Up the Mountain and Back Down

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

Matthew 17:1-9

Just outside the venue of Melinda’s and my wedding reception in downtown Pittsburgh was the entrance to the Monongahela Incline, a 153-year-old funicular railway that scales Mount Washington. The first funicular built in the United States, the Monongahela Incline was initially designed to transport coal workers from the neighborhoods on the back side of the mountain into downtown Pittsburgh. It climbs an elevation of 367 feet along a 635 foot track, meaning it rises at a pretty steep 35-degree grade. As you can guess, it no longer transports coal workers to and from the mills, but it does offer rides to over a half a million people a year. Some of them are commuters, but most are tourists who come to enjoy the city in a unique way.

Melinda and I thought it would be fun on the day of our wedding to ride to the top with our wedding party. So at one point when the party was still going on in the reception, we and our families and wedding attendants slipped across the street to ride the incline to the top. The ticket teller must have been surprised to see a woman in her white wedding dress and several guys in tuxedoes coming his way, so he didn’t even charge any of us for the ride. He just opened the door for us and said, “Enjoy the view.” And there, on the top of Mount Washington, we did—just a small group of us. The view over downtown Pittsburgh is breathtaking.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was like our own little transfiguration moment. Our heads were up in the clouds, we had taken a trip up a mountain with our closest friends, and there was Melinda, dressed in dazzling white. We had both been transformed into married people. And we couldn’t stay there forever, on the Mount of Washington. The photographer snapped a few pictures of us before we all got back on the incline and went back down the hillside into the city.

I think about that moment whenever I recall our wedding day. I think about that unique view, and the closeness of the people I love, and the symbolism of starting a marriage journey from a mountaintop assuming that, like for any couple, there would be days for us too in the valley to come.

Jesus’ transfiguration moment comes as his ministry in Galilee is winding down and he is close to Jerusalem. He has just explained to his followers that he will undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious authorities, and be crucified, and on the third day be raised. In other words, his own days in the valley below are just around the corner. So before that happens he grabs a few of his closest friends and takes them to the top of a mountain where his clothes become dazzling white and he is transfigured before them.

Some of us may read this and wonder what is the point of this event. What is Jesus up to here? We wonder those things, but then think about how many times we take special trips to distant places in order to gain clarity about something or to shift our perspective. Synod youth events take high school or middle school students to the side of a mountain outside of Lynchburg for a time of prayer and reflection on faith and life. They ponder questions together away from the hustle and bustle of school and stressful relationships. One of my pastoral colleagues here in Richmond just booked a pilgrimage to the monasteries in Iona, Scotland, with a prayer group in her church. One young adult in our congregation has now completed two trips along the Camino de Santiago in northwestern Spain. The transfiguration of Jesus isn’t all that different. It’s like the disciples’ and Jesus’ own version of a pilgrimage or youth event.

So here, on this mountain, away from the crowd, the disciples are supposed to learn something important about this man they feel drawn to follow and learn from. They take time to ponder his identity more intentionally. Jesus is not only a great teacher who can explain and interpret God’s law for the common person. He is not just a sharp rabbi who can successfully take on the rigidity and self-righteousness of the Pharisees. He is on par with the greatest prophets and leaders the people of God have ever seen! But more than that, Jesus is the Son of God with whom God is well-pleased.

There were a pair of commercials that ran during last week’s Super Bowl that have been getting a lot of attention. These commercials were ads that didn’t really attempt to sell anything, but they showed provocative images intended to draw you in. Eventually each ad ended with the simple words “Jesus: He Gets Us.” One of the ads had images of people arguing and yelling at each other. The point was that when it comes to the struggle to love our enemies, Jesus gets us. Another had images and video clips of immigrants and foreigners. The message was supposed to be that when it comes to the suffering that refugees go through, Jesus gets us. He understands what we, as humans, go through.

The controversial method of advertising and authenticity of the campaign’s origins aside, the overall concept of the message is pretty solid. Jesus does “get us,” so to speak. I think that’s why he’s attracted a following in the gospel stories to begin with. He speaks to ordinary people in a way that assures them he understands. He get us…but I’m not sure we always get him.

And that is what happens on the mountain of transfiguration. We see that despite the bright, flashing lights and the booming voice of obviousness from above, we still don’t often get who Jesus is. We want to mold him to fit our agendas and shape him in such a ways that he is convenient to follow. Peter offers to build three dwellings right there on the mountain, as if they’ve reached the pinnacle of Jesus’ mission. The dwellings are something that observant Jews would have used during their festival that marked Moses’ giving of the law. It was a throwback to the temporary shelters that the Jews used for housing as they awaited Moses’ descent from Sinai. Peter wants to camp out here. Peter wants to extend this holy mountaintop experience, maybe indefinitely, circumventing any bad things that may come in Jerusalem.

It’s clear that Peter doesn’t really get Jesus. He doesn’t get that the point of Jesus’ love is not to remove us from reality, to create rituals of escapism, but to embrace our real existence. He will endure suffering on our account and rise victoriously on the other side of it.

 After the voice comes down from the cloud, all three of the disciples fall on the ground and are overcome with fear. This is precisely the time they should be filled with joy and wonder. Again, it looks like they don’t get Jesus. Jesus is nothing to be afraid of, for he is God’s pledge of undying love. Jesus is not hear to scare any of us. We can trust him, and not just to be a great teacher, but to be a Savior, to be our redeemer. Jesus is the person who reveals to us our true value in God’s eyes.


And at that moment on the mountain, Jesus comes over to the disciples and touches them in order to reassure them and comfort them. He gets us. He understands the power of simple touch and a word of encouragement. So often we find ourselves in a time of terror or confusion and we need someone to break through our feelings with their word and their presence. Jesus will be this for the whole human experience. God the Father has sent him to come alongside all of us so that any frightful and despair-filled situation may be interrupted by grace. God has sent Jesus to reassure us that God is in control and that eventually good and order will have the final word.

Jesus’ transfiguration, then, is kind of like the photo shoot of glory at the top of the mountain. He prints it out on his Polaroid and gives them the image. With it God gives the disciples a vision of what will come down the road, past all the valleys, past all the darkened ways and woodlands that are part of the human journey. It’s a flash-forward moment where, just for a brief moment, they will be able to see Easter’s brightness. They continue down the mountain, then, confident that Jesus travels with them, confident that his light will guide them.

When it comes to trudging through the valleys of this world with faith in a transfigured Jesus and seeing him for who he really is, I would imagine the experiences of our brothers and sisters of color could teach us a lot. Their stories of survival and perseverance in spite of the odds their heritage has faced through slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights struggle are inspiring and deserve to be heard and listened to. In fact, when the voice of God tells the three disciples on the mount of Transfiguration to “Listen to Jesus,” I often wonder how that might mean for me to listen closely to the cries of suffering and struggle in people I encounter now. Do I embrace things like Black History Month as a time of intentional listening? Their experiences are a gift to us—their songs and their stories—for surely we can hear Jesus, in them, crying out like Jesus does on the cross.

Jesus identifies with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, two figures of power and wisdom, but Jesus also repeatedly tells us he is present in the lowly, the hungry, and the impoverished.  Can we hear him in the voices those at the margins, in the everyday, when the bright light fades and we have no choice but to walk into darkness?  Jesus gets us—always and forever, no matter what, and if we are ever to get him, I suspect that is where we start to tune our ears.

Sheryl Lee Ralph sings “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at Super Bowl LVII

And when the Holy Spirit grants us that grace, perhaps we’ll even find the words of the Black National anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” found on our lips. Also a part of the Super Bowl show last Sunday, tt will be sung by all disciples of all colors because we will trust that the Transfigured Jesus urges us all on with a glimpse of God’s glorious light. In the words of James Weldon Johnson over 100 years ago:

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past,
till we now stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Quite a Referee

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

Matthew 5:21-37

So for the Super Bowl LVII we have the Kansas City Chiefs versus the Philadelphia Eagles. Or, as one of my friends put it, barbecue versus cheese-steaks, which, as far as food match-ups go, is a win-win. No matter what is being served for your Super Bowl shindig, or whether you may be watching it alone, everyone who cares about it is hoping for a good game between two good teams. They are two teams that each clinched their conference championship and was at the top of the rankings as they went into the playoffs. They are also two teams led by two quarterbacks of color, the first time such a face-off has happened in a Super Bowl. Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts: two young stars who will steer these two teams today in a great American standoff.

Suffice it to say there is one team today that no one really wants to see or hear much of. In fact, many say that the sign of a great game in any sport, not just football, is when that third team is barely noticeable. That, as you well know, is the team of referees. Necessary for any game to be played and played fairly, referees call penalties, keep their eye on the boundaries and determine ball placement. But at the same time, it’s best if they’re basically unnoticeable. No one wants the whistle to blow too many fouls, and, if so, they want the fouls to be clear and obvious infractions, not ones called by suspected favoritism or ineptitude. “Just let them play ball,” comes the cry from the stands when it feels like the referees are too influential or too involved in the outcome.

In the gospel lesson this morning, Jesus sounds an awful lot like a referee, and I’d bet most of us would rather hear less of him. He keeps stopping the play, reminding us of the rules, practically reading off all the infractions we could ever possibly make, never just letting us play ball. He’s there, whistle in his mouth, pointing and assigning penalties. Pardon me for saying it, but this is not a fun side of Jesus. It reminds me of a curious comment that my 6-year-old son made two weekends ago when both of his older sisters were away at a youth group event. He was out playing on the porch when he suddenly turned to me and said, “You know, dad, there’s a lot of things we can do as a family with no girls.”

Although they bring life, God’s standards for us can seem restrictive, and this morning Jesus seems to take everything to a new level. We can’t help but thinking there’s a lot of things we could do as a people with no Jesus and his interpretation of the law. Murder is not just murder anymore. Now it’s anger too, and insulting someone can get you hauled before a judge. Adultery isn’t just adultery anymore. It’s lusting too—just looking at someone in the wrong way. And swearing isn’t just swearing anymore. No more bringing God’s name into anything we do. Just a simple “yes” and “no” will suffice. All the penalties and infractions we’d just rather not have to deal with—the ones that make us really uncomfortable—Jesus goes ahead and brings right into the room with the Kansas City barbecue and the Philadelphia Cheese steak.

As you may have already figured out, this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the portion where Jesus’ does a little teaching on the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments form both the backbone and the foundation for the whole of Israel’s Torah, or holy laws. Here, in his first public address, Jesus appears like Moses 2.0, giving a fresh interpretation of God’s law from up on mountain. He wants to lead God’s people into righteousness and freedom. And to do so he doesn’t just reiterate the commandments that Moses did, but unpacks them, one by one, to get behind what God’s will really is with each one.

When he talks about the fifth commandment, for example—you shall not commit murder—he shows how even words and anger amount to killing our neighbor. Anyone who has been a victim of cyberbullying or who has had a child who has been cyberbullied knows exactly what Jesus is talking about. God doesn’t just want to stop us from shedding one another’s blood. God wants to point out the ways in which we tear each other into a pulp from the inside. God cares about the things we post, especially about others, on social media. It is shocking how quickly even Christians will defend anything, even hateful, insulting comments or Tweets, simply because of a concept of “freedom of speech.” This morning Jesus reminds us that people who’ve been claimed by his love really don’t have freedom of speech. Jesus has not set us free so we can say whatever we want and in whatever manner we want unless, of course, we like the freedom of being burned by what we say. We have been freed to speak the truth in love, which is really a lot better than just freedom of speech.

From the fifth commandment Jesus moves onto the sixth: you shall not commit adultery, and from there to a brief teaching on divorce. His unpacking here is more subtle, and is very tied to the specific practices of marriage in his time. Jesus is not just criticizing marital unfaithfulness but reminding his followers that God’s intention for human marriage is based in mutual respect, love, and a fundamental understanding that men and women are equal partners, equal beings. God does not create women as property for men to trade and later toss to the side, and neither are women to be viewed as objects of sexual desire. This particular teaching was clearly very liberating for Christ’s first followers as we have loads of evidence that in the early church women were not seen and treated as temptresses or baby-producers, but as sisters, people who worked side by side with men.

In his last segment of this teaching Jesus focuses on the eighth commandment, which is “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.” This is the commandment that reminds us that our neighbor’s name and our neighbor’s reputation is basically as important in the grand scheme of things as God’s name and reputation. Our neighbor, after all, as a fellow human being bears God’s image.

Marc Chagall

In Jesus’ time it was customary for people to sprinkle in references to God when making oaths or trying to complete a business transaction or just in trying to make a point in regular conversation with their neighbor. This would easily become manipulative, because if I can somehow through my religious words convince you that God is on my side to get you to believe me or do something, the actual truth of the matter quickly becomes less important. I just want to control you. With his teaching, Jesus reminds us that God’s intention with this commandment is to let integrity speak for itself. It would be wonderful if we could get our political parties to hear Jesus on this. State your promises to us in your platforms and leave God’s name out of it.

I remember having a great conversation with Lee Nye one time not too long before he died. Lee was a member of this congregation who worked in insurance and he helped our congregation negotiate insurance coverage for years. He also was instrumental on Council and in our service ministries. Once he told me about two different men he often had to do business with. One had an office where he had taken effort to place religious paintings on the wall and put religious books like the Bible prominently on his desk so that people would see them when they came in. It seemed to be a stage as if to say to people who came in, “Look, I’m a believer in God and therefore you should trust me.” The other fellow Lee knew had a very spartan office. He had no books other than a few accounting books and business magazines left out. He had no overtly religious art on the walls.

Interestingly enough, Lee said he learned after a while that the first man wasn’t always forthcoming about everything, and could be hard to nail down. The second man never let on whether or not he was a churchgoer or a believer in God. But Lee learned he was an honest man, good on his word all of the time, even when it meant a business loss for him.

I think Lee had really seen up close what Jesus was teaching—that we shouldn’t hide behind our faith or God’s name when forming relationships with people. Be wary of groups and political parties that claim God’s name in conveying a promise. Just be ourselves, and be honest, even when it’s hard, and God is glorified.

Jesus’ treatment of these commandments show us his Father’s true intent in them, but they also point out that our sin, our human brokenness, causes us to turn into objects things that God never meant to be objects. In some way, each of these rules drills down to remind us of the gifts God has given us in each other and how easily we resort to taking the easy way out when relationships get tricky, whether it’s through resorting to murder, or marital infidelity, or the manipulative words we use to coerce our fellow human. Referee Jesus comes not to blow the whistle and make us feel penalized, but to remind us of the value of the people around us and the beauty of our relationships with them. He comes to stop the game temporarily, and for as many times as he needs to, to let us try again, to let us rediscover joy in one another.

Like many others, I have been shocked and saddened by the amount of suffering and loss experienced in the earthquake this week in Turkey and Syria. As it stands, it is already the deadliest earthquake the world has seen in a decade. But also like many others, I am moved by news that some are still being rescued. One simple image that went viral this week seemed to capture the desperation of the moment. It is an image a photographer captured of a young girl, about seven years old, trapped beneath a big concrete slab. She’s on her stomach, maybe slightly twisted to one side, and her left arm is lifted up as if holding the concrete slab from falling any further. And under the crook of her little arm is her little brother’s head. Her name is Mariam and his is Ilaaf, an Islamic name that means, of all things, protection. For 36 hours they waited for rescue, Mariam consistently keeping her free arm in an upward position that would protect him. Instinctive care, instinctive sacrifice, instinctive love. Down in the dust and rubble. That’s what we all saw in that photo.

At some point, the law and all its expectations of us and its reminders of our shortcomings begin to feel like a concrete slab that is crushing us and suffocating us slowly. But Jesus isn’t only a referee, calling us out. He is also instinctive love, down in the dust and rubble with us, and he is this most of all. He is love most of all, and it is clear to him that we need some kind of rescue, and he’s willing to let the weight of God’s expectations crush him rather than let us die losers.

He won’t just unpack the commandments and let us be. Remember: he’s leading us into freedom and righteousness. Jesus comes to lift his arms on the cross and protect us, and in so doing, he lets that kind of love loose in the world. It’s a self-giving love that shows up in all kinds of people in all kinds of situations and often when we’d least expect it. In the rubble of earthquakes, the rubble of hurt friendships, the rubble of broken marriages, in the rubble of all the messes of the world.

As it turns out, there’s not a lot we can do, or would do, as a people with no Jesus. There’s not a whole lot we would want to do without God’s instinctive, protective love, a love that comes to make its home here. It’s a love that sees us hurting, that sees us failing over and over and still picks us up, dusts us off, pats our back and says, get back out there, strong one. Give it another go. I love you. Let’s play ball.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Ground-breaking Blessings

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

Matthew 5:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Come. And You Will See.

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

John 1:29-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Agnus Dei” (Fransicso de Zurburan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pre-recorded worship, October 2020

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

What’s In a Name?

a sermon for Name of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Where Is That Manger?

a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

“So [the shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger.”

Several years ago we went with haste to find the manger. It was just before the pandemic and construction on our new entrance and gathering areas was still underway. Christmas was only a week away and we couldn’t locate our church’s manger. In the great upheaval of moving things around and removing cluttered items and sifting through storage areas that year lots of things had gotten displaced, including the manger we use every Christmas Eve. And so with haste the office staff sorted through every closet and dumping area we could think about. Trying to imagine how strange and sad it would be to celebrate Christmas Eve without the manger made us search all the more diligently.

In a moment of panic I even called Chris Price, our pastor emeritus, to see if he had borrowed it from usto make one for the church he was serving that Christmas. And as the words left my mouth a burst of fear shot through me: had I just accused my predecessor of making off with a manger??No, he gently assured me—but I had texted him photos of what it looked like for that purpose. So it was here! Photographic evidence! And unless that manger had unknowingly been thrown out it was still here somewhere on site.

As the days ticked down I got really desperate: I started Googling patterns for making another one. Eventually someone had the bright idea to call some of the volunteers to see if they’d seen it. Sure enough, like she always does, Stephanie Hamlett came through. At the time she was a key member of our HHOPE food pantry, a ministry which distributed food straight from our building to people in the neighborhood. She told us had spotted the missing manger way, way, way back in the far corner of the food pantry closet, in the part that goes under the balcony staircase. It was scooted so far back there, past the shelves of pasta and cases of canned vegetables that none of us had seen it.

Go figure that a food pantry volunteer knows where the savior of the world would be laid. Go figure that the manger, itself designed in its original form to hold hay for eating, would be hiding among stacks of food. Go figure that the sign of God’s birth among us is found in the place where hungry are fed and the weary find rest. I came to appreciate the manger a bit more that year.

And so tonight make haste with me to the manger again to remember this is how our God works: he comes to feed and nourish all of humankind through the life of his Son Jesus. Come with haste like the shepherds and find that God, indeed, comes among us, into the deepest, darkest corners of where we shove him to offer life to all of creation. He comes there to strengthen you and me with forgiveness and mercy. He offers his life to nourish us with love that never ends. Find the manger, then, and in so doing find the first sign that with Jesus there is great joy, for God intends to bring life to all people.

Did Jesus’ manger look like this? Very likely!

But what exactly is a manger? The ones used in Jesus’ time most likely looked nothing like this one. There’s a chance Jesus’ might have been made with wood, but more likely it was something just carved into the floor or hewn right into the wall,  like a little ledge with a slight depression in it to hold hay and other food for animals. The word “manger” is rare in the New Testament, so there are not many other clues in deciphering what it actually was. Other than the three times it is repeated in this story, which should tell us something, it only occurs one other time, and there it appears in plural form when Jesus is talking to the Pharisees about helping a woman on the Sabbath. Jesus talks about leading a donkey away from its mangers to get something to drink. This seems to indicate that a manger and the stall or room where it lived were connected in some way. It was a place for animals, and that’s about it.

There is an ancient tradition, going all the way back to the first centuries of the Christian faith, that claims Jesus’ manger was actually a particular rock formation in a cave that was well-known to locals in that area. In fact, some of the oldest manuscripts of this story never say that Jesus was laid in “a manger,” but in “the manger,” suggesting that Mary and Joseph may have been in some cave somewhere at the edge of Bethlehem, perhaps, giving birth at what was essentially a local tourist attraction, like the Natural Bridge of Virginia.

Who really knows?But whatever your imagination lands on,we can all still see them there,Mary and Joseph forced into a moment of extreme resourcefulness.We see them there, huddled in the dark,using what was on handas a place to nestle their young newborn,even if it was intended for livestock.It certainly isn’t perfect as entrances go, you might say,but God is happy to be there and make it his sign.

So much of human progress, you see, has been to go in the other direction for signs—you know, toward the shiny, the advanced, the high-falutin’. We make haste to the moon, to Mars, to the metaverse. We are so driven to better ourselves and our societies, to worship at the altars of technology and expertise and celebrity, Artificial intelligence is on the rise, and soon, they say, robots may run everything. It makes you wonder: where is God in all of this? Where is God making haste these days?

I came across an article this week about the platform Chat GPT and how it’s raising eyebrows, especially in the academic community. I haven’t tried it myself, yet, but some colleagues have. Chat GPT is an AI tool that writes like a human being. Authors are amazed at how fluently it can compose. Preachers have been astounded at how it creates sermons. Professors and teachers are amazed in a bad way at how easy it is for students to get it to write essays for them. A document composed with artificial intelligence not technically plagiarism, because the essays and papers it generates are original (and can’t be caught by plagiarism detectors!). Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom shared this week that she finds the compositions written with AI impressive, almost identical to something a real student of hers might write. The main difference, she says, is that essays written with Chat GPT is always grammatically correct, and ones written by humans usually aren’t. The indicator of humanity, that is, is the error—the imperfection, the mistake, the thing we’d just as soon hide.

Technological progress is not bad, but no matter the age, we will always try to deny our humanity, our vulnerability. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human.” On the first night of God’s personal introduction to humankind, God chooses a manger as a sign. Dirty, simple, makeshift: “Why lies he in such mean estate?” It’s as if on this night God acknowledging humankind’s natural imperfections and is choosing to embrace them. And God is! God on this very night looks at our innate, undeniable humility, our crude intelligence and makes haste to love it, to shelter himself there.  It is a trajectory that, when we have faith to see it, will bear itself out over his whole life. From manger, to simple fishing village at the edge of the empire, to the cross. God is there, recognizing our brokenness, our simplicity, and yet loving us anyway. God is there making a way, offering his own body to feed the world with love.

It occurs to me that God has been using a lot of mangers among us over the past couple of years. Now that the COVID pandemic is largely past, families and individuals look back and find that God was there, in fact, often in the way, way back, accommodating our resourcefulness, nestled among the small and unbecoming things we dismiss. We have heard countless stories of people learning that disappointment was temporary, and how joy could be birthed around a simple dinner table with loved ones. Or connecting through a Zoom call.

Our Vacation Bible School this past summer, for example, only drew 21 children, which is about one-tenth of what we used to have before the pandemic. We were kind of downcast about that, to be honest, at first. But, as it turned out, because there comparatively were so few of us, everyone one of us could fit together nestled up here in the chancel area instead of spread out in the pews. It was another manger! Joseph here with his guitar, Sarah leading the songs, all close together. And because of that, we think the kids who did come may have learned the VBS songs better than ever before.

Whether it was holding a small smartphone up to a homebound member so she could see her congregation’s worship through YouTube or just dropping off altar flowers to someone in the hospital…or whether it was giving up our previous Sunday School class structure because of a lower number of volunteers and children, in favor of a simpler curriculum and setting, God was acknowledging our simplicity and feeling right comfortable there.

You, no doubt, have your own examples of God making haste to be found in the mangers you’ve had to provide. Tell those stories! Let them ring out! And tonight, let those be your signs again that to you is born this day, in the city of David, your Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Make haste, yourselves, to claim him as your King, for you are being embraced just as you are, imperfections and all, once again. And take heart, you not just of real intelligence, but real giftedness and, most importantly you of the real ability to love: you are always going to be fed with forgiveness, nourished with grace by the one who arrives away in the food pantry to feed the whole world.

Merry Christmas!!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Rooting for the Anti-Hero?

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent [Year A]

Matthew 11:2-11

Let me tell you: when you go visit Ms. Betsy Williamson in her rehab room at Beth Sholom, expect to be grilled. It’s a friendly grilling, of course, but she will for sure want to know what’s going on at church, and the more details you can give, the better. Ms. Betsy, you see, is our congregation’s sole remaining charter member. At age 94, she has been here for the length of its life. She has watched it grow from just a handful of families back in 1951 to what it is today. She has been here to work with every pastor the congregation has ever called and has contributed to each of the building campaigns. Ms. Betsy has greeted hundreds of first-time visitors at the front doors and has sung with the choir for countless worship services. More than all that, Ms. Betsy has taught Sunday School to just about every 2 year old who’s ever come through this congregation.

But now, even though she is getting great care in rehab and is slowly healing she can’t help but feeling a little bit imprisoned by her circumstances. If you go visit her, Ms. Betsy will expect you to fill her in. She’s going to want to know what’s happening at Sunday School and how many kids are coming to the children’s sermon. She’s going to wonder about plans for Christmas Eve and what the youth group has been doing lately. Your report to her reassures her that people are tending to the newcomers, the children, the vitality of worship. Your report to her comforts her in her concern that the congregation is still going strong, a community and a mission that has been near and dear to her heart for 70 years even though she can’t be with it at the moment.

We meet John the Baptist this morning in a very similar situation. He is in a special 1st century “rehab,” if you will, for people who speak out in critique of the king and powerful people. John’s detention there is keeping him from the community and mission he has been a part of for his whole career. That career has been to announce and prepare people for the arrival of God’s chosen Messiah, the long-awaited leader who would bring about God’s kingdom on earth. He has nurtured this thing from the ground up, taught some disciples, baptized people to get them ready. And John is dying to know how it’s going. And so from his prison cell John sends some of his disciples to Jesus, who is out there in the world with the movement to grill him.

We can’t tell exactly why John is getting anxious or doubtful about Jesus, but he clearly is wanting some assurance that Jesus is keeping the movement going. Has he been pointing people to the right person, especially since John’s own days seem to be numbered? John wants to know if Jesus is the real deal, or do they need to wait for another? John, you see, doesn’t want to put his faith and energy behind the wrong Messiah, the wrong leader, because, as you know, it must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero.

John’s questions, and even to a degree Ms. Betsy’s, speak to a deep concern we all have about Jesus and our expectations for how God is going to move and act in the world. Is Jesus the hero or is he an anti-hero, a bust, an also-ran? As we look at the world from our various prisons—be they prisons of despair or poverty or regret or fatigue or apathy—do we get a sense or anxiety or hope from Jesus? Can Jesus lead us to a future of possibility, a future of prosperity for all people, a future of peace and forgiveness for all sins?

One of my colleagues this week posed a question people of faith have wondered for years. That is, is John’s concern about Jesus evidence that John had things wrong?   Even though he was close to Jesus, in fact related to him, was John’s understanding of what the Messiah would be like slightly off? It’s a valid question for the scholars to ponder, but it’s also one I actually think we could turn on ourselves. Do we often get Jesus’ movement wrong? Is our understanding of how God acts in Jesus slightly off sometimes?  

John seems to be hoping for a leader who will seize the reins of the revolution John helped spark and use force to overthrow the powers in Jerusalem and send them away. John appears to be looking for big, sweeping, political and maybe even militaristic changes that establish dominance for a new regime up top. John is looking for Jesus to take that chance, and sometimes we are too.

But God’s kingdom isn’t about taking that kind chance. God’s kingdom is about giving people second chances. God isn’t going to come through and use Jesus to banish the bad people to the wilderness. God is going to make the wilderness break forth in blossom. The good news of the Messiah doesn’t come with fear and fire but with the excitement of joy. And perhaps most surprisingly, the work of Jesus often doesn’t come about through top-down, grandiose maneuvers, but by bubbling up from the bottom through the actions of people like Mary, some disciple fishermen, ordinary tax collectors, a meal of bread and wine.

There is a poem from 20th century Canadian writer Alden Nowland that resonates. It is called, “Great Things Have Happened” and it goes:

We were talking about the great things
that have happened in our lifetimes;
and I said, “Oh, I suppose the moon landing
was the greatest thing that has happened
in my time.” But, of course, we were all lying.
The truth is the moon landing didn’t mean
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince
(our kitchen had been a clothes closet, I’m sure),
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past four in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.

“Is that all?” I hear somebody ask.

Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country you’ve never visited
before, when the bread doesn’t taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.

John’s worry in prison tells us something about our ourselves. The human brain naturally looks for the great things to be the most noticeable things, the flashiest, most spectacular things. Jesus’s response says, don’t look in the halls of power for where Jesus first shows how he will transform the world with his love. Look in the wilderness, or at the mustard seed, or in the life of a young pregnant middle eastern mother in an unusually vulnerable position. Look in the faces of the poor who’ve realized they can go on another day. Look to the children my family saw in the Children’s PICU this week who have miracles of medicine turn their circumstances around. Look for ways people are half-tipsy with wonder of being alive and enveloped in love, wherever that may be.

ca. 1850 — An illustration from a mid-19th century copy of Grand Catechisme des Familles (Christian Doctrine for Families). — Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

This is the message that Jesus sends back to John in prison to comfort him. Jesus doesn’t talk about himself, and strangely doesn’t rush to stress his own ideas of his identity. Jesus simply points to the ways that God’s promised kingdom is bubbling up in the wilderness. Yet, on second thought, is it really that strange that Jesus doesn’t just point to himself and seize the title of God’s chosen one? After all, he will eventually go on to hand over his very life and let his identity be determined by love stretched out on a cross. That is where love will truly envelop us all. A moment of such total humility and vulnerability will be the greatest of all great things that has ever happened.

Even though John may have the wrong idea about what Jesus is about, Jesus does not throw John under the bus. Jesus lifts him up and sets him back on track with reports of the lame walking and the blind seeing. He assures him the movement is still going, just as God planned. Maybe we shouldn’t underestimate how much we need that same message too. Things at the top rarely change, whether it’s Jerusalem or Washington or Moscow. But there are loads of examples of the joy of God’s kingdom springing up everywhere.

I often listen to the Bobby Bones Show on K95 in the mornings. They have a segment called “Tell Me Something Good” where they offer up a story of hope and joy to change the mood. Typically bad news sells the newspapers, so this radio show scours their sources to flip that script. So, in the spirit of Bobby Bones and John’s disciples, here are a few Something Goods I ran across in just the past month that might have gotten overlooked:

Two weeks ago it was announced that Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, one of the advocacy and public justice arms of our denomination, the ELCA, received a $15 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. This gift is the single largest in the organization’s 83-year history. LIRS President and CEO, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, explained in a press conference that the unprecedented funds come right as they are resettling loads of Afghan refugees, people fleeing the war in Ukraine, and asylum-seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Here’s another: a Christmas tree went up on the town square in Bucha, Ukraine, this week, not far from the site where a mass grave created by invading Russians was discovered earlier this summer. Their spirit is indomitable.

And another: Barna, a research group that concentrates on data regarding religion, reports that Christian philanthropy accounted for 70% of all American philanthropy in 2022 at a total of $330 billion. Christians also out-gave the U.S. government in addressing global poverty.

And this congregation, right after donating a record 120 Thanksgiving dinners to people in our community, turned around and provided 96 Christmas gifts to children at a local elementary school, which were delivered yesterday.

Joy is among us, my friends. Christ is on the move. Great things are happening all over the place. The truly great things: cheer for the imprisoned, something good for the disheartened hope for those who wonder what’s coming.

And you are some of the blossoms in the wilderness. and I…I have some more things to report to Ms. Betsy.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Getting Transferred

a sermon for Christ the King [Year C]

Colossians 1:11-20 and Luke 23:33-43

During my seminary internship at St. Andrew’s United Church in Cairo, Egypt, I spent a great deal of time working among the large and diverse refugee community that our congregation served. At that time many of the refugees were coming to Cairo up the Nile from Sudan, Egypt’s neighbor to the south, where government-backed armies were ransacking villages and slaughtering people by the thousands. Over the course of that year I got to know a good number of these brave individuals as their pastor and as the music teacher in the school the congregation was running for the refugee children.

These are some of the best memories of my life, and at the same time some of the most difficult, for that year I came to appreciate more fully just how precarious a refugee’s life is. There is nowhere on this earth where a refugee truly feels safe, and the place where she feels she belongs is off-limits—two fundamental aspects of life that I, as a white, affluent American, take for granted every single day. The hope of every refugee is to find a place on this planet where they can live without fear of being killed, where they can raise their families with a hope of a good future. They wait and wait and wait to be transferred to a country that will give them that, and usually that country is somewhere in Europe, Australia, or North America.

Imagine what it’s like to live in that kind of treacherous limbo and then finally one day receiving word that your request to be transferred to a new, peaceful country has been approved. I got to witness that a time or two that year. One day we had a special assembly in the children’s school in order to say goodbye to two young siblings whose parents had received word that Canada had finally approved their transfer. I’ll never forget the feeling in the room—the joy of all those assembled, the relief of the parents, and the bewilderment, too, on the faces two young children as they contemplated being transferred overnight from one of the hottest, dirtiest, and most crowded cities of the world, a city that subjected black-skinned Africans to discrimination on a daily basis, to Manitoba, Canada. This, by the way, was in February. Can you imagine?

Apparently the writer to the Colossians can. In an attempt to describe the power of Jesus Christ, a power of love that transcends anything we have ever known, he says that Christ “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” It’s not going from Cairo to Canada, but we do get word of a transfer to a reality no less contrasted to the world we live in now, a world we know that is filled with sorrow and violence and mistrust and brokenness of all kinds. Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, has come to find all of us refugees, all of us pilgrims, all of us wanderers, and through his own death and resurrection receive us into the realm of God’s eternal peace. Jesus Christ, born among us to heal and to comfort, breaks the power of sin over our lives and makes himself our king.

That is our message: no matter where we’ve come from and no matter what we’ve gone through, Jesus’s grace is our new home and we can never be taken out. To get us there, God becomes fully present in Jesus Christ. As the writer of Colossians says, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in the crucified nobody Jesus of Nazareth. That is, the fullness of God didn’t just find a home in Jesus, but it was pleased to dwell there, it was pleased to be so humble, so commonplace. God happily moves in to the rough and tumble places here. And he does this in order to reconcile himself to all things. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the person in whom all things hold together.

If we want to see God, if we want to know how all of the universe makes sense and what the meaning of life is, we look at the person of Jesus Christ. If we want to know how to treat one another in all circumstances, we look to Jesus, for in him all things hold together. And if we wish to know what the Creator of all things thinks of us, we see how Jesus looks to us. And we find he look to us with eyes full of mercy and a heart full of compassion.

That is, after all, what Jesus does in his finest moment there at Golgotha where he looks on everyone with unfathomable forgiveness. To the people driving nails into his flesh he says, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.” To those who insult and mock him, he refuses to lash out in defense, preferring to let their ugliness and meanness echo out into nothingness. To those he dies between—just common criminals—Jesus looks with pardon and solidarity, even promising one of them that day a place in his kingdom. At the precise moment at which anyone would excuse him of any behavior that would alleviate his suffering, Jesus refuses to show any sign of self-preservation. With Jesus of Nazareth, in whom all things hold together, there is absolutely no abuse of power.

This is what his kingdom is made of. This is where we have been transferred by the power of his love and relationships based on this kind of humble authority is what God builds through us. This is how we live, upstream against the flow of hatred and apathy and spite we experience around us.

That disconnect probably presents the biggest challenge to living with Jesus as king. His reign is not always evident to us. Colossians says we need to be prepared to endure everything with patience. No kidding! Greed and war topple the peace and prosperity which people have so carefully built over time. The shooting tragedy at the University of Virginia this week becomes just another example of how quickly one senseless act shatters so many lives. People promote conspiracy theories that try to convince us that dark forces rule the world and are holding all things together, rather than Christ. The rise of Christian nationalism even here in the U.S. distorts the power of Jesus’ gospel and attempts to align one kind of faith with power in government. If Christ really is King, and if his reign is our true home, then how can these things keep getting in the way?

We hear this morning that the place in this world where Jesus dies is called the Skull. In Aramaic that is “Golgotha.” It has often been thought it got that name because of the way it looked. Maybe some boulders protruded from the landscape in the form of a skull. But theologian and teacher Chad Bird, points out that there is an ancient church tradition which maintains that it was called “The Skull” because people believed that is where Adam’s body was buried. Adam, the first person God created, according to Genesis, is the person in Scripture by which death comes to be. Adam’s disobedience to God, and his primal act of self-preservation and wanting to be like God symbolizes our own rebellious nature. It leads Adam to the punishment of death and is a reality that we all must bear. But Jesus, the second Adam, is the one whose obedience to God’s love brings life and immortality to all.


It is just a tradition, of course, but there is something deep at work here: the very place that speaks of death and reminds us of human brokenness becomes, by God’s grace, the very place where Jesus’ redemption and life makes a new beginning. This is how a humble God works: a cross becomes the place where we are transferred from sin into forgiveness, from loneliness to community, from this land to our eternal one.

And therefore the places where we would least expect to encounter God’s grace become the places where Jesus’ new life rises up most clearly. The moments when we hand ourselves over in service to our neighbor become those moments where selfishness begins to lose its grip. The times when God moves us to forgiveness rather than revenge are the times when healing comes to even the deepest wounds. The occasions when we release long-held prejudices and stereotypes come the occasions when dialogue and relationship finds new solid ground. Acts of humility and love strike fear into the rule of the proud and bold new life takes root. “Today,” Jesus tells the humble criminal beside him, “you will be with me in Paradise.”

One of our adult Sunday School classes has been watching and discussing the recent Emmy-winning documentary Heard, which was filmed right here in some of the public housing projects of Richmond. The movie is literally an attempt for some of the residents just to have their stories heard because they are profoundly beautiful stories—stories of remarkable grace and bravery, stories that many of us would not hear because of the stereotypes we assign to the projects and people who live there. It is true that poverty sucks people in and drugs and their accompanying gangs cause all kinds of dark problems for the people in the film. Yet one by one in Heard you hear examples of amazing redemption and the message is clear: God is still at work at Golgotha, raising up new life in the darkest of places. You watch the movie and can see that the transfer is happening, over and over again. People go from a land of despair and brokenness to a place where Christ and his goodness reign.

Where are the places in your life where Christ’s kingdom has been realized, where his goodness has been seen and heard? What are the places of darkness where you’ve buried your skulls of despair where Christ’s reign of forgiveness and mercy still need to be acknowledged? May his mercy reign true for you, for with God’s power Christ is promised to be first place in everything.

Last week we took the second year confirmands up to Roanoke to visit several places where the Lutheran Church has established ministry sites over the years. We saw Roanoke College, of course, but we also stopped at Brandon Oaks, a Lutheran retirement community that is part of Virginia Lutheran Homes. At one point Charles Downs, the CEO of Virginia Lutheran Homes, took the confirmands over to the edge of a bluff overlooking a big four lane road and gestured to another building across the street. It was the rehabilitation and nursing care facility component of Virginia Lutheran Homes, a place where many patients often enter hospice to die. To our back was the planned retirement community, complete with its swimming pool and dining room, where people were very much alive.

Beside us was this small replica of the original Lutheran Church that stood on that location built by settlers back in the 1800s as they came into the valley. Mr. Downs then proceeded to gesture to all of it in one big swoop with his arm, explaining how all of it is all a part of Jesus’ ministry. And then he pointed to the confirmands, who are in the spring of their young,        and said that we, too, are connected through it by our faith and our work together as a synod. He said those sitting in those pews at that church over 100 years ago never could have imagined that all of this would come from their vision to extend Christ’s kingdom in their work. It stretches across the highway, across the world, back in time, and into the future—a home of life and care and mercy for all.

So it is with all of us who’ve been transferred to Christ’s kingdom. It happens to us now, but it stretches back to claim those who came far before us and those who will come after. It claims those who are close to us and those we’ve never met. It draws us all in to one land, one reign where Jesus always remembers us with a mercy and love we cannot resist, refugees that we are.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

What an Inheritance

a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year C]

Luke 6:20-31 and Ephesians 1:11-23

Children’s literature often has a way of taking complex topics and presenting them in a way I can understand with as few words as possible. About fifteen years ago actress Jamie Lee Curtis came out with a children’s book that was given as a gift to our oldest daughter by someone in the congregation I served in Pittsburgh. Our daughter, Clare, was only two at the time, and we had fun reading it to her. When Laura came along not too long afterwards we read it to her, and the other night I dusted it off to read to our 6-year-old as I tucked him into bed. The illustrations are as colorful as they are entertaining, but the rhyming text of the book is really what stands out.

The name of the book is Is There Really A Human Race? a question that perhaps we all wonder at some point along the way, what with all of our competing and our resume-building jumping through the hoops of life. The text, together with the pictures, illustrate humans racing against each other, breathless and exhausted, as if we’re all on a lifelong wild goose chase:

Is there really a human race?
Is it going on now all over the place?
When did it start?
Who said, ‘Ready, Set, Go’?

Did it start on my birthday? I really must know.
Do I warm up and stretch?
Do I practice and train?

Do I get my own coach? Do I get my own lane?
Do I race in the snow? Do I race in a twister?
Am I racing my friends? Am I racing my sister?
If the race is a relay, is Dad on my team?

And his dad and HIS dad? You know what I mean.
Is the race like a loop or an obstacle course?
Am I a jockey, or am I a horse?
Is there pushing and shoving to get to the lead?
If the race is unfair will I succeed?
Do some of us win? Do some of us lose?
Is winning or losing something I choose?
Why am I racing? What am I winning?

Does all of my running keep the world spinning?

With question after rapid question the book continues, wondering aloud with the reader what is this world really all about, what is the goal and how do we achieve it?

Today we gather to be reminded once again, thank God, that Jesus narrates and illustrates a completely different world from that. Today the church is gathered—just as Jesus gathered the large crowd on the Plain in Galilee one day when he spoke to his disciples—to hear once again that Jesus has come in order to bring an end to a world where everyone races against one another, a world of pushing and shoving, a world where we believe our progress is somehow what keeps the world spinning.

Today, All Saints Day, we recall the lives of those who have gone before us, but not in a race, but in grace. They have lived lives that touched us with compassion, selflessness, and joy. And each of them bore through the course of all their years that tension that exists between the world we feel we live in, where we’re constantly in a competition, and that eternal world that Jesus has given us, where community is built on forgiveness and love even of the enemy. We give thanks for them and for the ways they demonstrated in their own ways their trust in that new and coming world, which the apostle calls our inheritance.

I think at some point each of us has probably received something from a loved one who has gone before us. We’ve inherited something that that person intends for us to cherish and use. That’s the point of an inheritance—it is something we did not earn but which we deeply value because it points to a relationship. I remember when my great-grandmother died in 1996 she left me a big silver punch bowl. I was twenty-two at the time, still in college, living in my fraternity house, with nowhere to put the punch bowl and no one to serve punch to. I didn’t know how to value it, how to care for it, what its story even was. But Grammy wanted that bowl, for whatever reason, to fall into my hands.

Through Jesus Christ this pledge of a world redeemed and whole has been placed into our hands, and like the saints before us, we work to learn about it, treasure it, and serve the world from it. On the cross, Jesus has handed over all that he is so that we might have all the life that God gives. Our task, as we serve from this priceless bowl of grace and mercy, is to seek out and find those who right now seem to be the losers in the race of life.

And if it happens we have a hard time remembering who they are, Jesus names them for his disciples this morning. The poor seem to be the losers, especially if you listen to the news and the way we talk about them as people who haven’t worked hard enough or who have been born in the wrong neighborhoods, or who haven’t taken the chance to better themselves. The hungry are definitely losers, and their ranks are growing as grocery prices rise and supply chains are blocked. Those who are weeping often feel like losers, finding it difficult to get beyond their grief, which sneaks up and grabs them when they least expect it. And then there are those who are rejected and reviled for exemplifying Jesus in their actions and words. But Jesus calls them blessed, not losers.

In his new kingdom all these are the ones who get preference. The poor, for example, have been promised the kingdom of God. Because they have nothing else to rely on, no power that comes through wealth or privilege, they are bound to fulfilling experience of relying on God before anything else. We find the poor and learn what they have to teach us. We find the hungry and we give them reason to trust that in Jesus’ kingdom they are filled. We collect bags of Thanksgiving food, we serve at the pantry, we work for just and equitable distribution of resources. We come alongside the mourning and the weeping, singing the hymns for them at the funerals (because the words catch in their throat), and volunteering at the receptions in the fellowship all afterwards—all as an assurance of the laughing that will one day come. And learning from them the value of being vulnerable, ourselves.

Jesus continues with even more instructions for living this new world he has created by his death and resurrection we give generously, bless those who persecute, respond with nonviolence, and do to others as we’d have them do to us.

And I have to be honest and say that these are things that are difficult. They do not come naturally for me, not in the slightest. It is hard to trust this way of Jesus. It is hard to believe in this inheritance we’ve received when the world is so harsh and hard. It takes courage to inhabit this way of Jesus when we can’t fully see it implemented just yet. We see glimpses every now and then, but the full glory is still hidden.

The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, lays out in a chronological format the history of the bus boycott that kickstarted the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The bravery and ingenuity of the people of color in Montgomery is on full display as you wind your way around the different exhibits. It becomes clear that Ms. Parks and her community were reviled for working for justice and peace to overturn the system of domination and racial oppression.  

One sign in the museum asks the question: “Do you have the courage to treat people fairly?”  What a pointed question—like a rephrasing of the Golden Rule Jesus tells his disciples. Living in the world Jesus dies to create is not just a matter of education or wokeness or cleverness. It is courage that we need for that, for our default setting is mistrust and prejudice. It is courage that allows us to view this world not as the rat race of competition it appears to be but according to the upside-down values Jesus names in his vision. It is courage and faith—and Jesus gives us both, over and over again, flowing from the waterfall of our baptism our whole life long. And we know so many examples of  this courage from the lives of those who’ve gone before us and in the lives of those who are sitting next to us today.

It was about two years ago, in the height of the COVID pandemic, when I spoke with Sonya Fluckiger on the phone instead of going to her house for her Christmas visit. She was just a few months shy at that point of her 100th birthday. The news was out that the first COVID vaccines were going to being distributed to senior citizens and people who worked in health care Sonya assured me in no uncertain terms that she was going to direct that her vaccine dose be given to a young woman or man with a family. “I understand that what they’re doing,” she said, “is the Christian way, but they’re wasting it on us old people.” I assured her there would be plenty to go around, but then I paused. It took me a second to recover once I remembered that I was a young person with a family: Sonya, age 99 ¾ trying to remind of the world Jesus empowers me to live in.

It is courage we give thanks for in the lives of the saints, in the lives of all us sinners, living and dead, who have been claimed by the grace of Jesus. It is their courage we praise as they and we turn this world of self-proclaiming on its head. Courage and faith to receive the inheritance that Jesus has bestowed upon us that we may know the hope of the calling to which he has called us.

So that night when I was I reading this book to Jasper, I remembered the ending sounds a lot like Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain:

Sometimes it’s better not to go fast.
There are beautiful sights to be seen when you’re last.
Shouldn’t it be looking back at the end
That you judge your own race by the help that you lend?
So take what’s inside you and make big, bold choices,
And for those who can’t speak for themselves, use BOLD voices.
And make friends and love well, bring art to this place
And make the world better for the whole human race. (“Is There Really A Human Race?”)

What a goal to tuck someone to bed with: Wake up tomorrow, little kiddo, and live into that inheritance that Jesus has given us. Life is no wild goose chase!

And so now we’ve tuck our departed loved ones for their final sleep with the hope they will soon open their eyes to the full inheritance prepared for them.

Rejoice in that day and leap for great joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Set Free

a sermon for Reformation Sunday

John 8:31-36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.