Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Scriptures in the Vernacular...also known as God Talks Like Us" - Lent 2017 series, Lent with Luther: 1517 Ideas through 2017 Eyes

A reading from Acts of the Apostles, the 2nd chapter:

1When the day of Pentecost had come, [the disciples] were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 11b in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." 

And a reading from Philippians, the 2nd chapter:

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
 6who, though he was in the form of God,
 did not regard equality with God
 as something to be exploited,
 7but emptied himself,
 taking the form of a slave,
 being born in human likeness.
 And being found in human form,
 8he humbled himself
 and became obedient to the point of death —
 even death on a cross.
 9Therefore God also highly exalted him
 and gave him the name
 that is above every name,
 10so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
 in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 11and every tongue should confess
 that Jesus Christ is Lord,
 to the glory of God the Father.

Our Lenten series this year has introduced us to central theological ideas that Martin Luther wrote about and spoke about during the Protestant Reformation, ideas and concepts which were not new, but which he unearthed and rediscovered to help reform the Church in his day and set it back on the right gospel track. The idea that we look more closely at this week was not really something Luther so much wrote about as it is something he wrote. That is, one of the most lasting contributions Martin Luther made to the church’s life—and many historians would say it is the single-most profound contribution of Luther’s—is his act of translating the Holy Scriptures into German, the language of his people.

In 1521 and 1522, when Luther was holed up in the Wartburg Castle in Saxony in order to gain protection from the authorities who wanted him imprisoned or possibly executed, Luther sat down with a Greek translation of the New Testament provided by the Dutch scholar Erasmus and began writing it in the German he heard spoken in his day. In fact, that’s precisely how he worked on his translation of the Bible. During the day he would roam the streets of the nearby town of Eisenach, often in disguise, visiting taverns and markets to hear what words and phrases people were using on an everyday basis and weave them into the document he was producing. His complete version of the Bible was eventually published in 1534, but his New Testament by then was a blockbuster success. Printed in large quantities by the recently-developed and improved printing presses, his Bible spread like wildfire in the German provinces.

In an age of digital communication and Google translator, this might seem like no big deal to us, but it was a huge deal at Luther’s time. In order to understand just how groundbreaking this was, we must imagine for a moment what it was like to be a Christ-follower in the late middle ages and early Renaissance. If you lived in northern Germany and attended worship on a Sunday, you have to imagine that not one word was spoken that you would understand, unless you had been fortunate enough to receive an education in Latin, which was extremely rare for the common person. As you listened to the priest chant the liturgy, you might not have known when the Scripture readings began and ended, since it would have all been one long stream of a language you didn’t know. There were no hymnals or books in the pews to follow along with; you were most likely illiterate, but even if you weren’t, you really weren’t expected to say anything, anyway. The main worshiping was done by the priests and cantors; as a lay person, you were just there basically to eavesdrop.

Don’t get me wrong—worship was undoubtedly divine and transcendent, but there was very little you could take away from it other than the experience of hearing it and being moved by its beauty. If you wanted to know a verse of Scripture, you likely had to rely on a priest, who was probably poorly-trained, reciting it for you, and it would probably have been taken from the Vulgate, the official Latin translation the church used. The Vulgate had been translated in A.D. 382, almost 1200 years earlier!

Luther's translation is still used as the base for German
Bibles to this day. This is the Bible I received about 20 years
ago when I lived near Wittenberg.
In contrast to this, Martin Luther wanted everyone to hear the Word of God. He wanted worship to involve the people, from letting them partake of the wine in Holy Communion (along with the bread), to hearing Scripture readings and the songs and hymns of the faith in their own language. He even developed large-print versions of Scripture so that people with poor eyesight could see. The Bible that he translated ended up becoming so popular and so widely-used that it is credited with creating the modern German language. In effect, it was a continuation of Pentecost. By streamlining and bringing together into one linguistic warehouse of a book all the diverse Germanic dialects spoken across the country, Luther created a form of German that everyone could understand and adopt. As a result, he is known as the father of the German language.

So, why did he do all this? These changes were much more sweeping and drastic than just changing a few words and lines of the Lord’s Prayer, which is something many of us still struggle with. For Luther, if the church constantly used language that sounded nothing like the language the people used and communicated with, it didn’t just potentially make church boring. It sent a message contrary to the very gospel itself. That is, keeping the language of Scripture frozen in one particular language or dialect suggested we humans had work to do in order to be understood by God, as though our natural speech wasn’t good enough. It sent the message that humans had to speak a certain way, or that we had to pass a vocabulary or grammar test, in order to be reconciled to God. It made God seem distant, and that we could climb to him on a Babel tower built of the right words.

And to Luther, that was the exact opposite of the message of Jesus, who had shown us God descends to us, becoming flesh to dwell among us. To the reformers, the fundamental life-saving message of grace was that even though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. God desires to be understood, and not simply admired or revered. God so wants to make himself known to us that God strips himself of divine pretentiousness so that and we can respond to him and confess him as Lord in our own tongue.

"The Tower of Babel" (Pieter Bruegel the Elder)
Just as we believe God has become human as a first-century Jew who spoke a language called Aramaic, so do we understand that God’s Word can bring life and wisdom in German, in English, in Spanish, in Creole—in whichever speech people are using at any moment. God is so alive, so present, that God can talk like us…and like those people over there! His is a living word, fully transparent, thoroughly “enfleshed,” taking on all the jargon and grammar devices of humankind. Even a Hip Hop paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm from something called the Hip Hop Bible, gets the point across, even if it’s not something you or I would use:

The Lord is all that, I need for nothing
He allows me to chill.
He keeps me from being heated
And allows me to breathe easy.
He guides my life so that
I can represent and give
Shout-outs in his Name.
And even though I walk through
The Hood of death,
I don't back down
For you have my back.
The fact that you have me covered
Allows me to chill.
He provides me with back-up
In front of my player-haters
And I know that I am a baler
And life will be phat
I fall back in the Lord's crib
For the rest of my life.

And our own hymnal contains the evocative words of a Christmas hymn written by French Jesuit missionaries when they taught the gospel to the Huron Indians in the early 1600’s. If you’ll turn to hymn 284, “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” and look at the second and third verses, especially:

“Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew high, the angel song rang loud and high:
Jesus your king is born! Jesus is born, in excelsis Gloria!

And in the third verse you’ll see that it is chiefs from afar that bring gifts not of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but of fox and beaver pelt, valuable riches to the Huron people.

Martin Luther did not put the Scriptures in the vernacular just for shock value or to be cute. It was an extension of his theology of the cross, his understanding of being saved by grace alone. It was also dependent on his understanding of what the Scriptures were. First of all, they were not just inspirational words that had no original anchor. Each of his translations were careful, scholarly interpretations from the original Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. For whatever reason God had chosen those languages to reveal his Word in, so they must be taken seriously.

Secondly, Luther thought that the point of Scripture was to point us to the Christ. It was not principally a rule book, or a science or history book, but a holy set of writings that revealed to us Jesus. As he once famously said, “the Bible is the manger wherein Christ is laid.” This strikes at the very humble nature of our Lord and the simple ways he comes to us. Faith is not best ignited in people by inspiring them to rise to a certain kind of holiness or liturgical atmosphere, or by getting them to worship a set of sacred texts. Faith arises, rather, whenever it is shown that Christ is given for you. And, in some instances, hip hop can do that even better than the Queen’s English.

My seminary preaching professor, Dr. Tom Ridenhour, always stressed that sermons should be both profane and vulgar. That’s a provocative statement, but he wanted us to take him seriously, His point was classic Luther: we were to keep the language of our preaching unchurchy, not too “of the temple,” which is what profane really means. And we were to speak in the pulpit like people speak in their everyday conversations, which is what vulgar means. Ironically, the word “vulgar” is taken from the title of that old Bible, the Vulgate. It’s Latin had once been the language of the people, but by the time of Luther no longer was.

It reminds me of a saying by Eugene Peterson, a popular and wise pastor of our time who, like Luther, has gone back to the original Hebrew and Greek and come up with a translation for our time known as The Message. Peterson says, “In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true.”

Language is always changing, evolving, perhaps even now more than ever before. I remember the reaction when the Pope created his own Twitter account and began tweeting.

But now he has over 10 ½ million followers! We are all about a Word that became flesh, a God who is eternally giving himself to us, so issues about how people of faith speak and the way we use and translate Scripture will always be relevant.

How many people nowadays attend church and have absolutely no idea what’s going on because pastors have kept it a little too churchy?

How many in our time question Christian authenticity when they hear us speaking in what sounds like a secret code?

How do we stay true to the original texts and a common understanding that Scripture primarily leads us to Jesus?

How do we balance respect for God in our words and speech with the need to show God’s own accessibility?

Where do we draw the line with use of language that is gender-specific for God?

Has this sermon even met its own standard of being plain-speaking and ordinary?

Can we somehow balance the old language of hymns and prayers that flow off our lips from years of blessed use with the new songs and linguistic offerings that are arising by the power of the Spirit every day?

One of the big problems that Lutheran reformers encountered when the Bible went so public was that each person felt called to interpret the Scriptures their own personal way. How do we ensure that interpretations and translations are normed by what the whole community understands and holds true?

Each of these questions—and the others like it—is not superficial to the gospel. We may not think we’re engaging in serious theological discussion as we tackle them, but, as Luther knew, speaking for God is speaking about God. And if you have a printing press, or a printer, or a pen, a handheld device, or even if you have a tongue then you are able to confess, you are able to profess, you are able to witness to the Word become flesh.

And to that, all we can really say, is “WORD.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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.