Monday, March 20, 2017

The Third Sunday in Lent [Year A] - March 19, 2017 (John 4:5-42)

The woman at the well walks the journey, worships the Christ, and witnesses with joy.

First, she walks the journey. The particular details of the journey she walks remain a bit unclear, but we know at some point it leads her to the well outside of her city. It is Jacob’s well, a historical location that was important to both the Samaritan and Jewish people because he was a common ancestor. Jacob actually met his future wife at a well several centuries earlier, and although it may not have been this particular well, it does calls to mind the fact that wells in the time of the Bible were typically places where people could intermingle and gather. However, there appears to be no one else here that day. This woman journeys alone. Maybe because it’s noon and most of the water-fetching—a back-breaking, tiresome daily task undertaken almost exclusively by women—is done in the morning before it gets too hot.

From the conversation she has with Jesus it emerges that her personal life’s journey might be a bit complicated. However, Jesus doesn’t judge her and neither should we, and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about her or what decisions she’s made. The fact that she has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not legally her married partner does not mean that she has morally questionable character. She may be a five-time widow, in fact, stuck in a type of Levirite marriage, where she is obligated to marry her first husband’s brothers until she produces an heir, which she hasn’t, so she feels useless. She may have been dismissed unfairly by these men, left to fend for herself, and walk the lonely and vulnerable journey of a woman who has no legal or social status in society. No matter what the case is, her life has been a journey and it’s probably left her with a lot to reflect on.

We all are walking a journey, aren’t we? Maybe it involves some of the pain and alienation that this woman experiences. Maybe, like water jugs that must be repeatedly carted back and forth, the journey involves carrying burdens that no one else knows about. On the other hand, perhaps it is a journey of relative privilege and blessing one that hasn’t included too many times of loneliness or disappointment. Whatever the case, this woman’s experience at the well goes to show that our journeys may encounter God’s holiness at any time and in any place. If God can hallow Jesus’ journey to the cross, then God can turn up in our dark valleys too. The journeys we undertake—the ones we choose and the ones forced upon us—are bound to intersect with the God who loves us. We do not judge others’ journeys or the decisions that may have got them there. We view them as fellow travelers who are seeking, learning, searching, waiting for a Savior.

"Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well" (Guercino)
The woman at the well worships the Christ. It certainly doesn’t start out that way that day—as a chance to worship. It starts out as a request for water from a Jewish man who should really know better than to speak in public to an unknown woman. It starts out, then, as an admission of vulnerability, as request for help, not as a demand for obedience. It starts out with a crossing of boundaries, with a refusal to let ethnic or racial or social boundaries influence or deny the formation of a relationship.

I remember the lunch area in my high school and how although on the surface, to an outside observer, it looked like everyone was mingling, the reality was that everyone was sitting and eating in distinct groups that did not really mix. People from one group could not just get up and go sit down and talk with another, unless they wanted to risk being laughed at or looked at funny.

The man she meets at the well doesn’t mind being laughed at or looked at funny. He ventures into the hostile part of the high school cafeteria…the part of town no one likes to drive through…the political rally that you don’t want to associate with. It’s almost a habit of his, crossing borders, disregarding conventions. It’s how he helps connect people. It’s how he helps draw people in closer to himself and, therefore, to God.

For this woman, worship begins in conversation. It doesn’t start out with a bright, shining light or a voice booming from the heavens saying, “Worship me.” It starts with a request for water and then questions, a discussion, a sharing of ideas. Over the course of several minutes she comes to realize that the Messiah—that is, the Christ—she and her people have been waiting fo is sitting with her. No longer must she face Jerusalem to seek God, or Mt Gerezim, which is what her people, the Samaritans, believed. God’s presence was with her in this Jewish man who talks about living water.

Right now our family is in search of the perfect sippy cup. We’ve tried about four different kinds. A perfect sippy cup is one that will hold the water in, even when it is slammed on the floor multiple times, but which will also freely release enough water when someone puts it to their mouth. It’s one that will always give running water—living water, if you will—not trap it inside somehow. This woman will find in Jesus the perfect sippy cup, spring of life, a nourishment that will dependably flow for her.

This woman’s encounter with the living Lord shows us we have a God who takes our questions, who leaves himself open, who honors our curiosity, who doesn’t force the issue. This God desires our worship, desires our obedience, but this God wants it to rise out of relationship, not out of compulsion. This Spirit and truth so often comes carefully and gently, not at the tip of a sword.

I don’t know about you, but I find this so difficult to remember this and to model it for others. So often Christ-followers, especially religious authorities, can come across so rigid, so doctrine-driven, so full of all the answers all the time. We think people need a guidebook when really they want to hear a story. We resort to issuing commands when God favors dialogue. The woman at the well worships the Christ and we see how her life is changed by the living water she discovers worship to be.

The woman at the well witnesses with joy. She is so full of joy and excitement that she actually leaves her jug at the well to go back to the city to tell the people about Jesus. It sits there as a reminder of the change he has created. She’ll need literal water again, for sure, but her searching for a word, a relationship that truly satisfies is over. She won’t have to lug her hopes for that around anymore. The source of new life has found her.

So full of joy and amazement she is that she runs back to the very place that has likely ostracized her, the very community that has let her fetch water alone. Jesus has transformed her view of herself as well as her view of other people and the world around her. She now sees herself as a person who has something to offer, something to share. This living water is truly gushing up in her, the joy of eternal life is so vibrant others can taste it, see it.

Her message to them is very interesting, probably not what we would first guess a missionary would use. She doesn’t run back and say, “You’re all wrong! Listen to what I know!” or, “I’ve accepted the Lord and you need to, also.” Her witness is contained in one simple line: “He told me everything I have ever done.” It’s a very personal message, one that really can’t be argued with. To be honest, I’m not really sure I know what her message means, or if my own faith could be summed up in such a way, but I know if I were in that village I’d want to hear more from her.

I like the idea of a God who really knows people—even the parts they’ve hidden or been ashamed of—and still claims them and wants to be in relationship with them. When she comes back to the city and says, “He told me everything I’ve ever done,” it’s like she says, “Here’s what the Messiah is like, people. He knows our story. He knows the journey. He gets it.” Faith in Jesus helps us put things in our own lives in their proper place. It may not happen all at once, but it comes over time. We find our own story, with all of its ups and downs, wrapped up in his. We find our own journeys with all their brokenness and beauty, contained in his journey to the cross. And there we realize a well of life that can never run dry, a fountain that will always runneth over, a grace that will never be exhausted.

The woman at the well walks the journey, worships the Christ, and witnesses with joy. It is as if she is a member of Epiphany Lutheran Church and knows our mission. And I believe she is. This woman is really any one of us: Curious. Searching. Tired, but open. At any given point we can think we’re too lost or too marginalized to matter, traveling to the well alone, and God will encounter us once again.

We can begin to think worship is all about knowing which direction to face, which religious pieties to adopt and practice, and Christ will transform that again, too, reminding us that faith is about trusting in him.

And we can wonder about how to witness, how to share, how to find the right words or the right strategy, but we learn it’s really just about sharing our story, talking to others about our relationship with God, allowing questions and dialogue to happen.

We’re thirsty, Lord Jesus, and we thank you, for visiting that well and speaking with that woman. And we praise you for the privilege to walk, worship, and witness alongside her.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Simultaneously Saint and Sinner...also known as A Perfect God's Imperfect People" - Lent 2017 series, Lent with Luther: 1517 Ideas through 2017 Eyes

Romans 7:19-25

19 I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do. 20 But if I do the very thing that I don’t want to do, then I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it is sin that lives in me that is doing it. 21 So I find that, as a rule, when I want to do what is good, evil is right there with me. 22 I gladly agree with the Law on the inside, 23 but I see a different law at work in my body. It wages a war against the law of my mind and takes me prisoner with the law of sin that is in my body. 24 I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse?25 Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I’m a slave to God’s Law in my mind, but I’m a slave to sin’s law in my body.

Matthew 7:1-5

7 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s[a] eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor,[b] ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s[c] eye.

There is a website called which sells merchandise with traditional Lutheran themes, things like novelties and mugs and clothing. One of the most popular items for sale there is a T-shirt that is a bit of an optical illusion. When read one way, it says “Saint,” but when flipped upside down, it spells the word “Sinner.”  The font in which it is written resembles the calligraphy of ancient manuscripts, as if it is something a saintly monk may have written in one of those oversized manuals he transcribed. For me, it also looks like the style of writing found in gothic horror novels or biker tattoos. Seen one way it can seem holy and fancy, but it also has an edgy, ominous, devilish look to it. The design is clever because it is somehow both, rolled into one: saint and sinner, holy and sinister, whole and broken.

It is intended to depict visually a theological idea that Martin Luther wrote extensively about during the Protestant Reformation. That is, a believer is simultaneously saint and sinner. He or she is not ever really one or the other—as if at any given moment a person finds their life in a good column or a bad column or even a neutral column. When it comes to her relationship with God, a believer understands that she is both stuck in sin, in deep need of God’s mercy, and, at the same time, fully named and claimed as a holy child of God, set free from her bondage.

Martin Luther did not make up this idea that we are simultaneously saint and sinner, but it did become a central component to his teachings. He found it in Scripture, especially in the letters of apostle Paul. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he hears the apostle, who clearly is a man of great faith, struggle openly with his own sinfulness. Paul maintains steadfast faith in the victory of his Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death, and he talks extensively about the meaning and importance of his baptism, but he also is frustrated that he is still captive to sin. He finds himself still wanting to do the very things he should not do, putting him in conflict with the new, forgiven person he yet knew Christ had made him to be.

Martin Luther saw this conflict in himself, and it was struggling with this concept of his own imperfections in the face of God’s mighty perfection which really led him to launch his critique of the church in his day. He recognized that in this life we are never really totally free from that desire to sin, that tendency to transgress what Paul calls the law. We always fall short in our ability to live up to God’s righteousness.

In his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Luther says, “The true way of salvation is this. First, a person must realize that he is a sinner, the kind of a sinner who is congenitally unable to do any good thing.” “Congenitally” in this case means a firmly established habit, as if from birth. The first step in become one of this perfect God’s imperfect people is realizing you are instinctively flawed, broken.

And yet, at the same time, we also have the promise that Christ is given for us—we are assured through God grace that Jesus, who is God’s own Son, makes us righteous before God. We grasp this through our faith, we feel it in the water of our baptisms, we hold and taste it in the Lord’s Supper, and we know it is true for us. It’s a free gift, and like a garment that shields us, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross makes us holy in the eyes of God. Luther goes on to say: “[Let me] give a short definition of a Christian: a Christian is not somebody who has no sin, but somebody against whom God no longer chalks sin, because of his faith in Christ.”

In Luther’s day, this was a helpful guide for reforming the church and reorienting its message to the gospel truth. The church had practices and official stances that led people to believe they could get rid of their own sin by living perfect, virtuous lives, or by donating enough money, and that a Christian was someone who had successfully done just that.

Luther’s view helped people realize that God’s love for us in Christ was sufficient for our salvation.

But what about today? How does the church’s proper understanding that we’re both sinner and saintly at the same time—that we’re a perfect God’s imperfect people—meet modern culture and become a word of grace? To some degree, I believe that there is already a yin-and-yang sentimentality present in most people’s minds—that is, that life is mixture of opposites, and that some of the opposites are right within us. A yin-and-yang philosophy may not be the same thing as saint and sinner, but it is somewhat similar.

And yet I hear within our day and age a strong tendency to place humans fully in one category or another, to make hard-and-fast judgments about human worth. I see the debates over renaming schools here in Richmond or the possible removal of Confederate war memorials, the requests to no longer quote Thomas Jefferson, slave-owner, at the University of Virginia (which he founded!) and wonder if they all might be symptoms of this tendency to paint people all one color according to their sins. The most recent edition of one of the magazines I subscribe to, The Christian Century, deals with the struggle to make sense of Martin Luther’s own legacy, because along with the wonderful things he said in regards to church and faith and service to neighbor, he also said some hateful things about groups like Jews, Anabaptists, and Muslims.

And we come to conclusions about folks we know on a personal level, too, thinking that certain people have little capacity to embody God’s holiness or show forth the love of Christ because of our past experiences with them, or because of stereotypes we’ve developed through the media. There is a lot of confessing of other people’s sins these days, of pointing out the specks in others’ eyes we feel can’t be overlooked.

Things like slavery and discrimination are certain evils, and discussions about the ways they have intersected and impacted the witness of people’s lives are important ones to have. And yet it is easy to focus only on the sin, only on the parts of one’s life that seem to be irredeemable to us. Without an understanding that it is Christ who makes us saints—and not our own power to name and root out all wrongdoing and avoid all inconsistencies in character and thinking—our judgments of people can risk throwing out the righteous baby with the sinner bathwater. That is to say, it is best to view everyone with the knowledge that Christ offered his life for them, just like he did for us. Insofar as anyone—and you and me—is in Christ, they are one of God’s holy, loved people, part of the host that are promised to join him in the feast to come.

On the other side of the coin, saint and sinner thinking can help combat the human triumphalism that I fear is gaining ground in today’s world. Sometimes I worry that there is a growing attitude that humans are congenitally awesome, not congenitally flawed, as Luther would say, and there is great danger in this. There is an optimism about human nature and human capacity that on our own we can solve all problems, bring about all good. Such thinking is bound to ignore that some of the twentieth-century’s greatest horrors—World War I, the Holocaust of World War II, the eugenics programs in this country—were in large part brought about by a philosophy of human perfection, that we were in complete control of our own destiny.

But here I go confessing others’ sins, and there’s a log in my own eye, right? Saint and sinner understanding keeps all of us honest about our brokenness, helps us maintain a sense of humility about our human condition, with all its ugliness. We all have sinned, and all fall short of the glory of God.

I saw a meme recently that said, “Remember that you are mud, but you are also made of stardust.” It was a modern spin on simultaneously saint and sinner, a scientific re-thinking of Luther’s concept. We are dirty, fallible creatures, capable of making a mess of ourselves and the world, but also in our atoms lie the very same elements that make up the heavens, resplendent in their beauty.

We know now, too, that even our DNA, which contains the recipes for our bodies to heal on its own, for things like the color of our eyes and the shapes of our beautiful bodies and faces in all their diversity. And yet we are learning that within these same mysterious molecular codes are inscribed the instructions for many of the diseases that kill us. It seems as if biologically we are perfect and imperfect at the same time.

What a gift it would be to remember that when it comes to our whole life—our soul, our ambitions, our virtues—we are a perfect God’s imperfect people, being made more and more perfect in Christ’s image as we continue the journey of faith, which always includes repentance and confession. And, of course, forgiveness.                                                  

Several years ago one of my colleagues in Pittsburgh told me the story of baptizing a three-year-old one Sunday. As they held him over the font, he screamed “NOOOOOO!” at the top of his lungs, flailing his arms and legs wildly around. The very next week he underwent a five-hour-procedure at a hospital, followed by six hours of having to remain perfectly still. His nurse entered his room after recovery, asking the obligatory, “What’s your name?”  Without hesitation, this three-year-old replied, “Nathan Johnson, child of God.”

May we be so confident in our identity of who we are (sinners)…and also whose we are (saints!). May we by God’s grace remember that we, sinners that can scream in defiance, have been received by the Lord who offers up his own priceless life back to us in order that we may be children of God. That is…saints!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The First Sunday in Lent [Year A] - March 5, 2017 (Genesis 2:15-17 and Matthew 4:1-11)

I don’t know what the first thing you’re supposed to teach a child is, but the concept of “no” comes early on.

“No,” the TV remote does not go in your mouth.
“No,” the cat’s tail is not a lasso.
“No,” you do not need to scream and twist and writhe about as if someone is trying to kill you when, in fact, we’re just changing your diaper.

It’s a rather strange thing, if you think about it, because “no” sounds like such a downright negative, restrictive thing to hear, especially right here as life is beginning. In reality, though, as soon as a child lets on that she has the capacity to understand speech, a parent finds herself adopting a serious tone of voice and assertively saying “No.”

At our house, we’re in the middle of introducing the concept of “No” to our eleven-month-old, and just as with our two older children, we are having a rough start. The firmer and sterner our voices get, and the meaner we make our frowns, the bigger he will smile, the more he will laugh. And pretty soon the poor guy has not just a mom and a dad telling him “No,” but two sisters chiming in, too. It’s like he’s surrounded by “No.” And he thinks it’s absolutely hilarious.

I’m sure some child psychologist might disagree with me, but there’s really no way to parent without the use of “no.” Positive reinforcement, affirmation, and praise are good and important, but at some point you realize those won’t cover all the bases. Some boundaries need to be set down, for the safety of the child and for those around him, because there are some things that can’t just be instinctively figured out. Hearing “No” and that certain things are off limits as a child develops and deepens his relationships with the world is helpful for him to grow in the right way. It teaches him see how his behavior can affect others. It will help him live in a way that is not harmfully self-centered. And, first and foremost, it helps establish trust.

The story of our beginning as humans, as the ancient Hebrews tell it, involves establishing trust right from the outset. We may find this story of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden to sound too fanciful or too simplistic, but the truth of it is really too obvious and too beautiful to deny. It’s what’s playing out, on a much, much smaller level, every time we say “No,” to our children. Humans were created to be in relationship with the One who created them. It was to be a relationship of trust and openness and caring, and that to guide that process along some boundaries, some “no’s” were going to be involved. God does not set humankind free to “figure it all out,” as if there are no rules to living. Humans are both too complex and too fragile for that.

"The Fall of Man" (Peter Paul Rubens)
That’s part of this business with the trees in the garden. They may sound a little fairy-tale like to us, but the trees [of life and of the knowledge of good and evil] are there to teach us and help us realize that trust-building and healthy growth and development are there at the very beginning. A desire that we deepen that relationship with creation and the Creator is also there from the very beginning. Evolve though we may, it is not a willy-nilly evolution. There is thought and purpose and, more than anything else, love behind the order of the universe. To be fully human is to exist in the relationship of trust with that higher authority.

But, unfortunately, what is our response to God’s thought and purpose and love? Essentially we just laugh at it. We’re convinced it is either some game or else some cruel, arbitrary limit to our freedom. What should ideally be a “yes” to this higher authority turns into a “heck yeah” to our own authority. We are tempted by some seductive voice to place ourselves where God should be. This is the nature of our sinfulness—a turning away from God and the good.

The story of the man and the woman in the garden is not in Scripture primarily to explain some historical or scientific origin of the earth. It is there to teach us deep truths about what it means to be human in this world that we cannot get from science alone (partly because science does not seem to be interested in these types of matters)—that we’re given great power and potential, but also some responsibility and the dignity to grow in relationship. This story reveals the ultimate silliness of trying to serve as our own gods…and it reveals our tendency to do so nevertheless.

God longs for us to respond with our whole being to his design of trust and love. God calls a people into existence, Israel, with whom God works and works to refine and refashion. God gives them his word on tablets of stone and on the lips of the prophets. God trails them along with manna in the wilderness to keep them fed and satisfied. God gives them a land to till and care for, but they ultimately, say “No” to God, too, convinced that it is the best way to say “Heck yeah” to themselves.

Then along comes this person named Jesus who is washed in the River Jordan and named as God’s own Son. He comes up out of the water and is immediately driven by God’s Spirit into the wilderness finds himself living the temptation that every human has ever contended with, hearing the same seductive voice of self-will that every tribe, every family, every soul has ever tried to drown out.

For the gospel-writer Matthew, the tests that Jesus finds himself enduring mirror perfectly the same tests that ancient Israel had been subjected to and failed. Just like they had hungered for food in the desert wandering, Jesus finds himself famished at the end of his fasting. However, unlike Israel, Jesus does not mumble and grumble. He resolutely accepts what it is that comes his way. He demonstrates by denying himself what we were originally supposed to learn: that he is totally dependent on God.

The next two temptations also speak to particular problems that ancient Israel struggled with, which also go back to the very beginning of our relationship with the Creator: the inclination to test God to see if God is real—to put ourselves in God’s place—and the constant battle against idolatry—to put other things in God’s place. In each and every case, Jesus submits fully to that “No” of God and says “no” to his own desires.

In a way, to hear these stories and only get hung up in the existence of some devil figure or talking snake is to miss the point. The real issue here is that God has sent a redeemer.  The real news here is that God understands temptation is real—our human pain, our failed promises, our tendency to look to places other than our Creator for that higher authority. The real news is that there is someone, finally, who can say “No” to himself and that seductive voice of unlimited freedom. There is someone who can speak for us, who can guide us to God our Father. We can’t do it ourselves, but he can do it for us.

It is not chiefly in the wilderness of Judea where Jesus does battle against temptation. He will eventually say “No” to himself, to claiming God’s authority for his own, in such a way that he will lose his life. On the cross, Jesus gives up every last of his ability to say so “Yes” to his own desires of autonomy. In Jesus, at long last, we encounter someone who can hear God’s voice above the clatter of self-delusion. His “Yes” to God becomes our “yes.” He guides us back to God.

Several years ago we took the high school youth group whitewater rafting on the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia on our way home from a servant camp experience. When we were on the river’s edge assigning people to boats, a certain male adult leader older than I am who shall go unnamed pulled rank on me and stuck me in the raft with all the male youth. Conditions on the river, our guide said, were the best they’d been in thirty years. The rain had swollen the rapids to their maximum, and I found myself in a raft with a bunch of high school guys who promptly decided they wanted to chant the word T-E-S-T-O-S-T-E-R-O-N-E as we went down the river.

Our raft had a guide. He was a college-aged guy named Bryce, and he was very clear that we were going to have fun but that we needed to listen to him and trust in him especially when he had to tell us “No” to something. But we were noisy and boisterous just the same, excited to be out there in the water and show the strength of our rowing muscles. The other raft was all the female members of our group, and they were in front. Bryce pulled us into an eddy off to the side so we could watch as they hit the first rapid. We saw their raft plunge down into the spray, then it popped back up, and then about three people flew up into the air and out into the water. And our raft of shouting, whooping guys went silent like *that*, suddenly aware of the seriousness of the situation…and that they were next.

All the people in the girls’ raft ended up being just fine. After all, they had probably been listening to the instructions. But before it was our turn, one of the guys in the raft, aware of just how dangerous this could be, asked, “Hey guys, could we have a prayer?” What a display of faith! I never would have considered that. And as I sat there, wondering what exactly I would pray, I realized I could have used the 6th verse of this morning’s psalm: “Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them” (Psalm 32).

And so right there, before God and all creation in the middle of the wilderness of West Virginia, with life vests on and paddles in our hands,  nine guys prayed that Bryce would guide us through the waters. And when it was our turn, only one person fell out: Bryce. It was a surprise to us, too, but in going overboard he managed to keep us all in.

Life is perilous and faith is difficult. We hear “No,” and think it’s a joke. We are ever tempted by the idea of unlimited freedom. But we have a God—a patient God—who wants us back, who wants us to trust him, who knows we’re not always going to listen or respond in prayer but who still wants us to grow into the people he has created us to be.

And, more than anything else, we have a Guide who will launch himself overboard to get us there.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday - March 1, 2017 (2 Corinthians 5:20b -- 6:10)

So much of life is either/or. There seems to be no escaping it. Either you order the cheeseburger with French Fries or you go for the pepperoni pizza. Either you root for the Hokies or you pull for the ‘Hoos. Either you vote for the Republican or you vote for the Democrat. Either you accept the job offer and uproot your family to move to a new state or you turn it down, and risk being let go. Either you decide to marry this person, choosing to be with them for the rest of you life, or you don’t, and decide to remain single for at least a while longer.  Either you’re still alive, cured of the disease that creeps within or you’re not, and your loved ones are planning your funeral. So much of life is either/or. We find ourselves facing forks in the road, trapped by decisions and defined by dilemmas—either ones we make ourselves or ones that are made for us. It is impossible, if not greedy and indulgent, to wind up with two different or opposite things at the same time.

So much of life is either/or, and yet God’s ways toward us, by contrast, are usually both/and. With God, all things are possible, and so we find our life in him so much of the time is, in fact, about being two different or opposite things simultaneously. We are both lost and we’re found. We’re in bondage to sin and yet we’re free. Upon reflection, we realize we are a both sinner and we’re a saint. God’s kingdom is now and it is also not yet. As Jesus points out, we are to both practice our faith fervently and also make ourselves look like we’re not.

The fancy, SAT word for a both/and scenario is paradox. It is the ability for two otherwise contradictory things to exist at the same time. And there’s probably no one better than apostle Paul at using and explaining paradox to illustrate what it means to live as a Christ-follower. In one of his letters to the church in the ancient Greek city of Corinth, when he tries to clarify his own faith and how it effects others’ perception of him as he serves them and proclaims the gospel, he actually lists a long string of these both/and statements:

“We were seen as both fake and real, as unknown and yet well known, as dying, yet look!—we are alive! going through pain yet always happy as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet owning everything.”

One might say it sounds both confusing, and it somehow makes complete sense. What Paul means is when you know you’ve been reconciled to God because of what Christ has done, you find yourself almost always at odds with the broken world around you. Others see your actions and values—values which emphasize compassion for others and serving the lowliest—and interpret them as making no sense in a world that lusts after things like personal fame and material wealth. They are blind to the fact that there is actually great joy to be found in such a way of living. The world around looks at how much some of great faith have given up, sees how they share with the less fortunate, and therefore find them utterly destitute, unaware of the reward they receive through serving, unaware of the reward they is storing up in heaven.

Living as two polar opposite things at the same time is what Paul says people of faith become accustomed to now that they have been reconciled to God through Christ. They are living, breathing paradoxes. Even though they are still sinners, they are also still becoming the righteousness of God.

And that’s the root of this paradox. Because, you see, it is not just an imperfect world that is at odds with God’s new creation in Christ. We must also admit there are still parts of ourselves in conflict with the peace we find through faith. That is, this is not just a matter of how others perceive our both/and qualities. It is we, ourselves, when we’re honest, who are constantly living this tension.

That is one reason why the ashes which will momentarily mark our foreheads so appropriate. They themselves are a paradox. Ashes are at once a symbol of death and decay, a bitter remnant of a life that is over, and yet also an agent of cleaning and cleansing. They are something that cultures, including ancient Israel, have long used to show repentance, shame, and guilt, and yet out of the ashes new life can arise. Ashes are both a sign of our mortality and of our eternal hope in Jesus. We are not in this life either dead or alive, either condemned or saved, but both dead in sin and alive in Christ at the same time. We are both declared guilty, trespassers, and also saved for eternal life. And when we hear that to God we are both one and the other, it allows us to be honest about both: real about our sin and what it does to us and others, but also hopeful about what Christ provides.

Another person who dealt a lot with the both/and nature of the life of faith was Martin Luther, a devoted student of the apostle Paul. So much of Luther’s theology, which is being revisited in a special way this year as it 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation, which Luther effectively began, is built around these paradoxes of Christian faith. Luther had a deep understanding of his inner brokenness. He even had a special German word for it: Anfechtung. Difficult to translate directly into English, Anfechtung was Luther’s way of describing the way the soul is tormented by this ever-lingering sense of doubt and despair and hopelessness regarding his or her condition (to be honest, most words in German sound like despair and hopelessness). He writes of it in a line of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” when he says, “no strength of ours can match [evil’s] might. We would be lost, rejected.” Luther’s own sense of Anfechtung was often psychologically crippling, especially in his early years.

I was unable to find any proof of this, but I would imagine Luther loved Ash Wednesday. The rituals and meaning of this worship service would have resonated for him, the ashes a sign of just how corrupt his feelings of despair had left him. And yet, we can imagine he would have loved the fact that the ashes were marked in the form a cross: there could be no clearer sign of a gracious God, one that had found him in the suffering of His Son. We are not either destined to death or claimed by God. Luther emphasized that we are both at the same time: dying, and yet rising…ever being drowned in our baptism, and ever being lifted up to new life…knowing our separation from God is always there, and also knowing that we’ve been reconciled.

The last act of Luther’s life, was to travel to his hometown in the winter of 1546 in order to help two of his brothers reconcile to each other. He was in very poor health, but made the journey anyway. He managed to succeed in getting his brothers to come back together, but in the end it was too much for him and he began to die. We know from the things he wrote and said in the last days and hours of his life that he was still tormented by Anfechtungen, by that inner worry of doubt in God and despair. Here was a learned man, fluent in scripture, responsible for reforming the church in many ways, and still unsure of God’s eternal care. A note he scribbled on a napkin two days before he died ends with the words, “We are beggars. That is true!” Those are the last words he wrote, after writing hundreds of thousands.

For him, until the end, faith in God still involved paradox, and that was good, for it still ultimately pushed him into God’s arms of mercy, fully relying on grace. He wasn’t either saved or totally rejected, but both/and: both a holy child of God and a beggar for his forgiveness.

So this Ash Wednesday, this Lent, this whole life in Christ, let’s try to remember we live as “both/and” people in an “either/or” world. “Either/or” has its place, I suppose, for things like ordering food and choosing a spouse. However, when it comes to God’s loving actions toward us and knowing we’re reconciled to him, let’s realize we’re caught the tension of a blessed paradox which will one day—one bright day with no more ashes—be resolved. We are both lost and found, both guilty and forgiven. Having nothing yet possessing everything. We come forward and kneel at the rail, ashes on our heads, and hold our hands out like beggars…and as beggars who have become very rich.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year A] - February 26, 2017 (Matthew 17:1-9)

The late Jim Valvano, basketball coach for the NC State Wolfpack, whose team won the NCAA Championship in 1983, had a very unique and some would say outrageous way he’d begin each season of practice. Before they would practice a single free throw shot, before they would run any passing drills, before they’d even do laps around the court, Jimmy V would have his players dress out and bring them out on the court with a ladder. He’d put the ladder underneath the basketball hoop and then hand them a pair of scissors at which point he would have the whole team practice cutting down the net. In case you’re not familiar with college basketball, the act of cutting down the nets from a basketball hoop is reserved for tournament champions. Only one team gets to do it, obviously, and it is done right at the end of the final victory. As the television crews come onto the court and the wild, celebrating fans are corralled back into their seats for the presentation of the trophy, someone brings out a ladder and the winning team-members climb up, one-by-one, to cut the net down. And in the Men’s NCAA Division 1 basketball tournament, which will begin in a little less than a month, the song they begin playing in the background is “One Shining Moment.”

Practicing that championship ritual, that end-of-the-season, final, culminating ceremony is how Coach Valvano began his season. It’s a bit outrageous, but I suppose he did that in order to get his players to glimpse the glory that could be theirs before they descended into the hard work and discipline and day-to-day drudgery of the season. I suppose he did it to inspire them forward, to give them a vision of what they could be before the season had a chance to disillusion them.

In many ways, that is what the Transfiguration of Jesus was for his disciples. This whole experience is outrageous, if you look at it. Even Jesus refers to it as a vision once it’s over, as if something about it wasn’t quite real, almost a figment of their imagination. Whatever it was, it was a glimpse of the final glory of Jesus, a brief peek, if you will, into One Shining Moment that would be a precursor, a little foretaste, of the Everlasting Shining Eternity Jesus would bring at the end of his story.

An 11th century icon of Christ's Transfiguration. This is at St. Catherine's
Monastery, which sits at the base of Mt. Sinai
The fact of the matter is they needed a brief peek, they needed a glimpse of that glory, for two main reasons. First of all, they don’t really have a clue about who Jesus is. They’ve never been given the information that Jesus is, for example, God’s Son. For those of us who have the benefit of reading the gospel of Matthew, that’s something that’s been more or less clear since the beginning. We know the story of his birth, and the miraculous, mysterious events that surrounded it. We have heard about the angel that visited Joseph in dream that informed him his son would save the people from their sins. We also know about the events at Jesus’ baptism, how he went down in the water and when he came up a voice boomed from on high identifying Jesus as God’s Son.

None of the disciples, you see, were there at those occasions. For them, Jesus is a rabbi with some very compelling (if not confusing) teachings and an incredibly insightful understanding of God’s law. For them, Jesus is a teacher and leader who also has the ability to work some miracles every now and then. There have been a small handful of vague references to Jesus and God the Father, but no one has an idea of the depth of that relationship until this One Shining Moment.

Who is Jesus for you? Hearing the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is an excellent time to ask ourselves that question. Is he an idea in your head? How do you see him? What’s his point?

Sorry for the blurriness. This was in the days before cell phone cameras.
I remember one of the the first times I really grappled with these kinds of questions and the difference between the Jesus in my head and the Jesus that’s out there, as a real person I was in Hong Kong for a trip during seminary and we were at a Chinese Lutheran Church one morning during worship and Sunday School. Some kind of special faith formation event was going on between the worship services that morning—much like our Explore Camp Day today—and there were some materials and pieces of art laid out on a table. And among those pieces of art was a pair of painted plates. One plate had nothing but Chinese writing on it, which I couldn’t understand. The other plate, however, was a picture of a man under a tree surrounded by a bunch of children. One of the children was even on his lap. And it took me a second to figure out who I was really looking at because all of the figures were Asian. It was Jesus blessing a bunch of children, but Jesus had what I would consider—and what I think the artist would have considered—Asian features. Even the tree they were under looked like something out of an old Asian piece of art, branches kind of bending downward like a willow. While my brain understood that Jesus was not Asian, it made me acknowledge that in my mind’s eye I had always formed Jesus into a white, Caucasian Jesus. I had essentially imagined Jesus just as a wiser, more capable version of myself and the people that were around me most of the time.

In a way, those plates transfigured Jesus for me. They presented him in a new way that made me pause and really consider not just what but mainly who it is that I believe has named and claimed me in faith.

"Transfiguration" (Raphael)
Jesus can often come across so much of the time as an idea, a concept that can be mulled over in our heads rather than a person that can be beheld, that can amaze us. We can so easily reduce Jesus to some kind of moral teacher, or even just a moral teaching. We go through life and its complex situations thinking in terms of “What Would Jesus Do?” almost as if that were some kind of philosophical question. And those kinds of questions and outlooks aren’t necessarily wrong or bad—because disciples are supposed to imitate their leader—but neither do they quite offer a complete picture of who Jesus is. On the mount of Transfiguration the disciples don’t hear, “This is a great wise teacher. He’s got great ideas. Listen to him!” Or “This guy’s a great example. Ponder him!” They hear, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!”

Disciples of yesterday and disciples of today may begin to follow Jesus with the hopes that they will just end up as better people. But the reality is that following Jesus means being given something better. It means being granted new life, a bright, unending future. It means being given Jesus—being in his presence, knowing him, sharing life with him—which is reward enough because he is the Son of God.

So, one thing this net-cutting event on the mountain does is tell the disciples more about Jesus’ identity. The other reason God gives those disciples a glimpse of the future glory is the one we already know. We know it in our bones, but we try to ignore it, deny it. Peter becomes voice of our denial because what we know (but have a hard time admitting) is that we have to head back down the mountain for a while and life is way different down there than on the top. Christian faith doesn’t call us to an escape from the world. It calls us to a greater engagement with it, and that is not always fun and games. Just as the Wolfpack learned from Coach Valvano that the season requires practice, drills, and sweat, we learn from Jesus that discipleship will involve a cross.

That is, in fact, what Jesus has just finished telling them when he takes Peter, James and John up the mountain that day. He has let them know that the Son of Man will undergo great suffering and be killed, but on the third day be raised again. It is on that mountain where we will see the nature of God truly revealed before our eyes, where we come to terms not just with a new kind of ethnic Jesus or fresh interpretation of his teachings—but that we are following a God who does not hold himself back from the darkest parts of our journey, a God who offers all of his life for us to have his. It is a God who is willing to lose everything, absolutely everything, to climb down into all of our “things” and make us new.

A faith, he is telling them, which is built on seeking out transfiguration experiences, linking them together, one mountaintop experience after another, will ultimately become problematic. Faith is built on learning to listen to Jesus, the Son of God. And faith is, most importantly, coming to know that when all fades away—when the cloud of our glorious vision dissolves when the exhilaration of a fresh new understanding of God wears off, when reality of whatever life has handed us hits us in the face—we will not be left alone.

I said two, but there we hit on a third little thing about this outrageous event. It involves some irony. Peter, you see, wants to do something so that he and the others can stay with Jesus. He sees the vision, beholds the glory, and wants to build some huts in order to remain with that God. But in the end, it is Jesus who does the staying. All that fades away and Jesus has to touch the startled disciples and show them that he, alone, is left. He shows them he will travel with them back down the mountain.

Brothers and sisters, I hope you come to know that the exciting, mountaintop experiences you have with God may become like a drug, enticing you to find more, but Jesus will remain. Your faith may get wobbly—like mine does—but Jesus will remain. The season before the championship will get rough, filled with disillusionment, but Jesus will remain. You, me, we all may forget to listen, forget what we’re heading for from time to time, but Jesus will remain. The valley below may get dark and dreary, but it won’t end there. Jesus remains. And pulls us through. He holds us fast and he promises the end will come, the victory will be won, and, let me tell you, it will not involve just one but a zillion back-to-back shining moments!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Proper 1A] - February 12, 2017 (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37)

Moses makes it sound like such a no-brainer!

He stands there with all the people of God on Mt. Nebo at the very boundary between the wilderness of their wandering at their back and the Promised Land of milk and honey in front of them and he says, “Choose this or choose this.” The way behind them, remote and dangerous and filled with the peril of the competing tribes, was like choosing death and adversity, and the way in front of them, with the land they could occupy, beautiful and promising and filled with abundance, was choosing life and prosperity.

Yes, Moses makes it sound like a no-brainer, and you’d better believe that if I had been an Israelite standing there that day, after having lived through forty years of wandering and wondering in the harsh, godforsaken desert, I think I would have known exactly which choice to make. To choose life was to choose a home, a future, the good things God had promised me. To choose life was to realize that the commandments and laws God had given us weren’t arbitrary rules that made life less fun, but were a way of blessing and honor and right living. The commandments were, as Moses pointed out, a gift to help God’s people live in community, the way to prevent them from surrendering to the chaos of their desires and to fully enjoy the freedom God was giving to them.

But choices, even when they are pared down to the basics and set in life-or-death contrast to each other, are rarely no-brainers. We find a way to make it more complicated that it should be, to make everything seem equal. The stakes aren’t quite as high as what Moses was presenting, but I can tell you that Melinda and I have had the most intense disagreements of our marriage when it comes to making decisions about where to eat when we’re travelling on the road. Even when we have learned to narrow down options offered on those blue highway signs to just two alternatives, we seem rarely able to come to some sort of clear decision. It’s as if we’re choosing life or death: fast food or sit-down dinner. Cold subs or hot meal. If Bojangles’ isn’t listed as an option, then we’re really lost. Sometimes, at complete loggerheads, we have inadvertently made the decision not to decide and instead travel on down the road, ever hungrier, ever angrier. The fact of the matter is no matter how clear and obvious the choices are—even if they are laid out before us as getting food and staying hungry, blessings and curses, life or death—we still find we are unable to make the right choice so much of the time. And so to some degree I can imagine those ancient Israelites, frozen in their bickering and looking at Moses’ obvious choices on the blue sign by the side of the wilderness road and still wondering what to do.

Martin Luther spoke a lot about this. His understanding of Scripture and observation of human behavior led him to believe that we don’t really have the freedom to choose what’s good for us. He called it the “bondage of the will,” which is a fancy way of saying that even our ability to discern and decide is tainted by sin. There is a darkness in here (our heart) that we must acknowledge. Captive to an innate desire to put ourselves first, we tend to do whatever we want to do, to satisfy some of our most immediate desires, which aren’t always innocent and harmless. There are interpretations of the Christian faith that say we need to “make a decision” for Christ, or that our salvation is dependent on accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, but Luther would have said that just can’t be done. To say so doesn’t do justice to that inner darkness and assumes we are somehow moral or pure enough on our own to bring about God’s grace. To say it another way, Moses can stand on the edge of the Promised Land and lay out the choices as if it is a no-brainer, and the people of God are still going to struggle with it, are still going to choose death and adversity, if not now, then at some point down the road. And God, in God’s infinite grace, will hold out the option of life again and again.

Then along comes Jesus, a new prophet and rabbi and descendent of Moses, and he sits down on a small mountain not too far from the River Jordan and gives another description of the land that lies before them which his followers could go in and occupy. And as he speaks about it and their choices, they learn this land they could dwell in, this kingdom of God, is far more beautiful and abundant and complex than they might ever imagine.

Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Gustave Dore)
In this land, for example, no one expresses or maybe even feels anger with one another. They certainly never insult one another, label one another. In this kingdom people practically jump at the opportunity to practice forgiveness and reconciliation with one another. They apologize readily when they’ve done wrong and hurry to show mercy to those who’ve offended them. People in this land don’t manipulate relationships for their own benefit. They don’t objectify women or men or children and don’t take advantage of anyone who is vulnerable. When they speak, their words are trustworthy in and of themselves and they are so honest in their speech with each other that there’s no reason to take oaths or get anything notarized.

It’s a kingdom that anyone would want to lay claim to and live in, far better than the purposeless wandering they find themselves in now. It’s a place where each person deals with one another in the perfectly correct and most beautiful way, and even though, deep-down, they know it resonates as something really right, the people still hear it all as just more commandments and more laws they’re supposed to follow. “Do this, don’t do that”…in fact, now it seems to be a place even more rule-bound than what Moses had described.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes each commandment, here the fifth, the sixth, and the eighth, and rather than lessening them, loosening them up a little, he expands them, makes them more strict and detailed. What is meant by murder, as it turns out, is actually broader than just physically taking someone’s life. What is meant by adultery is broader than just having sexual intercourse outside of marriage. What is meant by bearing false witness is more than just gossiping and lying. And the choice to enter there and live in that land is, once again, not as much of a no-brainer as we might expect.

There was a story this week where a prominent news organization that had recently aired a story about people’s views regarding the recent election and politics. The organization posted it to their Facebook page, like usual, and got thousands of comments lambasting one of the people interviewed in the article. Most of the comments were quite rude and mean-spirited. So, in an interesting twist, the news organization reached out to ten of those people who made the comments and offered them the chance to sit down and learn from the person who was interviewed in the story, the person they had insulted and called an idiot. Only two accepted.[1] Life is offered—a chance to live in abundance and harmony—but so often we just can’t seem to choose it.

The good news is, however, that God knows this. After travelling with us in the wilderness, God knows about that inner darkness. And the Teacher who sits on that small mountain and offers up this beautiful kingdom for us understands we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. He is not content just to stand at the edge and explain what his Father’s kingdom is like or point us how to get there. He is going to take us there, himself. He is going to become that kingdom, giving himself over to us. And to do so he is going to confront the darkness we bear within and die to any belief system that is based on our choosing and deciding.

He is going to represent a choice, you see, but not our choice, not our choosing. Jesus is God’s choice for us. Jesus is God’s life for us. Jesus is God loving us, and redeeming us from ourselves. And henceforth having faith and living as one of God’s children will be more about God’s decision to have us than our decision to have God. Having faith and living in God’s kingdom will more about God’s holding fast to us in love and mercy than about our holding fast to him.

Last week in one meeting here one person shared the story about an elementary school teacher in Charlotte, NC, who has created a personalized handshake with every single one of his fifth-grade students. Each day, when they arrive at school, they form a line at the door and, one by one, as they enter the classroom he has prepared for them, he extends his hand and holds fast to each one of theirs in their own unique way. Some of the handshakes are pretty elaborate and involve turning around, waving limbs in the air, incorporating fist bumps and snaps. He has committed them all to memory—that is, how he holds fast to each student, how he claims them for the day and offers them the classroom. The administration loves it. “The only way to help our scholars achieve at high levels every day,” says the principal, “is to embrace the need for meaningful and deep relationships.”[2]

So there is Jesus, the Teacher, embracing relationship with us, holding to us fast so that we can enter the kingdom and live with him forever. See him there, at the font in the water, welcoming us in, maybe giving us a fist bump. Then again at the table, with his body and blood, reaching out his hand for a high-five. One at a time, over and over, the decision is made and we respond, held fast: “I’ve chosen to love you deeply, my child,” he says. “You are a no-brainer.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - February 5, 2017 (Matthew 5:13-20)

Several years ago my sister, father, and I started giving my mother a hard time because she suddenly became very particular about how dark it had to be for her to go to sleep. It had to be completely, 100% pitch black, and if somewhere there was the littlest light shining—maybe the dull glow from a streetlight outside the window, maybe from an alarm clock beside the bed—she would not be able to fall asleep. She would lie there awake, irritated by the light. She even got so dependent on having utter darkness whenever it was bedtime that she started to travel with a roll of electrical tape in her toiletry bag. When they’d turn off the main lights of some hotel room, inevitably there would be other smaller lights around the room still shining. Little light on the thermostat? She’d slice off a piece of electrical tape and cover it up. Little light emanating from some device in the bathroom? Slice off another piece of electrical tape and slap it on there. It was like a little bed time ritual, one in which she discovered how difficult it actually is to control the amount of light when it is supposed to be dark.

You can imagine how awful we felt when we realized that she had developed quite a serious eye condition that left her extremely sensitive to light. (Moral of the story: don't ever, ever tease your mother). And you can imagine how silly I feel now that I have somehow developed a similar nightly ritual. I don’t have an eye condition, but for some reason I, too, need as little light as possible. In fact, there are some nights I don’t get good sleep and I’m convinced it is because there is this little teeny weeny green light on our printer and it is keeping me awake. Mind you, the little light is about the size of the head of a pin, and it sits on our desk about 5 feet away from our bed, but when I wake up in the middle of the night it IS THIS BRIGHT. I’ve made a special cover for it, not out of electrical tape, but out of black construction paper, and when someone prints something it often knocks that paper out of the way. You think I’m crazy, but that teeny tiny green light ruins the darkness.

“You are the teeny tiny green light that will ruin the darkness,” Jesus tells his disciples. It’s a good thing to say, and the right time to say it. Jesus has just begun what many consider his most thorough, most important teaching about the kingdom of God and it’s totally imaginable that they’re starting to get a bit overwhelmed by the sound of it all. He has come on strong, even mentioning right up front the fact that they may face some persecution, some blowback, for their beliefs and their works of mercy. And so now he gives them an idea about how special and important and influential their witness will be. Like a city situated up on a hill that stands visible for all those in the valleys and hillsides, like a candle set on a table in a room at night that enables people finish their work, like the small bit of salt that flavors the dish it is in, they will have an effect on the world around them. And even if someone walks around with electrical tape, they will prove by their very presence that it is actually very easy to banish the darkness.

Light is difficult to control. Just a little teeny tiny bit can make a huge difference. In a time long before people knew the physics of light—that it had characteristics of both a particle and a wave—Jesus is telling them that their very actions in Christ’s name will be mysteriously explosive, impossible to shut away. As little photons of good in an evil world, disciples could beam and bounce off of others and transmit holy energy to them, and like a wave their actions could reach distances far beyond the distance their legs could ever take them, like when a prayer shawl stitched here warms a person in a hospital on the other side of town. And long before anyone knew the chemistry of salt—that it is a stable compound with positive and negative ions (polar opposites!) which allow it to dissolve and spread into a larger surrounding substance—Jesus is telling them that although they might be small and pretty ordinary-looking and totally different from each other they would be able to season and enrich an entire community, like when a church’s Jesus stained glass window brings joy to thousands of people driving up Monument Avenue. Incidentally, this scripture is what one architect used as he presented his initial ideas to the building Team back in December as the congregation contemplates a new addition.

But Jesus is not just lecturing on the power of positive change, or spreading random acts of kindness. Those things are nice, but Jesus is talking about something more serious here. By calling them salt and light, Jesus gearing up his followers to understand they will represent to the world the true life of the kingdom of God. Jesus says that he is the fulfillment of the law, the culmination of all that God desired to teach and convey through the giving of the law and the words of the prophets in the days of ancient Israel. When Christ lives in them through faith, they will display that fulfillment of God’s desires for the world through their own words and actions. That is perhaps why for so long the first thing said to a new daughter or son of Christ after they pass through the waters of baptism is, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

However, as important as your one teeny tiny green light is …or yours…or yours…Jesus is actually not speaking about individual lights here. He is speaking to his disciples as a group, as a community. Each time he uses the word “you” in this passage, he is actually using the plural form of that word, which we don’t have in English…unless, of course, you live in the South. He is saying, “Y’all are the salt of the earth. Y’all are the light of the world. Let y’all’s light so shine before others.”  In other words, it is not each person’s ability to shine that Jesus is focusing on, but their power as a collective.

I think this can be especially challenging for Americans to remember, for we are really fascinated by the power of the individual. We tend to like stories where one person makes a difference. In fact, not just here but elsewhere in the gospels Jesus seems far more concerned about the impact his followers have when they function as a group.

"Pentecost" (Salomon de Bray, 16th cent.)
Early church historian Robert Louis Wilken drives this home in his book about the first thousand years of Christianity, the years from Jesus’ death and resurrection to about A.D. 1000. The communal aspect of Christian faith cannot be overstated, especially because they were formed in a time of great persecution, when it was often a death sentence to be identified as a follower of the risen Lord. “The early Church,” he says, “was a community with a distinct anatomy; it was not simply an aggregate of individuals who believed the same things.”[1] It came into existence, he says at another point, as a community, not as a bunch of individuals. That is to say, the first Christians would have a very difficult time with the modern understanding some seem to have that someone can be a follower of Christ apart from the church. In fact, Jesus doesn’t even seem to make much room for that understanding, either.

In any case, baptism and faith make a person part of a body, and that body, and the way it moved and functioned together, was what had the quality of light. By the power of the Holy Spirit the disciples of Christ learned to work together to display the love of Christ, to share their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into their houses, to cover the naked, to offer their lives for the sake of others…and when they did so their light broke forth like the dawn.

It seems to have been this “y’all” characteristic of discipleship that led Christians to create the first hospitals the world had ever known of. In ancient Greece and Rome, when people worshipped many different gods and goddesses, people who were sick used to go and sleep in the temples of certain gods with the hopes they would be healed. Within the first few hundred years of its existence, the church transformed that trend. They designed and built structures where the sick could come and be tended to. They trained people that we would call doctors and nurses to take care of the sick because that is what they had known Jesus to do. The earliest hospitals were, of course, very rudimentary, but they were no doubt a new kind of salt for the earth.

It is this y’all characteristic that still attracts attention today. One of my colleagues who went to high school with me ended up getting ordained as an Episcopal priest and served right down the road from me when I was in Pittsburgh, is now the rector of a parish down in Waco, Texas. We’re only really in touch through Facebook these days, but I found out that he was invited to participate in a very rare experience a couple of weeks ago. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, who was until recently a self-described atheist, scheduled a meeting with the pastors in Waco. Apparently Zuckerberg just wanted to listen to what pastors had to say, and he was especially keen on hearing what the pastors said about the communities they served—what was important to them, how they functioned. In an article about the meeting, my colleague said you could have knocked him over with a feather. They had no idea they were going to be interviewed by such an influential person. Zuckerberg, who practically invented the concept of social media and who has made it the force it is today for connecting with people and spreading information, suddenly seems to want to learn from pastors of small congregations what is really important to communities and how they work together?[2] It almost wonders if someone might be seeing our light.

In these tense times when it seems there is so much that wants to pull people apart, when there are clear, competing visions and desires for what our human communities and even our country wants to be, the light of Christ evident through the Church is especially important. We can even disagree about political and social issues of our time here—like positive and negative ions that mysteriously still work together—because ultimately it is the truth of the cross that illuminates our lives. It draws us together, pulls us in to its forgiving and cleansing center, telling us that we aren’t just a bunch of “yous,” but one great big y’all. It draws us in and reminds us that there is something in our witness that can shine, that we exist as that one community in the world which by its very presence reminds the world that God loves it, cares for it, has died for it so that it may truly live. That is flavor, my friends. That is some kind of seasoning.

And, lest we forget, even when the world seems really, really dark, sometimes all it takes to ruin it is a teeny tiny green light.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The First Thousand Years. Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press, 2012. p 35