Set Free

a sermon for Reformation Sunday

John 8:31-36

If we had wandered into church 505 years ago today, on October 30, 1517, suffice it to say our experience would have been wildly different from our experience today, on a number of levels. And that would not be just because a half-millennium has gone by and humankind has made numerous technological and scientific developments since then (Hi there, Livestream crew!!) Some very basic things would seem foreign and bewildering.

For one, we would have heard nothing during worship in our own language. Everything that the priests would have said and read would have been in Latin, and by 1517 nobody was speaking Latin outside of some academic and church-related settings. We would have probably known on a general level what the priest was saying because someone at some point had explained it to us, and some of the repetitive parts we might be able to mouth along with, but overall it would still have been unintelligible to us, whether we were worshiping in Germany or France or Norway or England. In fact, there is a large probability that the priest himself would not have understood what he was saying. He was just repeating back verbatim what he had memorized in seminary.

The town church in Wittenberg, the congregation of which Luther and his family were members.

Secondly, we would not have received the wine at Holy Communion. We would have most likely just watched the priest up at the altar—and maybe even with his backs turned to us—drink from the chalice by himself. There were a variety of confusing theological reasons they did it this way, but essentially the priests would drink the wine on behalf of the people they served. Let me tell you, I’ve tried to use this approach with some of my kids’ Halloween candy and it doesn’t go over well. (“I am eating this Reeses Peanut Butter Cup for your own good.”). This practice was also already receiving a good deal of pushback by 1517 and about a hundred years before Czech man named Jan Hus had campaigned for letting everyone receive both elements, but he had been burned at the stake for it.

Another big difference we would have noticed between then and now is that there would have been nothing for us to sing. There was music, but it was something we, as worshipers in the pews, passively consumed rather something that we participated in ourselves. Music in the medieval church was mostly chanting, all Scripture-based, although there were some choral pieces that a designated choir would often sing on some occasions. But again, everything would have been sung in Latin and it was not really written in a style that would invite people to join. The music sounded nothing at all like the music people would have heard elsewhere in society, around their tables in their homes or in the public places where they gathered.

There would have been countless other differences, of course, between worship in at the start of the Reformation and worship in 2022, but those three things would have really caught our attention. They also would never have called up third graders and placed a Bible in their hands in front of everyone with the expectation they would read it. They wouldn’t have had people read the daily Scriptures from the lectern or hold a baptism during the worship service. They would have had beer and bratwurst after the worship service, for sure. We won’t be having beer today, but we will have lots of other German goodies. So I’m glad all the really important things stay the same!

Talking about these differences is not an attempt to slam the medieval church, or to act like we’ve got it all figured out now. We today aren’t any better people or more moral than they were. However, it is noteworthy that within just a few years at the beginning of the 1500s all of that began to change. For Martin Luther and the other reformers, the church had one main duty: to let the Word of God set people free. The church, primarily in its worship, has been given that sacred and vital task: to talk about God’s grace before and above anything else so that people could be free—free from their sin, free from their inherent inward focus, free from the harmful labels society had placed on them and most of all, free from their tendency to prove their own worth.

And as Martin Luther look out at the state of things around him, he realized that church  was more often than not getting in the way of that first and most important task. Whether it was from the outdated language that made worship inaccessible and mysterious, or the distance of the sacraments from the people that placed priests here and the people down here, or the hard to sing and peculiar music of worship, or a combination of all of it, the church was not doing its best. The Protestant Reformation was about so many more things, of course, but in the end Luther’s reforms ended up touching on all of those matters, and that is a large reason why so many churches have the type of worship we have today. The church exists to proclaim God’s Word, which is about a love that sets you and me and all people free.

That is the foundational issue in the conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, part of which we hear this morning. He encounters some Jews who had believed in him but who still apparently cling to this idea that their kinship to Abraham, their great ancestor, has kept them free from any kind of slavery.

Just as an aside, because it’s in the news these days, this Scripture is actually a good example of a passage that has been twisted to encourage anti-semitism to take root in Christian faith, even though it is not anti-semitic and was never meant to be read that way. There are several times, especially in John’s gospel, where Jesus’ words seem, to some, to be derogatory toward the Jews in a way that spurs Jesus’ followers to hate and persecute them. Martin Luther, in fact, for all the good he did for the Christian witness, also left a terrible legacy of hating the Jewish and the Jewish faith. That is never Jesus’ intent, not even here when his words seem to linger with a taste of derision. Jesus is not hating Jewish people, for he is a Jew himself, and we have a responsibility to denounce hate of anyone whenever we encounter it. Here he is just reminding them that God is present in himself, the Son of God, in a new way that completely reorients everyone’s relationship with God, even theirs.

I mean, these are people, after all, who had, in fact, been slaves at one point in their history. They seem to have forgotten that. Jesus comes to love us and make us all children of the same heavenly Father, Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white.

And so all of Luther’s reforms were pointed at that message, to center the worship and teaching of the church on grace. Everything about using the vernacular language, letting everyone share the chalice, and providing music that all could sing were all ways to get God’s love to the people where it was supposed to be.

It may be obvious to most how those first two things set people free, but that third one—the one about how the church uses music to proclaim the gospel—may seem less obvious to us or maybe so obvious that we actually take it for granted. Luther knew that group singing, as opposed to listening to someone perform a song like we do at a concert, was a fundamental way to join many people together as one, to help their faith take root in their hearts. Each person has a voice, no matter how “gifted” at singing they may be, and using that voice in concert with others gives us a basic way to practice our faith, because faith involves risk, it involves getting outside of yourself, and what is opening your mouth and trying to make a beautiful noise if not risk? And it’s more risky for some of us than others, but that’s the wonderful thing about it!

One of our members here has shared with me that several years ago in his mind he made a shift from thinking of Sunday mornings as going to church to attending worship. For him there is a distinction—going to church sounds passive, whereas attending worship sounds more participatory. Luther would have agreed, and he wrote hymns in order to increase our feeling of doing something, of literally leaning into one another during the act of worship and he often used the styles of music he was hearing out in public, in secular spaces.

I was listening the other day to a young immigrant who was raised in another culture—I am pretty sure it was a south Asian country—share what he finds to be the main hallmarks of American culture. The very first one he mentioned was hyperindividualism. American culture, he remarked, is so focused on the uniqueness of everyone, almost to a fault, that it’s like we’re afraid to be a part of a group. We always want to set ourselves apart from everyone else, which is actually what those Jewish leaders are doing in this morning’s text. This man’s birth culture, by contrast, was more about collectives. Your family, your village, was your identity.

Celebrating individuality may be important, but it can be overemphasized to the point it becomes a prison. The Word of God sets us free from that, too, joining us to one another in ways we can share our joys and our sufferings in deep and real ways. Worship and theology that makes the space for this, where participation trumps performance where our gathering feels more like community and less like a concert—is freeing in ways we often take for granted.

I know Kevin doesn’t like to hear himself talked about, but this is one way in which he has served us better than I think we realize. Over these 25 years he has reformed us, letting the Word of God set people free to use their gifts and bring us together. I remember one of the first Christmas Eves I was here he had a young Amelie Bice, who was probably 5 or 6 at the time, play the piano for the prelude. She was just a beginner. She plunked out “Amazing Grace” with one hand, which I assumed might have been the only song she had learned. It maybe wasn’t your typical Christmas Eve fanfare, but it was just one of many examples of how our music director Kevin has created a worship environment where we all enjoy making music to praise God. She had gifts to share, and Kevin encouraged it. Amelie is now a high school senior, by the way, and plays like a pro with both hands.

What a way to understand faith, and to have it modeled in worship! We go forth from here not to perform our faith for others in the world, as if they can see what virtuosos we consider ourselves to be, but to participate in the suffering and joy of the world. We go forth from here set free, our gifts and voices tuned to his grace so that we may use them in our service to others.

We go forth chosen not because we’re so good, but because God, who is good, has chosen us. We go as people who have heard in our language, who have tasted on our tongues, who have sung with our voices: we are justified by grace, apart from works of the law!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Are You Ready to Rumble?

a sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C/Lectionary 29]

Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8

The night was dark. Melinda had picked up me and our oldest child at church and driven us home after a late evening meeting because my car had been in the shop. The three of us came home to find there had been a scuffle between the other two kids, who had been left at home, we had thought, in a peaceful way.

The details of what had actually transpired were hazy. It involved some kind of rough-housing over a stuffed animal and a 6-year-old who wouldn’t go to bed. In an attempt to gain authority over him, his sister had somehow wrenched the toy from his clutches and, in so doing, had had dislodged one of his top front teeth. We found them both in the bathroom. He was bloodied, scared, and defiant, She was apologetic, confused, and worried. We found the tooth on the floor, calmed the opponents down, and moved them along to bed. But now a huge, empty tooth socket punctuated his smile. We had expected it would fall out eventually, but now a night of adversity and struggle had left its mark.

It is also dark the night of adversity and confusion that leaves Jacob forever changed. It is not an empty tooth socket he stands there with on the banks of the Jabbok River, but a busted hip socket, an injury that will mark the way he goes through life from then on. Jacob, too, had wrestled with an opponent, a mystery figure who refuses to be named, who appears in the middle of the night and catches Jacob when he’s alone.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (Marc Chagal)

What a strange scene—there is nothing like it! It’s dark, the two men can’t really see each other, and perhaps most peculiar of all: Jacob actually seems to have the upper hand. He has lived a life of perpetual deal-maker, a swindler, and here he forces a blessing out of his wrestling opponent. You can’t get much more earthy, more intimate and shocking than this scenario, especially when it seems the mystery wrestler is God himself—or at least Jacob comes to understand it is such a divine experience that he feels this what living with God must be like, especially after a life of constantly tussling with almost everyone he knows. It’s so significant of an encounter that Jacob claims his new name, Israel: “He who wrestles with God.”

Let me ask you: have you ever thought of God as a wrestler, someone who comes into the ring looking for a fight like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, or the Nature Boy Ric Flair? It’s quite the image for God for us to contemplate, especially when so often God gets cast in the movies or in books or maybe in our mind as some aged figure with a long white flowing beard, or sitting aloft some clouds like the actor Morgan Freeman. But if the name of your people, your tribe, if the core of your identity was literally “One who wrestles with God” it would probably be difficult for you to picture God as a fragile, distant, elderly man. If would be tough to imagine God as a shapeless, formless entity. You would think of God as someone you strive against. You would think of Jacob by the Jabbok, never giving up against his opponent, and how in the midst of being given a blessing you were changed.

At some point in his ministry as they near Jerusalem where Jesus will face his own dark hour of struggle, Jesus tells this story about another person who never gives up against her opponent.  This time it is a widow who comes to berate a judge to bless her with justice that she deserves. Wrestling on a riverbank may be a bit out of our frame of reference, but this parable of Jesus’ certainly paints a relatable picture, doesn’t it? Every day there are people enmeshed in our nation’s legal system pleading for justice and mercy—tenants doing everything they can to prevent from being evicted by landlords, parents fighting for custody for their children in a series of court appearances. On TV Judge Wapner and Judge Judy listen to countless tired arguments from people who just want someone to hear them out. And even our former President this week, no stranger to judges and juries, tried another last-ditch effort to have the Supreme Court overturn a case that would help give him some time to reframe his argument.

In Jesus’ parable, the widow is relentless with her arguing and eventually the judge grants her request mainly because he doesn’t want her to give him a black eye with her persistence. By the end of Jesus’ lesson we know that the judge in the parable is not a stand-in for God because God is merciful and compassionate and this judge is a jerk but nevertheless we are left with this heroine who just doesn’t give up.

In both cases—Jacob by the river and the widow by the judge’s bench—we are presented with the reality of what life with God is like. God is there to be wrestled with. God is there to hear our cries. God lives in order to engage with us, to get dirty with us, to be a hotline where some compassionate expert is always waiting to pick up the phone and listen to our emergency.

I don’t know about you, but I find these to be extremely challenging images and scenes. The way God appears in the psalm this morning is usually more my style—that is, the powerful but removed God who never slumber nor sleeps, who keeps watch over me like the policeman patrolling our parking lot this morning. God is always looking out for me, but he or she is over there, at a distance, between me and the sun and the moon, letting me do my thing over here. Too often I am tempted to let my relationship with God become passive like that.

But in actuality God sees a wrestling partner in us. God wants to get on our level, down in the mud, even. God is expecting us to turn to him, to plead if we feel like it, to open up and let loose with what’s bothering us. God might want me to demand a blessing or justice, but ultimately God wants to be engaged all the time. These stories, and plenty others like them in Scripture give us the strong sense that God wants to be near us and know what we know. As Jesus says, we are to pray always and not lose heart and this is challenging to me because I often just take prayer for granted.

In the book H is for Hawk, British writer Helen MacDonald tells the story of how she turned to falconry after her father’s death as a way to help her grieve. She chooses a goshawk to rear from infancy to adulthood, realizing full well that goshawks are the toughest type of raptor to train and live with. She struggles mightily with the hawk, whom she names Mabel, and her friendship with it takes her on many hikes and adventures across England’s fields, but she makes an astonishing discovery about her grief process when she rides the train home from the memorial service held for her dad. By training the hawk she had tried to seek solace in nature,  and had tried to make sense of her father’s memory in solitude, but she finds the true healing came when she forced herself to take part in the community at prayer together and as people wrestled with their grief before God and one another. “Hands are for other human hands to hold,” she writes, confessionally. “They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much air can corrode it to nothing.”

Two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic had already been raging for six months and the promise of a workable vaccine was still not on the horizon, I found myself in a really dark night. Unsure of how much longer we could continue as a congregation that couldn’t do much of what kept us alive, I became angry, sad, and bitter. Eventually I sought counsel with a therapist, and our conversation proved very enlightening to me. She helped me see that in the scurry of trying to keep things going at church and at home I had inadvertently laid aside my regular practice of writing in a journal for thirty or forty minutes at a time. “I’ll get around to it when I need it and when I have time for it,” I had told myself at the beginning of the pandemic when there were so many other pulls on my time and energy.

But I had only gotten around to it occasionally, and in piecemeal fashion. The counselor suggested I go back to a set time each week, which is what I’d been doing for 20 years or more. My journaling, I remembered, was intense prayer. It was my wrestling with God, my showing up at the judge’s bench each week to air my concerns. It wasn’t a chore or a luxury. It was the way God had been blessing me in much the way he’d blessed Jacob and refraining from it had left me lonely. And that week I restarted that blessing. It put a limp in my week, for sure, because I had to take the time to do it, but it was amazing how quickly my mindset changed and how closer I felt to God.

And then I thought of all of the people in the congregation who had seen the early days of the pandemic as a time to pray like never before. So many of you found ways to wrestle so faithfully, whether it was in your private lives or through online prayer moments or worship gatherings. In fact, the habits became so beneficial and well-formed that we included livestreaming to our Sunday options and many more of you join us in prayer each week, some while we’re doing it, and others save it for viewing later.

Hands are for other hands to hold. Indeed. It sounds so obvious, and yet we forget it, even as Jesus hangs there on the cross, still in prayer, still pleading with God because he loves us so much, receiving in his dialogue much worse than a busted hip. Prayer should be our first language, and yet we put it off or resort to it only when we need something. But both wrestling and court petitions are something that take constant work if they are to change anything, and the anything is typically us.

When Jesus wonders aloud with his disciples that day about how the Son of Man will at his return be aware of the presence of faith on the earth, he doesn’t suggest that it’s by all the large church buildings they’ve constructed, or by how fun and attractive their youth programs are. Neither does he initially link it, surprisingly, to the number of people who’ve been served and definitely not to which political party is in power or what laws have been enacted. Jesus links the presence of faith on earth to the amount of wrestling he finds. He links the vitality of faith to the number of people who walk differently each day with that out-of-socket hip. Or with an empty tooth socket, as the case may be.

Whatever your blessing of choice—God is here, always ready to listen, always eager to meet us face to face.

The question is: Are you ready to rumble?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Saying Thanks

a sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C/Lectionary 28]

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

All this talk about thankfulness makes me think about a curious news article a couple of weeks that ago caught my eye. Its headline was: “Voice assistants Siri and Alexa are Making Kids Rude and Antisocial, Scientists Fear.” The article makes the case that with assistive voice technology “youngsters are not taught” [the importance of manners and courteous responses] nor how to read body language.” The piece even quotes a Cambridge University doctor who says, “With digital devices there is no expectation that polite terms, such as please or thank you should be used.”[1]

Well, isn’t that interesting! If so, then I’m afraid my family is doomed. We boss Alexa round on a daily basis—to put things on the grocery list, to play music, and perhaps most of all, to use the “announce” feature and relay messages instead of yelling through the house. She never corrects our grammar. She never tells us to lower our voice. She never criticizes our music selections. She is the unobtrusive, demure presence in every room who never asks for anything in return.

Those researchers at Cambridge may or may not be on to something, but I think this morning Jesus would chime in to let us know people have had trouble saying please and especially thank you long before there were ever Siris and Alexas. After cleansing ten people with leprosy one day while he is traveling on the way to Jerusalem through the border regions of Samaria and Galilee only one had the decency to return and say thank you, and he was a foreigner, of all things. What happened to the other nine? Why didn’t they come back to give Jesus some respect, or even just turn around on their way to the priest and give Jesus a thumbs up?

The text doesn’t tell us the answers so Jesus’ question just kind of hangs out there for us to ponder along with him. And in doing so, my mind starts to reflect on my own shortcomings in the “thank you” department. It would be nice if I could just blame my own periodic forgetfulness or outright rudeness on things like Alexa or technology, but the truth probably lies somewhere else. Sometimes I probably conclude the person wouldn’t notice or care if I sent word. Did this gift or this gesture which I received reach the threshold of something I should say an intentional “thank you” for?

Maybe sometimes I don’t say thank you because I think my gift was actually deserved. That is, I was just getting was I think I’m due, and so saying thanks is not warranted. Maybe the nine lepers felt their ostracization from society due to their condition had been cruel and unnecessary. Forced to live at the edge of society and beg for a living, which were the rules of the day for many people who were sick, perhaps they felt they had deserved someone’s mercy and that being restored to community was a justice long overdue.

Or maybe they didn’t return out of shame or embarrassment, and they ran on, wanting to put that old life behind them. I’ve felt that, too, before. I know that in my case, it is usually forgetfulness. Life gets busy, I move onto the next thing, and the task of writing a thank you note just slips through the cracks.

Whatever the case, the nine’s lack of thankfulness to Jesus doesn’t change the grace God had conveyed upon them. Those nine are still cleansed. They are still healed. They are still free of the bonds their condition had placed on them, free to run into the future that is open to them.

God is like that: gracious and full of compassion, never revoking his gifts to his children. The lepers cry out to Jesus for mercy, and he responds with healing.

Like the venerable old apple tree in Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s book, The Giving Tree, God is a natural giver. The Giving Tree tells the story of a tree who watches a boy grow up and who constantly wants to help him however he can. First he offers the boy all his apples to sell, and then a few years later his leaves, then his branches, and finally his trunk to make a boat. The selfish boy keeps coming back for more until, when he is a very old man, all the tree has become is an old stump to sit on. God is like that tree who keeps giving and giving even when we fail to say thank you or recognize the suffering that our taking causes him. Indeed, God is a tree—a cross-shaped tree—who keeps loving and dying and forgiving so that we may have life, whether we fully acknowledge it or not.

Today, in the shadow of that tree, we do find ourselves a thankful congregation. To be sure we are always a thankful congregation, but today we are especially grateful for the ways God has looked on us with mercy through the challenges of the last two and a half years when we’ve felt, in many ways, pushed to the edge. We praise God for the ways the Holy Spirit has kept our community of faith together and even expanded it, even as we have felt the strain and pull of controversial discussions and decisions.

Today we are a thankful congregation because we get the chance to call Pastor Sarah Lang our pastor. We are grateful that God has led us to this point so that we could fulfill a vision of leadership from six years ago. We are thankful for Sarah’s gifts of wisdom and experience, for her skills in teaching and administration, preaching and worship leadership. We are thankful for Sarah’s keen ability to see the people on our margins and draw our attention to them.

And with Sarah on staff we now have four married couples on staff together, and we’re thankful for that too, even as it feels like the elephant in the room. It is an unusual arrangement, and for the record we did not seek it out and orchestrate it this way. It just kind of fell into our lap, and it takes some careful minding of boundaries to make it work. You know, it might not be everyone’s ideal staff situation, but, I’ll tell you, we could lead one heckuva marriage retreat!

Today we are thankful people—thankful that God has given us a faith that saves us. And we are thankful to be in a position to call Sarah, who will help continue to form that faith among us. That is the key here with this one Samaritan leper who returns to give thanks and worship Jesus by falling on the ground. His faith saves him. All ten of the lepers are healed of their disease but only this one is truly saved (also translated, “made him well”), and we hear Jesus tell him it is his faith that makes him so.

Faith saves us. It is core Lutheran belief, a foundation of how followers of Christ say God works in our lives. However, when we say “faith saves us” we don’t just mean that one day our faith will provide us entrance to heaven. It means faith has the power to rescue us now. It is an invitation to live a life of change now. I would imagine that everyone who professes a faith in Jesus would describe it in some way as beneficial to them. They could talk in a real way about how their faith at some point, or at many points, has liberated them or freed them from something. Maybe from despair or grief or a feeling of meaninglessness. Maybe, in some cases, from addiction. Faith is good for us. It improves our life, it brightens our outlook, it gives us hope for the journey.

And, by the grace of God, faith is not just something that benefits us. Faith in a risen Christ naturally overcomes boundaries. “The word of God is not chained,” says Paul to Timothy. Just as the Son of God emerges from the tomb, our faith flows from us into the life of the whole world. Just look at how the faith of one enslaved girl serving wife of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, ripples from the very bottom to the top of the chain of command! She’s there in the tent—we’re never told her name—but she has an understanding of her God’s goodness and she the sense of mind to share that. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!” she says boldly to her mistress, “He could cure him of his leprosy!”

Naaman (Pieter de Grebber)

It makes me wonder who formed her faith, who made her so sure? She was a little girl at the Sunday School table with Ms. Betsy and Amanda Mertz one Sunday. Or studying the Ten Commandments as a fifth grader with Matt Greenshields and Rob McClintock. Or it was the conversation she had with volunteers Faye Coppage or Chris Crouch during the service project one day. Someone somewhere along the line must have opened her eyes to the power of God to heal and that faith made her well. And that faith in a living God, which meant something to her did not stay there. Eventually it makes its way to the King of Aram and then the King of Israel, whose bluster and pride get in the way, and then to the prophet Elisha, who convinces Naaman to wash himself in the river Jordan where he is saved from his leprosy. And like the foreign Samaritan, Naaman returns to praise God and exalt his name.

The psalm this morning is also found in Proverbs, a book of wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” To say it differently, our worship is where faith formation starts. Our relationship to the living God—the giving God of the cross-tree—grows from the act of stopping and returning and intentionally sacrificing some bit of ourselves to offer thanks for what God has already done. The Samaritan prostrates himself—an act of humility and vulnerability that shows respect for Jesus. Naaman the Syrian, for all his initial pride, humbly returns to stand in front of the prophet Elisha to profess his faith in Israel’s God.

Now we, standing before our merciful Father, cleansed of our sin and receiving his body and blood in our hand, say thank you. And as we do, we can sense the wisdom growing within us:

Thank you for the beauty of a crisp fall day, for music, even when it’s from Alexa, but especially when it’s from Kevin or Mr. Scott. Thank you for football games and homecomings and weddings and baptisms and funerals. Thank you for this day we’ve been given, these very breaths we are taking, and this voice that allows us to speak to you, and especially when we can join with others. And for all that we’ve ordered you around to give us and for all you’ve given us anyway.

“Thank you, O Lord, for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”[2]


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[2] “State Fair,” Garrison Keillor in Leaving Home. Penguin Books. 1987, p 118