The First Sunday of Advent for Year B (November 30, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah‘s vivid text — it’s not actually all that comforting, as we sometimes expect on the first Sunday of Advent — turns on three moments, evinced by three expressions: O, But, and Yet. “O” opens the first section in which we are confronted by our feeling of distance, or separation, from God; in effect, the people of God admit that “it’s been a while” since they felt the presence of God in the ways they heard about in the past. “But” moves into the second part of the text, in v. 5, in which they admit that it is their own sin that has put this distance between them and God. Finally, it is the “Yet” of v. 8 that finishes the text in hope for God’s renewal. Though the prospect of being tossed about like clay in the hands of a potter is not really all that comforting (or comfortable), either, it does remind us that there is not really anything that God can’t “fix” or restore. Amen to that!

Psalm 80 has two repeated refrains that echo throughout the season: “Stir up your might…” (v. 2) is part of the prayers that will be offered in many congregations; “Let your face shine, that we may be saved…” is repeated throughout the text, offering an opportunity for personal and corporate response to God. “God, if we have any hope here, it will come from the light of your face — so, shine, please!”

The Corinthians are reminded that, whatever gifts they have received from God, the gifts have been given for a purpose. What you have is what God knows you will need — and it will be enough to fulfill the ministry God has for you. Don’t worry about what you lack; use what you have!

The gospel from Mark is, like Isaiah, somewhat jarring when read in public worship; it seems strange and a bit judgmental. Scary, even! But on deeper reflection, its purpose is quite the opposite — not to scare or alarm, but to comfort and strengthen. The world around us changes quickly (“passes away”) — it’s not the same as it used to be (insert here every harangue you have heard about “the good old days!”) But, we are reminded that Christ’s word to us never changes — Jesus, while seemingly absent for a very long time now, is actually still with us in the hearts and lives of his people. The word is still alive and doing its work in us (of course, I know that Jesus is the Living Word and should probably be referred to as He, but you get my drift.)

Be Jesus’ people; be Jesus’ presence in the world. I have always loved the concept that underlies “praying the hours” around the 24 time zones of our planet. Literally, as we join with the members of Christ’s body, the Church around the world, somebody is always awake and praying. I think that’s what we’re after here!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One time when we were in college, my then girlfriend/now wife and I went from Chapel Hill, NC over to downtown Durham to the art-house movie theatre to see some European movie with subtitles.  We got lost several times and then had trouble finding parking and finally we rushed in and got a seat.

By the time we settled in, the movie had already started.  It was strange – the actors were really terrible and the dialog – such as it was – was in English, not Italian. We looked at each other with puzzled faces and then, almost at exactly the same moment, it dawned on us that we were in the wrong place and how really wrong that place was.  We got up and got out quickly and went for pizza instead.

Sometimes the First Sunday in Advent can have a similarly jarring effect on folks.  We have just finished the family warmth of Thanksgiving dinner and parades and football.  In many churches children are already practicing the Christmas pageant and the choir is working on a cantata and calendars are full of Open Houses and Christmas parties and such.  At home we’re getting decorations out and putting up the tree and getting the cards signed and sent out, etc.

And then we come into worship and the Lector gets up and the first words we hear during this warm and cozy season are:  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” and more about things like mountains quaking and water boiling.  We think, “Well, that’s a prophet, that’s the ‘Old Testament.’  What do you expect?  Wait for the Gospel.”  But the Gospel lesson is worse; “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Are we in the right place?  It’s less than month before Christmas; what is this all about?”

Advent is designed to remind us of why Christ came.  The lessons and hymns during Advent were carefully created to help avoid rushing through December to Christmas Day without taking the time to ponder why we needed God to intervene in our lives and what we must do to be ready.

The text from Isaiah, which begins with those frightful words, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” was written in the midst of Israel’s exile in Babylon and the early days of their return to the devastated and destroyed promised land.  As they look at the destruction around them, the Children of Israel are profoundly aware that they brought this on themselves.  Their behavior, as individuals and as a nation, led to their destruction.  And they are sorry.  They remember the good things God did for them in the past, they remember how God led them and provided for the.  As verse 4 says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him,”

They remember the bad they have done which has led to their current predicament and they remember the good that God did for them in the past.  And they repent.  They are deeply sorrowful for what they have done – not sorrow as a feeling, as a sentiment, as an emotion – but sorrow as an action, sorrow as a positive move in a new direction, sorrow as repentance., sorrow as the act of turning from going their own way and turning to go in the way of God.

And in verse 8, the prophet asks God to not only to forgive the people, but also to restore, renew, remake them.  “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Advent is a time when we look at ourselves and at our world and recognize that we need God.  It is also a time for deep and serious reflection upon the way in which we live our lives, the ways in which our actions are either supportive of God’s will and way in the world, or are hindrances to it.  It is a time for repentance in the sense of reorientation, of redirecting our lives to be more in line with the way God would have us go.

Advent is a time to wait for God to come.  But this is not a hopeless and helpless waiting, alternating wishful-ness with moments of despair.  No, Advent waiting is, in the words of Jesus in the Gospel lesson, a matter of being “alert,” and “awake,” watching not the sky, but the world, paying attention to the times and places where opportunities for mission and ministry to present themselves.

Advent is a time to open ourselves up to the possibility that the God of all our tomorrows has a new and exciting future in store for us.  Rather than looking forward with fear, let us look to the future with faith and hope, spending our days serving “the least of these,” always on the lookout for more needs to fill and more people to love.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Reign of Christ (Christ the King)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

In Ezekiel, it is the Lord GOD who takes personal responsibility for shepherding the sheep (“I myself….”) We may note that this is because the earthly shepherds of Israel, aka the kings, haven’t really done the job God wanted them to do. IMHO (in my humble opinion) — this does not lessen the impact of the idea that God, sooner or later, takes on the job of becoming the Savior of the world. It is, after all, God’s world — all of it — in God’s role as Creator. Without arguing over the origin of evil, entry of sin into the world, etc., what we learn about God from this passage is that God assumes full responsibility for the “lostness” of God’s sheep. “I will save my flock….” Enough said.

Psalm 95 supports this reading of Ezekiel; we see God’s creative power detailed and God’s role as our Maker affirmed. That God is King is significant on this day, as well.

If you are going to ascribe a title to the Lord Jesus on this day, you could do worse than Paul’s phraseology in Ephesians. The man certainly knew how to stack up some power words: “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” As if that is not enough to describe this Christ, the King, we get this tidy summary: “God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things….” That’ll do!

Matthew‘s gospel closes out the liturgical year with a description of the kind of life that is “fit for a king.” Feeding the hungry, slaking the thirst of those with nothing to drink, welcoming those without a voice and a place in the world, clothing those with nothing to wear. Add to that tending the sick and visiting the imprisoned (read, “undesirables.”) Jesus’ people do these things. Again, that is simply reason enough to consider them, don’t you think?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I saw a copy of the most recent People magazine.  There on page 11 was what I can only assume is a regular feature:  “Royals Round the World.”  The big picture was of the future king, Prince Charles, in a beige suit, twirling a handkerchief over his head while participating in a traditional dance on a state visit to Mexico. There were smaller pictures of Prince Harry in fatigues, Prince William and Princess Kate shaking hands with firemen or some such, and then a fashion shot of Kate, the caption of which mentions her invisible to the male eye “baby bump.”  Is she pregnant?  Somehow I missed that. Maybe because it’s none of my business.

Little wonder that it is so difficult for us to get a handle on the meaning of “Christ the King” when these people are almost the only modern reference point we have to go on.  (Okay, there is Burger King, and Elvis the King of Rock and Roll, and LeBron “King” James the basketball star, but those don’t really work either – believe me, I’ve tried.)

The Hebrew concept of “kingship”, at least in its purest and most prophetic form, had little to do with either the pomp, circumstance, and chivalry we associate with the great houses of Europe, or the images we’ve picked up from fairy tales, or the celebrity foolishness of the Windsors.  Biblical kingship had to do with justice and righteousness and a compassionate God.

This is shown to us by the fact that Israel’s favorite image for the king was as a shepherd.  Other nations and peoples saw their kings as gods or as fierce creatures, as powerful and destructive people bent on conquest and domination. While a shepherd could be fierce and war-like when protecting the flock from predators, it was a much more domestic and nurturing image.  A shepherd’s job was to protect the sheep from harm and to provide for their growth and happiness.  A shepherd had to think of his or her own needs last and the needs of the herd first.  This is the image Israel chose for their king.

Ezekiel shows us a God who is angry that the Hebrew kings have not been good shepherds.  In the first part of our text, YHWH boldly says – “Since I can’t trust the shepherds, I’ll do it myself.”  In this section we hear from the very mouth of God what a good king, a good shepherd provides, “I will make them lie down.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.” (3:15-16)  Then there is a shift and God promises a new king, an earthly king, a king, a shepherd, who will do all these things in God’s name and on God’s behalf; “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them.” (34:23) This is the promise that a descendant of David will come to take care of God’s kingdom.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story, not a parable, really, but a story,  really a vision of what will happen when the Son of Man, the descendant of David, comes “in his glory.”  This set-up ties into ideas that were then popular about a final judgment, and right being good, and left being bad, etc. etc.  Matthew turns this vision into both an opportunity for ethical teaching and a call to the young Christian community to take on its role as shepherds for all God’s people.

The vision is of all people of all time being gathered before the “judgment seat.”  The king will separate the people into the sheep and the goats; sheep on the right, goats on the left. Then comes the explanation of the division.

It is noteworthy that the situations mentioned aren’t extraordinary and none of them are at all religious.  One neither has to believe in God, nor believe anything in particular about God in order to pass muster.  There is absolutely no mention of either theology or liturgy in this list.  These are realities all of us confront on a regular basis.  Hunger and thirst and homelessness and nakedness and sickness and imprisonment.  We are not asked to solve these problems.  We are invited to respond to the human need right in front of us.  Feed people, give them water, give them shelter, give them clothing, provide decent healthcare, visit and console them in prison.

The element of surprise is the key to this story. The sheep on the right were surprised to learn that they had done something for the king, something the king would reward.  They were surprised to learn that they were being singled out for being good – they had thought they were simply being human and humane.  The goats on the left were surprised to learn that they had failed to do something for the king, “Why, had I seen the king in such conditions, of course I would have taken care of it.  But I didn’t see the king, I just saw – – -those people.”

The point here is both ordinary and mystical.  The ordinary is the argument that atheists make all the time, and I agree with them.  They say, “You don’t have to believe in God to be moral.  You can be good without looking to gain a reward or avoid a punishment.” And that is exactly correct, and is truly Jesus’ point here.  Reward and punishment as a motivation for goodness is a dead-end street; we end up focused on ourselves and wondering if we’re being good enough, and if we’ve done enough, etc.  Jesus says, “Forget yourself and focus on doing what you can for the other, it’s that simple.”

And here’s the religious, mystical part.  We are called and empowered to do these things for others because we are the church, and Ephesians reminds us that as the Church, we are the body of Christ. We are the active agency and activity of God in the world, we are the ones who are fulfilling the role of “king/shepherd,” tending to God’s beloved children, who are, strangely enough, also the Christ.  The hungry, the thirsty, the homeless stranger, the naked ones, the sick and suffering, those in prison, all of them are Christ, and our call is to respond to their need with active love and simple compassion.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (November 16, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Judges 4:1-7
Well, first of all, let’s hear it for Deborah; it is nice to recover at least one remembrance of a woman in a place of authority in Israel. (Sorry for those who may still be caught in the “God can’t call a woman” trap…guess that’s exactly what God did here. But, I digress!)

Sisera, the villain of the story, is going to meet a painful end at the hand of another strong woman, Jael (see v. 21 in this same chapter.) But, the point of the story — as always — is that God is in control and will respond to the cries of God’s people.

Sure, there’s a little retributive justice that they have to go through first. But, God works through the circumstances of our lives to bring about God’s own good purposes, in God’s own good time. Thank God for the Deborahs and Jaels and multitudinous others who have listened and obeyed when God called.

Psalm 123
It may be a bit of stretch for most of us to truly understand what it means for a servant to look to a master for the OK to live, work and breathe. A “maid” depending on her “mistress” for sustenance and support doesn’t ring that true with most of us, either, I would suspect.

Regardless, we do look to God for relief in our distress…and for mercy when what we find in our world is contempt.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Do we serve a “do-nothing” God? That’s the question that the prophet raises here. There are those that believe neither that God will do good, nor that God will do harm. The just don’t believe much about God at all!

I don’t know that the way to their conversion will be through blood-pouring and dung-flinging…but “the day of the Lord” is coming, nonetheless. What do we have to say about that, preachers?

Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
I like the thought of God’s existence being “from everlasting to everlasting.” God lives in all of the time between the boundaries of eternity…and exists outside those boundaries, as well. There is simply nowhere — no place, no space, no time — that God is not.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Back in the way cool 1970’s, there was lots of interest in the ending of the world and the image of “the thief in the night” received a good bit of airplay in the popular culture. Hal Lindsey made a mint from the publication of The Late, Great Planet Earth (28,000,000 copies sold and counting!)

I remember lying awake at night, pretty much scared to go to sleep, wondering if I might snooze through the Second Coming and miss the excitement. (It wasn’t until a few years later that we learned from Tim LaHaye about being “Left Behind.”)

Notice that Paul tells the Thessalonians, “but you are not in darkness;…that day will not surprise you.” (v.4) The purpose of this passage is encouragement, not warning (though I’m brushing up on my apocalyptic imagery, just in case!)

Matthew 25:14-30Like so many of the parables we have been reading during this stretch from Matthew’s gospel, this one has a bit of a tough pill for us to swallow at the end. We’re not fond of weeping and gnashing of teeth, when it comes right down to it.

As my colleague, Dr. Chilton is wont to say, “Jesus calls us to leave our fear behind and give ourselves over totally to trust and faith in God.” I believe that is, indeed, the message of the parable. Don’t worry that you might mess it up; go ahead and live life with the “talents” God has given you.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I was a child, we have week-long revivals at Slate Mountain Missionary Baptist Church. The revival preacher generally centered on issues of Jesus coming again in judgment, While he spent a lot of time on the lake of fire, most of his effort was put into the rapture and how the Christians would be taken up to heaven and the evil people left behind.

When I was 9 or 10, I was mighty shy and mighty scared of going to hell. If there was any way to get saved and accept Christ and avoid Hellfire other than going down to the front of the church during the invitation, I would have done it. But there wasn’t and I was too shy to go down there in front of all those people. So I prayed each night in my bed for forgiveness and please, please Jesus, don’t leave me behind.

One morning during the fall revival I awoke at dawn to a completely empty house. My parents and my four siblings weren’t there. Even the dog was nowhere to be seen. The electricity wouldn’t work. I immediately jumped to conclusions. Oh my God! Jesus came back, and took everybody else, and left me behind. I’m going to hell.

It sounds funny now, but I assure you – it wasn’t funny then. Imagine a nine year old boy, in his underwear, down on his knees in the frost covered backyard, tears streaming down his face, pleading with Jesus to spare him. It was an awful few minutes.

Then I heard a familiar sound, “Putt, putt, putt.” Our farm tractor. Suddenly the dog burst over the hill behind the house followed by the tractor pulling a trailer load of cured tobacco, my family riding along. They had gone to get a load of cured tobacco out of the barn and transfer it to the pack house, and decided that since I had the sniffles to leave me in bed. And, the power had gone out, which happened once or twice a month, for no known reason. Instead of the Devil coming to devour me, it was just my parents coming to fuss at me for being outside in my underwear and my siblings to laugh at me for being afraid.

When I read our Gospel lesson for today, the fear and terror of that morning came back to me. As I read the harsh judgment pronounced upon the fearful servant, the one-talent wonder who was so afraid of failure that he hid his talent for fear of losing it; I shook once again with the recollection of my evil and my failures and my fearful retreats into silence.  I thought to myself – “The ‘master’ will return some day and judgment will come upon me, unexpectedly, as Paul says, ‘like a thief in the night,’ when I least expect it. What am I going to do?”

This text is a warning against complacency, against merely maintaining the status quo, against quietly holding down the fort.  As our reading from Zephaniah says, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs,” (1:12) Even the Psalm reminds us that “We are consumed by your anger; we are afraid because of your wrath.” (90:7)

One time in Lent I preached a sermon on the crucifixion and a man came out of church and complained, “I don’t come to church to hear all that negative stuff.  I come to church to feel better.”  Looking at these texts, I know exactly how he felt.  As a person and as a preacher, I find myself wondering “Where is the good news here? Where is the grace note?  Where is the positive word of forgiveness and love that will lift me off my knees and back into my life?”

Today, it’s not in the lesson from Matthew, but the letter of Paul to Thessalonica: – “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” (5:9-10) Though Paul too has just talked about the end times and the coming Judgment, he reminds us that our salvation is not in ourselves or in anything that we do or don’t do.  Our salvation is in God’s hands, in Christ’s death and resurrection. Here we are called upon to recognize our need to respond to God’s love with love and care for others without fearing that our failure to do that perfectly will land us in eternal flames.

For in the meantime, in the time between now and the eternal then, there are no small moments, no insignificant actions.  Whether we have five talents, two talents, or one – we are invited, encouraged and expected to use all for the glory of God.

John A Broadus was the first Professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, back in 1850. He was a recognized scholar of Classics and the New Testament. He had taught at the University of Va. and was well respected in all academic circles. When the Civil War erupted, the seminary closed and Broadus served as a military chaplain. After the war, in the fall of 1865, the school reopened with one student. But Broadus soldiered on, lecturing on a regular schedule to this one student, teaching him Theology and Bible and Preaching. He carefully prepared his lectures for his one student, and in 1870 those lectures became a book called A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons.  It is still in print, it was the standard preaching textbook in many American seminaries well into the mid twentieth century.

John Broadus did not teach his one student because he was afraid of the wrath of the “master.”

No, John Broadus taught his student because that was what God had called him to do. He never considered burying his talent.  He believed God wanted him to use what he had to the best of his ability and to leave the ultimate outcome up Divine Providence and Intention. Broadus did not prepare his lectures expecting to write a book. He prepared his lectures in order to teach his one student to preach.

So it is with us.  These texts are not here to terrify us. They are here to remind us to take ourselves and our lives as God’s people in the world seriously. We each have gifts from God to use in the world.  It matters not how many we have.  It does matter greatly what we do with them.

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (November 9, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
“Third time’s a charm!”

I’ve heard that all my life, though I’ve never thought much about the meaning (or original context) of the phrase. I suppose usually we mean it as either a token of good luck or persistence. Of course, I’ve also always heard that “the harder you work (persist), the luckier you are.”

Whatever the deepest meaning may be, Joshua makes the Israelites commit three times to follow Yahweh. I guess he didn’t want any backing up later…nobody saying, “Well, you didn’t tell us it would be this hard!”

Psalm 78:1-7
Gary McIntosh’s book, One Church: Four Generations was very helpful to me in understanding the challenges of “multi-generational ministry.” 

As we see from this psalm text, that concept has been around for a very long time! We must always be thinking of how we are doing at passing the faith along to the next generations — even “the children yet unborn.”

Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Wisdom is personified in Solomon’s writings — here as in Proverbs — and takes the form of a strong, authoritative woman. Interestingly, there would not be much of a cultural example of this type of character. Women were permitted very little share in the public discourse of the time, much less in teaching roles or roles of authority.

Another key that God’s wisdom is not like our human wisdom — you will most likely find it in places that you are not looking for it!

Amos 5:18-24
Verse 24 is oft-quoted from the prophet Amos; we think we like the idea of “justice and righteousness” rolling down like a river.

But, as faithful Amos reminds us, we also think that we want “the day of the LORD” to come, and that our worship must naturally be pleasing to God. Neither of those is what we seem to think it is, either!

Perhaps we ought to hold the headlong rush toward what we “think” God wants from us long enough to pause, reflect, and reconsider both our longing for God to hurry up, and the worship we offer in the name of Christ.

Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20
For those who use this text as scripture, these words continue the introduction to Wisdom given in the earlier reading. A “path of righteousness” of a different sort is laid out here.

Psalm 70
A classic juxtaposition — God’s greatness and my weakness. Hasten, indeed, O God…you are our help and deliverer!

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Paul gives the young Thessalonian church his interpretation of the “day of the LORD” — taking Amos’ themes of darkness and terror and viewing them through the lens of Christ’s coming again to unite God’s creation in himself.

We need not fear — whether alive or dead — at the ending of all things. Jesus is Lord, and God can be trusted. That’s pretty much that, whatever your personal eschatological interpretation of this passage. 

Matthew 25:1-13
“A day late and a dollar short.”

Since I began with homey colloquialisms today, let’s end with one.  I suppose you could just as well use, “Not much lead in the pencil” or “A few fries short of a Happy Meal.” All would be synonymous with “caught at midnight with no oil for the lamp.”

We are to be on the watch for the kingdom of God, always prepared to do the will of the One who has asked us to be ready.

After all, you don’t want folks to think “your cheese done slid off the cracker!”

 * Just for fun — a collection of colloquial expressions is found here on the “not too bright list” compiled by Dan Hersam

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Why do you want the day of the LORD?” (Amos 5:18)

The county courthouse is across the street from my church.  Some people park on the street behind my church and cut through the narrow sidewalk that goes between the church and the real estate office next door, passing two feet from my desk, just outside the window.  If it is a couple or a family, I often hear them talking as they walk along.  Sometimes I hear them coming and going; this is the most interesting, for they are usually talking about the case and you can pick up what they think is going to happen.  Many are delighted, anxious to have their day in court – believing in their heart of hearts that they are going to be vindicated and those other people are “going to get what’s coming to ‘em.”  And about half the time I hear the same people walking back to their cars, complaining bitterly that the system is rigged, somebody lied, the judge is an idiot; because somehow, unbelievably, they lost.

Why do you want the day of the LORD?”  In our first lesson, Amos has clearly shown the people their failure to be the people God has called them to be.  He has condemned them for trampling the poor, and afflicting the just, and taking the bride.  He has warned them that such behavior will result in judgment.  And in our text he takes on those who presume upon the Lord, who look to “the day of the LORD” as a time when God will come and do battle and defeat Israel’s enemies.  And so it is.  The only problem is the “enemy” is not who the people think it is.

After Admiral Perry had won the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, he sent a report to General Harrison which became famous for its brevity, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”  In the 1960’s, the social commentary cartoon POGO purposely misquoted him by saying, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”  That is the point Amos is making.  We must not be like the people walking past my window and assume a day of judgment will be a good thing for us.  We are called to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of God’s desire for justice and righteousness and to evaluate how much we fall short of God’s hope for us and for the world.

This is also the point of the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. “Delayed” is a key word here. (Matthew 25:5) This is about the “delayed” second coming.  Most of the early church had assumed that Jesus would be back quickly, in a few years at most.  Time went on, and he did not return.  The bridegroom was delayed.  People found themselves wondering how to live in a time of uncertain certainty. They were certain Jesus would return, but they were uncertain as to when.  Some were hyper vigilant, thinking of little else, others had stopped thinking about it and were going about their business as usual, the rest were somewhere in between.  The parable is a reminder to remain ready, to wait expectantly, but not anxiously.  Those with oil were ready – those without were not.

What is it this text is calling us to do? The Christians addressed in Thessalonians and in Matthew were at most a generation removed from the life and death of Jesus; here we sit 2000 years later.

What must we do to be ready, what is the equivalent of having enough “oil in our lamps” for us?

This is where we must go full circle back to Amos and the coming “Day of the LORD.”  Amos says that the LORD desires for us to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (5:24) For Amos, “justice” was about due process and the fair and equitable distribution of resources.  So we are called to involve ourselves in making our society, our culture, our country a “just society.”  People of different political persuasions have different ideas about what justice looks like and how it is to be accomplished; and there can and should be open and free debate about that – but no Christian can deny that participating in the process by which we strive to become a more just and fair nation is both a Christian’s right and duty.

Righteousness, as used here, is about the integrity of one’s personal piety.  When Amos talks about the LORD despising festivals and solemn assemblies and the noise of our songs and musicians; he is not saying that God rejects our acts of public worship in general.  Rather, he is calling for a consistency between our orchestrated displays of love for God and our personal actions in loving our neighbors.  This is a consistent Hebrew Scriptures understanding of what it means to be a person of God.  As Jesus pointed out a couple of weeks ago – to love God with heart, mind, and soul (Deuteronomy) and to love the neighbor (Leviticus) are alike.  They are two sides of the same coin and you cannot truly, honestly and completely have one without the other.

Why do you want the day of the LORD?”

In the end we want the day of the LORD because we want Jesus. We want the day of the LORD because we want to honor the bridegroom.  We want the day of the LORD because we are ready to experience the pure justice and complete righteousness we have struggled with and for our entire lives.  We want the day of the LORD because we have no other hope than the hope of dying and rising with Christ.

Amen.

Year A — The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Nov. 2, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Joshua 3:7-17
Several “quick hitters” that I note in this passage:

  • Joshua had a pretty bad case of nerves about taking over for Moses; after all, who wants to bat clean-up after Babe Ruth? Who wants to coach football at Alabama after Bear Bryant? (I know I’m dating myself with these analogies…but, what the heck…it’s my blog!)
  • But, it was God who “exalted” him; we never will really succeed at pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. That’s just a misconception in popular American culture.
  • Speaking of bootstraps, have you ever noticed that the waters of the Jordan River — at flood stage, no less — did not part until the soles of the priests’ feet hit the waves? God is the original “just in time” delivery system!
  • I wonder how heavy that ark got while the whole nation of Israel took their time crossing the river?

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
Verse 2 is a great reminder: “let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” Don’t make God’s work in your lives a secret! It’s okay actually to talk about it. A pastor I met once referred to evangelism as “saying something good about God.” 

I like it.

Micah 3:5-12
Don’t lean on God to cover your own behind. God never owes it to any of us to clean up our mess. 

Psalm 43
There are certainly hope-challenged and soul-disquieting days that come our way. How powerful to pray for the light and truth of God — which is sometimes just knowing that you are not alone, and that God has not given (and will not give) up on you.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Those of us who had uplifting, encouraging parents received a true blessing from God. Not everyone is so fortunate. Whatever our draw in the parental lottery, we are encouraged by this passage to “live lives worthy of God.”

Matthew 23:1-12
I saw this week where Mike Judge, the creator of the infamous comic duo Bevis and Butthead, is working on an upcoming theatrical release of the boys’ new adventures. I can just hear Bevis snorting now, “Heh-heh-heh…you said ‘phylactery!’”

What is a phylactery, exactly? According to the omnipresent Wikipedia (which is actually pretty good on their Jewish minutiae): Phylactery is the English name forTefillin, a pair of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.

Anyhow, the Pharisees are ripped by Jesus basically for being all show (BIG phylacteries, those guys!) and no go when it comes to what counts in the kingdom of God. There really is no better way to say it than v. 12.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Tom Wright tells a funny story about a trip to the “camping store’ to buy all the right equipment for a two week hiking and camping trip.  The salesman was an expert on everything Wright needed; tents, maps, socks shoes, waterproof clothing, cooking utensils, water purifier, sleeping bag, and finally, the backpack. Wright paid for everything, put it all in the pack (again under the careful instruction of the salesman), then struggled to get the pack on his back.  After he finally got the whole kit up and headed for the door, he asked the salesman where he liked to go hiking and camping.  The man shrugged and said that he had a bad back and preferred going to the beach. (Matthew for Everyone, p.96)

What was it Jesus said, “. . . do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (verse 3)

Now, this is not an unfamiliar story.  With apologies to my sister and my nephew and to the teachers in this congregation, all of whom are fine teachers; we all know the old joke about how, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  It’s not really true about most teachers, but we laugh anyway.

And in many ways, this business of “do as I say, not as I do,” isn’t as bad as we make it out to be.  Lots of coaches of sports teams are much too old and out of shape to do the things they teach their players to do. My Daddy was able to coach my brother on the running of the farm long after he was no longer able to do the work himself.

But the hypocrisy Jesus is referring to here does matter; it matters a lot. This is not a matter of age and physical limitations; rather this is a matter of duplicity.  The problem with the “scribes and Pharisees,” is that in their teaching they imply that they are good examples of the principles they teach, when in fact they are anything but.

Like the salesman at the camping store, the scribes and Pharisees loaded the common people with heavy burdens, “backpacks” full of things they insisted the people needed for the spiritual journey through life. They had come up with 613 “commandments” and interpretations of those commandments, that, they said, must to be obeyed; and yet, they themselves, found loopholes, ways around, the very rules they made.

Not only that, Jesus said it was all for show, a false front to make themselves look good. Phylacteries were leather boxes with little bits of scripture in them that one wore tied across one’s forehead to obey the command to “keep God’s word ever before you.”  It is said that some were so large and ornate that they blocked the view of the person wearing it and they had to hold it aside to walk down the street. The “fringes” were tassels on the corner of prayer shawls and were traditionally small and discreet, whereas the people Jesus is talking about made them large and showy. It was religious “bling.”  And these same folks wanted to walk the equivalent of the religious red carpet and to sit in the big chair at the head of the table at all community banquets.  Jesus is taking on an important issue here: the love of place and preference among the servants of God.

We’re all smart enough to know that Jesus is not talking about all the scribes and Pharisees, just some.  And because this text was written by the church for the church; it’s not just about scribes and Pharisees then and there, it’s also about us, here and now.

Now, I have to tell you that as a person who wears a variety of colorful “prayer shawls” on Sundays and who gets to sit almost anywhere he pleases up front here, this is a difficult text to hear.  “Ouch,” is my initial reaction.  Is this me and folk like me that Jesus is talking about?  What was Jesus getting at in saying this and what was Matthew trying to say in telling about it years later?

This is about what Fred Craddock calls “the love of place and preference among the servants of God.” (Preaching through the Christian Year, p. 498)  It is not about attire; it’s about attitude.  It’s not about titles; it’s about a sense of entitlement.  It is not only about the ordained; it is also about any of the ordinary folk whom God choses for leadership who begin to think they must have been extraordinary for God to have chosen them.

This text is a call for all religious leaders to walk the talk, to do their humble best to live their lives in harmony with the things they ask of others.  There is an intriguing story about Gandhi that shows the standard we are all invited to follow.

A mother came to Gandhi and asked him to have a talk with her son, whom she said was addicted to sugar.  Gandhi thought for a minute and asked her to come back the next week.  When she did, he put her off for another week, and then another, and then another.  Finally she protested, “Why do you keep putting me off?”  Gandhi hung his head and said.  “I had no idea how hard it would be for me to give up sugar.”

“People who make themselves great will be humbled; and people who humble themselves will become great.” (N.T. Wright translation.)

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (October 26, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
What can you say about Moses? We don’t suppose that Moses actually wrote his own epitaph here in Deuteronomy, and the accolades are obvious and well-deserved: mighty deeds, terrifying displays of power, unequaled as a prophet and servant of God.

No wonder that, when Jesus meets two characters from Israel’s ancient past on the mountain of transfiguration, Moses is included (alongside Elijah — a fairly significant personage in his own right!) Moses is and should be famous for so many reasons.

But, his real claim to fame lies in v. 10, I believe; “Never has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” 

The vitality of our ministries — our very quality of living — is most likely quite proportional to the closeness with which we dwell in relationship with God. 

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Grasping eternity is not something that we are able to do easily, if at all. Eternity is a very long thing to try to imagine. Especially when you consider that eternity stretches to infinity in at least two directions (from our temporal perspectives, anyway) — eternity past and eternity future. 

Psalm 90:2 says, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” Before time was, God is; when time shall be no more, God still is. God never was; there is never a time when Godwill be. God simply is. And, of course, that goes for all of the time and times in-between. There is never a time or place that you or I will be that we cannot stop to pray, “Lord, I thank you that you are….”

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Here we have the setting for Jesus’ “second greatest commandment” — while loving God with heart, soul and strength, we are to work on loving neighbor as self. Out of all the great commandments given by God and upheld by centuries of religious tradition and teaching, it is these two that are singled out as the magnum opera of spiritual significance.

Like, pay attention, dude!

Psalm 1
Hebrew wisdom literature is known for its propensity for taking two things, sitting them side by side, and asking, in some form or the other, “so which of these do you think it is best to choose?” Psalm 1 is a classic example. 

There is the way of the righteous, characterized as a tree planted by an ever-flowing stream of water. (Consider what such a stream must have connoted to a people who lived most of their lives in the desert!)

The way of the wicked, however, is like so much dry wheat chaff — the by-product of the reaping process. When the grain is thrashed, the heavier kernels fall to the ground and are gathered. The chaff is the clinging, choking, worthless dust that comes off the shock. It just blows away and is good for — well, nothing really, except to be dust.

So, which of these do you think it is best to choose?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Ever known any well-meaning Christians who practice what I call, “evangelism by hook or crook?” Bringing people into the kingdom of God is held to be such an important value that an “all means necessary” approach becomes carte blanche to make promises, enticements, or offer rewards that may or may not have anything at all to do with the righteousness and grace of God.

(I once heard of a church that offered pony rides to children — but wanted them all to decide to “accept Jesus” first. I’m still trying to understand that linkage!)

We do not want to be homiletically guilty of any such manipulation or misrepresentation with our own claims concerning the gospel. It must have been something of an issue for first-century apostles and preachers, as well, since Paul goes to such great lengths to avoid doing so with the Thessalonian church.

We do what we do because of the love of God in us, and the love of God for the “dear children” of whom we have been given charge. 

Matthew 22:34-46
“Give me the bottom line.” 
“What’s the takeaway?”
“Let’s cut to the chase.”

All of these catch-phrases indicate the value our culture places on brief, direct communication. They may all be subtle stand-ins for the ever popular, “What’s in it for me?”

At any rate, Jesus gives us the “great bottom line” — there are two things that matter most in this life. Those are loving God and loving others (with the necessary corollary, loving yourself — I’m thinking that for some folks who will listen to us on Sunday, that third one is actually the toughest one to accomplish!)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

There has been a lot of talk recently about people who say they are “Spiritual, just not religious.”  That is, they have an interest in God and holiness and amorphous mystery on a personal, individual basis; but they are not at all interested in communities of people with similar interests because that would require them to take these other people and their opinions and problems seriously, and really, who has time for that? Put another way, they are happy to love the God whom they cannot see but they do not wish to get too involved with the neighbors whom they can see.

This is, unsurprisingly, not a new problem in the history of humankind.  We have always had a self-justifying desire to decide exactly who it is we are obliged by God to be nice to; and how nice, exactly, we have to be to get credit. In today’s Gospel lesson, we read the end of a long section in Matthew where the Pharisees and Sadducees conspire to trip Jesus up and get him in trouble with the Romans.

Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows; the Pharisees and Sadducees cooperating makes about as much sense as the Tea Party and the Re-elect Obama Committee working together; but these folks are determined to keep Jesus from upsetting their very settled and profitable way of life. In the few verses prior to our text the Sadducees had tried a silly question about the Resurrection which Jesus easily rebuffed and now the Pharisees take their turn with a poser about the commandments.

This is not a question about the Ten Commandments; they are talking about the ongoing Hebrew theological tradition that numbers the commandments in the hundreds, some say 613, and then argues about which is the most important or most pivotal commandment.  In response, Jesus does two things.  First he answers their question with a very serious theological opinion, siting Deuteronomy 6:5 and our lesson from Leviticus, 19:18, tying them together as the greatest commandment. Then he politely shuts them up with a riddle from Psalm 110.  “If the Messiah is David’s son (descendant), how can he also be David’s master?” is an unanswerable question, somewhat akin to “which came first, the chicken or the egg.” The crowd is delighted with Jesus’ wit, realizing he has just told the Pharisees, “Look, two can play at this game, and this time, I win.”

G.K. Chesterton once joked: Jesus commanded us to love both our neighbors and our enemies because they are generally the same folk – this is not at all easy. It is not simply a matter of being nice and getting along.  It is hard work.  It involves getting beyond our likes and dislikes, it involves hanging in with individuals and communities when the going gets tough, it involves self-sacrifice and devotion even  you’re not “getting anything out of,” the relationship.  It involves taking the neighbor seriously as a child of God who deserves our respect and care.  It involves being religious as well as spiritual.

This is why Jesus hangs loving God together with loving the neighbor.  Loving God can be easy.  God is away off there somewhere.  We can define God in such a way that God is not responsible for any of the pain of discomfort we experience in life.  That way, we don’t ever have to be angry with or resentful of God.

We can love God with an easy conscience because we don’t expect anything from God and God doesn’t expect anything from us and such a spiritual love will never intrude upon the very earthly, confusing messiness of our lives.

But if, as Jesus says, loving God and loving our neighborly enemies are tightly bound and inseparably linked co-commandments; then we are forced to deal with love in the real world of people who are imperfect and incomplete, people who are at times undeserving of our affection or unresponsive to it; people who are sometimes incapable of loving us back. And, we have to live out our love for God in a world of people who also sometimes care about us when we don’t really care to be cared about.  It is, as I said, a bit confusing and messy.

The people who say they are spiritual but not religious have spoken more truth than they realize.  “Spirit” is formless, wispy, barely there.  It is so indistinct and disembodied that one doesn’t really have to deal with it.  It is more feeling and impression than anything else. On the other hand, the root of “religious” is ligare which is also the French root of ligament.  You can’t get much more earthy than that.  Ligare mean to tie to or to tie back.  Ligaments connect muscle to the bone; religion ties us to God and one another.

Those who seek to be spiritual without being religious believe they can float free of the ties that bind, feel good about God and be confident that God feels good about them.    A willingness to be religious indicates an awareness that an amorphous, spiritual Godlikeness would not have plunged interferingly into the midst of our pain and suffering.  Rather, it took a God of compassion to, quite mysteriously and inexplicably, give up whatever it means to be divine and plunge headlong into the muck of our lives.

God in Christ took on ligaments and sinews and walked among us and suffered among us and died among us and with us and for us. God in Christ was raised from the dead and draws us together, ties us together, as the Body of Christ, held together by ligaments of love and sinews of service. And we, the tied together Body of Christ in the world, are called to the task loving God, most especially by loving our neighbors and enemies in God’s stead and in God’s name.

Amen and amen

Year A: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 19, 2014)

Click here for today’s texts
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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 33:12-23
There is a good bit of discussion in our society about what it means to “know God.” Evangelical Christians assert that not only is it possible to know God, but that through a “personal relationship” with Jesus you can know God’s exact, perfect, individualized will for your life!

Other stripes of Christians amongst us most likely have varying understandings of what it means to know God. Our diversity of opinions and freedom to pick theological nits is sometimes a boon to us; at other times, it is most definitely a bane. 

[Writing on Alternet.org, atheist author Adam Lee commented, “I’d love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches’ wounds are largely self-inflicted.”]

Moses speaks for us concerning our passionate desire to both see and know God; “if your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” Life is scary and the road — without faith — can be awfully rough and rocky.

And God, knowing that God’s own Divine Presence is likely to overwhelm us if we actually could get a good glimpse, responds with tenderness: “I’ll show myself to you, but not completely. I’ll cover you with my hand and you’ll get a sort of look in the rear-view mirror. But that will be enough — it will have to be enough.”

Mostly, I think this passage reminds me that God will be gracious when God desires to be gracious, and will show mercy on whom God desires to show mercy. I’m thinking that goes for the faithful among us — evangelical, mainline, orthodox, catholic — as well as for the “un”-faithful, as well. 

God believes in you, Mr. Lee.

Psalm 99
Need an encounter with the presence of God? Do what Moses did…head for a mountain somewhere! No wonder the ancients considered “the high places” to be the demesne of the gods. Has anybody ever counted how often the Bible references “mountains” or “hills” or “high places” with reference to the presence of God?

Isaiah 45:1-7
This passage is striking — at least to me — for the implication that God can “call” and “use” someone who absolutely does not know (or care?) who God is! 

I do not believe that we have anywhere in the Bible a profession of faith or moment of commitment from the life of Cyrus, the Persian king, with regard to the Holy One of Israel. And yet, Yahweh calls Cyrus his “anointed one” —meshiach in the Hebrew, christos in the Greek.

Well, wadda’ ya’ know? 

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
Some of my favorite “worship words” in this psalm:

  • Sing (lots of singing!)
  • Bless
  • Tell
  • Declare
  • Revere
  • Ascribe
  • Worship
  • Tremble
  • Rejoice
  • Roar
  • Exult
  • Oh, and sing again!

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Talk about a church with an actual GOOD reputation! How long has it been since you heard this kind of buzz concerning your congregation?

“…your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.”

Sounds like a good job description for the church, not to mention a great antidote to the kind of perfidy attested in Adam Lee’s quote [see above.]

Matthew 22:15-22
Tsk, tsk, tsk…when will the hapless Pharisees ever learn? You just don’t get the goods on Jesus with a trick question!
This jewel of a statement (“render unto Caesar, etc.”) makes allegiances to church and state pretty clear, n’est-ce pas?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I heard a story a few years ago about a man who grew up in a little country church in the Carolinas that was founded about the time of the American Revolution.
For most of its 200 plus years not much happened in either the church or the community; life went on pretty much the same year after year.
Then, in the 1980s, change happened and happened fast; Interstates and urban sprawl and Sun Belt migration. What had once been farmland was now covered with upscale subdivisions and shopping malls.
The church changed too, not without a struggle, but eventually the church moved into the 21st century.
One Monday morning the pastor was visited in his office by a man whose family had been charter members of the church way back when. He had grown up in the church then went away for an education and a career. A few years back he had sold off the family farm to a developer and no one had heard from him since.
He had returned to the community for his 40th high school reunion and had attended worship on Sunday. He was not happy.
He complained about all the changes that had taken place in the church since his youth, and he made it known that these changes were somehow an affront, an insult to him and all his ancestors and all the other people who had been a part of that church for all those years.
He ended his diatribe with these words, “Preacher, if God were alive today, he would be shocked, yes, shocked at the changes in this church.”
“If God were alive today.” “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”
If God is dead, we don’t have to render much do we?
Therein lies the real question of this text. Though we often use it as a launching pad for discussions of politics, or taxes, or the separation of church and state; these are not the core concern of this Bible story.
This text is about not letting the cares and obligations of the world divert us from our calling to serve God; about not living our lives as though God were dead, while confessing our faith with our lips.
In this text we have a group of people who spent a great deal of time worrying about things like politics and taxes and the separation of temple and empire and who thought of such fretting and worrying and arguing as somehow fulfilling their religious duty to God.
The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth had threatened the delicate political and religious and social dance which kept those on top on top and those underneath, well, underneath.
Those on top were resolved to protect their position and the status quo by tricking Jesus into saying something that would offend either the Roman rulers or the piety of the people.
Listen again to verses 15-17. If he says “no,” he is fomenting rebellion; if he says “yes,” he offends the common people who hate paying taxes, especially to an Emperor who claims to be a god.
As usual, Jesus was too smart for them. He uses the coin and its images as an object lesson. “Render unto Caesar . . . “So far, so good. But then, Jesus comes across with the real, deeper point; “Render unto God that which is God’s.”
The call of this text to those of us gathered here today is to not forget God in the midst of our busy-ness.
It especially calls us away from a practical atheism in which we confess faith with our lips but fail to live it out in our lives.
The latest statistics show that the United States is still one of the most “faith in God” confessing countries in the world. To the question is “Do you believe in God?” over 90% of us say “Yes.”
But it is hard to square that confession with other statistics. Besides the plummeting church membership and worship attendance numbers of almost all Protestant denominations; think about the culture we live in: do you see a lot of evidence that this is, in any recognizable form or fashion, a nation of Christians?
Record poverty rates, sky-rocketing prison populations, the sexualization of everything, the harsh, judgmental and unforgiving political rhetoric that fills the talk shows on the left and the right, the cruel laws aimed at immigrants, etc. etc. the list goes go on and on.
And just like the Pharisees, many of our leaders from the left and the right speak of these things and of their proposed possible solutions as if their ideas were sanctioned by God him or her self!
And into this the voice of Jesus calls us back from the brink of a serious mistake.
In the midst of rendering unto Caesar, of doing your civic duty to the best of your ability; do not confuse your politics with your religion, nor neglect your God in the midst of your public service. Do not forget to “render unto God that which is God’s.”
I am not much of a linguist, but I remember a little of Latin that helps me keep things straight. Ultima means last, like the last syllable on a word, or the last letter in an alphabet. Penultima means next to last, the letter or syllable just before the last.
In common language, the ultima became the most important thing, the final thing. And the penultima was the almost final thing, the second most important.
Whatever else is important in our life; our job, our family, our children, our politics, ours sports team, God has to be our ultima, the most important, everything else is in second place.
Remember; “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’,” and more importantly, “Render unto God that which is God’s.”
Amen and amen.