Ground-breaking Blessings

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

Matthew 5:1-12

The first congregation I served was in a borough of Pittsburgh that had a large Roman Catholic church in it and therefore a fairly heavy Roman Catholic presence. Pretty soon after arriving there I got used to being mistaken for a priest whenever I was wearing my collar out in public. To be quite honest, this really didn’t bother me, and in most cases I could get by with just a wave and a smile on the street without being drawn into a longer conversation where I’d have to explain myself. Occasionally I would end up saying a quick prayer on the sidewalk for healing or something of the sort, and those were holy moments.

But one day I was drawn in and unable to escape or explain myself. I was at lunch with my new bride, Melinda, at one of our favorite places to eat: an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria that was rather new to our little borough and trying to get established. The owner was a first generation Italian who had learned his craft in Naples and had originally owned a shop in Manhattan. That day during lunch, before our meals had arrived, a young man working there apparently caught sight of my collar and bolted out from behind the counter and came right up to our table. He said, with eyes wide with hope and expectation, and in broken English with an Italian accent in front of all of the other guests, “Dear Father! Today is my first day on the job here. Will you please bless my pizza-making career?!”

Frozen, I couldn’t get out of it, especially because he was most likely going to be making our pizza. I thought to myself: I must have been absent on the day in seminary when they taught us that prayer. I didn’t know if I was supposed to stand up and put my hands on his head or if I was supposed to go back in the kitchen and bless him there. I didn’t want to let the young man down, and I didn’t want to get drawn into a long dialogue about how I wasn’t technically Roman Catholic and so he might be mistaking me for someone, so I took one of his hands, and I said something like, “Dear Father, please bless this man’s pizza making career. May he toss the dough with ease, and make many delicious pizzas that are very round and hearty. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” He seemed satisfied, and went back behind the counter.

I don’t know whatever happened to that guy. The pizzeria closed about a year later, never to reopen. I hope he is out there still making pizzas somewhere. I can’t say I’ve ever blessed anything like that before or since. On his first day in the neighborhood, Jesus goes to the top of a mountain before a huge crowd and blesses people who have never been blessed before. The poor in spirit. Those who mourn. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The peacemakers. I mean, if I thought it was awkward to come up with a blessing for a pizza career in front of a whole restaurant, think about how strange it must be for Jesus to stand in front of hundreds and bless the meek and the merciful. These are the types of people who never get blessed, who labor away in the soup kitchens funeral parlors of the world, who suffer often silently in the margins and rarely see their names in lights. Think how strange it must be for the crowd around Jesus to hear things like this, to have these particular words be the first things that come from his mouth in his much-anticipated first sermon.

A few years ago during the pandemic we were looking for a children’s book on the birth of Jesus that we could give to kids who came to our live nativity. Tricia Stohr-Hunt helped us narrow a few options down, but we looked at dozens. One in particular stood out mainly because of the illustrations, and I went ahead and ordered it. It’s just called Nativity by Cynthia Rylant. Unlike many of the other selections, its text is taken straight from Scripture, using the birth story that everyone knows from Luke’s gospel. What’s so peculiar or unique about it is that it doesn’t end in Bethlehem. After we are told Mary ponders these things in her heart and after the shepherds leave, glorifying God, you turn the page and read, “When the babe, who was called Jesus, became a man, he stood one day on a mountain before a great multitude of people and he said, ‘Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And the book continues with most of these blessings from Matthew’s gospel.

I have never seen any type of literature tie the birth of Jesus so directly to this first teaching of his, to see a natural culmination of his birth in what we call the Sermon on the Mount. But perhaps we should. For those who first heard Jesus’ sermon, and for those who first shared news of it, I bet there was a clear line connecting his humble birth to these words. A Messiah who was born to an unwed mother and laid in a manger and visited by shepherds would be the one who could bless the overlooked and undervalued.

That’s just how ground-breaking these blessings are. With them Jesus literally breaks ground on a new creation where everyone, and especially with those starting with those at the bottom, has a place. This is a new world brought about by his love, by his mercy, by his sacrifice for you and for me. It will be born as Jesus teaches us to treasure and value people differently than what the world tends to. It will be born as Jesus acknowledges that those who are farthest away from power and privilege almost always have the best understanding of how God is a true help. This new creation will be born by Jesus’ unquenchable desire to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. It will take shape in our very midst. Like the enchanting illustrations in Cynthia Rylant’s Nativity book, his word brings life to this new world, and he invites us to live in it too.

There was a story in the news just a couple of weeks ago about some young school children in Minnesota who looked around and saw that during recess time their classmates in wheelchairs and mobility assistive devices had nothing to do. The playground wasn’t accessible to them because it had no adaptive equipment. This bothered some 5th graders at the school who asked their teacher why they couldn’t just buy better equipment. How could their disabled friends be included in the fun each day? She told them the price tag was staggering: $300,000 for playground equipment that could safely accommodate wheelchairs and scooters.

You can probably guess what happened. The 5th graders were seeing and understanding the new creation that Jesus spoke about, where the mourning are comforted and the meek inherit the earth and the children left on the sidelines inherit the slides and swings. The 5th graders themselves raised all $300,000 within a matter of months. The children in the wheelchairs love playing on their new playground but say it was the seeing the loving effort their classmates made in order to obtain the equipment that was best of all. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness like a kid at Glen Lake Elementary, for you will be filled.

You see, the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, like the family and friends of Tyre Nichols, the people who strive for peace when the world wants strife, the meek, the gentle, those who are harassed for standing up for what is right—these kinds of folks all have one big thing in common. They are more prone, because of their position in the world to have a better concept of just how powerful and loving God really is. People in their positions are more liable to have an honest assessment of their own weakness, their own foolishness, their own lack of agency unlike those who have lots of wealth, or status, or health, or power. And it is a blessing to know you need God! It is a blessing to understand and believe that Jesus speaks for you, that Jesus has come to die for you. It is a blessing to know and receive that love.

I received a letter this week from a former Epiphany member who moved away last year to a new city in a distant state. She was writing to send greetings and to let me know how she was adjusting to her new home and that she had finally found a new church after much searching and prayer. She was writing to request that we transfer her membership to that new congregation there, even thought it is hard, she said, because she loved Epiphany so.

She said the first Sunday she finally geared up to worship there they happened to be paying off their mortgage and were preparing to call a permanent pastor. The lady behind her in the pew greeted her warmly, then asked her to join them for coffee hour. She was then introduced to a woman who headed up the congregation’s sewing ministry. Of all people to meet Caroline Wake, who was a faithful member of our sewing ministry! And, wouldn’t you know it, Caroline had loaded her car that Sunday with fabric donations. The women helped her bring it in to the church where they will meet on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month to make items for Newborns in Need and quilts for Lutheran World Relief. Caroline, apprehensive about a new worshiping community, but bringing donations with her anyway. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” If you know Caroline, you know how that fits.

So as we walk the streets, may we all carry around with us with donations of some kind at the ready—donations of extra kindness, mercy, justice. May we all look to the newcomer, the stranger, and introduce ourselves with warmth and welcome. May we all look to the edges of the playground, or the lunchroom, the neighborhood, and notice just who Jesus has started to pull front and center.

May we all, blessed with love and forgiveness by this new preacher from Nazareth, run back to the counters where we work and play and live with our hands ready to make peace and beauty, and ready ourselves for the new world that is taking shape.

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Come. And You Will See.

A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

John 1:29-42

I have no plans whatsoever to read it myself, but I have been intrigued by the all of the hoopla and fanfare surrounding the book by former Prince Harry, now Harry, Duke of Sussex. It is simply called Spare, in reference to the fact that as second-born child to the first-in-line to the throne, Harry was once called a “spare” heir The book, which is a more of a tell-all, from what I’m hearing, was just released this week and has broken all time sales records. On its first day, in fact, it sold 1.43 million copies. The hype building up to the arrival of the book has been thoughtfully orchestrated, and that’s what’s been so interesting to me. The Duke has given juicy interviews on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and just prior to Christmas Netflix aired a 6-part series about Harry and his wife, Meghan, for which they were paid a whopping $150 million.

But all of that was prologue for the book, and now that we have it, or can have it, we can reportedly hear Harry speak for himself. Up until now, as we are to understand it, we have largely heard about Harry from other people. Now we can know what Harry stands for, what his real story is, what he really wants the world to know.

At this similar critical intersection between what is said about someone and hearing their story from their own mouth is where we find Jesus this morning. He is an heir too, of course, though not a spare. He is the heir to God’s kingdom, the one people have waited so long for to reveal what God is about. And John the Baptist is the publicist, arranging Jesus’ P.R. campaign. John the Baptist tells us key things we should now about Jesus as we hear about Jesus and meet him.

In many ancient and medieval paintings, in fact, John the Baptist is depicted with an exceptionally long pointer finger lifted in the direction of Jesus. It was kind of like a Snapchat filter designed to accentuate certain features for painters in earlier centuries. John’s elongated pointer figure made you look at Jesus instead of John. It is emphasizing that John the Baptist is not the promised holy One, but rather Jesus is.

Grunewald’ Issenheim Altarpiece. John the Baptist points at Jesus and the Lamb of God is to his left.

Biblical scholars and historians have long suspected, that John the gospel writer was writing his gospel and letters from a place of conflict and pressure because some were still preferring to worship and follow John the Baptist over Jesus. These are two different Johns, so it gets confusing. John who writes this gospel and tell us this story is being especially careful to remind his readers that John the Baptist did everything in his power to introduce Jesus properly and throw his support behind him. John the Baptist was no longer trying to recruit his own followers and perhaps getting them instead to follow Jesus.

And so John, in no uncertain terms, tells his disciples and apparently everyone else who would hear that Jesus is the Lamb of God. If we can’t see the long pointer finger, we can at least hear his pointed words: Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the one who ranks ahead of John himself. Jesus is the one on whom the Spirit of God descended. And eventually it works with at least two of John the Baptist’s disciples. They turn and leave him to start following Jesus.

People in the business world talk about having an elevator speech. An elevator speech is how you would explain what you do and what you are all about in the time that it takes to ride in an elevator with someone from one floor to another. John the Baptist has an elevator speech for Jesus. What’s yours? Can you explain who Jesus is to you for someone else—and not in an off-putting way that makes you sound like a salesperson, but in a way that might convince someone they’d be interested in knowing why Jesus matters? What would you say that might make someone pick up the book and read Jesus in his own words? Do you understand Jesus as the person who takes away the sin of the world? Said another way: do you see Jesus as the person whose way of living releases us from our inherent inwardness, who takes dead ends and creates new life? Where does Jesus rank for you in terms of influences? Can you share how we rank at the center of his love and forgiveness?

“Agnus Dei” (Fransicso de Zurburan)

If you’re like me and many other Lutherans I know, perhaps words are not your strong suit here. How then does your life communicate the impact of knowing Jesus in other ways? How do your choices, your actions serve as P.R. for Jesus’ movement of justice and peace and mercy? In what ways does your life become that elongated pointer finger of John the Baptist that directs the world’s attention to Jesus?

I was happy to see that one priest I follow on social media, Kenneth Tanner, happened to post this week what sounds like his John the Baptist-like elevator speech: Tanner says, “God makes the world. God loves the world God makes. In becoming human God becomes what God makes—[which is] what God loves. God cannot become what God hates. God cannot become what is not good. God does not give up on what God becomes. This” concludes Tanner, “is the simplest way I have found to say what Christians trust.”

You may come up with something even simpler than that, but “God does not give up on what God becomes” sounds really good. John the Baptist seems to understand, even if he can’t see that a cross will eventually lie in Jesus’ path, that Jesus means that God is not giving up on us, no matter what lies in our path.

Once those disciples leave John, though, the attention is focused on what Jesus is going to say about himself. He can share his own story and define himself on his own terms. And the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are so very interesting. He doesn’t confirm what John the Baptist has been saying. He doesn’t really promote himself at all, ask if anyone wants autographs, or anything like that (“It’s me! Hi! I’m the Messiah, it’s me! At tea time everybody agrees.”) All he says to the guys running along behind him is “What are you looking for?” and then, “Come and see.” It’s so inviting, so unassuming, no unpretentious. It expects us to be curious.

One of our new Adult Sunday School classes offered right now, led by Jim Huddle, is called “The Difficult Words of Jesus.” They’re using a book by Professor Amy-Jill Levine from Vanderbilt that unpacks some of the really thorny and touchy things Jesus says at times—things like “Hate your mother and father” and “Sell all your possessions.” My guess is that “Come and see” is not considered one of the more difficult sayings of Jesus.

And yet it probably should be. “Come and see” is an invitation to change, and, well, we all know how well most of us love change, right (myself included)? Change is difficult. Change is scary, even when it is change that we welcome. Change involves leaving behind certain values and judgments and loyalties, just like those disciples, Andrew and Peter leave John the Baptist behind. It’s important to note that Simon receives a new name—a new identity—in this process. Jesus doesn’t give an elevator speech about himself and list off the things that are good about him but “Come and see” does sound difficult because it may take us out of our comfort zone.

“Come and see” is also difficult because it’s not immediate, and most of the time we like immediate and instant. Even if it is change we’re looking for we prefer it to start now and make itself known. I’ve had a chance over the past several weeks to observe the process of physical therapy up close as my young son recovers from a surgery he underwent. All is going well, I’m happy to report, but progress and growth takes time and perseverance and a bit of curiosity. It takes patience and a healthy bit of curiosity—curiosity to try something that may seem uncomfortable or strange at first. Physical therapy, I’ve learned, is a “come and see” vocation. Come and see what this particular exercise will do. Come and see how your body will respond to this motion. The patient can’t really see what might occur unless the patient comes and tries.

Jesus right off the bat presents us with a faith journey that is more like physical therapy and less like taking medicine. Taking medicine is typically quick, immediate, and doesn’t require quite the same commitment level. But Jesus calls us to a relationship that resembles therapy: We involve ourselves in prayer, we stick to the church or service commitments that seem awkward and inconvenient at first. We show some curiosity in what the next step may be. And God will surprise us. God’s Spirit sustains us and promises us amazing new life.

Three years ago we were poised at the precipice of a pandemic that no one saw coming. By the end of January 2020 we were starting to hear about a mystery illness that was making people sick in China. By the end of February it was here in the States and by mid-March everything was shut down. It was bewildering, it was frightening, it was frustrating. None of us had ever been through anything like this before, so we weren’t sure about the next steps. No one had been through it…except for Jesus, who on the cross endured all kinds of isolation and depression and rose again to defeat it all.

pre-recorded worship, October 2020

And in mid-March, as things were going on line and Zooming like crazy Jesus said, “Come and see.” “Don’t give up, don’t turn back. Just come and see how I will guide and provide through this.” And this congregation did just that. Committed to Jesus’ “call over the tumult” you stepped into the weird, maddening COVID unknown and followed Jesus’ voice. I still remember Amy Boyle and Tatter Hartmann and others out in the parking lot that very first weekend collecting food for children at Ridge Elementary because no one could figure out how children would eat if school was shut down. And they were all trying to do it while standing 10 feet from each other!

Through weeks of no in person worship, to weeks of worship with no singing and sitting three pews apart to weeks of signing up for worship spots…to weeks of singing but with masks God kept leading. And we came and saw what might be next. There were some very interesting steps along the way.

Last Sunday, January 8, 2023, our in person worship attendance was 334. The attendance on the second Sunday of January 2020 was also 334. When we add those who join us on-line each week, our worship attendance is now 33% higher than it was pre-pandemic. Now I’m not declaring the pandemic over and there is still reason to be cautious and to support those who don’t feel comfortable yet without a mask or joining us in person. But this does feel like some important milestone. I am also saying I would have never, ever have predicted this is where we’d be at the start of the pandemic 3 years ago. We had to come and see it happen ourselves.

I guess that’s what happens, my friends, when you pick up Jesus’ book, when you take hold of his gracious invitation to come and see and hear him speak, in his own voice, for himself. In the bread, in the wine, in the word spoken and shared. May that be what you discover in your own path as the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Son of God calls you again today.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

What’s In a Name?

a sermon for Name of Jesus

Luke 2:15-21 and Galatians 4:4-7

It seems to me that for most people this particular time of year—the time around Christmas and New Year’s Day—involves following more traditions than probably any other time of the year. Is that so for you? One day this past week my family was reflecting on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and sharing what our favorite moment was, both of my high school daughters said that their favorite part of Christmas each year was the beef stew that Hanne and Rob Hamlin make for the church staff to eat between services on Christmas Eve. Over the years Melinda and I have developed all kinds of traditions for our family that take us through December and into January, but the one ritual that routinely stands out for them is having the chance to gather with other staff kids and adults in the office and shovel down beef stew while we’re figuring out who the crucifers and torchbearers are for each worship service. For me the beef stew is a way to get food during a busy night, but for my children it is a valuable tradition that has meaning. Hanne and Rob’s generosity is something they will always associate with this time of year, and I think that’s fantastic.

I bet most of us today will sit down to some kind of special New Year’s meal: pork of some sort, with a side of greens and cornbread. It’s the one time of the year I get black-eyed peas. Traditions don’t have to center around food, of course. People have a tradition of making New Year’s resolutions or ringing in the new year a certain way. Traditions anchor us. They help set our wild and chaotic lives into some type of story. They help us measure time and how much we’re growing and aging.

The gospel writers want us to know that Jesus comes from a family that is anchored in tradition. Luke, especially, seems to be keen on getting this point across. Jesus is born into a family and a community that chooses mark time and meaning and growth by following their Jewish rituals and customs. Jesus comes to us anchored in story, and one of the reasons we know this is because the first thing we’re told about Jesus’ life is that Mary and Joseph have him circumcised on the eighth day.

Now, I don’t feel the need right now to get into the details of that procedure, but suffice to say that it was a centuries-old tradition that linked Jesus all the way back to Abraham. Abraham was the person God called forth to claim as God’s own people, the father of the Israelites. This ritual was a sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants that God would be their God, no matter what. In the midst of their own chaos, Mary and Joseph want this to be their child’s story. God calls people forth into new adventures and promises to be with them.

As strange and ancient as this ritual may seem to us now, we have to remember that this would have been very ordinary and customary for Jesus’ family. In fact, this would likely have been a public event, under normal circumstances. Who knows who was there for this event. It may have even had an atmosphere like one of our baby showers, where people brought gifts and other items that would have helped Joseph and Mary take care of a baby. And a central part of this tradition was announcing the son’s name. Their child’s name was Jesus, a name they did not get to choose themselves but which had been announced to them by an angel.

We often use different methods when naming someone or something. Typically the names we choose have a formal definition that may or may not tell you something about that person. One of the Sudanese tribes I worked with in Cairo had the tradition of naming a child after one of the first things the mother saw after giving birth. One of the girls in my class went by “Akuol,” which was a beautiful name, and later I found out it just meant lizard. There had been a lizard crawling on the wall in the hut when she delivered her.

Jesus’ name actually has a meaning that will tell people something about his identity. The word Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew, means “He saves.” It was the same name of Joseph in Genesis who helps save his family in Egypt, so this story of saving people and being a savior would have been connected to Jesus’ identity right from the beginning. Jesus, however, would go on to save people from the powers of sin and death. Throughout his life people would watch Jesus save people from all kinds of things. His name becomes his identity and his mission, all rolled into one. He saves people from disease by healing them. He saves people from hunger by feeding them. He saves people from social ostracization by restoring them to community. And eventually Jesus offers his own life as a way to save humankind from their separation from God.

We talk about Jesus so freely now that we can forget the name of Jesus was so powerful and so revolutionary that early Christians would get thrown in prison and thrown to the lions just by mentioning it or being associated with it. Ancient Romans believed that Caesar was who saved people—and followers of Christ contested that simply by saying the name of their Savior, “Jesus.” The symbol of the fish came to be a way early believers could mention Jesus’ name and the community he had created without directly mentioning him. The Greek word fish, ichthyus, happens to be an acronym for Jesus: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” If a Christian approached someone else in public and wanted to know if that person was a fellow believer, they would draw an arc on the ground. If that person was a believer, they knew to draw a connecting arc underneath it to finish the fish picture. Nowadays we just buy a fish symbol and stick it to the back of our Honda. But for centuries, Christians would look at at that fish and see “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” and immediately think of the Savior’s name. Furthermore, it wasn’t an ideal or value that would unite the two of them, but a real person’s name.

Even more important than knowing the actual definition of Jesus’ name and purpose is the fact that God gives us his name to begin with. This is something I think we can take for granted: that God has actually revealed this name to us. A name is the most intimate, integral aspect of a person’s identity. That’s why we work so hard against identity theft these days

and we fear it happening to us. We don’t want anyone else out there walking around using our name and pretending to be us and doing things that we’re not actually doing. A name is precious. A name is a reputation. It’s a person’s “handle” in the world, and so in giving us Jesus God is putting flesh and blood on his reputation.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I have a concern or a complaint or especially a compliment to voice with a certain company or institution I hate having to write “To Whom It May Concern.” That address feels so distant and unreliable, and I just hope that whoever is supposed to be concerned with the thing I’m concerned with will actually end up hearing it…and being concerned about it. I always like having a name of someone I can speak with, get a hold of. Now that God has given us Jesus, there’s no need of prayers that feel something like, “To Whom It May Concern, out there in the universe.” We can call directly on the Son ourselves and know that the Creator is listening. We can know that because that name is Jesus and he has walked this earth as one of us, he is concerned with what we are concerned with and does hear us.

There is no secrecy about our God. There is mystery, but no secrecy. That is a tension built right in to our faith. God is always mysterious, never able to be contained or fully explained or understood and yet God is not secretive. In Jesus God has let us know what God is really about: saving.

But even more than that—even more loving and daring than just revealing his name and letting us use and misuse it as we may—God puts his name on us. God places Jesus’ mission onto our lives and encourages us to go out in the world and do things bearing Jesus’ name. Several years ago I had dropped off the church van at West Broad Honda for a routine inspection or something. When I went to go pick it up, they asked for the name. I told them “Phillip Martin.” They looked in their records and said no car was in the service shop with that name. I knew I had dropped the car off! They had me describe the car and then finally they found it. The technician looked at me and said “Are you Mr. Epiphany?” Could you imagine? Me, out there acting as if I’m “Mr. Epiphany,” representing this church all the time?

In Galatians Paul says that Jesus was sent into time to be born of a woman so that we might be adopted as children, as heirs of God. In a way it is like we are each named “Jesus” and let loose in the world to continue the tradition of saving. Wherever we go, and whatever year or day it is, we announce the grace of Jesus. In many different ways we lay our lives down at the feet of those looking for salvation—from hunger or loneliness or grief or despair.

The end of each worship service includes a blessing, or a benediction. Sometimes it uses the form of Aaron’s benediction from the book of Numbers. Sometimes it uses words that the apostle Paul used. Typically that blessing and reminder involves the pastor making a cross-like motion with his or her hands. It’s a clear gesture of Christ’s identity. And sometimes, in addition to that, the pastor forms his or her fingers into the actual first two letters of Jesus’ name, a chi and a rho. Another reminder.

We go forth from here not only as ourselves, you see, but as people who have learned the name of Jesus and who now bear it into the world. This is our true tradition. We are anchored in Jesus’ story, whether it is a new day or a new week new year. Jesus has already ventured into it to meet us there. And he beckons us to venture with him. For we are no longer slaves, but children of God, and if children, heirs. May that anchor you in your fresh start of 2023: you have been saved by The Savior Jesus and made heirs. Heirs of God.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.