Wheat farming

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent [Year B]

John 12:20-33


Two things that happened here just last Sunday made me think about this lesson from John’s gospel.

The first thing was that our 4th grade Sunday School class went on a mini-field trip out to the Epiphany Garden as a part of their instruction for receiving Holy Communion. We took them out to the Epiphany Garden so that they could plant wheat. Sallie Bartholomew, one of the leaders of the garden ministry, had a patch of soil all tilled up and ready for us, and she was waiting out there with her rakes and a watering can. All we needed was wheat seeds, and to get those I first went to Southern States, where the tall guy in overalls looked at me like I was crazy. No one does backyard gardening with wheat, apparently, and the smallest amount they could get me was a 50 pound bag. As it turns out, it’s easy to order wheat seeds on-line. I placed my order for one pound of wheat seeds and about a week later a brown bag of beautiful golden-brown little wheat seeds arrived in the mail from Oregon, of all places. None of us had ever planted wheat before. As the tall guy in overalls pointed out, it is a crop that people typically plant by the square mile. But the 4th graders, Sallie, and I went out last Sunday anyway and we’re going to see what happens.


I don’t know if any of the seeds will sprout or if we’ll do anything with them if they do.  But Holy Communion involves bread and Jesus talks a lot about bread in his ministry, and so I figured there was some good in having them hold raw wheat in their hands and physically release it into the soil. Maybe, I hope, when they think of Holy Communion there will always be some kind of connection in their minds between this act of letting go in order to receive. Maybe years from now they’ll be able to say, “Yes, I have, in fact, been a wheat farmer once. I did it as I prepared to receive the Lord’s body and blood.”

But maybe not. What was interesting to me was watching them take to it. Kids don’t need to wonder about seeds growing. They went about it with a type of wild abandon, each of them plunging their hands into the brown bag to grab a fist full and standing over the plot and shaking them into the soil. I was a bit protective of the seeds, even though they had been on my desk for only about two weeks. I wanted to hold onto them a bit more, parcel them out more sparingly.

I think when you get older you tend to develop some kind of skepticism about planting things, or at least a kind of sorrow. Letting loose of them seems more risky, that there is a gamble involved that might not be worth it. In times and places where food is scarce and seeds could just as easily be eaten, you do stop and think about the cost of dropping them into the dirt.

The first time Jesus talks about his death in John’s gospel it’s in comparison to planting wheat, and we get that sense that it is risky. We get the sense that some sorrow and pain is involved because he talks about the whole enterprise in terms suffering. The grain falls into the earth. That’s an interesting word to use for planting. The grain falls, as if it is something that should be upright, or something that could or should be in motion. Soldiers fall in battle, for example. And then once it falls it dies. It gives up its life. Jesus doesn’t say germinates or sprouts, terms that have immediate hope. It dies—that is, it stops being a seed altogether. Its lifespan as a golden-brown seed ordered from Oregon comes to an end.


However, only when that happens is the grain able to produce more grain. Only when the falling and dying first happen will we get the rising and living. Jesus compares himself to that grain of wheat, that in the dying and the rising will God be glorified. Just as he has spoken about losing life to gain it, and tearing the temple down to build it back up, he now speaks about handing himself over in order to gain the life God intends.

Again, this is the kind of life Jesus gets us into. The life in Christ is not about holding back, reserving, clinging to the self. It is about letting go so we can being raised up from the waters of baptism, to the new life we are offered in Christ. As much as we may want to hold the seeds fast a little longer, to savor them in the hand, to feel secure, to savor that potential, it is actually the act of scattering them, of releasing them like 4th graders on a cold March day that we learn in Christ to treasure. We learn to treasure the letting go and even the dying because in the way of God’s glory, new life will rise.

What’s critical in at this point in Jesus’ life and ministry is that this response comes right as he has passed through the gates of Jerusalem for the last time. The people have acclaimed him king and there is a sense of anticipation in the air that things are about to change for God’s people. Right after that happens, we are told Jesus is approached by some Greeks. We don’t have any information about these people. They are probably not Greek-speaking Jews. By “Greeks” John most likely means Gentiles, or non-Jews, people who were of a different culture entirely. These Greeks might be interested in speaking with Jesus because they’ve heard something about him. Perhaps Jesus’ reputation as a teacher has spread and, being Greeks and from the tradition of Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, they’d like to see what he’s about. It is impossible to say what was behind their request, but the noteworthy thing is that Jesus immediately speaks about his death. When given the chance to talk with the Greeks, he doesn’t talk philosophy or the meaning of life. He talks about the importance of his death. He talks suffering. When given the opportunity to reach out and tell more people what he’s about, what he’s offering, Jesus talks about how he’s going to die.

Crucifixion, by Gabriel Metsu

That is critical to understand because so often, even today, the message of Christian faith is often presented as a philosophy or an idea, like something you could stand up next to Confucianism or yoga. None of those things is bad, but they’re not what Jesus is about. Christianity, put simply, isn’t a philosophy or an idea. It is a story. It’s not a collection about thoughts or wisdom about how to live life right. It is centered around an event, something that happened—something that God does. Jesus does not come to investigate the good life or the nature of reality with probing, insightful questions. He comes to die and rise. He comes to be lifted up and draw all people to himself.

And this is furthermore critical because there is a fundamental difference between a philosophy and a story. A philosophy or an idea is something that I apply to my life. I somehow remain the center and I adopt this particular outlook or way of thinking or living in order to better myself or clarify my own path. A story, by contrast, an event is something I apply myself to, something I see myself as part of. It’s a thing that happens and now I find I need to orient my life around this thing that happened, which is what hating my life in this world really means. It means rejecting that I am at the center and all the mentalities that may come from that. When Jesus is approached by new followers who are possibly outside his own fold of Judaism, he responds that he is only as important as his suffering. The core of his message is not some concept we ponder. It’s something we witness. And that thing is his death, being lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself.

This past week in confirmation class we finished our lesson on the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, which is the part that begins, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.” And as a part of that lesson we watch the trial and crucifixion scenes from the 1977 television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. The effect on the confirmands it usually pretty profound. It’s a relatively graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death. The way they typically respond to it is revealing. This past week a couple of students said, while they had heard and read about the death of Jesus plenty of times before, there was something about seeing it that made it more real. It’s hard to turn the message of Jesus into just a philosophy about life when you watch a man bleed and die. It causes you to stop and readjust and think: if this occurrence is indeed true—that the Son of God suffered and died like this, if he was lifted up in this particular way—then the story of my own life needs to reflect that reality somehow. It needs to be lived in response to a God who is honest about human suffering and is ultimately victorious over it. And perhaps that’s why Jesus responds to the Greeks like that, if, in fact, he ever gets to see them. They’re going to find out that Jesus primarily came to suffer and die and in that reveal God’s glory.

a still from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 6-hour epic

I believe that’s also why Dave Delaney, our Synod’s leader for youth and young adult ministry, begins every single youth event with the same song, a version of the Apostles’ Creed. He wants to be clear from the beginning about why they’re gathered. It is nothing other than the gracious work of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus that provides the rationale and foundation for any youth event to occur. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus that allows us to meet today, that allows us to drop the seed of our lives into his.

If this is true—if this suffering that befalls Jesus is true—then there is really nothing else left for us to do but hand ourselves over through the life of baptism. We learn that death isn’t just something that happens at the end of life, but something ongoing, each day an offering, a process of our dying because we know that one day we will be part of that great harvest of new life when all people are drawn to Jesus.


I said there were two things last Sunday that made me think of this lesson. The first was the planting of the wheat with the fourth graders. The second was after church when I gathered with the Mitchell family to place Jim’s remains into a columbarium niche. I did it again yesterday with the Hahn family. It was time to place their fallen loved ones into the eternal care of the God who made them and as we stood there I could see that emotions were rising to the surface. There’s a lot of things to think about in moments like that, a lot of reasons why tears and quivering silence may come. My hunch is, however, that they were thinking in that moment about all the ways Jim and Hank gave themselves away throughout their lives, over and over.

They were remembering not so much individual aspects about their character, but rather all the times Jim or Hank “fell into the soil” during their life—all the times they handed themselves according to the call of Jesus, as father, as grandfather, as child of God—and all the ways those  instances of self-giving ultimately reflected God’s glory.

And as we closed the niche on Sunday and again for Hank yesterday, we had to let go, too. But we let go in the faith that the ground they had been placed in—the waters of their baptism—is the faithful, fertile ground of Jesus Christ, the living Son of God.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Lent 2018: “Fools in Christ”

a reflection on the life and witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero

Isaiah 58:6-9 and Mark 8:34-38


Archbishop Oscar Romero’s life on this earth ended abruptly on March 24, 1980, when a perfectly-aimed assassin’s bullet ripped through the archbishop’s heart as he was standing behind the altar in his church preparing to serve Holy Communion. He died fairly quickly, his blood flowing out of his body on the floor right there in front of the congregation, which consisted that day in the chapel of Hospital the Divine Providence, San Salvador, of a handful of nuns and a few other worshippers. Most people might expect an archbishop to be presiding at a large, grand cathedral, but Oscar Romero, in his humble and foolish fashion, was most often found those days presiding at that small hospital chapel. In fact, that’s not just where he led worship. It’s where he lived, going about with the very people he was called to serve, even though he held the most powerful Roman Catholic office in the country.

As with all martyrs, Oscar Romero’s death becomes the defining point of his life. There is much to say about him. Even though he only served as Archbishop for three years, his influence on the country of El Salvador was (and is) enormous. Nevertheless, there is no other way to speak of his contributions as human being, much less as a fool in Christ, without beginning with the way in which he died.

A martyr is someone who is killed because of his or her faith. Jesus mentions that this is a possibility multiple times to his disciples, telling them that if anyone wants to be his follower they must be prepared to be hated and reviled and be ready to lose their lives. Whatever placed Oscar Romero behind that altar that day, whatever caused him to raise the cup of the Lord in thanksgiving, is also the reason he was placed in the path of that bullet. The person who fired the gun was never formally identified, but it was known relatively quickly that it was a planned attack by right-wing forces aligned with the government.

So, what got Oscar Romero to that moment? What placed him behind that altar was a life humbly dedicated to public ministry of the Church. Born into a rather large Salvadoran family, Oscar finished school through the use of a private tutor and began an apprenticeship with his carpenter father. Although he showed promise in this field, as early as thirteen years old felt called to attend seminary. The first part of his theological education was completed in El Salvador, but he finished it in Rome, where he must have been a good student because he had to wait a year after graduation in order to meet the age requirement for ordination as a priest. He eventually stayed in order to receive a doctoral degree in theology (it was World War II and difficult to travel) but then was called home to El Salvador to serve as a priest.

Oscar Romero as a young priest at the Vatican City

Once back in El Salvador, Romero began a relatively humble but productive 20-year assignment as a priest first in a rural area and then at the seminary in the capital San Salvador. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking or eyebrow-raising about his service there, but he was a go-getter, helping construct the cathedral in San Miguel and starting various community groups including an Alcoholics Anonymous group.

Whether he liked it or not, Romero was eventually swept up in that upheaval after he was consecrated a bishop in 1970. Relatively quiet and dutiful, he served in several positions before finally being enthroned as archbishop in the capital of San Salvador in 1977. This put him close to the levers of political power, although part of what made him an attractive choice to those in office and to the aristocratic class was that he did not seem to desire much of a political voice. Romero was still an intensely devout and personal man and because of his socially conservative views many figured he would remain quiet even as repression from the government increased.

However, that began to change as El Salvador inched closer to civil war right after he assumed that role. El Salvador was a very poor country, dependent on basic agricultural crops like coffee with one of the western hemisphere’s worst distribution of wealth. In the 1970s, 77% of the farmable land was owned by 0.01% of the population. For decades, the ruling elite had ruthlessly quashed peasant rebellions and intentionally disenfranchised the poor so that they could not participate in elections. The Spanish word for these landless poor is campesinos, and there were millions of them Many lived in slums and lacked access to basic things like access to running water, health care, and education. These places of abject poverty became ripe areas for left-wing Marxist groups to recruit new members.

romeroRight as Romero became Archbishop, government-supported military groups began to escalate their tactics of inciting fear and obedience among the masses campesinos. For example, armed guards would show up in the middle of the night and kidnap people who often would never be seen again unless a group or children happened to come across their body in a garbage dump at the edge of the slums. People, including priests were arrested and tortured. Whenever local demonstrations were held, often military caravans would mysteriously show up and open fire, killing hundreds indiscriminately.

For a person of faith to live justly in such complicated and violent times must be difficult, but Romero was able to maintain his level of trust and personal code of morals in the eyes of both sides. The turning point for Oscar Romero seemed to come, however, when one of his close friends and colleagues, Father Rutilio Grande, was massacred with a poor family as he was driving them into town. At this point Romero began to speak out against the government and its abuses of human rights. He tried to influence his contacts in the halls of power, but typically was ignored.

Because he was archbishop, he had a weekly radio broadcast that he would typically use to address the country and preach sermons. He started using that platform each week to list the government’s atrocities, listing by name each week’s kidnappings and cases of torture. There were no reliable forms of national media accessible to the poor, and the government censored most of what was said. Romero’s radio addresses had an overwhelming effect on the people of his country, especially the poor, for it validated their pain and suffering. It is estimated that 73% of the rural population and 37% of the urban population tuned in.

Naturally, those on the left, including some priests who had begun to vocally support the left-wing militia groups, tried to influence Romero to their side, especially as the attacks on the peasants intensified. But Romero renounced them just as strongly. For the archbishop, the unity of Christ’s body was more important than and more sacred than a particular ideology or party.

Archbishop_Oscaro_Romero_with_young_people_in_El_Salvador_in_this_undated_file_photo_Photo_courtesy_of_Arzobispado_de_San_Salvador_Oficina_de_la_Causa_de_Canonizacion_CNA_2_4_15There is one scene in the movie made about Oscar Romero (Romero, 1989) where the wife of one of the president’s cabinet members asks the archbishop to baptize her new baby. Romero says he’ll be happy to do that, but when it becomes clear that she wants a private baptism in a ceremony after worship one day in the cathedral, which had been the former practice, he tells her that’s not possible. He has instituted a policy that requires all baptisms to be performed during worship with everyone there. That clearly disgusts her because it means she will have to worship with all of the campesinos who attend who were often unbathed and smelled bad. Romero tells her that they are her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and furthermore members of her same country. The movie does not show how that particular scenario is resolved, but that was one moment where Romero clearly seemed foolish in the eyes of many.

This devotion to his faith and to the cries of the poor was part of a movement that arose among Roman Catholics in Latin America in the 20th century called “Liberation Theology.” Liberation theology focused on the importance of bringing real freedom from poverty and oppression to the masses. Church leaders who emphasized liberation theology would tell you that living the gospel of Jesus did not just come so that we could achieving personal holiness and peace in whatever situation you were in so that you could one day experience fulfillment in heaven. Rather, the gospel compelled us to “break the bonds of injustice,” as Isaiah says, to do what was needed to liberate people from the prison of horrible living conditions by addressing the sins of society. At one point Romero writes, “It is sad to read that in El Salvador the two main causes of death are: first diarrhea, and second murder.” Both of those, he could see, were caused either directly or indirectly by the oppression of the ruling powers, and liberation theology sought to resolve them.

Ultimately liberation theology was controversial because of how it ended up, in many cases, getting lived out. Romero tended to distance himself from many of those who promoted the more strident forms of liberation theology, seeing that it often led to an unhelpful division in the church. And yet he sympathized with its belief that while God loves all, God does have a preferential option for the poor and marginalized.

SALVADOR SLAIN BISHOPAs a result, Archbishop Romero was seen as foolish by both the right and the left. He was seen as foolish because criticized both for what he called their “mysticism of violence,” the belief that guns and weapons had some sort of ultimate power to resolve any given situation. This particular criticism of the mysticism of violence bears special importance on a day when thousands of school children are walking out in to protest our own country’s mysticism of violence, gun culture, and lack of school safety.

He was seen as foolish by both because he held strictly to the belief that God’s kingdom is not beyond our efforts, even though it is beyond our vision. Neither left nor right was trying to build a future in line with Jesus’. Once he wrote in a meditation: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace and enter and do the rest…We are prophets of a future not our own.”[1]

But mostly he came across foolish because he believed the poor had a voice, and that the Church had a responsibility to listen to it, and to realize there is blessing in being near to the poor, the hungry, the mourning. As he said, “There are many things than can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Just as his radio voice crackled and popped into the dusty, damp shantytown living rooms across his shackled country, echoing their sorrows, the church has a responsibility to put its ear to those who don’t often get heard.

Our baptism is a death, a handing over of the self-centered person we are born. And we rise from the waters, called to a life following Jesus in anticipation of our own resurrection. This places us, too, both behind an altar of holiness, claimed by a kingdom that is not of this world, but also in the crosshairs of sinful forces in this world. Any follower of Christ should feel the tension of that foolish but holy situation. Perhaps it’s at school, when we listen to the ones who are bullied or befriend them. Perhaps it’s here in our own city when we listen to debates about memorials to the Confederacy. Any congregation should feel the call to participate in God’s liberation of God’s people so that, as Isaiah says, “healing may spring up quickly.”

After the one worship service one of our members who volunteers for HHOPE told of a conversation he had with a guest where he offered to come to their home and help them with something. She respectfully told him “no” because she didn’t want him to come to a place so unsafe. This is just a few miles from our church.

The day before he was shot Archbishop Romero gave a sermon where he pleaded with the scrawny, often starving government soldiers to defy orders and not shoot their own campesino brothers and sisters. And in the sermon minutes before he was shot that following day, he had said, “Those who surrender to the poor through love of Christ, will live like a grain of wheat that dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies.”

His funeral, held a few days later, drew a crowd of 250,000 people in San Salvador’s main square. It is still considered to be one of the largest public demonstrations in all of Latin America’s history, a whole harvest of hope for a world crying out for Christ’s kingdom.

Last week, the Pope in Rome announced that Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, fool in Christ who now is liberated fully in God’s promises of new life, will be declared a saint. Millions of campesinos already knew he was one.

the crowd at the funeral of Oscar Romero in San Salvador

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr

[1] From a meditation attributed to Archbishop Romero, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own.”

Tearing down to build up

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year B]

John 2:13-22 and I Corinthians 1:18-25


It was our first Christmas here in Richmond, with two pre-school age daughters, when we decided they needed one of those little play kitchens. It was ordered from somewhere on-line and delivered in a large, heavy cardboard box. We hid it until Christmas Eve when, late after worship was over, my dear father and I proceeded to put it together.

It was not an IKEA product, and so is was not an intuitive project, and it took a while for us to lay all of the parts and pieces out on the floor and figure out what drawing they corresponded to on the instructions. Things were going along fairly well and it was really starting to look like something when we realized we had installed one board of the oven facing the wrong way. It was a simple mistake, really, but one that we soon figured out couldn’t be ignored, since it had holes and grooves that would be integral later in the assembly.

It was in the wee hours of the morning of Christmas Day by this point. We knew the girls would be up at dawn. Even though I was exhausted from multiple worship services that day, saving it for another time was not an option. There was no escaping our fate: we had to tear down what we had in order to build it back up in just a couple of hours. And I have to tell you that the moment it actually dawned on me that we were going to have to do that was not my finest moment. I may have displayed some behavior at that point that was not very Christmas-like. We did manage to get it rebuilt, but until the day it was outgrown and left our house for the second-hand store, it had a little bolt sticking out from the side that wouldn’t go all the way in to remind us of that episode.


Tearing down in order to rebuild. Dismantling something that is—a structure, a program, a mindset—in order to put it back together again even better. This is part of the life of Jesus, the life we hold fast. We hold it fast—we hold it tightly, as if our life depends on it—because we repeatedly hear Jesus talking in these terms about his own life. He himself speaks of losing life in order to truly gain it, of being killed before he can be raised, and since in baptism we are united to him and become a part of his body, it stands to reason that this particular kind of life will be what we experience, too, in our relationship with him. The experience of saving faith is one where God is systematically dismantling us and our perceptions of God so that he can build something new which will reflect his love to the world even better.

That’s precisely what Jesus is talking about and doing  when he goes to the Temple in Jerusalem just before Passover one year. It’s his first trip there, and for a guy who was raised out in what was kind of like the boondocks of Galilee, the metropolis of Jerusalem was a big deal. The Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was the center of Jewish life and religion. Enormous and occupying the highest point of the city, it was always humming with activity, and here at the Passover it would have been especially busy.

For Jesus’ people, having a relationship with God meant having some sort of relationship to that Temple. Most people would have made pilgrimages there on occasion, and some came every year. In John’s gospel, Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem and the Temple that we know about. Even if you never had the chance to visit it, you sang psalms about it in worship and referred to it in your private prayers. It symbolized God’s presence on earth, and Jesus’ people believed that God actually resided inside of it. Rulers and kingdoms could come and go, but ideally that Temple would remain, a sign of God’s eternal presence. The Temple that stood at Jesus’s time had been constructed over a series of centuries. The most recent expansions had been under Herod the Great, the Herod who was on the throne at the time Jesus was born.

herod's temple
a depiction of the Temple at the time of Jesus

Therefore, when Jesus walks into the Temple and declares that he will tear it down and build it up, he sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And if that’s not bad enough, he also displays some very un-Christmas-like behavior while he’s there. It doesn’t seem like his finest moment. He walks in and the first thing he sees are the animals for sale and the tables used to exchange Roman and Greek coins into approved Jewish currency, and he basically loses his temper. It looks like a place of commerce rather than a place to connect with God.

Jesus Drives out the Traders in the Temple (El Greco)

All of those merchants would have meant well by what they were doing. There is no evidence here that they are corrupt or engaged in any kind of extortion. That is just the kind of thing that the Temple needed to support at the time so that people could approach worship  and make the appropriate sacrifices. Sometimes I think churches can fall into the same system, even though we mean well. Sometimes you walk into our church and the first thing you see is a donation basket or a Christmas tree with gift tags on it, or the last thing you encounter as you leave is someone holding a bag. To one person those things may communicate that our congregation is generous and aware of the needs of its communities. To others those things may evoke guilt or resentment, like they’re being asked for money—that there is an expectation right up front that they give or participate in some drive, even before they’ve said a prayer.

So for Jesus, what he sees in the Temple is a problem. He drives out the merchants and then says they can tear it all down because he will build it back up. Of course, we know that he is talking about himself. The point is the temple in Jerusalem—that particular place—will no longer be the site where God dwells with his people. And neither will God require any longer our sacrifice of animals or offerings. All of that now is Jesus. Both things—and more—bundled into one person. Jesus’ presence is where people experience the nature of God. Jesus’ actions are how people will come to know what God is like. Jesus’ words are the way people will understand the knowledge of God. And Jesus’ sacrifice of himself is our connection to God is going to be sustained.

On the cross, Jesus himself will be torn down by human sin and pride and yet God will still be able to build it back up. On the cross, God continues to tears down our beliefs of what God is like and builds up something more righteous in its place. God dismantles our understandings of wisdom and power and replaces them with foolishness and weakness. Jesus conquers by losing and wins everything for God by handing himself over.


This kind of tearing down and rebuilding according to Jesus’ blueprint is happening all of the time with us in the life of faith. I remember that when I began seminary one of our professors informed us that our faith would likely be challenged and reformed by what we were learning.

The way he worded it was he said that our “mental furniture would be rearranged.” How is God rearranging your mental furniture these days? What can God tear down and then rebuild in your life so that you can more fully live into the covenant that God made with you at baptism to live among God’s faithful people, to hear his Word and share in his supper, and to serve all people in the manner of Jesus Christ, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

We can see this tearing down and rebuilding in a congregation’s life together. As we prepare for major renovations and expansions, we are realizing that many of our current spaces will be, in essence, unscrewed, broken down, and then put back together in new ways. This is nothing new.  I know it can feel new and uncomfortable at times, but this is a natural process of doing faith together with a God who meets us on the cross. This building itself does not constitute our faith, but it does allow our ministries to house the ministry of Jesus, and throughout a congregation’s history dismantling must occur if it is to better embody Christ for our community and for each other.

Epiphany street view
Our little “temple,” constantly under [re]construction
In fact, I was surprised to learn just how much this physical dismantling and rebuilding has already occurred in the history of our congregation. For example, the Upper Room, the large room at the end of the 2nd floor of our Education Wing where our confirmation classes meet, used to be the fellowship hall. What is currently the faith formation director’s office used to be the parish library, and where the library is now—in the parlor—used to be the choir room. The utility closets along the hallway here used to be bathrooms. And in a repurposing that can only be described as ironic, the current nursery used to be the pastor’s offices. All this information was given to me by the archives ministry team, which is housed in a room adjacent to the narthex that used to be a coat closet. In the architect’s proposed plans, which will soon be made visible to the congregation, they are proposing that be a new family bathroom (where people can change diapers!) and the archives will go down to where Cheryl’s office is.

And tearing down and building up is not just a physical reality. At our Council retreat last weekend, we spent some time discussing ministries in the life of Epiphany that have either died or are suffering and then also areas that are feeling like a resurrection, where new ministries are being built. It was a fantastic and enlightening conversation for me to be a part of, and I heard good things I didn’t expect to hear, but what it revealed to me again is that the life of faith, even for congregations, always involves this turning over, this standing back and looking at the toy kitchen we’re building on Christmas Eve and realizing to make it even better God will tear some things down. And because Jesus is always with us, this is much easier.

Though it can be uncomfortable at times, the dawn is still coming. We need to remember the morning will soon break, the feet will pitter-pat down the stairs, and all the world will be made new. And after all the screws and grooves are lined up by his grace we’re going to look fantastic.

cross with clouds Epiphany

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Presidents Day

Peas went in today. Hope springs eternal.

They’re the first thing in the soil, little shriveled green test balloons

scouting out the plausibility of May. I have a hard time believing

in this practice every year. Things look barren. The air is cold. I’m cold.

And lonely: only a couple of earthworms wriggled exposed in the loam

my shovel turned over. Frost will come and come. Perhaps snow.

And whatever mystery vermin that took them last year.

But I ran my fingers along the dark line and dropped them in anyway

because hope springs eternal and I’ve been taught life can come from anywhere

A bid to come and die

a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent [Year B]

Mark 8:31-38


“And that thou bidd’st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come. I come.” (Just As I Am, Charlotte Elliot)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”[1] We’ll hear more about Bonhoeffer this week during our Lenten Wednesday worship service, but those blunt words in his most famous work sound like Jesus’s own words in Mark’s gospel. When Christ calls a man—or a woman, or a person who’s never heard of the gospel before, or a person who was baptized as a baby, or a person who’s memorized the Bible or a person who’s wary of organized religion—Christ bids that person to come and die. It’s that simple. And it’s that central to Jesus’ message.

In fact, in Mark’s gospel, it is literally and numerically central, coming smack in the middle, like the fulcrum of a see-saw, or the Grand Central Station of the gospel. Eight chapters before it, eight chapters after it, and all sense of who Jesus is runs through it. Or—more like a brick wall—runs into it. The life with Jesus Christ—the life we hold fast, the life extended to us by God’s grace—is first and foremost a life about dying and losing, forgetting and letting go. Just as Abram loses his name to become Abraham once God establishes his covenant with him, and just as Sarai loses her old identity to become Sarah, when we respond to the call to follow Jesus it involves loss. And this is not limited to those who hear a call to enter seminary or to serve the church in some professional fashion. The call to follow Jesus and to live as one of his disciples is issued to everyone and can be lived out in any scenario, situation, or setting. When Christ calls you he calls you to come and die.

Peter’s Confession at Caesarea Philippi

We always hear this with a bit of shock, I believe, for we live in the midst of a culture nowadays which adores pretty much the opposite. We are raised to assert ourselves, our rights and privileges. We live in a society which loves to talk about freedom and honor, which rightly holds in high regard things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But into all of that Jesus comes and talks first and foremost about death, self-denial, and the pursuit of suffering. It’s a contrast we have to deal with. We are fixated on taking up arms, for example. Jesus says take up a cross.

Maybe it’s comforting to know it’s a shock to the first disciples, too. They’ve watched him for a while now be the center of wonderful scenes of life and rebirth. He seems to be building a kingdom on winning, because in situation after situation he defeats things—disease, hunger, angry opponents. Then he brings them to the gleaming new town of Caesarea Philippi, the town built by the high cliff near Mt Hermon and near an ancient worship site to a pagan god. Caesarea Philippi was impressive and contained countless monuments to the Emperor. With that as the backdrop, Jesus asks them “Who do you say that I am?”

After running through a list of names and identities that other people think Jesus might be—Elijah, John the Baptist—Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Another way to say this is “the Christ.” Messiah and Christ are synonyms—one is Hebrew and the other is Greek. They both mean “the anointed One,” or the one specially identified by God as his chosen leader.

It happens to be where we get the middle of our mission statement, worship the Christ. To make a faith statement about Jesus is to say that Jesus is the Christ, even though it often gets shortened to Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, Ecce Homo (Damian Gierlach)

So, as soon as Peter correctly confesses Jesus as the Christ, Jesus starts talking about his upcoming suffering and death. And whereas before Jesus has been very hush-hush about everything he does, now he talks quite openly. He once would heal someone or cast out a demon and immediately tell everyone to be quiet about it. But here, as soon as he begins talking about dying and being rejected, he becomes less secretive. The reason is because before anyone can really know who Jesus is, they have to come to terms with these crucial things about him. He comes to suffer, to be rejected, to die and to rise. His kingdom is built on those four actions, the first three of which involve losing. They are woven into the fabric, built into the foundation, baked right into the cake. We can’t really know who he is and what he’s about until we come to terms with this Grand Central Station part of his story.

And Peter’s response to this is our response to it. We don’t initially want to be a part of a kingdom or follow a leader that is going to die or be rejected, especially if it means we’re going to die and be rejected too, if it means we have to leave some things about ourselves behind.

Our almost-two-year-old was given an Elmo doll and a Cookie monster doll about two weeks ago, and he pretty much hasn’t let them loose since. He sleeps with them in the night and all day he walks around with them, one in each arm. They’ve become a part of who he is. It’s interesting, though, to watch his little thought process when he realizes he’s going to have to let one go in order to hold onto his cup for a drink. There’s always a bit of a pause, a bit of reassessing just how thirsty he is, and sometimes attempts to see if he can grab a drink while still holding on to one of them. Eventually, though, he realizes he has to lose one of them to gain the drink.

In a nutshell, that’s the call of Jesus to the disciple. Let go. Die to yourself. Change your name and move on. After the loss will come a new gain.

Much of the nation was moved this week by the death of Billy Graham, the great evangelist of the 20th century. His body will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol this week, only the fourth private citizen in history to receive that honor. Like many strong, religious leaders, Graham had both ardent followers and people who really didn’t care for him. Depending on who you talk to, his legacy is mixed—but then again, all of our legacies are somewhat mixed, aren’t they? I came along after his most influential years, but I do know of the crusades that he popularized where people would be offered a chance to come forward and respond to Jesus’ call, to commit their lives to God’s kingdom and, in their language, “be saved.”


To say having that particular kind of religious experience is required in order to follow Jesus is wrong. Quite simply, not everyone is built to experience that kind of emotion in that way, nor is God limited to reaching people in such a setting. Nor is there a set formula for receiving and confessing the Christ, as if it is a once-and-done affair. However, it does sound as if Graham’s crusades did evoke that sense of leaving one thing behind, risking change, risking rejection in order to gain what Jesus offered, and that was powerful and true and meaningful for many people.

But for many others, the life of baptism that Martin Luther talks about is also powerful and true and meaningful. Baptism, itself, is a death. Paul talks about how it’s a drowning. It’s a losing of self and gaining of Christ that is a daily event, once begun at the waters and ever continued. It is a realization that each day, in each moment, we are called to let go of the Elmo and grab the sippy cup…that God’s grace is ultimately so powerful and so good we let loose of ourselves and gain the life the Christ is.

When our self, for example, tells us we’re priority numero uno, to die means heeding the needs of those around us. When our self tells us to shout so that others can hear, to die means to listen and observe. When our self is sure it is right about something, to die means to entertain the thought we may be wrong. When our self says that we are sufficient on our own, to die means learning how dependent we actually are on each other. It goes on and on like this. The crusade, as it turns out, isn’t an event in a stadium. It is a life of handing ourselves over and taking up the cross.

People in recovery from drug addiction and substance abuse can articulate this better than I can. Maybe better than anyone, in fact. Their lives are wonderful examples of losing and gaining. I certainly got a better understanding of this last night, in fact, as we gathered with dozens of people for the candlelight vigil for people who’ve lost their lives to addiction. Going into it, I was unsure of exactly where the most suitable spot for the vigil would be. I had offered the flat area in our grass by the thousands of crosses, but then thought perhaps they needed solid ground to stand on. Maybe the parking lot and sidewalk in front of the church would be better. But as the vigil began, the crowd naturally gathered right under the cross, without any direction from me at all, and the person leading it stood on that little stone marker right at its base. So fitting. And there, under the towering sign of God’s great loss in order to gain us, with candle-glow reflecting off of teary cheeks and glistening eyes, we heard the woman speak openly and bluntly about her own losing and gaining, about the hellish life she had to let go of eleven years ago and what freeing life of recovery she is gaining. It was clear that it was not a once-and-one event, that her salvation from addiction was not something finished, but, like the life of baptism, it is ongoing. Each day she’s learning to set her mind on divine things, not on human things. The life she knows now—her recovery—is a life she holds fast.

cross vigil

I think that’s what Jesus is going for there at the base of Caesarea Philippi, with all his disciples standing around. He’s getting them to see they’ll be in recovery once they follow him, recovery from an old life they’re losing and a new life they’re gaining. We could learn a lot about ourselves by listening to their stories and their descriptions of what recovery means to them.

And we’d learn a lot just by listening, period. Like Jesus wants Peter to listen to him. We could learn a lot just by listening. To others. To the Christ who suffers. To the One who loves us unconditionally, life without end. We can do that—we can listen and follow—as we die ourselves. And know that the God of steadfast love always has us, always calls us. Just as we are, without one plea.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer

Roses are Red, Ashes are Black

A sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17


Roses are red
Violets are blue
Some day I will die
And so will you.

Roses are red
Ashes are black
Tell me I’m dust
And I’ll tell you right back.

When Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide, you might as well take advantage of it!

I ran across a couple of other possible holiday cards for today’s occasion:

             “Won’t you be my valentine, you miserable offender?”


“Remember you are dust, but awfully loveable dust!”

And, for Roman Catholics:

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I don’t want chocolate. It’s fish fries or bust.”

There is actually a hashtag trending on Twitter for today: #AshWednesDate, as in, “Won’t you be my AshWednesDate?” That reminds me of the time when I was studying abroad in Germany after college and I liked this one young woman and finally asked her to go on a date with me one day. She said “yes,” and since we both had an interest in the local history and culture, I took her on a tour of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Turns out that’s not the most romantic place for a date. My buddies never let me live that one down.


So maybe Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday don’t really go together all that well after all. Death kind of clashes with sweet reminders of love, at least the kind of love that Hallmark envisions. But it does strike me as interesting that while school kids across the nation will be taking scissors and cutting out millions of construction paper hearts today, priests and pastors throughout the world will be tracing millions of ashen crosses across foreheads young and old.

And on the same day many people will be rushing to the florist or the candy shop at the last minute to purchase something that will remind their significant other of their love, as many more of us are somberly shuffling into worship services to be reminded of their mortality.

It is as good a time as ever, then, to remember that love is what draws us here. But this is no frilly, cutesy, chocolate-covered love. This is the enduring love of the Creator. As the prophet Joel announces to the people of God, it is the “slow-to-anger, aboundingly-steadfast love” of the same God who first fashioned us from the dust.

Joel inserts this important reminder of what God’s love is actually like into his call to repentance. Joel is calling them to return to God because death itself is staring them in the eye. The Day of the Lord that is storming onto their horizon is not going to be the party atmosphere they had expected. It is a day of gloom and thick darkness. Like an army, a massive infestation of locusts will wipe out their crops and lead to a famine and thousands may die. Their situation is not due so much to the fact that God has deliberately sent the plague to punish them as it is that their thoughtless living has left them vulnerable to these kinds of calamities. Joel speaks to a people of God who have essentially forgotten their responsibility to one another and to the poor in their midst. They’ve lived as if they don’t need to worry about the damage their selfishness can do to themselves and others. They’ve lived as if they have all the time in the world. The prophet sees this this impending disaster as a kind of wake-up call from all of that.

That is the purpose of the ashes today. It’s an impending disaster, a reminder that though we are beautiful and good, we are neither as beautiful or good as we should be. We have wandered from our holy calling to be examples of God’s righteousness in the world, and it grieves God. And yet God invites us to return to him, to change direction and face that fact not in a sense of fear or doom, but in the hope of love, of steadfast love. We are given the opportunity by a gracious God to rend our heart—to rip that carefully cut Valentine heart—instead of our clothing. That is, to let this reality of death shake us to our core, not just on the surface through platitudes, and know there is nevertheless forgiveness and cleansing and life in God’s care.


And therefore a Valentine’s Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to come to terms with the two messages that enable us to truly live as God’s people: “You will die,” and “You are loved.” The two statements which, when placed together, free us to be who we are created and redeemed to be are “Remember you are dust,” and “Remember you are loved.”

Just as in Joel’s prophecy, both are vitally important, and nothing more really needs to be said. Knowing we are going to die reminds us we don’t have all the time in the world. We make mistakes. We aren’t perfect. The ignoring of death leads us to make all kinds of harmful decisions to ourselves and others. Hearing we are dust reminds us of our need of God’s eternal care and, just as importantly, forces us to come to terms with our common bonds with others, of our responsibility to live as God’s fragile people together, aware of our needs, not to live as God’s individuals who are out to get what they can while they can.

But hearing that we are also loved lifts us up. It reminds us of another aspect of who we are—that we still have worth through God’s steadfast love. It reminds us of the great lengths God has gone to have us return to him, to make us God’s own.


And that’s why the shape of love on our foreheads tonight will not be a heart, but a cross. It is a symbol that manages to encompass both: a sign of where our brokenness takes us—of the place human sinfulness always leads—but also a sign of what true love looks like. This love is selfless…it is for the other…it gives its life. It says “You, child, are dust, but you are my dust.”

We live in a world that offers few healthy perspectives on death or love. It tends to glorify the one through violence, a sick fetish with weaponry, or through a self-loathing that thinks of death as a solution to problems, and it sentimentalizes or oversexualizes the other. In this midst of all this, the follower of Christ stands somewhat as a fool. We are God’s funny Valentines to the world, honest about our own shortcomings, and honest about what death does to God’s creation and our relationships.

But we also get to be honest about the love that has been given to us for the sake of others. We are freed to live our faith in ways that hold those two things in tension. We confront the darkness in ourselves and others, but we also proclaim that God has reconciled it all to himself in Jesus.

On Wednesdays this Lent we will explore the lives of some notable fools in Christ, people who have been particularly outstanding examples of that reconciliation between God and humankind, people who strove in their unique witness to remind others both of the world’s sin but also of God’s steadfast love. As a bridge of saints connecting Valentine’s Ash Wednesday and an April Fool’s Easter, they will inspire us to give thanks for the people who have gone before us. As people who share our baptism—Harriet, Dietrich, Francis, Oscar, Catherine—they will encourage us to live into our own baptismal call as fools in this dying world…and into the message of tonight’s ashes…that (hmm, how shall I say this today?)…

Roses are red
Violets are mauve
Both broken and beautiful
We’re marked by God’s love.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Temporary Chapel

A sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year B]

2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9


St. Mary’s Hospital down the road here has a beautiful chapel that happens to be under renovation at the moment. I don’t know what they’re doing to it or how long it will take, but they’ve got that whole area around the doors boarded off. There’s no telling what’s really going on behind there. In the meantime, however, the hospital authorities have taken a plain-old, ordinary board room, and fancied it up a little with some religious decoration. They’ve set up chairs in rows all facing one direction sort of like pews, and there is a table in the front that looks like it is standing in as an altar. They’ve got a sign on the wall outside the door that welcomes people in and lets them know that although at first glance it appears to be a plain-old ordinary board room, it is actually the place where daily mass and the prayers of the Rosary occur. Clearly someone has gone to some lengths to make it feel like a place where someone could connect with God.

The hospital calls it—get this—the Temporary Chapel, and all over the first floor of the hospital there is very well-placed and easy-to-read signage that points you to it in case you find yourself needing a moment of solitude and prayer. But they want you to know it is just the Temporary Chapel. It’s not the real chapel, but it will do for now. It’s not anything close to what the final version of the hospital’s chapel will look like or feel like, but it is a promise they are working on it. It is nice enough for the purpose it needs to serve, but it is also a reminder that not too far down the road there will be something better.

The transfiguration of Jesus is like a temporary chapel. Jesus is changed before the disciples’ eyes into something glorious, but it is not the final version of his glory. The transfiguration is a powerful moment where the disciples connect with Jesus’ divine identity but it is not anywhere close to what they will eventually experience in him. And it is a nice enough gathering for now, this dazzling moment of wonder and awe, but the transfiguration is never meant to be the end of the journey. It is only meant to be temporary, a plain-old ordinary mountaintop briefly transformed into a holy space for the disciples to be reminded that there’s going to be something better.

Transfiguration (Fra Angelico, 1442)

And that’s why Peter’s idea to stay there, to build some tents and camp out there, ultimately makes no sense. No one is going to set up shop in the Temporary Chapel at St. Mary’s or change the official floorplans and the blueprints of the building because they’ll eventually be moving back into the renovated one. Likewise, Jesus does not bring the disciples up the mount of transfiguration as the final stop on his journey as the Son of God. It is a moment of glory that somehow points to the final one. Just like people often go to the top of a mountain in order to get a better lay of the land, to see farther afield, Peter, James, and John are brought to the top of the mountain to see what lies in Jesus’ distant future.

Of course, then, the whole point of the transfiguration is to look at it. It’s not clear that they’re supposed to understand it when it happens, but they disciples are supposed to use their eyes and see it. Jesus’ clothes become bright white, his appearance changes, and there’s the arrival of Israel’s two all-time greatest historical figures, the prophets Moses and Elijah. These are all things that they pick up on through their sense of sight.

I often think that for modern folks like us this event, which is told in three of the four gospels, sounds a bit too much to believe. The other night we were watching the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and I kept having a hard time believing that what I was seeing on my screen was real. At one point, the announcers even slipped in that people in the stadium were actually not seeing everything we were seeing on our televisions. Some of the graphics and computer animations were designed to be visible only through the camera and broadcast this to those in their homes. The announcer had a word for it. She called it “augmented reality.”


For us the transfiguration has this quality of being augmented reality, something that is told to us that may not have been experienced exactly like that for the people who were there. Regardless, the early Christians took this seriously. It was a key event for them because they were fighting against a distorted form of Christianity known as Gnosticism (which we’re still fighting now) that taught and thought that God could only be experienced through things like meditation and reading certain secret books and learning special sayings. As dreamy as the transfiguration may sound to us nowadays, it was actually a sign that God had a visible representative here on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Looking at him, no matter how perplexing and overwhelming it may be sometimes, will be vital to understanding God.

That’s similar to what Elisha goes through as he forces himself to watch his mentor and companion Elijah leave him. It’s clearly painful and uncomfortable for him to go through with it, even though it is ultimately to his benefit. He will gain a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. It’s often how we talk about the difficulty of watching a loved one die. Sometimes we’ll even say we don’t want to go visit grandma or our parents in the hospital or nursing home because we don’t want to see them in that state. We’ll say, “I don’t go visit much because I can’t bear to see her like that,” or even, “I don’t want to look at her because that’s not my grandma anymore,” as if she’s somehow left a look-alike there in the bed and slipped out to another room. I know that when I went to visit my 99-year-old grandmother back at Thanksgiving she was very different from the sprightly woman I grew up knowing. She didn’t even know who we all were gathered in her nursing home room. But it was no less her. It’s painful to see someone leave us, painful to think of being left utterly alone, painful to miss the old times and yet there’s something deeply healthy for us about watching that transformation occur, even as we lose them. God still teaches us and speaks to us even in those final moments that are so hard to live through.



And that’s exactly what Peter, James, and John are going to have to go through, too. As important as it is for them to look at Jesus on during that transfiguration and learn that God’s own Son can actually be seen and therefore followed, the most important part of watching Jesus comes after they’re down the mountain. The disciples must watch as Jesus slowly, gradually, leaves them, involving himself more and more in his mission to suffer and die.

Everything up until this point has been winning for Jesus. He’s cast out demons, he’s healed sick people, even those on the edge of death. He’s won arguments with his opponents, he’s exercised miraculous power over nature. Now he begins what looks like losing. He will lose himself to the powers of darkness and evil. He will lose himself to the visions of grandeur and militaristic discipleship that the disciples have. And he will lose himself completely on the cross. Everything he is and everything he has will be snuffed out like a candle.


And so this is a temporary chapel, right here on the mountain. We cannot stay here, but we learn it is good for us to look at Jesus now because it will not seem to match with what comes next. Maybe that’s why the voice from God says to listen to him. When we don’t know what to do, like Peter, when we find it hard to watch God or even find him in the story of our lives, we can at least listen to him. When we find it too difficult to see the glory of God in our world because things are too broken, we can always hear him speaking. We can hear him in the words of Scripture. We can still hear him calling to us in the lyrics of hymns. We can hear him as we gather around the table: “This is my body, given for you.” Given for us…even as he loses himself for us.


When Elisha finishes watching Elijah disappear into heaven and the sweet chariot swings low to carry him home, Elisha is left alone. He tears his clothes in sorrow and anguish. But the disciples are never left alone. After the glory of the transfiguration fades and the cloud disappears, there he is: only Jesus. He walks down the mountain with them into the valleys and towns below. And on to Golgotha, where it’s only Jesus. And even on the Sunday after he is crucified, after the clouds of Good Friday roll away, there he is…only Jesus!

As disciples, we are called into the service therefore of one who never really leaves us. Although the road can get rough and wind its way through scenes of endless renovation, the Spirit calls us to stare into the dark places and not avert our eyes, to venture into the struggle of the human condition and not despair. Jesus calls us to address the needs of the world without short-circuiting the work that God’s Spirit can accomplish in suffering.

For one day the real chapel will be finished, fully renovated according to God’s design. Oh, you, who are walking through the dark, meandering hallways of life, you who long to see your dear ones’ faces and not just in your mind’s memory…one day the gleaming Chapel will be finished, and he will gather us there. The one whose blood and tears have put it together will call out, and we will hear his voice and listen. The light that shines in our hearts now, that light which pierces the world’s shadows through our acts of love and mercy and kindness—that light is his light and one day it will be all we see.

And it will be good for us to be there. So good. Best.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Back in the Game

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Lectionary 5B]

Mark 1:29-39 and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23


The National Football League’s season comes to an end today. The Philadelphia Eagles will face off against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, which, lucky for the players, will be held indoors. It is supposed to be 6 degrees in the host city of Minneapolis today.

There is one NFL player who will be watching from the warmth of his home, and not just because his team didn’t advance through the playoffs. He will not be playing, and he is still not playing football because he was just released from the hospital this week from a spinal injury he received in a game on December 4. It is Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Ryan Shazier. Those who follow him on Instagram know that he has been very tight-lipped about the details of his injury and his progress. What’s clear is that he lost feeling in his legs, had spinal stabilization surgery, and now it appears he spends a lot of time in a wheelchair. He’s only 25 years old, and while his injury is by all accounts severe, his hope of returning one day to the football field is undimmed. Shazier doesn’t just want to get better; he wants to play again. Shazier doesn’t just want his legs to work; he wants to workout his legs in football.

Ryan Shazier at Steelers practice, January 10

It occurs to me that’s actually our hope whenever a football player gets injured on the field. There’s a moment of shock and fright whenever a player goes down, and everyone hopes he’s OK—“quick…how many fingers am I holding up?”—but the real joy comes whenever a player picks himself up, checks out with the medics, and returns to the formation immediately. For Shazier and for others, that healing is just taking a little longer. The hope of purpose is no less there, which is why when Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law she jumps right back to work. They’re all like “Quick, how many fingers am I holding up?” but she brushes their hand out of the way, pops out of bed, and wheels in a cart of stuffed grape leaves and pinot noir.

This is not a statement about proper gender roles in first century Judaism or now. It’s about what it means to be healed, to be restored to purpose. It’s the hope of everyone who’s ever been knocked down, who’s ever been wounded in an accident, gotten a diagnosis, been in recovery, had their name on the transplant list. It’s the deep desire of everyone who’s struggled with a demon of any kind, everyone whose livelihood has been warped by society’s hurtful labels. Full healing, you see, is not limited to physical remedy—to having the fever go down, as in Simon’s mother-in-law’s case—but allows one the chance to re-engage in community as one of its members. It is, as Shazier knows, to get back in the game.



And there’s a whole city of people now outside of the house in Capernaum where Jesus is staying who think there’s a chance they can get back into the game. Those who’ve walked have come there themselves on foot, but many have been brought and carried by friends and relatives. Jesus has, at this point, performed just one healing, not counting Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s hard to get a handle on that because we read Scripture in little bits and pieces throughout the year, but we’re still in the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has had one seemingly unplanned encounter in the synagogue with a man who has an unclean spirit and within one day he’s a celebrity. By night-time they are there on the sidewalk, on the road, dropped the door. Simon’s house looks like a Wal-Mart parking lot in the wee hours of Black Friday.

In this crowd we see a whole humanity that is held back from the game of life. They’ve stopped whatever they’re doing to find this man who releases people from their burdens. There’s a sense of desperation, like they’ll do whatever it takes to see the person who can restore hope and purpose to them.

The wife of one of my colleagues was diagnosed with a relatively rare form of cancer a few years ago. The two of them have two young children and are living overseas. She’s in constant treatment now to beat back the tumors in her body. This week I just happened to hear on the radio a report that scientists in Boston had announced a very promising new hope for a cure for her type of cancer. I actually haven’t had any direct contact with him in years, but I found the article on-line and sent it to him anyway, thinking that surely he’d already heard about it. He is always super on-top of things in all aspects of life. To my surprise, he hadn’t heard about it, and within a couple of hours he had responded to me, saying, “I can’t thank you enough for this. It looks like they have not moved to clinical trial yet, but I will be contacting them and we’ll be first on the list.”

waiting room at a health care clinic in South Africa


Jesus has a list by the morning of his second day of ministry, and he works and works, never letting up. I imagine the size of the crowd never decreases. With every healing, another two or three new people show up. What is he in all of this? He is living, breathing proof that God wants to heal his people, to set them free from whatever is holding them back. He is a strong clue, right here at the beginning, that God is about restoring people to life.

If you think about it, there are so many characteristics and qualities which people ascribe to God. People will say things like, “God will only give you what you can handle,” as if God is handing out maladies and challenges. Or we’ll hear things like, “God has a plan. Everything happens for a reason,” as if God is primarily about knitting together some secret story for every individual’s life and we’re supposed to decipher it and lucky for you if you figure yours out! God even gets looped into political party agendas and platforms, leading some of us to believe that if we vote one particular way then we’re voting against God or the Bible itself. Some aspects of those thoughts and theories may be helpful to some people, but generally-speaking it’s best we leave them alone. When he opens the door of Simon’s house that morning and sees the mass of humanity there, he doesn’t shout out, “God only gives you what you can handle!” or “Vote Democrat—or vote Republican—in the next election and this will all take care of itself.” Here, right at the beginning of Jesus’ story we get a clear description of what God is truly about, the fundamental character of God’s kingdom. It is to restore people to life—to give power to the faint, as Isaiah says, to lift up the lowly.


However, it’s not just Simon’s mother-in-law and all those sick folks who are having their purpose restored. It is about Jesus having his own purpose restored and rebooted, right here at the beginning. At the end of that first day, in the morning, Jesus escapes somehow to pray. It takes his disciples a while to find them, but when they do, they remind him that there are more people at that door. They’ve all come searching for Jesus.

And he could have just as easily, I suppose, gone back the next day and started over. There was certainly plenty to do! And if he had, then you and I today might just be additional members of what would be called the First Church of Capernaum. Faith would perhaps consist of traveling there to see the great healer, over and over, when we needed him. But he doesn’t return there. When he hears his disciples say, “Everyone is searching for you.” Jesus responds with, “Let’s keep moving.” It’s as if Jesus already understands that already this early it’s going to be easy to get the roles reversed, to flip who is supposed to be searching for whom. With so much need in the world, it’s going to be so easy to turn God into the object of our searching, the basis of our faith, when really we’re the ones God is seeking out.

It would have been so easy, I think, for Jesus to have stayed put, to have people put their name on the list, to set up an appointment, but that’s not who God came to be for us. God’s purpose in Christ Jesus is to enter our world, not make us come to his. “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” And on and on through Galilee he goes, working his way into all kinds of hurt and human turmoil.

Eventually he works his way to the cross where he shows the depth of his desire to search us out to get us back into the game.

The architect who is working on our “Brighten Our Light renovations and additions is an active member of a congregation here in Richmond. He sent me an email this week out of the blue that contained a presentation he had attended at his church about the gifts and challenges of being church in this day and age. It contained thought-provoking information about the fact that Boomers are beginning to retire, Generation X is now assuming leadership roles in the workforce and politics, and the Millennials are making up a larger percentage of the workforce. It spoke of how the Internet and digital communication are creating all kinds of new possibilities but also new barriers to older ways of doing Christ’s ministry.

architect screenshot

Much of the presentation he sent me was material our Council has discussed and digested before, but it is always good to review it again. The Building Team has been so grateful that Epiphany is working with a design team who fundamentally understands—or at least cares to understand—what churches are facing in the years ahead, how it is vital that we not just try our best to make sure people are welcome when they come to us, even changing our architecture if we need to, but also that we seek them where they are. That is, that the church is still in important ways like Jesus, on the move, going out into the world and proclaiming the message. We seek to be all things to all people, as Paul said, in order that we might win some. By venturing out there, we help make the gospel free of charge. That can end up looking many different ways, but in the end it always communicates that God comes into the world searching for his children and setting them free, emptying his life for them— for that is what Jesus came out to do.

Last weekend I was with twenty-one of our high school youth at a Virginia Synod Youth event about two and a half hours west of here. The youth tend to love these youth events of our Synod. They sing the familiar songs and reconnect with old friends.  They look forward to the rhythm and flow of a weekend away, maybe like the one Jesus had outside Capernaum.

One of my favorite parts of the weekend is actually something not on the agenda, and it’s something I’ve never participated in. The last morning we are there—Sunday morning—some of the seniors have a tradition of waking up early to watch the sunrise from a hill that overlooks the broad valley down into Lynchburg. This year the tradition got cancelled because of bad weather, but I still remember the photos of past years with these high schoolers sitting shoulder to shoulder, on the brink of adulthood. On retreat in a quiet place, they look out onto the dawning of a new day. I imagine they are thinking about their friendships over the years, giving thanks for the ways they’ve been molded in faith though Sunday School and youth group. There’s also a sense of expectation as they do this, an undeniable fact they are moving on to new horizons, new challenges. They are not to stay here, frozen in the moment. The point is to go on, to grow and seek out new places where they will walk the journey and witness with joy. They remind me of a church preparing to follow Jesus into Galilee.


And as the sun rises I hope they know—and I hope we know—the Son is risen. The Son who was crucified is risen and is indeed shining, restoring us to life, getting us back into the game.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.



Our gifts for God’s kingdom

a sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Lectionary 3B]

Mark 1:14-20



A song came out this last year, in 2017, that still gets played on popular radio a good bit. It’s by a British band named Coldplay, and it is co-written by another band called the Chainsmokers. The song is called, “Something Just Like This,” and though the tune is fairly catchy, the message of the song is pretty good too. It’s actually a love song about worrying like you don’t measure up, that in order to have a worthwhile relationship you have to possess some kind of superhuman skill or special status. The opening lines go like this:

“I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
Spiderman’s control
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list”

I don’t believe that Andrew and Simon and James and John would see themselves upon that list either. They’re just fishermen in Galilee, regular everyday people who blend right in to everyone else around them. They don’t really stack up with great warriors like Achilles, who supposedly had a shield made of enchanted gold, or Hercules, who had unbelievable strength. And a movie made about the first disciples would not contain amazing, dazzling visual effects or cool tools and cars and weapons. They would just have boats. And some fish. And scene after scene where they hang out with their father and pull their nets onto shore and fix them.

The Call of Andrew and Peter (Duccio, 1311)

The first disciples are not myths and legends in any sense. And they’re certainly not made up in the way people invent comic book characters as a way to project their fantasies. They were actual, ordinary people, with nothing special to commend them to any type of world-changing movement…and yet they end up mattering. Jesus chooses them, of all people to begin his kingdom. Here, when the going gets tough—because his cousin John the Baptizer has been arrested down in Jerusalem, and times are dangerous for people taking on the powers-that-be— Jesus goes up into everyday Galilee and finds these fishermen to follow him.

None of the gospels writers give us any kind of backstory to what’s going on here. We know next to nothing about these first four disciples. We don’t know, for example, how good they are at fishing, although some researchers say that the fact that the Zebedee brothers and their father have a dragnet, a boat and a fishing crew means they must have doing fairly well for themselves. However, in terms of what—if anything—else happened which pushed towards this new vocation of following Jesus, the gospels are silent.

For example, did they know of Jesus beforehand and had inwardly developed an interest in being nearer to him, should the opportunity present itself? Were they miserable in their work and looking for something different? Did Jesus just have that kind of hypnotic pull over people so that when he walked up and locked eyes they couldn’t resist? Different scholars and historians have come up with several different ideas about what might have happened and have given us a little peak into the life of a first-century middle eastern fisherman. But ultimately what the gospel writers are concerned about is that Jesus calls them. Jesus enlists them, not the Achilleses and Herculeses of the world.

He finds them right in the middle of what they’re doing, not auditioning for kingdom-building school, not filling out a form for a change in job, but while they are just being themselves and doing what they can do: their gifts for God’s kingdom.


Jesus drives this particular point home by telling Andrew and Simon that he will make them “fish for people.” What they are already able to do will be put to use in a slightly new way in order to bring more people into a relationship with God through Jesus. In fact, Mark tells us that James and John were mending the nets, but a better translation of that word is preparing the nets, meaning that they were in the act of venturing out to work right as Jesus comes by. When they become followers, we can think of their task as people who go into the world and help prepare others to receive God’s grace. They help prepare others not by performing feats of strength or superhuman control, but just using what they already can do. They discover God has already given them exactly what they need to help bring in his kingdom.

The call of Jesus’ disciples becomes the theme for our Consecration Sunday: our gifts for God’s kingdom. As we set aside our own gifts and contemplate how God might be calling us to give of our time and talent through the ministries of Epiphany the disciples remind us we don’t need to be on the list with the myths and legends of old. We don’t need to be on any list of any kind. God calls us all. Everyone has gifts and abilities for God’s kingdom. There’s no such thing as too small or too ordinary when it comes to helping the kingdom of God come near, because Christ can be reflected in all. And, truth be known, the smallest and weakest reflect Christ the best.

child Head

When we start talking about gifted-ness, I know that there can be a lot of anxiety around the way school systems identify only certain kids as gifted. As a parent, I know it’s almost a taboo subject to bring up in mixed company because our culture places so much emphasis on certain specific academic abilities. Our children undergo tests, assessments, get tracked into certain curricula. And I’m not intending to criticize any of that because I’m not an educator, but I do know that here, in this place, everyone is identified gifted. And these are gifts that matter. They are not consolation prizes. They are things that come naturally to you, talents you have developed that improve the lives of those around you. And when you pass through these waters you are called to use those gifts for the advancement of Jesus’ kingdom each and every day.

There was one summer when this really dawned on me. I was on staff at Lutheridge and had I decided I would try to work as a counselor for a week or two with the special needs campers. Lutheridge has a long history of offering summer programs for folks with diagnoses like Down Syndrome, autism, and other cognitive or developmental delays. I was nervous about it because I had never worked with those populations before. I realized I had always thought about them mainly in terms of how they were different from me. We were in one of our orientation sessions where we were learning how to care for them and I’ll never forget what the director of the camp programs said to us as he began. I had assumed he was going to begin by telling us basics about what to do around them or what they’re diagnoses meant or how to handle certain situations that might arise that we might not be prepared for. Instead, he looked at us and said, “You need to know these people have gifts.” And then he repeated it, “The Spirit has given these people gifts. You will come to see them.” He didn’t wax schmaltzy or schmoozy. He just stated it as a fact, which it absolutely was.

a week that changed my life sometime in 1994

Now, that was groundbreaking. For a twenty-year-old who was incredibly entitled and self-centered college guy and who, to be honest, thought he had a lot in common with Hercules, that was revolutionary. That was a moment when all kinds things about God and the world and myself shifted radically into place, I’m still trying to make sense of it all, still trying to take that to heart about everyone, but when I hear again and again the call of Andrew and Peter and the Zebedee brothers it enables me to re-hear was Eric Fink said that evening. We have gifts because that’s our God. He has created them in us and they have been redeemed through Jesus and sanctified for his kingdom coming by the Spirit.

Our hope is that today as we celebrate Consecration Sunday—and this year as we focus on a year of our congregation’s service ministry areas—will be a time you can reframe your own self-understanding in terms of how you are gifted. And we also hope that these may be times when you can hear again the call of Jesus to share those gifts. You are on the list.

Speaking of being on the list…in the spring of last year the worship team recruited some new people in the congregation to serve as worship assistants.  One member mentioned to me several times how nervous she was to be serving in this capacity and yet how she felt it was God’s call for her to give it a try. She had served in many other leadership capacities in the congregation but never as a lay reader or communion assistant. Some of you may know this person—it’s our outgoing Council Vice President Amy Boyle. About a month before she was to serve as a worship assistant for the first time she spoke to me and felt she needed some encouragement. She was afraid she’s spill wine on someone or that she’d trip in the robe or unknowingly do something around the altar that wasn’t respectful. I told her that she had nothing to worry about. I unknowingly do things that are disrespectful around the altar all the time. She’ll fit right in!  She had the gifts and it was, in fact, surprising to me that she wasn’t already serving in this way. Her anxiety still had her worked up but I think I had her convinced that she, Amy, had the gifts for this and that she was ready to give it a whirl.

Then, on the week before she was to serve for the first time the bulletin had incorrectly listed her name, and no one had caught it. We had only messed up one letter, but it was an important letter. She showed it to me and said something like, “If you think I’m qualified for this role, why is my name listed as “Any Boyle”?


We’ve had some good laughs about that. Any Boyle will do! Send any one of them up! And yet, in some ways, that is the message we hear as God calls any fishermen…and then any tax collector…and then any people who initially hate church like Paul…and then any people who intend to go into other fields, like Martin Luther…and then any people like you and me. People who become, when put to work in God’s kingdom and when following Jesus’ footsteps to the foot of the cross and then past the tomb of Easter, even more gifted and more powerful than Hercules.


Been reading books of old
And bulletins of today
Disciples of the past
Everyone who can pray
They look so very plain,
Such ordinary folk
But when God calls them then his kingdom’s underway


Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

of missed calls and God moments

a sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B]

1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51


It seems about once a week I misplace my cell phone. I’m sure many of you are not surprised. I’m a bit attached to it, and I walk around with the thing either in my hand or in my pocket, and it’s within an arm’s length if I’m sitting down somewhere. Typically when this happens I retrace my steps and find it pretty quickly, but after last Thursday’s staff meeting I was not having any luck. I had no idea where it was. Beth, our volunteer coordinator, was in the office, and as Beth is always ready and willing to help anyone with anything, she jumped up and said, “Why don’t I call your phone you listen for it to ring.”

And I said, “Beth, that’s a great idea, but, first of all, the church is large and I’ve been several places this afternoon and, second of all, I’ve put it on ‘vibrate.’”

Before I could answer she had already dialed my number and was standing there, waiting for it to ring somewhere. She said, “Maybe if you’re really quiet you can hear it vibrate.” So for the next several minutes, Beth stood in the office, repeatedly calling my cell phone number while I tiptoed around the church, standing in different places, and trying to strain my ears to hear that “vvvvvvvvt” sound. I stood in my office. Nothing. Then I went and stood for a while in the Commons. Nothing. Then I started to walk down the hall, listening, concentrating. Finally, after a few minutes, I heard a distant, muffled, but familiar cell phone ring. As it turns out, the ringer was not on vibrate. There, locked in the locked and darkened chapel, lying on the top of a chair that had been scooted underneath the table, was my phone. And when I picked it up, it said I had missed three calls already. All of them were from Beth. I answered it and now I know I should have said, “Speak, Beth, for your servant is listening.”

Just as young Samuel learned when he was lying down in his darkened chapel years ago, serving the priest Eli, the call of the Lord can take several times to get through. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, Scripture tells us, which is a small but important detail slipped into the story. Experiences with God were rare for Samuel and his people, which meant they were not accustomed to hearing or discerning how God was moving and speaking in their time. Apparently even priests and people who slept in the temple of the Lord were not quick on the receiving end. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, which meant God called Samuel four times before he finally responded.

young Samuel and Eli in the temple

And even when he responded he needed the help of Eli, his mentor, to perceive it and discern it. Kind of like I needed to have Beth’s help to locate my phone, hearing and responding were not things Samuel could do in isolation, with no one else around him to mediate and articulate what the call meant. What’s more, the story tells us Samuel didn’t even yet know the Lord. That is, Samuel hadn’t had a chance to develop his own relationship with God and come to understand God’s character. Too young, perhaps, or too inexperienced, Samuel was not the kind of person who most would expect to be getting direct communication from God. But that’s often how God works: choose the unexpected, the overlooked. He’s essentially just the acolyte, and yet Samuel is told he can respond, just like anyone else, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

The call of the Lord is not always easy to hear and pick up on, and so often we are deaf or clueless to it because we’ve essentially put the ringer on vibrate and walked away. Maybe we don’t want it to disturb us. Maybe we’ve got preconceived notions about how God calls people and what it might feel like when his Word comes. Somehow we get in our heads that knowing and hearing God has to feel a certain way, or such an experience can only happen to certain kinds of people.

In our confirmation classes each year we always take time to address questions about God and faith and the church that the confirmands themselves have. We then attempt to build those questions into the curriculum by answering them together as a group. This year one of the questions that confirmand submitted led to a very fundamental faith conversation and at least three said on the test it was the most important thing they learned all semester.

The person asked, “I’ve never had a God moment. How or why do you believe?” Responding to that question required some deep-thinking on my own part, and as we talked about it in the group, we realized that knowing God is going to feel and look a bit different to everyone. Some experience faith more in their heart as an emotional sensation of closeness with a higher power while for others is it more based in the brain or in their thinking, as they come to a deeper and gradual understanding of something they understand to be true about God. Both are valid experiences with the Word of the Lord, but to say that having faith means having one common standardized experience limits the way God speaks and calls his people.


Sometimes I worry that the church defines having faith solely in terms of one or the other, that if you go on a mission trip or a youth event and don’t feel the same way others say they’re feeling then you are missing God’s call. Something one person might label as a “God moment” may not even move the needle for someone else. The important part to remember (if there is one important part), is to stay open to possibilities, to be ready to walk around and concentrate on listening, to be willing to be surprised and to wonder. It also means remaining in community with Elis and Beths, those who have experience hearing and listening and discerning what God is up to.

And that brings us to Philip and Nathaniel under the fig tree. Jesus’ ministry begins in Galilee, a place where many people might have said the word of the Lord was rare. A relatively far-off place, Galilee was a land where different cultures and languages and customs intersected. That is, it was not thoroughly Jewish, not all that sophisticated. It was quite rural, and many towns were too small to have a synagogue. Places like Nazareth and Bethsaida were especially off the beaten path, not regions where one would expect God to be particularly vocal. Yet this is the area where Jesus begins to meet and find followers. It’s good to keep in mind, probably now more than ever, that the face of God’s Son often first appears in the places we’ve written off, the areas we think are beyond or beneath us.


Wherever it breaks in—Galilee, Henrico County, Hanover County—Jesus’ ministry and call is issued with the most simple and open-ended of invitations. “Follow me,” is what he first says to Philip. “Come and see” is another one that Jesus uses over and over, and it’s that one that Philip himself uses when he finds his friend Nathaniel. Would Philip and Nathaniel have described their encounter with Jesus as a God moment? Perhaps so. Nathaniel certainly has his socks blown off by his encounter with Jesus and calls him Rabbi and Son of God and the King of Israel. And Philip, who sounds more like the head-faith type, is excited that Jesus lines up with what they’ve expected from the law and the prophets. In both cases the more important part is that they’re open to a further relationship, even when Nathaniel is initially throws shade on where Jesus is from.

So often I believe we want and expect the call of Jesus to be “Do this and you’ll get that.” We look for clear parameters, definite boundaries, a spreadsheet of what this will entail and where it will end, kind of like some version of the Field of Dreams theology—“Build this one thing and this will automatically happen.” And, to be honest, occasionally the Word does operate like that. But Jesus more often says “Come and see.” It is an invitation to stay engaged, to be gradually let in on something, to hang on and see where it leads.

come and see philip nathanael

And we can notice that God is still calling people into encounters with his Son Jesus. The Word of God is not rare anymore. It is walking around, it is ringing off the hook, it is wide open like a book. It has people serving on Saturday mornings handing out food from our narthex, it has thirty youth showing up on a snow day to play games and hang out with friends in Price Hall. It has called four people within the past five years to discern a call to seminary, and has sent one to South Africa to serve as a Young Adult in Global Mission. It comes to numerous people who volunteer their time through agencies like GraceInside prison ministry, Lutheran Family Services, and Crossover Ministries, the local faith-based medical clinic that offers aid to the underserved populations in our area. And the word of God rings and rings and rings in each home and workplace, calling us to respond in kindness and gentleness in moments of conflict and misunderstanding.

Youth hearing the call to form the shape of a guitar and responding together

I think one of the challenges in the life of discipleship is to be more of a Philip and a bit less of a Nathaniel. It is to position ourselves in terms of what might be rather than what definitely can’t be. It is to keep doors open to another encounter with Jesus rather than shut them. It is to run along the way rather than stay seated under the fig tree. It is to remain open to God’s gracious calling and issue it to others rather than to say it’s over and issue judgment that’s premature. Because, truth be told, any judgment we make about someone or their faith in God this side of the resurrection of the dead is going to be premature. No one’s story is finished. No one should be written off. God calls again and again. And God uses us, again and again, to bring people to Jesus.

And, truth be told (again), God’s Word knows how to deal with rejection. It gets rejected over and over again, thrown out of the synagogues, spat upon and laughed at. It is mocked, considered unmodern and opposed to science. You know, it has even been nailed to a cross and left there to suffocate and bleed out.

And, come on. We know by now what it does when that happens. Risen, the living Word of Christ still finds a way to come to us, opening heavens of possibilities, beckoning us to follow, to give it a listen. Ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing—“vvvvvvvt!”—it is ready to show us even greater things than these.

And if you, like I, still having trouble hearing it, finding it, knowing where it might be or even what you’re looking for…head or heart…go see Beth…or someone like her. They’ll hook you up!



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.