was speaking with Betty’s widower, George, and he shared that every Sunday morning he sits down all alone in his apartment and watches our online service just like he did with Betty for years and years. He tries to sing along with the hymns, he told me, but it’s a little lonely just being one voice. A few weeks ago his daughter purchased him a recorder, the kind you learn to play in 4th grade, in order to provide a type of therapy for the neuropathy he is experiencing in his fingers. So now he plays along with our on-line worship because we print the actual music notes on the screen. “I haven’t read music in thirty years,” he told me, “but I’m getting better every week. And then he added with a chuckle, “It would go a lot better, if I had a whole group singing around me.”

You do, George. You do. Just imagine them. Multitudes.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.