“Spiritual Transformation”

Rev. Tom Martinez

Epiphany II (January 2010)
January 17, 2010 Sermon

Last week we began the season of Epiphany, talking about different ways of understanding its meaning as part of a larger discussion about spiritual maturity. Today I’m working with the idea of Epiphany very broadly, that is as an encounter with life’s spiritual dimension. And I’d like to propose, based on out two readings, that there’s something inherently transformative about the Spirit of God. We don’t experience Spirit and continue on unchanged. It is the nature of Spirit to change and transform, to heal and renew, which we see evidence of in today’s Gospel story. Continue reading

“A Pastoral Epistle”

Rev. Tom Martinez

December, 2005

Dear ASBC Members and Friends,

Happy “holy” days. Can it be? It seems like just yesterday that the Council met for its September planning retreat. And now we’re already in the second week of Advent! As you can see from the calendar of upcoming events, Christmas falls on a Sunday this year. We’ll celebrate beginning with a Saturday 5PM Christmas Eve service and then at our regular Sunday morning time of 10:30AM. I realize many of you will be away with family, but I’m sure we’ll have a nice service with those who can make it. I’ll be heading out afterwards to meet up with family members myself (in Georgia). Time marches on, marked by ritual, and shared with those we love. Continue reading

“Angels, Folk Singers & Gurus”

Rev Tom Martinez

There’s a musician I like, named David Ippolito, though most people know him as the Guitar Man. He plays every Sunday, weather permitting, in Central Park not too far from Strawberry Fields, the tribute to John Lennon established by his wife, Yoko Ono.

I don’t know if you’re like me in this way, but certain places just have a spiritual vibe about them and for me, Strawberry Fields is one of those places. I told a story a few weeks ago about being by the IMAGINE mosaic and watching as a homeless man adorned it with flower petals. Another homeless man came up and offered him a candle, which got incorporated into the work of art. It was really a nice moment. Continue reading

“Preachin’ the Blues”

Rev. Tom Martinez

I wanted to start off today by thanking everyone who shared last week or who simply took part by being present to hear the stories and reflect on them as a church. For those of you who weren’t here, you missed some fascinating and at times colorful stories of how we came to be the church that we are today. Hopefully we’ll get some of that written up and saved for posterity. Those of you who still have your notes should get them to Kathy, who has graciously agreed to type them up.

The past two Sunday’s have been pretty remarkable. Two weeks ago I told the story of getting arrested during the recent anti-war protests in the city. Then last week we heard a powerful overview of the life of this church, of ASBC. Continue reading

“Of Shipwrecks and Storms”

Rev. Tom Martinez

Ancient Text: Acts 27 (Paul’s shipwreck while enroute to Rome to go before the emperor.)

Film Text: The Perfect Storm (scene showing heroic Coast Guard Rescue at sea.)

I leap from a bridge
and they rise from the depths
flashing silver like dolphins
come to save lost souls from
shipwrecks and storms.
–from, “Tongues of Angels”

You all know I like Barth’s line about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other–of course here in Brooklyn we can say “The New York Times in the other.” And today that’s easy to do, because the subject of my sermon–the recent protests and what that means in relation to the life of this church, is all over the New York Times. In fact (holding up the front page of the Wednesday edition), I spent about thirty hours in jail last week with these two guys right here. They’re French Canadians from Montreal who were in New York City to try and show an environmental documentary when they got caught up in the protests and jailed. Continue reading

“Sacred Play”

(music that Sunday provide by Sistashree)

Rev. Tom Martinez

One of the ways we honor Mother’s Day is by thinking about our biological mothers and the ways they’ve shaped us. Over the years it’s dawned on me that one of the gifts my mom gave me was a questioning spirit. My dad was always a hook-line-and-sinker kind of believer. He just had that kind of faith–which makes for some interesting conversations when we get together. But my mom has always been a realist. So in my own quest to figure out the bigger picture I’ve inherited her skepticism when it comes to religious claims about the nature of the world. Continue reading

“Nothing Could Keep From Dancing”

Rev. Tom Martinez

Last week I left you hanging with the image of Tom Berenger parachuting high over the Amazon in a film clip from, At Play in the Fields of the Lord. We used that film as a symbol for the encroachment of the modern industrialized world into the last remaining strongholds of the wild. Today we’ll see if we can find a soft landing in the natural world. Continue reading


Reverend Tom Martinez

Today we begin a series exploring seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I know you’ve all heard them before at one time or another, but there’s no harm in taking a second to refresh our collective memory. Let’s do that David Letterman style, working from the bottom up:

7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part;

6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;

5. The right of conscience and the use of democratic process without our church and in society at large;

4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;

2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; And number one, …drum roll please, which is the topic of today’s sermon:

1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Now it’s hard to find fault with those principles. The trouble, of course, is that human beings can talk a good game, but when it comes to putting our ideals into practice, we often fall short. If we’re gonna talk honestly about dignity we need to admit that it’s a rare and elusive thing. This is beautifully expressed in the Bob Dylan song, “Dignity:”

Wise man lookin’ in a blade of grass
Young man lookin’ in the shadows that pass
Poor man lookin’ through painted glass
For Dignity.
I went down to where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any different to me
Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade
House on fire, debts unpaid
Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid
Have you seen dignity?”
Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
Dignity never been photographed
I went into the red, went into the black
Into the valley of dry bone dreams
So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the ledge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity.

A glance at today’s headlines is enough to have us all wondering what it’s gonna take to find dignity. I don’t know of you all saw the story in the New York Times about the gay couple from the Bronx who went to Canada for a commitment ceremony and when they got back their parish priest told them they were no longer welcome to sing in the choir that they had been singing in for twenty years.

“Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find dignity.”

In international news the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Iranian human rights attorney, Shirin Ebadi has turned a spotlight on the plight of women and children in Iran. Ms. Ebadi has raised awareness about the plight of women and children, especially girls, in Iran. She’s also reminding us that Islam is not incompatible with human rights. You’ve probably seen that in Iran girls as young as 13 are forced into marriages with older men—it used to be permissible at age eight. She’s fighting to raise the legal age from thirteen to eighteen.

Now it’s tempting to get on our high horse and critique other cultures, while turning a blind eye to our own barbarity. People joke that America is a history free zone, sort of like schools have their drug free zones, the idea being we so easily forget our own barbaric past. Our genocidal cruelty against Native Americans has been whitewashed and romanticized to the point we’ve lost all touch with the horror of what actually took place here. The only way to wrap our brains around this is to admit that we humans are a primitive species struggling to get control over our violence. We’d like to say we believe in the inherent worth of all people, but our actions send a different message.

This is nowhere more evident than during our tolerance of slavery in this country. From the abduction of Africans in their homeland to the unimaginably horrific middle passage, dignity was nowhere to be found. Estimates concerning the numbers of people killed begin around the 6 million of the Holocaust and balloon up to a high end of 50 million. That’s just the middle passage. We get a feeling for the kind of lives Africans faced once they arrived here in the post-genocidal new world, through the autobiographies of Frederick Douglas, the great abolitionist.

Douglas’ uses the repeated whipping of his aunt as a gateway into the horrors of slavery. He says of the first time he witnessed a whipping, “I was quite a child, but I well

remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such out-rages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass.”

While writing about “Captain” Anthony’s regular whipping of his aunt, Douglas notes that Captain Anthony was more restrained than [the] overseer. This is worth bearing in mind, since the scene that unfolds depicts the master as taking “great pleasure” in inflicting pain. Douglas writes, “He would at times seem to take great pleasure in

whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped….”

“Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find dignity.”

When we open up to the truth of our own culpability in the injustices of the world, we find ourselves knocked off balance. It’s so much easier to believe that evil is somewhere out there, it’s in Iran or Iraq or North Korea. We don’t have anything to be ashamed of. It’s at this point that the two hand-rails of tradition we talked about last week come in handy.

Remember? We’ve got the UU tradition which gives us a spiritual freedom to explore other faiths and ask the hard questions. But we’ve also got our Christian tradition which takes seriously the compromised state of humanity. In today’s Gospel text we read the story in which Peter denies Jesus, which serves as a window into the powerful forces at work in the world. Here is Peter, the forerunner of our modern day popes, the rock upon which the church is to be built, and even he can’t break free from the gravitational pull of evil in the world. “No way, man,” he basically says, “I don’t know this guy Jesus.” Christians in the time of the Nazis did the same thing when they abandoned the Jews, and we are doing the same thing today in the midst of a modern day witch-hunt directed against Arabs in general and Muslims in particular.

No matter how hard we want to try to do the right thing, there’s an incredibly powerful pull toward colluding with the enemy. Who wants to speak out against the 660 Muslims being held in Guantanamo? It’s not easy.

When you’re in the midst of the storm it’s hard to see the scapegoating and bigotry raging all around you. That’s why I used the film clip depicting the struggle of the young Jesuit priest and the established SS officer during the time of the Nazi rise to power, because these times are beginning to feel equally ominous. Some of you no doubt saw the article in the New York Times about Donald Rumsfeld coming to the defense of US general, William Boykin (“Rumsfeld Praises Army General Who Ridicules Islam as ‘Satan,’” Friday, October 17, 2003, A-7). This general is apparently making the rounds of right wing evangelical Christian groups and saying some pretty bizarre things. “In one speech, the general recalled a Muslim fighter in Somalia who said American forces would never get him because Allah would give him protection.” The general said to his evangelical audience:

‘Well, you know what I knew that my God was bigger than his. knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.”

If this were simply an evangelical preacher spouting off this kind of nonsense it would actually be funny. But this is a US general! Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said about Boykin’s remarks, “At first blush, it doesn’t look like any rules were broken.” That brings to mind the remark by Thomas Merton that the end of the world will be a legal process; it’s trying to save it that will land you in jail.

“Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find dignity.”

When we do manage to get a hold of both handrails so that we can begin to make our way up the stairs toward greater understanding, toward a place where we can see some of these justice issues more clearly, it helps to have an image of resistance. So that we, too, can muster a similar courage.

One such image comes out of the film we saw a portion of this morning, Amen. The young Jesuit was actually able to get access to the Pope on more than one occasion.

At one point the young priest, who has begun to see that his Church has failed him, steps back from his final attempt to intervene on behalf of the Jews, and he reaches inside his cassock. For a moment you get the feeling he might pull out a gun out of sheer desperation. But he pulls out a yellow star, and in the presence of the Pope affixes it to his priestly garments. The pope, the young priest’s father and the Cardinals in attendance are shocked into disbelief. That priest found dignity.

Dignity is most tangible when the deck is stacked against it. It strikes me as a powerful spiritual principle that it is often when the world attempts to put you down and say you’re worthless that dignity really shines. This is because the world assertion that you are worthless is a lie. You see, we don’t believe that anyone has to give us dignity. We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And so it is that when the world tries to take it away, it rises up.

Maya Angelou tells a story in her autobiography about an experience she had at her graduation at her all Black high school when the power of the white world came crashing down on the school. Some idiot politician addressed the crowd and blathered on about how some of the graduates of the school had gone on to be good athletes. It was the sort of stupid thing a white person might say who has no self-awareness of his own racism. Maya Angelou describes how the celebratory mood of graduation was crushed and she describes it like only she can.

I’d like to read her description to you, but instead I’m going to read you what happened after the politician spoke. A young Black student named Henry Reed got stood up and taught everybody there a little something about dignity. This is how Maya Angelou describes it:

“There was shuffling and rustling around me, then Henry Reed was giving his valedictory address, ‘To be or Not to Be.’ Hadn’t he heard the whitefolks? We couldn’t be, so the question was a waste of time. Henry’s voice came out clear and strong. I feared to look at him. Hadn’t he got the message?

“…Henry had been a good student in elocution. His voice rose on tides of promise and fell on waves of warnings. The English teacher had helped him to create a sermon winging through Hamlet’s soliloquy. …I marveled that Henry could go through with the speech as if we had a choice.

“I had been listening and silently rebutting each sentence with my eyes closed; then there was a hush, which in an audience warns that something unplanned is happening. I looked up and saw Henry Reed, the conservative, the proper, the A student, turn his back to the audience and turn to us (the proud graduating class of 1940) and sing, nearly speaking,

Lift ev’ry voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty….

It was a poem written by James Weldon Johnson. It was the music composed by J. Rosamond Johnson. IT was the Negro national anthem. Out of habit we were singing it.

“Our mothers and fathers stood in the dark hall and joined the hymn of encouragement. A kindergarten teacher led the small children onto the stage….

Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope, unborn, had died.
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

“Every child I knew had learned that song with his ABC’s and along with ‘Jesus Loves Me This I know.’ But I personally had never heard it before. Never heard the words, despite the thousands of times I had sung them. Never thought they had anything to do with me.”

I began by invoking the lyrics of Bob Dylan to make the point that if we’re going to get real here, we need to admit that dignity is hard to find. But that’s not to say that it’s non-existent. I’d like to close with Dylan, adding a little twist that I’d like to think he’d approve of:

Got no place to fade, got no coat
I’m on the rollin’ river in a jerkin’ boat
Tryin’ to read a note somebody wrote
About dignity
So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
I used to wonder what would take
To find dignity.
Then Maya got up and wrote
And she inspired us to get out of the boat.
She’s taught us all a thing or two about dignity.


“Did Jesus Have to Die?”

Rev. Tom Martinez

Several recent surveys attempting to measure religious attitudes in America reveal a disparity between a surging interest in spirituality and a growing disdain for organized religion. As a minister I can only say, Who can blame them? Who wants to believe in a God that required the bloody sacrifice of his only son? Even many Christians, truth be told, are uneasy with this idea. Yet I know of very few churches that would tolerate a flat out critical inquiry into this long-cherished dogma. Thankfully All Souls Bethlehem Church is the kind of place where we can ask the hard questions. So let’s take a look at the murky subject of sacrifice. Continue reading

“The Lion’s Roar”

Rev. Tom Martinez
Easter, 2008

Easter means many things to many people. For those who aren’t particularly religious it’s a holiday weekend, a time to gather together with family or friends. For students it means a day off, something which prompted Aidan to say Good Friday was, indeed, a “pretty good Friday.” For people who identify with the Christian tradition, Easter is a high holy day, the sacred celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. For pagans and Earth centered folk it’s a time to celebrate Spring and the resurgence of the life force. Continue reading


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