All Change Requires Loss: 2018 Billings Preaching Competition

April 16, 2018
Isaac Martinez
MDiv candidate Isaac Martinez. Photo by HDS.

Each spring, Harvard Divinity School's Office of Ministry Studies organizes the Billings Preaching Prize Competition, an annual preaching competition open to second- and third-year MDiv students. The finalists delivered their sermons at the Wednesday Noon Service on April 11, 2018.

Below are the remarks of finalist Isaac Martinez, MDiv ’19.


A reading from Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, the peak of Pisgah which faces Jericho, and the lord showed him all the land—Gilead, and as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Nege, the plain (the valley of Jericho, the City of Palms), and as far as Zoar. The lord then said to him, This is the land about which I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will give it to your descendants.” I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over. So there, in the land of Moab, Moses, the servant of the lord, died as the lord had said; and he was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; to this day no one knows the place of his burial. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days, till they had completed the period of grief and mourning for Moses. Now Joshua, son of Nun, was filled with the spirit of wisdom, since Moses had laid his hands upon him; and so the Israelites gave him their obedience, just as the lord had commanded Moses. Since then no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses, whom the lord knew face to face, in all the signs and wonders the lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants and against all his land, and all the great might and the awesome power that Moses displayed in the sight of all Israel.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Good afternoon. It is an honor to be preaching with you all. My name is Isaac Martinez, I am in my second year here at HDS. I am also a postulant for ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Now words like “postulant” and “seminarian” would have been kind of foreign me to when I was growing up in southwest New Mexico, where the big mountains matched my big dreams of being a missionary for the Pentecostal faith of my loving, tight-knit family. In my predominantly Roman Catholic small town, being Pentecostal marked us as different, but I didn’t mind so much. I loved church too much to let it bother me.

I don’t know how many of you have ever participated in Pentecostal worship but imagine if you can exciting, pulsing music, people jumping and dancing. It was just fun! But my favorite part was when the piano slowed and the beautiful songs about God’s love would start and everyone’s tears would be flowing, mine included.

So I kept on dreaming. In the back of my childhood Bible, and maybe some of you had this too, there was a set of full-color maps and one of them was the journeys of the apostle Paul and I would trace my finger over all the places Paul went to again and again and imagine where my own missionary journeys might take me. But just as my heart was starting to really ache with this sense of call, I was starting to realize I was marked as different in another way. You see of the all many terrible sins my pastor preached against, one of the worst was homosexuality and I could no longer deny that was part of who I was.

But let me tell you, I tried. I would go home after church, fall on my knees at my bed, and beg God to heal me, to fix me. And every time I would get up, my blankets soaked with tears, and I would still be gay and I thought I failed. I had failed my family, my church, and worst of all, I had failed God. But one night, as I was praying, a question popped into my head. If God made me and loves, why would God make me and separate me from that love? Maybe God loves me just the way God made me. When I realized that nothing could separate me from the love of God, not even being gay, I knew I couldn’t remain Pentecostal. It would take many years and thousands of miles before I found a place where I could both love God and know that God loved me. But over six years ago, I found that place in the Episcopal Church and that is how I am here today, speaking with all of you.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that this is a fairy-tale ending and now I’m living in the “happily ever after.” The profound changes in my life, from denial to acceptance, from Pentecostal to agnostic to Episcopalian, from small-town New Mexican to Harvard student, have also come with profound losses, like an impaired relationship with my family back home. But even when I couldn’t see exactly how, I believed and hoped that there was a way that I could reconcile these parts of me, and that faith has sustained me until now.

All change requires loss: it is a truth that the people of Israel are profoundly aware of as they lose their beloved leader, Moses, the great lawgiver. Let’s get reacquainted with the story of Moses: how he grew up thinking he was an Egyptian prince but found out he was actually born a Hebrew slave, how he fled Egypt but encountered God in a burning bush and was told he was the one to free the Israelites from bondage, how he lead the people through the Red Sea and how they experienced God in fire and thunder on Mt. Sinai when God chose them to be God’s people, how Moses kept interceding for the people when their faith wavered and they complained. And now, Moses is at the end of his life. Even though he has led the people for forty years in the wilderness, he will not be able to enter the promised land with them. But God allows him to see it from the top of a mountain on the other side of the Jordan River before he dies. And he is buried, presumably by God, since no one knows where his tomb is, and the people mourn him and then turn to Joshua, who Moses picked as his successor, who will lead them into the promised land. Yes, my friends, all change requires loss.

But since we can’t stop the change, what do we do with our loss? I think we mourn it. And we mourn by telling and retelling our stories, as individuals and as a community, so that we honor who we are and whose we are. And we try to faithfully identify what is most important, what is most essential, and we preserve it for the next stage of our journeys. This was not just Moses’s work, it belonged to all the people of Israel. In fact, all of the book of Deuteronomy is Moses teaching the people how to teach themselves, how to keep the essentials of the law for themselves, how to love God and love their neighbor.

In my brief time here at HDS, I can see how we, like the Israelites are acknowledging our losses, mourning our past, and moving forward. Yes, there is much that is still uncertain and unknown, and that uncertainty may make us afraid. I want to tell you that it is natural, it is understandable, to be afraid. But we also know that perfect love casts out all fear. And we find that love here at HDS. We find it in classrooms, we find it when we come together at Noon Service, we find it in many ways. So this week, I encourage you to reflect on how you may have discovered God’s love here at HDS, the love that allows us to move past the losses of change, into the land of abundance that God has promised us.