Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Holy Trinity [Year B] - May 31, 2015 (Isaiah 1:1-8 and Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17)

What kind of questions do you have about God?

Where do you go to ask them?

Sometimes I think that my family believes they have an ace in the pocket when it comes to this because they can just direct their questions at daddy. He’s the pastor. He’s got the theology degree, right? Therefore, often when I’m least expecting it—like last week when I was in the middle of pulling up weeds in the garden—two little girls round the corner out of nowhere with pressing questions like, “Who were God’s parents?” or “How did God get on earth?”

Granted, by virtue of some of my training there is a chance I might have pondered these questions a time or two before, but—and I hate to disappoint them—I certainly don’t think I have some kind of insider knowledge about God or what God is up to. My life and experiences aren’t any more or less touched by the divine than anyone else’s, and I’ve come to deeply appreciate hearing the questions and thoughts about God that you’ve shared with me. Quite frankly, I have right many questions of my own, and I’d like to think we’re asking them together.

Thinking about God can be overwhelming, and I think we can all agree that it’s helpful to have some kind of established guidelines as we do it. Like with so many other challenging tasks, it’s beneficial to have some form of received knowledge from other people who’ve asked the same kinds of questions through the ages so we don’t feel that we’re just shooting in the dark, which is kind of what Nicodemus is doing, coming to Jesus under cover of night. He’s shooting in the dark, trying to learn a little more about God from this rabbi who appears to have a theology degree a cut above the other rabbis.

"Nicodemus talking to Jesus" (Henry Ossawa Tanner)
Granted, it’s not clear whether this conversation with Jesus clears anything up for Nicodemus, but if he’s listening carefully, he might hear that Jesus does give him some of those guidelines. Jesus talks about God using three different terms that somehow all relate to each other as if they are one. In the span of one two-minute-or-so conversation, Jesus mentions God and Son and Spirit as if they all kind of have something to do with each other.

As it turns out, it’s one of the handful of Scripture passages where we hear these terms for God in close combination. These names and relationships are actually always there, like a mysterious hidden soil that lies beneath the whole story, nurturing it, giving it its life. However, we never get a clear, thought-out description of how it all works. In the earliest years of their life together, Jesus’ followers pored over Jesus’ own words, Paul’s letters, and in even the deep and complex stories of the Hebrew Bible, and they began to see this threefold pattern that they had already been using in their worship. What emerged were creeds and other important writings that became guidelines for understanding the God that is spoken of in the Bible. Soon this became known as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Words like doctrine and dogma get a bad rap these days, but they aren’t meant to be scary, intimidating formulas with which we beat people over the head and make them feel stupid. They’re tools for helping people who know they believe the same thing to say and teach the same thing about it.

So, on this day that the church celebrates this Holy Trinity, and on a day when I know any number of us have showed up wondering about God, I humbly offer up three points about God that arise out of our texts this morning with the hope they may help shed light on this most essential of guidelines.


  1. God is wholly other, which is just another way of saying that God is holy.

Whatever we are, God is entirely different from that. That is one foundation of Christian thought that is reiterated again and again by the people who had experiences with the divine. It is a sensation that sometimes some of us have when we’re looking into the night sky, studded as it is with millions of stars and planets, or when we behold the wonder of a newborn baby. There is something untouchable and unfathomable about the nature of this Creator-behind-all-of-this who performs wonders far beyond anything a human can do.

In our first Scripture passage this morning we see the prophet Isaiah entering into the courts of the Lord and how he is overtaken by awe at how completely holy and different the presence of God is. In fact, it is this passage that we borrow every Sunday just as we begin to approach God’s presence in Holy Communion:

“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of his glory.”

It underlines for us that in a world that so often makes idols out of things that humankind has made—money, status, power, family—the true God remains complete other, outside human categories and outside human control.

One problem with describing God’s total otherness, complete holiness, is that the only language we have is human language. Try as we may, our words will always fall somewhat short of describing what God is actually like and tend to make the high and lofty God in our image.

In Isaiah’s account he says that he sees the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, with the hem of his garment filling the temple. That’s a very human image, but you can tell Isaiah’s grasping for the words to describe something inherently indescribable. In fact, the translators for one famous ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint were so uncomfortable with Isaiah’s description that they left that part about the garment out. To them it made God sound too human. God probably doesn’t really wear garments because God doesn’t really have a body, but what do we know? We know that God is wholly other.


  1. God touches unclean lips.

God does not let this supreme holiness become a barrier to God’s love. God may be unapproachable to us, but that doesn’t keep God from approaching us.

I ran across a website this week of an artist who takes scenes from famous works of art, typically religious in nature, and superimposes them upon ordinary and often crude scenes of modern-day life. The result is this striking juxtaposition of the sublime and the mundane.  In one painting there your see Mary, the mother of our Lord, looking positively angelic and holy, holding the baby Jesus, both of them surrounded by angels in flowing garments playing instruments—but they are all seated on a very shabby looking subway car. In a quirky way the painting underscores God’s desire to touch unclean lips and hold unclean lives, to nestle the divine self within human ordinariness, which is what Isaiah experiences in his own vision. Through an act of grace that God initiates, one of the attendants in God’s holy court picks up a coal and purifies Isaiah’s lips.

This how the high and lofty God deals with human sinfulness. God doesn’t ignore us because of it, like some aloof royal person who doesn’t want to associate with the lowly masses. Nor does God obliterate us because of it, like some mad dictator who doesn’t understand the value of human life. Rather, God lovingly, stoops to recognize us even in our state of being unclean, as Isaiah describes it, and ushers us into God’s presence to have a relationship with us.

It’s such a small action here in Isaiah’s story, but this action of grace will become a central, defining factor of God’s identity. God wants to reach out to humans even in their state of brokenness and redeem them from it. Nicodemus will hear it this way: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” When we speak of the Holy Trinity, one of the first things we are saying is that the God of the universe has at one point been so in love with this imperfect creation that God has entered it himself. On the cross of Jesus, we come to believe that God doesn’t just want to touch unclean lips but redeem unclean lives and make them pure again. Even ours. And it rescues us from death.


  1. To know God is to be sent.

When Isaiah enters the courts of the holy God and is transformed by God’s presence, he doesn’t stay there. He is given a message to proclaim to his people about God’s judgment and grace. When Nicodemus hears the message about God’s love through his Son, it is clear that the message is for the entire world. Nicodemus doesn’t immediately go forth, as Isaiah does, but in the end he emerges from the shadows and comes to share in Christ’s mission in his own way by helping remove the body from the cross.

"The Yellow Christ" (Gauguin)
Whether it is in the style of Isaiah or Nicodemus or somewhere in between, this is to say, there is something about the nature of God that automatically includes us in whatever God is doing. This relationship with God is not a one-way street where we approach the high and lofty altar and stay there, as if in isolation. The whole purpose of God sharing this love on the cross is to transform us in such a way that we go forth to share it with others.

You could say we end up getting caught up in this love that the Father has for his Son, which is what the apostle Paul is driving at in his letter to the Romans. When we cry, “ ‘Abba, Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then…joint heirs with Christ.”

There you have it. We’re drawn right in. This is the work of God’s Holy Spirit, a Spirit which was there even at creation, hovering over the waters and eventually creating a community of animals and plants and mountains and rivers. It is the work of the disciples as they behold the Risen Lord anew on Pentecost and this force of God sends them out to share the message that his holy God makes people’s lives clean.

And, come to think of it, it is the Spirit that is at work in your lives, as he’s gathered you today to open your hearts to questions about God. It’s the Spirit at work in the lives of all children of God, you and me alike, who round the corner with wide eyes and groping questions to approach their true Father who is weeding the bad stuff out of their messy garden. He loves their questions. He takes them all. And they find in this holy moment they encounter a God who is wholly other…a God who even touches their unclean lips…a God who gives them a message. They find Father, Son and Holy Spirit…the blessed Trinity.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.                          


Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year B] - May 17, 2015 (John 17:6-19)

Just about every family I know has stories they like to tell again and again, and my family is no different. One that gets rolled out from time to time that always makes us laugh is about the time my grandparents took my sister and me to the North Carolina zoo while my parents were on some trip. We were both very young at the time. I was probably about six or seven, meaning my sister was just three or four. I was really into animals back then, so I could have stayed at that zoo for hours, despite the fact that it was 90 degrees, but as far as my sister was concerned we had already seen one too many zebras. She was done.

At one stopping point, our grandparents asked me what I wanted to do next, and I gave them some answer about heading on to the next group of animals. When they turned to ask my sister, who was typically very quiet and shy as a little girl, she quickly responded: “I want you to take me to the car, I want you to buckle me into my car-seat, then I want you to take me to McDonalds and buy me my own French fries.”

Of course, to those in our family, the funniest part of my sister’s response was the part about getting her own French fries. This whole zoo experience had already been a hardship for her and it warranted what our parents would regularly not allow: that is, her own packet of French fries, not one that she’d have to share with her brother from a pile in the middle of the tray.

It occurs to me we live in a world that is all about getting our own French fries, if you know what I mean. It is so easy to be an individual, to demand and claim our own anything…our own meal, our own smartphone, our own understanding of God that, increasingly, will never be challenged. We don’t even need other people to take our photos anymore! We can do that ourselves, too. And what do we call it? A selfie! I bet you could go on Instagram and find a selfie of someone eating their own French fries. In fact, I’ve probably taken that selfie.

Granted, in some ways all our individuality has been good. Millions of people have been empowered by thinking and doing things on their own. Individuals have broken from the pack and made major changes to the world for the better. However, it’s interesting that Jesus never, ever prays for us to be our “own” person. Jesus never, ever says anything like, “You do you.” When Jesus does pray for his disciples, however, like in this portion of John’s gospel right before his crucifixion, he prays that they come together, that they stay together, that they be one. When Jesus does pray for those who follow him, he most often prays that their common life—not their individual life—will reflect the gracious outpouring of love that God has for the world.

It’s quite counter-cultural, then, because as the world, with all its technology and digital communication, enables us to become sequestered in our own little zones, Jesus wants to pull us back in together. In a time when there is so much anxiety about the rise in numbers of those who claim they have no religious affiliation, Jesus’s most fervent prayer is that we be affiliated with himself and with each other.           

Of course, when Jesus first prayed this on that night before he was betrayed, he wasn’t immediately concerned about the fragmenting dangers of technology. He was concerned that the terror of his suffering and the shock of his resurrection would have the potential to scatter them. Instead of running closer together, they might run back to their former associations and the old groups that defined them. In the prayer that he offers on their behalf—right there on the spot, as they’re still seated from the Last Supper, he pours out his heart—he asks God his Father to protect them and to strengthen their resolve to handle the pressure of the coming zoo. He asks God to safeguard them so they couldn’t give in to the urge to demand their own French fries.

Jesus gives at least three main reasons why our faith is to be a community thing. The first has to do with our knowledge of God. There is something about keeping us together, Jesus says, that will keep us in the truth. The truth that Jesus is talking about here is the fact that Jesus comes from God, that he is the promised Messiah, that the Son has been sent from the Father to demonstrate love. We will need each other to remind ourselves of this fact and of the promise that brings. We can’t just expect that we’ll remember and know these things on our own if we scatter ourselves from this community that embodies the love that God has for Jesus. Although we need the individual beauty and uniqueness of each person who has ever been created (because there will never be another like them), we also need each other in order to keep the goal of our beauty and the purpose of our uniqueness in mind. Our individuality and our gifts have been given to proclaim Jesus to the world, and that truth resounds more clearly when we are doing it with each other.

Reason number two for the importance of our community: there is something about keeping us together that will keep us safe. Think of it as the buddy system on the scale of several million. When we go on trips with the youth group, we ask them to stay in groups of three as they go about during free time. Here, as he prepares them to be sent into the world without his direct physical supervision, he prays that they “billion up.” He has prayed for their protection the entire time he’s been with them. He has loved them. He and his Father know that the closer the disciples remain with each other, the safer they will feel from things like temptation and despair, hopelessness and greed. Granted, the larger the group, the clunker things will get for Jesus’ followers, but that’s OK. Jesus never mentions anywhere that following him is a race.

The last reason Jesus gives for their buddy system is not something we know with our head like truth or experience with our bodies like protection, but something of the heart. There is something about keeping us together that will bring us joy. Truth and protection are wonderful things to have, but joy is the clincher, and it’s not just any old joy, but Jesus’ own joy. There is joy in knowing that just as Jesus belongs to the Father, that we, then, belong to the Father. It is the joy from knowing that in our baptism we have been made God’s forever.

There is a deep, abiding joy that comes from the realization that the same One who is responsible for the beauty of the ocean, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the majesty of the Milky Way is the same One responsible for all your individual beauty. And that that One behind all of this is good—so good and strong and loving that that One has undone the power of death and decay. This One has forgiven our sin. You and I will be sent together, Jesus says, to share this news, and there is something very joyful about the fact that we’re not in that task alone. We can gather and share stories and build one another up.

Truth, safety, joy: they come from our communion with each other in Christ Jesus. However, Jesus doesn’t just gather his followers together around the ideal that togetherness is better, that togetherness itself is the goal. Any old group out there could do that—the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Red Hat Club, our workout buddies at the gym. Jesus does not gather us around an ideal. Jesus gathers us together around himself. He is the goal and the source of the joy. He is the protection we seek, in life and in death, just as he is the truth that God loves us and makes us God’s own.

For the confirmands’ last test this year they were asked to pretend they were an architect who had been hired to create the worship space for a new sanctuary. They were invited to be imaginative in their designs, and we didn’t give them too many requirements. We just wanted to make sure they, being good Lutherans, would include places in their worship space where the Word and sacraments would be proclaimed. There were really no right or wrong answers to this exercise; it was thought up in order to see how they had integrated what we’d tried to teach and that you have so thoughtfully modelled.

Their results were very interesting and fun to read. Some were incredibly detailed. I wish I could keep them, but I’ll have to give them back. What I found most remarkable, however, is that in every single design, the cross of Jesus was somehow central. In some of their designs, in fact, the prominence of the cross could not be missed. There it stood, either in the middle of the assembly’s space or on a wall above everything so that everyone could see it, so that everyone would grasp, at least on some level, the main reason for their gathering. One confirmand wrote in their explanation for their design, which placed the seats in a semi-circular way, “Everyone [is] seated near each other in such a way that they are one, drawn together to the cross.” And in one explanation of the practice of the sacrament of Holy Communion, one confirmand wrote, “You cannot take part in communion alone because you are not nor will you ever be alone in Christ.”

There are perhaps a several great reasons for designing a worship space where the cross is so central. These young people who are sent with us into the world today remind us of the one that Jesus prays for: that really, in spite of all the clunkiness, we are one. “The testimony is written on these confirmands’ hearts,” as John later says in his letter. It reminds us that we are a family—one great big family with our own great story that we love to tell when we get together.

And it’s not about our own French fries. It’s the one story about the night he was betrayed…how Jesus died to keep us in truth, in safety and in joy. It’s the story about how he continues to pray that God protect us and keep us, make his joyful face shine on us, and in the wonder of his resurrection, draw us from our scattered ways of death to be the community of his cross.



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.