When I first looked at the set of readings for this Sunday it was fun but challenging to consider what they would say to a congregation like this one on an occasion like this. The words from this Old Testament lesson, this rather obscure prophet Habakkuk, seem especially fitting for the situation of our world and nation at present but maybe not as uplifting or as pertinent to an anniversary celebration. And the lesson from Jesus in Luke’s gospel lesson…well…who doesn’t like to hear about faith the size of mustard seeds?! But in the end, I realize I had only one real option: that beautiful epistle lesson. And so today (unrolling the scroll) I offer you a special, newly-discovered reading from 2 Timothy. We’ll call it the 125th anniversary edition:
Phillip, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, to Augsburg Lutheran, my beloved home congregation: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—ancestors that sat in these very pews with me each week, ancestors that now reside on the other side of that wall, in the columbarium—ancestors that tried to show and teach me what worshiping with a clear conscience meant: letting the Word I heard on Sunday nourish my actions Monday through Saturday. Knowing this God claims and transforms all of me, not just the parts I want people to see.
I am grateful to God when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. I know that sounds redundant, but it’s the truth! There are some days I can still feel Ross Ritchie’s wet fingers on my forehead. I remember these pews as a child remembers the street he grows up on. To this day, whenever I have Pepsi in a paper cup, I am at the feet of Alma Hayworth and Billie Kirkman. And even now, when I log on to Facebook, which I do quite often, there you are!
So, yes…I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day!
Recalling your tears at baptisms, at funerals, at the Christmas Eve candlelight service when we sang “Silent Night,” I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first for me in pastors Ritchie and Riley, and then Glenham, Rinn and Winkle. But a faith that lived also in Fisher, Lutz, and Bumgarner and others before them, and Anderson and Harrison and Pugh thereafter. It is a faith that shaped and honed the calls of countless interns through the years—the faith of a congregation committed to the formation of servant leaders.
But the faith that lived in you was not modelled principally by the pastors, no offense to any who are here, but by the countless Eunices and Loises I know have lived among you: Ones like Mike (Inez) Holderman, whose large spherical earrings use to jiggle back and forth in rhythm as she played the piano for Saturday Night Fellowship while our parents served the food.
And ones like George Barkley, Sunday School teacher for more than 50 years, who insisted even in the 1980s upon handing out Depression-era goodie bags of raisins and tangerines to each child as they finished their part in the Christmas pageant.
And others like Angie McHugh and Coty Nelson, my sister and brother in Christ with special needs, who were wisely not segregated out of our Sunday School class or worship, so that we could learn at an early age that we are one and that all God’s children have many gifts.
And the sincere faith of Colin, Neubert, Albritton and Eppert, who taught us how music is the church’s truest voice, who knew as Luther believed, “whoever sings, prays twice.” It is a faith that lived in Roediger, Kooken, Vinesett and Drawdy, and others who volunteered countless hours with the youth groups, who navigated us through turbulent adolescent years with patience and creativity and, much to our delight, a VHS video camcorder. It is a faith which, through all of these and more, outfitted me with a bedrock identity since you helped me see myself as God sees me: though a sinner, a redeemed one.
For this reason, on this 125th year of your life together, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of all those hands. Rekindle, I say, and not revise, not refurbish, and definitely not re-invent. Rekindle, because like a fire you have an ember deep down there that you need to hold on to. There is no need for change, no wholesale re-production on order. Just a blow from the Holy Spirit and your flame will keep roaring. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-sacrifice.
Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord, but join me with Paul in suffering for the gospel. I don’t know about you, but I am always a little taken aback by that part. For, as beautiful as our worship may get as functional as our Family Life Centers may be, and as fun as our drama productions and service projects and choir trips to Ireland may be, I’m afraid suffering is what we’ve really signed up for. Some would so far as to say, in fact, it is the best barometer of the strength of our witness.
I’ll be honest: this is the part that is hardest for me to remember, and I’m afraid I’m not very good example to follow. Like so many others, I take for granted this country’s relative freedoms and openness towards religion and therefore worship so casually, so non-chalantly most of the time. Church is “safe,” and my faith doesn’t really make me stick out. But, you know, they say the number of religiously-unaffiliated is on the rise, and I believe them. Fewer people are being raised weekly, even monthly, in the context of faith communities like you. I guarantee that no one went jogging by a church on Sunday 125 years ago. Perhaps there will be one day when one might truly feel ashamed of this testimony of ours, when, in mixed company, admitting belief in a crucified Savior or contributing time and, not to mention, a portion of our income, to that Savior’s body might be laughed at.
This makes it all the more critical, then, that we rely on the power of God and not our own cleverness. For it is God who has saved us and called us with a holy calling. It is God who has laid his life down for us and made our lives sacred, not according to our own works of love or our own righteous agendas of social justice but according to his own purpose and grace.
This grace was given to us in Jesus Christ before the ages began—before Ron and Ross began their storied tenures, before the first group gathered at the original building on Fourth Street, even before Martin Luther did his thing with the church door—but it has been revealed through the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.
This timeless grace is present even now, right here in this room, just as new as it ever has been—as fresh as a whiff of wine when a chalice is passed. This timeless grace of Jesus is yours for the taking, once again, yours for the listening, the eating, the drinking. There is not one thing you must do to receive it, to know it, to grow up, as I did, in it. It is yours. By the power of the cross and the blood of the Lamb, this love is yours.
For this gospel—this exact gospel—you helped appoint me in 2003 as a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and I’m here to remind you that you are still appointed, too. You are appointed as heralds and apostles and teachers in the heart of this city and, by gracious extension, in the workplaces and school rooms and dinner tables and athletic fields where you spend your days. Together you and I have come to know the one in whom we can put our trust, the one who claims us right here in this water, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day all that we have entrusted to him.
Hold to the standard sound teaching you have heard from your forebears, my brothers and sisters of Augsburg, for you have such a legacy of it. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you—the treasure, for example, of prime real estate in downtown Winston-Salem, near to the cool hangouts of the trend-setting, but truly prime because it is near the needs of the people who are homeless…the treasure of music programs of Cantor Olsen and youth ministries headed by Ms. Norris, which help articulate a distinctly Christ-centered worldview to a new generation of Loises and Eunices…the treasure of Sunday School classes for adults of every age (you have no idea how rare that is!) where people can come to learn and share life’s struggles and joys together.
But remember above everything else, congregations are not meant for glorifying the past, or celebrating what has been. They exist to uproot mulberry trees. They exist to nurture mustard seeds.Congregations, no matter how old they are, or how young they are, or whether they’re downtown or whether they’re in the country, they exist as a little outpost of servant labor in the name of Christ. They exist to teach people, all people—ha! well, now looky there, the obscure prophet Habakkuk!—to live by faith.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.