Monday, May 27, 2013

The Holy Trinity [Year C] - May 26, 2013 (Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 and Psalm 8)

I believe most of us would agree that there are certain things people are very careful in defining or describing. That is, there are certain topics or situations or scenarios that most people, most of the time, are meticulous about getting right whenever they talk about them. Two simple examples I can think of would be recipes or directions. You can’t share a birthday cake recipe, for example, by saying, “Well, just mix some sugar and some flour together with a little bit of salt and vanilla and bake it for a while.” You do that and the person won’t end up with a cake. With recipes, people are always conscious about communicating the details. The same goes for giving directions: in most cases, they need to be fairly precise, and so people are careful about how they communicate them. If someone wants to get to my house from church, I can’t just tell them, “I live northwest of here,” and expect they’d ever arrive at my house. It’s accurate…but I need to communicate more to be more helpful.

We also tend to be very mindful in the ways we talk about other people—how we describe them, how we identify them. I think specifically of how careful parents are when they speak about their children. They don’t take the task lightly. Even though they might accidently switch their names every once in a while when they’re talking to them to their face, parents always know exactly what their children are like, how they’re unique. My mother-in-law raised three children, and when they were little she used to say she could tell who had made a mess even if none of them claimed it. Even their messes had their names written all over them, she’d say. That’s how well she knew how to describe and define her kids.

three interlocking circles have long been used
as a symbol for the Holy Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity arose out of the need to speak clearly and carefully about God. Early on, as the people of the church read the Scriptures and made sense of Jesus’ story, as people felt the need to explain how God and the risen Jesus were connected to each other, there came this need to talk about God in ways that were accurate and helpful and illuminating. As this thinking and speaking took place—which occurred even as the New Testament was coming together—it became clear that God’s true nature was somehow One and Three at the same time. People could talk about God as Father or as Son or as Spirit, but really they were all speaking about the same God. The Trinity was never meant to be something to be dogmatic, shoved down the throats of Christians by church leaders and priests. Neither was it something that had its own neat chapter, for example, in the Bible. People nowadays often get freaked out by that word “doctrine,” but really the Trinity was much like conveying a recipe or like giving directions or talking correctly about your child. While it is, of course, is difficult—maybe even risky—to try to explain a mystery, to put boundaries on something so utterly undefinable as God himself, those who have had an intimate relationship with this God, who have experienced God’s grace at points in their life, as well as those who feel distant from God have all recognized at some point the need to be attentive to the language used for God and about God. Therefore, the word “doctrine” should not upset us, especially in this instance.

ancient icons often depict the Trinity as the three visitors
in Genesis 18
The issue I find is that people of Christian faith often make one of two mistakes when it comes to speaking about God. Either we’re too intimidated by the task or we’re too casual about it. When we’re too intimidated by it, we end up thinking, “It’s too complex. What’s the point?” and we end up say nothing. When we’re too casual about it, we end up ascribing to God all kinds of traits and actions that should not really be ascribed to God. When we do attempt it, and when we’re thoughtful about it, we find that speaking about God as Trinity best helps us tell the story of God’s love and what that love is like. There are plenty of examples of how the Trinity helps do that, but for the sake of brevity, I am going to focus on just three today—one sermon, but a trinity of examples, if you will—that arise out of the texts we have.


  1. God is a complete relationship in and of God’s self.

Because God is one and three at the same time, there is a community within God. God is the Father always giving love to the Son through this Spirit that exists between them. God the Father looks upon his Son in a never-ending Spirit of love and the Son is always looking back from wherever he is—from the manger, from the waters of the Jordan, from the cross, from this altar in the same never-ending Spirit of love. In fact, it is this relationship within God’s being that allows some New Testament writers to say that “God is love.” This relationship of love is at the heart of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Lover, the Beloved, and the Love between Them. But because God is this complete relationship, filled with love, God doesn’t really need the rest of us. That may come as a shock, but Psalm 8 says it very nicely: “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

Michaelangelo's "Creation of Adam"
God the Trinity is perfect and whole, filled with so much beauty and wisdom that it all eventually comes spilling out in the form of creation…a creation that includes “the birds of the air and the fish of the sea,” as the psalmist says. We could include so much more: atoms and the periodic element, cells and organisms, springtime flowers and birds, and birthday cakes and little children making messes, and dance recitals, and graduation ceremonies, beaches for summer trips. Existence is the first grace of the Triune God  given to us, his creatures. We will never grow tired of contemplating and exploring it all and giving thanks for it. It all comes so undeservedly.


  1. God thinks the human race rocks.

Continuing with the words of Psalm 8: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” The message in the lesson from Proverbs is much the same. Wisdom, the figure who is often associated with the second person of the Trinity, says,


“When he marked the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8:30-31).


"The Holy Trinity Palo della Convertite" Botticelli (1491-93)
In a world marked by so much sorrow and brokenness, where even our relationship with creation seems out-of-whack, where we are daily reminded how wretched we humans can be to each other, it is important to keep in mind that ultimately we are God’s delight, that God loved creating us and calls us “very good,” and that God has not stepped back in disgust from the world. In fact, God has done the opposite. God delights in us so much that part of God actually becomes human in order to include us in God’s love. And this person of the Trinity—fully God—undergoes the length of human experience in order to include us into God’s very life.

For those of Christian faith the gift of our existence on planet earth, as wonderful as it is, does not explain the full extent of God’s love for us. The fact that God rescues us from sin through the Son’s own sacrifice becomes the main demonstration of the Trinity’s love for us. Once again, it flows from God’s grace.


  1. The life of faith is a life of giving.

Just like the Trinity is a never-ending circle of the Son giving himself back to the Father and the Father giving the Son to us, the Spirit moves us to give ourselves back to God. And by a life of giving I don’t just mean the offering plate. I mean the giving of our talents, giving of our lives to each other, giving our compassion to others in need, giving our forgiveness to those we’ve hurt, giving up the things that hold us back from following Jesus. When we think life is mainly about achieving, about receiving, about dominating, we are misled. Life in God—and, hence, the entirety of life God lays out for us—is about giving.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul speaks of the “hope of sharing the glory of God.” That hope actually develops through a process of giving ourselves up, sometimes even in suffering. Through the Spirit, we share in the ongoing love of God and the mystery of this faith. Through God’s Spirit, we participate in the continual outpouring of love between the Father and the Son. Therefore, the more we withhold ourselves, the more we focus on taking and getting, the more we concentrate standing alone and making things all about us then the more we end up closing ourselves off  and missing out on the growth that comes from the life God has given us. This is especially true in our suffering, which, unfortunately for the time-being, is part of a holy life in a broken world. Because of the promises given in Jesus, we know that brokenness is being healed and an even more beautiful and complete life awaits us after death.

In the end, I suppose even our best language from our best theologians still falls far short of explaining or describing God. Some days, we often must fall back on the same expressions of awe and respect and fear that the Psalmist uses this morning at both the beginning and the closing of his hymn:“O LORD our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” God is majestic, that is true. But do you know what is even more awesome than his majesty and therefore more important to know? That this Lord may be called our Lord.  Through his own death and resurrection we belong to this God, the one who creates everything and redeems it all. This Father loves us.  He loves us in the name of the Son and through the power Spirit, world without end.






The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Day of Pentecost [Year C] - May 19, 2013 (Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21)

Today is Pentecost, commonly called the “birthday” of the church, the day we remember how God’s Spirit was poured out on the apostles, but let’s go ahead and be honest about something: it is difficult to understand the power of the Holy Spirit, or even describe what the Spirit is. It’s the person of the Trinity that, at least I suspect for many of us, presents the biggest challenge to our intellect. God the Father and God the Son are, for the most part, easier to grasp, even if belief in them is weak at times. But God the Holy Spirit? It’s often depicted as a bird. A bird can be seen…maybe even photographed…but never tamed. Or look at the Spirit’s other metaphors in Scripture: fire and wind. Neither of those can be touched, much less held. They don’t really have substance or volume, yet their presence can always be felt. And while they can at times be harnessed and channeled, they can never be fully controlled. I mean, who can control the wind?

This is how God’s Holy Spirit seems to function: it is energy, able to go anywhere, able to touch anyone, and, most importantly, able to bring about change. It’s the side of God that we find the most unpredictable, especially when we get in the habit of trying to predict God. It’s the aspect of God’s nature that reminds us most of God’s inherent inaccessibility, especially when we get in the habit of trying to access God. The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who draws us in to the community of God’s people when we would rather make a name for ourselves.

The ' Little' Tower of Babel (Pieter Bruegel, 1564)
That, as it turns out, was the root problem at the Tower of Babel: humans wanted to make a name for themselves. The ancient Hebrews had this pre-historic tale tucked away in the early part of the book of Genesis that told about the time the human race tried its hardest to access God, to literally climb into the heavens to reach him. In direct defiance to God’s joyous command that they disperse after the flood and fill the earth, humans decide instead to band together and build a tower. Instead of fanning out with the Spirit’s power and trusting his promise wherever they went, humankind opts for clumping together in one place and, to symbolize their power, to build a tower up into the sky. It was all about making a name for themselves, rather than thankfully receiving the name God had given them.

The idea of “making a name for themselves” was as well-known technique in ancient architecture, which we know now from archaeology. The pyramid-like structures in Mesopotamia, where this tower story originated, were often constructed by the rulers who wished to be known forever. They would have the slaves inscribe the despots’ names in the brick and cylinder seals that were placed in the foundations of these towers. But like the toppled statue in Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” eventually the rulers would die and, like their temples, succumb to the sands of time. So much for making a name for themselves.

For ancient Israel, the story of what happened at the Tower of Babel helped explain several things, including the diversity of world languages and cultures, and the difficulties in human communication. Most of all, however, it illustrated how speech, as glorious a development as it was, was just another arena where sin could wreak its havoc. In other ancient religions’ pre-historic stories, diverse human languages came about, for example, as a result of a war between the gods in the cosmos. But for Israel and its one God—the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—it was a result of human selfishness and pride and our desire to use whatever means necessary to reach God on our own terms.

Eventually the whole scheme is undone when God causes everyone to start speaking gibberish. What had begun as a plan to consolidate human strength becomes an accident of confusion. All that’s left of Babel today is the term “babble,” a word that means incoherent speech.

We are no less familiar with the gifts and challenges of speech in our day: words can build people up and words can break people down. Language has the power to bring us together, just as it has the ability to alienate. In fact, I you think about it, speech and language are in the same category as fire and wind. Words have energy and power, but no volume or substance. And no one can hold a word or really harness its power once it’s been spoken, can they? But, by golly, a word can bring about change, can’t it?

So, altogether it really fits that on the Day of Pentecost, as the disciples are, once again, gathered into one place, speech becomes a conduit or catalyst for the work of the Holy Spirit. There is fire and there is wind—the traditional hallmarks of the Spirit’s presence—but there is also speech…loads of it, in all kinds of languages! But this time there is no babbling. Instead, it’s intelligible. Each of the foreigners gathered there is able to understand what the disciples are talking about in their own native tongue.

In ancient times, humans had striven to ascend to God by their own might. In the life and death of Jesus and then again at Pentecost, God descends to us in our weakness. At Babel and at countless times throughout history, humans had formed bricks to construct a grand but lifeless monument that eventually goes unfinished. Here at Pentecost, God uses people as living stones and assembles a temple which will finish his work of creation. Long ago, people and their languages were scattered out of their desire to make a name for themselves, and I presume we are still scattering, even as I speak. Now, by God’s grace, we are also being gathered back up  through the only name we need ever to be concerned about: the name of the one who gives himself for the world.

Several years ago I was on on a trip to China with a group of seminarians where we witnessed to a Pentecost-like outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We had traveled to one of the most remote, interior locations in China. No roads were paved there, and some of the villages we visited still did not have electricity or running water. The churches in which we worshiped, which had been built decades before when the first missionaries had arrived, were very primitive and bore almost no resemblance to our grand buildings in the global west. We sat through hours of worship services spoken in tribal languages almost no one could translate accurately and which were accompanied by no organ or guitar or drum. We were served food that I couldn’t identify or name but which tasted, for the most part, fairly good.

our group in Yunnan Province, China (January 2000)
On the whole our group was feeling very tired and very foreign, as if God had, in fact, scattered us rich, Anglo-Saxon westerners to the end of the earth. I had started to focus on myself and my own fears and needs quite a bit during those long hours of incomprehensible worship in the un-air-conditioned heat when one little quartet—two middle-aged men and two middle-aged women—formed in the middle aisle and faced each other like a square. “What next strange custom am I going to have to endure now?” I remember thinking to myself. Then the leader of the group lifted his hand as if to direct a choir and when he dropped it, the four of them threw their heads back and began to sing, in perfect harmony,“Hal-lelujah! Hal-lelujah…!” Unbelieveably, and without a single hiccup, they then went on to finish the entire piece from Handel’s Messiah:


“And his name shall be cal-led, Wonderful Counselor! Almighty God!
The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!”


Once again, there in that far-flung mud hut, we found ourselves drawn in by the name on earth that matters the most: the one who has been crucified and who is raised to bring all of God’s people into one communion. In spite of my boredom, in spite of my pride, in spite of my self-centeredness, the Spirit still managed to reach out and draw me in again. Like fire and wind, those words of gospel created a change in everyone who was there, and that same Holy Spirit desires to bring ever more into this God’s embrace, especially those who’ve never heard it before.

We look today at these young people on the front row, we look at their youthfulness and bright eyes, we look at these confirmands with their talents and their gifts just beginning to blossom and we are tempted to say: the world is yours, O child of God, go make a name for yourself! Of course, we want them to prosper, but if all they are to do is make a name for themselves, then it might end up turning out like Babel in the long run.

No, no, no. On this Pentecost, the Spirit teaches us to say to them—to say to everyone, in fact—don’t worry about your own name so much, but instead the name of the one who saves us.

Call on his name and go make his name known. Don’t waste too much energy building monuments that reach to the sky, that attempt to dominate the world or escape from it. Hold back on that desire to leave a mark that promotes your own self above all others’. Rather, build monuments of compassion and justice that have his name inscribed on every action, every prayer, and every word you speak. Those are the monuments that will last. Jesus himself says his disciples will be capable of greater works than he is. Ha-lle-lujah, my friends! Stand up, for God’s sake, and lend your voice to the quartet that draws the scattered world in.



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year C] - May 12, 2013 (John 17:20-26)

In 2009 our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, decided to hold its triennial youth gathering in New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans had hosted national Lutheran youth gatherings at least twice before, but in 2009 our denomination saw an opportunity to send 38,000 youth into the hurricane-devastated city to perform thousands of hours of community service. Epiphany sent 24 youth and four adult chaperones to that 2009 Gathering. The planners who organized all those service projects for all those youth groups decided it would be a great idea if all the youth wore the same colored t-shirt on the day they went out into the community to work. So, they gave us—all 38,000 of us—orange shirts to wear. On any given day during the three days of service projects, there were about 13,000 youth interspersed throughout the city doing some sort of service work all clad in orange.

Fast forward to last summer, when our denomination decided to return to New Orleans for another youth gathering and complete even more community service. It was the first time in the history of Lutheran youth gatherings where the same city had hosted twice in a row. This congregation sent 30 youth and eight adults to the 2012 Gathering. It was another very successful event, and yes, we all got another orange shirt to wear while we were working.

What I found most remarkable about the Gathering last summer, however, was the fact that the gift shops and souvenir kiosks in hotels and throughout the French Quarter (and even on Bourbon Street) had orange shirts for sale for us when we got there. Throughout the city, designed and produced specifically for us ahead of our arrival, were thousands of orange shirts of all kinds, usually with some reference to Lutheranism on it. The reason why dawned on me pretty quickly: the residents and merchants of New Orleans think Lutherans wear orange! Thanks to our visible witness throughout the city three years earlier, they associate Lutherans with orange t-shirts.

In fact, I didn’t even realize how strong that realization was until I got home. When we returned to Richmond from New Orleans this past summer, I happened to be wearing my orange shirt. I was tired and hungry after the long 22-hour bus ride, so before I got home I stopped at the Martin’s up on Staples Mill Road. As I was checking out—and I’m not making this up—the cashier who rang me up looked at my orange shirt with the word “New Orleans” on it and asked, “Are you Lutheran?” Shocked that our reputation had even reached Glen Allen, I said, “I am!” She responded, “My husband’s brother lives down there, and he said the city was overrun with a bunch of Lutheran kids wearing orange.” I still think someone from Clemson got on the planning team.

If only it were that easy, right?! If only Christian identity and mission were as simple as a t-shirt uniform. Unfortunately, Jesus never says that our identity as his followers will be associated with our clothing. He doesn’t even say that the world will recognize us as his disciples chiefly by the works of mercy we will do, or how many hurricane-ravaged cities we help rebuild. In the night before his crucifixion, as he prays to his Father for the sake of his disciples, Jesus doesn’t even seem to be the slightest bit concerned about how brightly our individual lights of faith may shine. Instead, Jesus prays that we may be one. Our unity and how we live out our common life will be the main way the world will know Jesus is from God the Father and come to believe in him: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

This is a foundation of Christian theology: that whatever God is, Jesus is somehow a part of it, somehow united with it. Jesus is not something separate and different from God. The two of them are one. They are a unit: wherever Jesus goes, God is also there. Jesus makes it clear that this miraculous relationship of one-ness is now also going to be given to the people who follow Jesus, the community he has claimed and called out with his mercy and forgiveness.

The church, the community of disciples, therefore, is not just some social service organization that goes about doing works of charity…although that is part of what we do. Nor it is it primarily some kind of educational institution that instructs its students on how to live from the Bible…although we do some of that, as well. Rather, the community that arises by the Spirit’s power out of the death and resurrection of Christ bears the very glory of God, and that glory is made known in our common life, our common faith, our common love for each other.

We must pause and reflect on this, because I think it’s very popular theology these days to talk a lot about how it is possible to see Christ in other individuals. We talk at length about ways that we glimpse God or God’s love in the lives of other people. There is nothing wrong with this expression of people’s faith, but we must not forget that Jesus—especially in John’s gospel—wants us to be far more aware of the ways God is made known not through individuals and individual’s actions, but through the life of the whole group.

There is an African proverb that goes, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together.” It would seem from his prayer on the night before his death that Jesus is far more concerned about the distance his community of disciples will travel than its speed.

Yet what does it mean to be “one”? How strictly do we interpret Jesus’ prayer for unity? Does it mean we are always in agreement about everything? Does it mean we have no conflict, especially on major issues? Or does it just mean that Christians should promise not to go about killing each other? (I propose that would be one place to start!). What about all the dizzying array of different denominations and divisions that already exist among us, which are increasingly confusing and off-putting to the culture at large? There have been different interpretations of Jesus’ prayer for about as long as there has been the church—how exactly this unity is embodied and when we can be sure it’s been compromised.

One thing is certain, however, and we didn’t need Jesus to pray it for us to learn it. That is, our mission and the vitality of the gospel depend on it. In other words, how you and I relate to each other—how all of the groups of Christians relate to other groups of Christians—is going to have a direct effect on what other people think of God. Our unity will not sound and look like some large-scale version of the closing credits of The Waltons—“Goodnight John boy, Good night Mary Ellen”—but it should at least give the impression to the rest of the world that we somehow value each other, that we don’t routinely write each other off.

What is so striking to me about this portion of Jesus’ prayer is that he prays to God not just on behalf of his current followers, but also on behalf of those people in the world who have yet to believe in him. He prays on behalf of all those in future years who will hear the truth of the gospel and be opened to God’s grace through it. The mission of the church is tied directly to our unity. Notice how many times the word “sent” appears in these verses alone! We aren’t closed off in our unity: our life together becomes the chief way we interact with the world.

Think of it this way: the world is already riven by conflict and unhealthy ways of dealing with it, isn’t it? Why would a non-believer join up with a cause that doesn’t offer anything better at dealing with it? Salvation probably wouldn’t feel or look much different than what’s being offered by the world.

The glory of God is made known in the reconciliation of the cross, and if we, the people claimed by that cross, are not committed to living reconciled with one another, to embodying that forgiveness at least with our own pew-mates, then that glory of the cross will be diminished in our witness. Jesus’ death, after all, is about God’s willingness to go the distance—to travel as far as it takes—to have us to him.

It seems to be that Epiphany Church has a unique challenge and opportunity in the coming weeks and months to delve deeper into the life that is prayed for by Jesus. It is easy for a congregation to build its identity around its leadership, or its strongest ministries, or its clarity of theological confession, all of which are important. You have experienced thirty flourishing years of all of those. In fact, we could push it back even farther: the sixty-some-odd years of Epiphany’s life have all been graced with all kinds of growth. Now that you find yourselves in a transition and soon at the beginning stages of a call process to find a new pastor, it will be critical that you are committed to the words of this prayer. Jesus knows that it will be critical for your witness, your faith, and your identity as God’s children that you continue love and value one another, that you pay attention to those ties that bind, that you nurture instincts of patience and forbearance with one another.

quilts for Lutheran World Relief
For I would guess we’re all in this for the long haul…not just the search for a new senior pastor in this congregation, that is, but committed to walking with Christ for the length of your days with all the Christian followers on earth. As such, we’d probably rather be known for the distance we’ll traveling, and not the speed…

a distance symbolic of the path of the quilt behind your back to a village somewhere in south Asia…

a distance that reaches out in service to neighbors…

a distance that spans human hearts that are estranged by fear and mistrust…

a distance that involves passing the faith down to yet another generation, and the generation after that, and the generation after that…until Jesus, who is surely coming soon, returns.

May we be one, as God the Father and God the Son are one in love, in forgiveness, in word and deed.

And if you’re dying to wear a bunch of matching T-shirts as we do it, then I happen to know a place where we can get some.



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.