The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (October 11, 2015)

lick here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

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

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

I love Job’s honesty: “Today, my complaint is bitter….”

It’s like that some days. What else can you say? It really doesn’t do anybody — neither you nor God — any good to pretend, when the skubala has done hit the fan, that things don’t smell! That’s no basis for an honest and open relationship, which is what God desires. Go ahead — tell God what you feel. God already knows it, anyhow!

Psalm 22:1-15

The psalmist certainly gets what Job is saying; he has a bit of a complaint to lodge, himself. Not only do some of our days stink, they become really difficult to bear. It feels — sometimes — like God has left us alone!

But has God abandoned us? Jesus, of course, lays into this psalm on the cross — most likely too weak to speak all of its words, but also just as likely holding on to the psalm’s eventual words of hope. Real praise often comes in the midst of lament.

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Amos, the farmer-prophet, wastes few words. Today is a good day to seek the Lord — pretty much everyday is. But, be assured, if you don’t really want to seek the Lord and follow God’s way, you open yourself up to the consequences when God does decide to “break out” against what is evil in the world.

Taking bribes and pushing the needy aside in the gate and all such as that — those are not things that make God happy (just in case you were wondering!) Get on the side of good; get out of the way of what is evil. And, should you ever be momentarily confused and find yourself on the wrong side of said gate, remember that you can always turn back!

Psalm 90:12-17

Verse 12 is a great prayer. “Lord, I know I’ve only got so many days — though I might tend to waste too many of them on foolish and fleeting pursuits. Would you please help me get a grip before they all fly away and I’m left with a pile of empty promises and a bucket full of broken dreams?”

Hebrews 4:12-16

Sharp, I tell you! God’s word is a precision instrument when it comes to exposing the “thoughts and intentions” of our hearts.

Jesus, the Living Word, knows all about our trials and temptations. Basically, he has been there and done that. So don’t go trying to tell him how hard it all is, and why you shouldn’t be held accountable for your weak moments. Instead, admit it when you need some help, and look for mercy and grace. They tend to hang around where Jesus is involved.

Mark 10:17-31

When you stop and think about it, the man’s question at the opening of this passage is misguided from the first moment. There’s not really anything you can do to inherit a fortune. It’s much more about who you are in relationship to the one granting the fortune!

Jesus knows the gentleman has tried awfully hard, and Jesus can see that he’s real, real close to the whole kingdom of God thing. But, like most of us, there is something that’s holding him back. Maybe just one little thing that, if we were asked by Jesus to give it up, we might well go away sad, too.

Oh, shoot…now this passage is going to “quit preaching” and is going to “go to meddling” in all our lives!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My grandfather Reid Chilton was treasurer of the Baptist church in our neighborhood from the late 30s into the mid-50s.  He used to tell this story about the perils of raising money.  As to whether it’s true or not – all I can say is – it’s true that he told it to me.

“There was this one time, back in the depression, that we was having trouble getting up the preacher’s salary.  The deacons decided that a free-will offering wasn’t going to work, ‘cause as brother Arvid said, “They mighty free with their will, just not with their cash.”  So, they decided I should go and visit people and ask for a donation.  So I did.  It was rough work.  People really didn’t have much cash money available and they really didn’t like me asking for it.  One time I was talking to this fella, we’ll call him Brother Bill, and he said he would love to give but he just didn’t have no money.  I said, “Brother Bill, if’n you had a mule would you sell that mule and give half of what you got to the church?” “He looked at me and said, “Why of course, Brother Reid.  I would do it in a heartbeat.”  So I says; “That’s good, that’s good, Brother Bill.  Let me ask you another question.  If’n you had a sheep, would you sell that sheep and give half to the church?” “Brother Reid, I am a little hurt that you would ask me that.  You know my heart, you know I would, if’n I had a sheep.”  And then I says, “Bear with me Brother Bill, just one more question.  If’n you had a hog, would you sell that hog and give half to the church?”  At that Brother Bill’s face got red and he stomped his foot and said, “Now see here Brother Reid, that ain’t no fair question.  You knows I got a hog.”

“When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Mark 10:22

Two of today’s scripture lessons push us to think about and me to talk about a subject that most people really don’t like to discuss; money.  At least they don’t like to discuss why some people have a lot of it and other people have so little of it.  And they especially don’t like to discuss the idea that their money is getting in the way of their relationship with God and that perhaps they should give some of it to the poor. Yet we have all of this in Amos’ preaching and in Jesus’ conversation with the man who had many possessions.

The lesson from Amos is pretty straightforward and is much more overtly political than then the Mark story.  Amos was a prophet during the time that the country had split into two kingdoms; Judah in the south and Israel in the north.  He was not a trained preacher, he was a herdsman from the southern kingdom, yet God called him to preach to the leaders and the people of the Northern Kingdom.  And he did.  He especially called them out on their treatment of the poor; “You trample on the poor,” vs. 11 and “You afflict the righteous . . . and push aside the needy in the gate.” vs. 12. Amos thunders out judgement against those in power, “. . . he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire.” and “devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.” vs. 6

And as usual, the powerful didn’t like being told they were misusing their power and the King sent the High Priest to send Amos away, to deport him, he was an illegal after all, an immigrant who didn’t belong there; he was taking work away from legitimate prophets and teachers, ones who would not be so rude about the people in power, who had earned their place in the Northern Kingdom.

No, people don’t like to be told that there can be a problem with having wealth.  In the Gospel lesson, a man comes to Jesus and asks a serious religious question.  Unlike many conversations Jesus has along the way, he is not facing a secret antagonist, posing a trick question for political gain. This is a serious question from a serious and devout believer.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Notice, Jesus didn’t say, “Accept me as your personal savior.” or “Repent of your sins and be baptized and join my community, and while you’re at it – sign up for a small group and here are your offering envelopes.”  No, not so much. What Jesus actually did was to first remind the man, and us, that life is a gift from God, it is not something any of us earns or can put ourselves in the position to inherit. It’s all of God.  He then started talking out of their shared Judaic tradition of the commandments.  The one’s he asks about are interesting.  He did not ask the man what he believed about God; he asked him how he treated his neighbor. “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal,” etc. He also throws in one that isn’t in the Ten Commandments, You shall not defraud.”  I wonder if Jesus knew something about the man’s business dealings that we’re not privy to.  Anyway, the man profess to have kept them all “since his youth,” which means, “Since I’ve been old enough to know better,” as we say in the south.

Then, in a remarkably succinct line, Mark paints a picture of tough love, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing. . .”  That is true Gospel love, to look at the other, to see exactly who they are, both their virtues and their faults and to tell them the truth about what they need to change about themselves.  Jesus looked at the young man and immediately recognized that the man possessions were getting in the way of spiritual life.  Taking care of his stuff was interfering with taking care of his soul and taking care of his neighbors, which are very often the same thing.

We, as Americans, as Christians in a developed country, all stand in one degree or another under the judgement of these texts.  Compared to billions and billions of people in this world, we all have “many possessions.” I know it doesn’t feel like it, but that is because we compare ourselves to the super rich, instead of comparing ourselves to the billion people in this world who still live without electricity.  We do have many possessions and Jesus is speaking to us today as much as he is talking to the man in the story.  As people with the privilege to vote, to speak our minds, to call our congressmen and complain, we are the powerful to whom Amos preaches today, calling upon us to change policies and procedures that oppress the needy and trample the poor.

And here’s the good word.  We don’t know what the man did.  Mark says he, “went away grieving because he had many possession,” but he could have just needed some time to decide what to do. We don’t know about him, he may have decided to follow Jesus’ advice.  What we do know is that the possibility of change is offered to us, we have options. Amos begins and ends with a grace note.  Verse 6: “Seek the Lord and live, or.”  “Or” he said.  There’s an option to change.  Verse 15 “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord                     . . . will be gracious.”  “It may be.”  Amos says.  The story’s not over.  God is not finished with us. What will we do?

Amen and amen.

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 4, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Sorry — I just could not resist this re-print from the last time we had this passage!

“There once was a man down in Uz,
who lived a good life, just because.
He never cursed God, though his wife sure did prod;
A just man, he, if ever there was!”

Psalm 26

How are we — human beings all too prone to wander from the path — to stay on the right way? It all depends on where we place our eyes. With God’s steadfast love fully filling our vision, it seems we are much more likely to live lives worthy of our calling.

Genesis 2:18-24

Awesome text, the basis for lots of discussion (at least in the USA) these days surrounding the idea of a “biblical marriage.” Not gonna wade into that one — and I wouldn’t advise any preacher to try to proclaim a theology of same in just one sermon!

The most captivating thought to me is that of the complementarity of the human beings in this passage. The word for “helper” here is actually a compound (and somewhat complex) construction in Hebrew. A “helper,” yes — but one who is both “in front of” (as in eyeball to eyeball, intimate) but also “opposite of” (as in toe to toe, opposing.) The two are definitely stronger together than either is apart and alone.

Psalm 8

What a vivid picture — considering the heavens, the moon, and the stars in order to comprehend something of God. Take a look at the video clip below, taken from NASA’s footage of the Andromeda Galaxy earlier this year. This gives me a sense of the wonder of the universe, and definitely hones in on the question, “What are we human beings that you even notice us, God?”

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

God never stops working!

The revelation of God’s plan of grace in the world began long ago, and has come in stages — according to the writer of Hebrews. Of course, God’s ultimate revelation of self has come in the form of Jesus, who is far superior to angels, sacrifices, priests, and all else. And yet, this One who is the heir of all things and the pioneer of our very salvation, has been perfected through suffering.

We seek to follow Jesus. Which sometimes will hurt.

Mark 10:2-16

Jesus rarely wants to diddle in trivial matters — not that divorce or other life-issues are trivial. He just doesn’t want to get too hung up in judging folks who have had to deal with difficult situations in their lives. “God knows it’s hard, guys; that’s why God has given you some space in these things.”

We are the ones who just can’t seem to let it go.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

If you’ve ever been through Chattanooga, TN, you know that Lookout Mountain looms over the city. Most mornings, as the sun comes up, a ring of fog hangs about halfway up the cliffs above the Tennessee River, with the sun shining brightly on the mountaintop above and the city below. On Nov. 24, 1863 one of the most interesting battles of the Civil War took place on that mountain. The Confederates had artillery on top of the mountain, preventing the Union from using the river for supply shipments and troop movements. The Federals were determined to silence those cannon. The fighting centered in the foggy area. Between the fog and the peculiar terrain and the general confusion of war, things were a mess. The story is told that a Confederate General happened upon a severely wounded private and ordered him to “get to the rear,” out of harm’s way. The private saluted and replied “Yes Sir.” A bit later, the general happened upon the private again, “Son, I thought I told you to get to the rear!” The private drew himself up, saluted, and said, “Begging the General’s pardon Sir, I been trying, but this here battle ain’t got no rear!”

We all know how he feels. Since 9/11, 14 years ago, it seems like there has been a continuous worsening of the state of the world and the human condition. War, terrorism, the economy, nasty politics, disease, basic human values ignored, a coarsening of our culture, families falling apart; we could go on and on about how bad things are.  Surely this is not what God intended for the world and for the children of God, the people of the world.. What went wrong? And what can we do about it? What must we, the followers and disciples of Jesus, do in response to a world that is dangerous and out of control? How did we get in this mess?

First lesson is one of the creation stories in Genesis. It is a charming little vignette about God trying to find a fit companion for Adam. It’s kind of funny as God acts like a shoe salesman trying to fit a finicky customer. God brings out animals big and small, sleek and furry, ferocious and tame, clean and nasty, everything in the store.  And Adam looks at them and says, “Well, it’s nice, it’s interesting, but, it’s, it’s . . .  it’s a raccoon. It’s just not what I’m looking for.” And God brings out another and Adam says, “Well, its , its, its BIG, very BIG, and shiny; very, very SHINY. It’s an, uh, an uh, Hippopotamus. But it’s just not for me.” And so it goes through all the animals, and still nothing seems to work. So God decides to do a custom job, just for Adam, to his particular specifications.

It’s a good story. And it’s an important story, for it reminds us of a couple of things. It reminds us that we, all of us, are God’s special and beloved creations. It also reminds us that we are all, male and female, equal partners in life, that the point of marriage is companionship and shared life journeys. That is God’s intention. Now, fast forward several thousand years to the time of Jesus and the story told in our Gospel lesson. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into saying something that would get him into trouble with the King. King Herod had married his brother’s ex-wife. Worse than that, he had forced his brother into divorcing her so he could marry her. Worse than that, he had killed John the Baptist for preaching about it.  So they asked Jesus, in front of the crowds, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus turned it back on them, “What did Moses say?” “Well Moses allowed a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce.” And Jesus replied with what are the key words for us this morning. Verse 6, “Because of your hardness of heart.”  Another way to put it would; because of your inability to live in accordance with God’s plans and intentions.

At the time of Jesus, many men used the divorce laws as a way to escape familial responsibility. Without a husband, women were often in quite dire straits, and many men tossed aside wives for quite trivial reasons. The law said you could divorce your wife if you found anything “unseemly” in her. Most Rabbis interpreted that in terms of sexual immorality, but some said it could be anything the husband didn’t like, such as burning his dinner. For Jesus, tightening up the attitude toward divorce was a matter of justice for woman, and a call to taking God’s intentions for married life seriously. When Jesus says “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,” this is holding men accountable for their behavior in a very provocative way, for adultery was not a minor accusation and it carried with it the death penalty.

Now I know that Jesus’ strict words here are painful to persons who have been through divorce, and are difficult for many to hear. I have two siblings who are divorced and two who married divorced persons, so I am not insensitive to this. It is important to note that Jesus was very forgiving of divorced persons. I think particularly of the woman at the well, who had had many husbands and was living outside of marriage with another man. Jesus was not condemnatory toward her, but rather was pastoral and kind. It is not Jesus’ intent to condemn those who have suffered through a difficult marriage and decided to end it before causing more pain to themselves or others. His intent is to recall people to the purpose of committed relationships, which is the completion of our created humanity in companionship and partnership. His intent is to call us away from relationships which are hurtful and abusive and unequal.

God created human committed companionship as a good thing, but human hardness of heart turned good thing into a bent and ruptured and incomplete thing. In many other ways, humanity has taken the good things God made messed them up. That is the basic human story. Psalm 8 says that God made us little lower than the angels, and that he gave us mastery over the world. How have we done, taking care of things? Not very well, I’m afraid. And it is getting frighteningly worse, and as we are constantly reminded, that this here battle ain’t got no rear. There’s no place to hide. We must stand forth and be a part of the solution. If not, we must count ourselves as part of the problem.
What are we to do? How can we become a part of the solution? What is our calling today?

In Hebrews, the writer traces a scenario in which we are reminded that Jesus gave up privilege and power with God to come to earth as one of us, to suffer with us, and to show us what true humanity was intended to be. Jesus was God in our midst, in our presence, in our bodies and circumstances, God on our level, God with the same temptations and problems and hurts and wants and needs as any of us, and he suffered loss and rejection and fear just like we do. And he managed to stay the course of love and forgiveness to the end.

And we are called to do the same. We are called to raise our heads above the fog and confusion of daily life and look to the bright Sun of God’s love burning above us.  We are called to lift our hearts above our fear and to step forward with love and forgiveness for those who frighten us. In the end, it is the only way.

Amen and amen.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 27, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

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

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Some might label this text, “What Goes Around Comes Around!” Certainly, the vengeance angle on the bent-for-evil Haman is interesting and in need of some unpacking. But, another angle suggests itself to me. Just what are we, as the Lord’s followers, to expect in terms of the world’s attitude toward us? Esther’s plea could be insightful: “For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”

Psalm 124

“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side…”

Indeed! Why would we, as people of faith, ever want to depend on lesser means for our salvation and deliverance? Oh, but sadly, often we do.

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

It would be easy to discount the “nay sayers” in this passage, right off the bat. After all, they are identified as “the rabble among” the children of Israel.

“Hey, that’s not me! I’m not rabble — I don’t have any rousing to do!” Oh, really? Are you and I so sure that we can’t be counted among this number in our complaining to others — and to the Lord?

Be sure to check out this week’s edition of The Lectionary Lab Live for a pretty extensive discussion of this awesome text.

Psalm 19:7-14

Excellent description of the numerous ways that God’s word is of benefit to us. My personal favorite is in finding the “hidden ways” that I have been less than faithful to God. (v. 12) That convicting power and purpose of the word is so very needed.

James 5:13-20

Short version of the sermon: prayer works! There is much else to dig into here, especially the power of confession between members of a community that care deeply and are unconditionally committed to one another. When we know we need help, and when we are open to those who can help us clear away the infection in our own spirits, a pathway to God’s healing is opened.

Mark 9:38-50

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”

We have lots of trouble with that sometimes; we want others not only to be for us, we often want them to be like us. But that’s not what Jesus says here…so, maybe we have some adjusting of our attitudes to work on?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the spring of 1980 Mount Saint Helens erupted.  In the early spring of that year the volcanic mountain in Washington State had been showing all the signs.  One expert had even gone on record as saying the chances of an eruption were 100% – it was certain to happen.  While others weren’t that sure, they were sure enough to warn everyone anywhere on or around the mountain to get off and stay off, to get away and stay away.

And almost everybody listened.  Except Harry Randall Truman.  Truman lived at the south end of Spirit Lake at the foot of the mountain.  His house was in the most probable path of the flow of lava. If he stayed in his house he was certainly going to die.  Government officials sternly warned him to leave, friends told him staying was suicidal, family members cried and begged; all to no avail.

When Mount Saint Helens erupted,the lava flowed right over the house with him in it.  Harry Randall Truman died because he could not let go of his home. (Thom Rainer – “Autopsy of a Deceased Church, p.21)

“I your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot cause you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,”  (Mark 9:43-47) If your house, or car, or land, or boat, or , or, or; you fill in the blank, causes you to stumble, cut it out; for it is better to enter God’s presence without it than to lose out on eternal life because of it.

Today’s Gospel lesson is one that no one, well, almost no one takes literally.  Seriously, if anyone took it literally and were totally and completely honest in that literalness, the world would be full of one-eyed people on crutches eating with their left hand.  No, this is a text which must be taken seriously, but not at all literally.

When Jesus uses hyperbole and exaggeration it is like verbal highlighting; he really wants people to listen and think about what he is saying. We are in the midst of what is sometimes referred to as the “Markan pivot.” This is a turn in Mark’s story where he turns from showing Jesus as building up a following while preaching around in the north to showing us Jesus explaining to his followers the very serious consequences of following after him.  This is both a “pivot,” a “turn” in how the story is told and a pivot in the story itself as Jesus turns south and heads toward Jerusalem and the cross.

In the last few weeks we have considered Gospel lessons in which Jesus repeatedly reminds his disciples that just as he himself will face rejection, suffering and death – so will they. To be a part of the kingdom, they must deny themselves, take up their cross of suffering for others, and follow in Christ’s footsteps – wherever those footsteps might lead.  And the disciples have consistently failed to get it – as do we.

In part we all fail to get it because this is just difficult to get one’s mind around mentally, rationally, intellectually – but it’s more than that – for them and for us.  We also shy away from it spiritually.  We resist it emotionally. We push it away because it calls for sacrifices we are not always willing to make.  Like Harry Randall Truman, unwilling to walk away from his house in the face of certain death; we are often unwilling to part with those parts of our lives that are keeping us away from the fullness of life with God.

One of the reasons Jesus makes a list here; hand, foot, eye, etc. is that everybody’s different.  That which is of value to one means nothing to another.  The point is not the thing itself; the point is whether or not that thing becomes more important to you than God.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther commented on the First Commandment “you shall have no other gods,” by saying that the thing that we value and serve above all others is truly our God. That thing may be a good thing, an important thing; but if it is more important to us that God in Christ – then it is an idol and needs to be cut out of our lives for the sake of our souls. It could family, it could be a political or social cause, it could be the church; it could be, for clergy, one’s career in the church.  It doesn’t matter if it is an objective good in itself – if it gets in the way of our relationship with God in Christ it must be removed.

Well, like Jesus, I have been exaggerating a little bit. These things do no not so much need to be cut out as put in their appropriate place.  Family and church and career and social causes are all good and glorious things, but the issue is whether or not they bring us closer to God or drive us away from God.  If they are driving us away from God something needs to change, to be realigned in our lives.

It’s about our saltiness.  Jesus’ concluding image is an interesting one: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it.” (Mark 9:50)  Salt preserves, salt gives flavor, salt gives live.  The salt of the Christian life is drawn from one’s relationship with God in Christ.  If something is getting in the way of that relationship, if something is causing us to “stumble.” in our walk along the Christian way; we will begin to lose that which makes us God’s people in the world, we will stop being the beacon of hope and love and holy fire that God made and intends us to be.

What is it that is getting in your way?  What is more important to you than following Jesus? What is causing you to trip and stagger, to stumble and occasionally fall?

What is getting in our way as a community of faith, as an assembly of those both called together around word and sacrament and sent out into the world to do the good works God has prepared for us to do?  What is causing us to lose our saltiness?  And do we have the will and the courage to cut it out, to put it in its place? Or will we, like Harry Randall Truman, sit in our house, stubbornly unwilling to give up some “thing” in exchange for everything?

Amen and amen.

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 20, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

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

Proverbs 31:10-31

I’ve always scratched my head just a bit when dealing with the “good wife” passage of Proverbs 31. Not because of the characteristics ascribed here, mind you! It’s the translation of the woman we are talking about. No English translation seems to capture the meaning exactly. The King James Version has us considering the “virtuous woman;” here, in the NRSV and other places, she is a “capable wife.” She has also been called a “wife of quality” or “wife of noble character.” Sometimes, she is “excellent” (from the Bill and Ted translation?) and at other times, as in the Orthodox Jewish translation, she is a “woman of valor.”

Perhaps my favorite, though — for it’s direct approach and just all around down-to-earth language — is Eugene Peterson’s Message translation: “A good woman is hard to find!” Hmmm…well, there you go!

Psalm 1

Hard to say it any plainer than Psalm 1 says it. You can go two ways in life — the way of the LORD, which results in happiness (satisfaction, wholeness, peace/shalom — symbolized by the luscious fruit trees that bear year-round) or the way of the wicked, which results in getting blown away like chaff (dry, scaly seed coverings — a byproduct of wheat production that produces no value for human consumption.)


Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22

A pretty grim image here, too. The ungodly, in the end, have only one friend: Death.

Jeremiah 11:18-20

The prophet here highlights the fact that serving God is not always what we might have thought we were signing up for! Like lambs to the slaughter…wow! They don’t print that on the bottom of your seminary degree or your baptismal certificate, do they?

Psalm 54

A great prayer to keep handy for those troublesome times (see above.) God is the “upholder” of our lives. Any repayment of evil — or sustaining of God’s servants — is totally and completely up to God. Our part is to trust, and to do so willingly and freely.

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a

“Any wise guys here?” James is good at asking the leading question, isn’t he? This is actually a great passage delineating the results of the “gentle wisdom” that comes from God. A good life, good works, peaceableness, gentleness, mercy — these come from God. When we rely on our own wisdom, we are much more likely to reap the fruits of envy, bitterness, selfish ambition, disorder, and wickedness.

I’m loving v.8 as a good old-fashioned memory verse: “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”

Mark 9:30-37

We don’t like the hard stuff — at least, not when it comes to the depths of discipleship.

The fellows following Jesus were having a hard time wrapping their minds around the whole killed-and-buried-and-rising-again-in-three-days thing. They didn’t really get it, and they were too embarrassed to ask Jesus what he meant. They are in good company, aren’t they? We often don’t get it when it comes to the things of God.

Also, like the disciple/puppies who were trailing along behind the Master, we tend to spend a lot of time pushing and shoving to get to the front, so we’ll be sure to get the best seats, the best blessings, and the approbation of God. Being great in the God’s kingdom sounds like a great idea.

And it’s easy to get there, according to Jesus. Just learn to be the servant of all. Oh, and take care of the kids. That helps, too!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” James 3:16

“These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James 4:1

“But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”  Mark 9:30-37

Over twenty years ago I was driving down an avenue in a large southern city when I saw a church sign that almost made me run off the road I was laughing so hard.  “Free for All Baptist Church.”  I know the intended meaning of the church’s name was a good one.  It meant God’s love is “free, for all.”  God’s grace is “free, for all.”  God’s salvation is “free, for all.”  But, all I could think about was the other meaning of “free-for-all” – a group fight, a melee, a no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out, last-one-standing-turn-out-the-lights, spill-out-into-the-streets fracas.

So, whenever I think about “Free For All Baptist Church,” I envision rotund and graying deacons in their Sunday best, wrestling around on the floor, punching one another with the Broadman hymnal and calling each other names like, “Pre-tribulation, post-millennial heretic!” or “Doubtfully baptized Methodist convert!”  Far-fetched, I admit, but it amuses me.

The truth of the matter is – the people of God have always been and probably always will be a contentious lot, given to occasional eruptions of disagreement, argumentation, and theological free-for-alls. This is not always a bad thing.  I once heard retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon say that it at least shows that we care.  We, generally speaking, don’t often fight about things we don’t care about.

The trouble comes when the church not only fights, but fights dirty, and over the wrong things; when we find ourselves scheming behind others’ backs, plotting and conniving over things that are not ministry but are rather about prestige and position and ego.

There are two types of conflict that the Biblical writes describe using the word “agon.” It is the word from which we get the English words “agony” and “agonize.”  One use is to describe the disputes and conflicts between human beings – everything from a lover’s quarrel all the way up to World War II is an “agon.” The second use is internal to the individual.  It is the personal struggle to overcome temptation, to control ones negative emotions or rein in one’s harmful behaviors.  To have an internal conflict is to have an “agon.”

James teaches us that conflicts between us are most often the result of conflicts within us. Most of the time when we are fighting with each other, the real battle is an internal one that we have lost and taken outside ourselves.

“These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James 4:1

Thus, sometimes in church life, disagreements about spending plans and missional priorities and who should have made the coffee are escalated out of proportion by our individual failure to deal with our own internal struggles with envy or ambition or one of the other seven deadly sins.

For example – in our Gospel lesson for today, there is a dispute among the disciples about “who is the greatest.”  This argument follows on yet another attempt by Jesus to teach the disciples what it means for him to be the Messiah – betrayal, death, and resurrection.  And, they still don’t get it.  Verse 33 is, to me, one of the truest and yet oddly funny lines in the Bible, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”  (That pretty much summarizes my whole first semester in Modern Poetry 301 with Dr. Morton at Guilford College.)  And, as if to prove that they don’t understand, in the very teeth of Jesus’ attempt to explain it to them, they start arguing about greatness.  At least they have the grace and good sense to be ashamed of themselves and fall silent when Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about?”

Jesus knew, yes, he knew.  He also knew what his beloved but somewhat behind disciples needed to work on. The real conflict here is not between the disciples, it is within each disciple. They fight because of their ambition and ego and status needs; their selfish wants and desires.  Jesus turns all this on its head when he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he takes a child into his lap and adds, “This, this child, is the most important person in the world.  Look no further for “the greatest,” for here it is right in front of you. For if you welcome the child, you welcome me; and if you welcome me, you welcome the one who sent me, who is God.”

But the disciples still don’t get it.  And all too often, we don’t get it. That’s a pretty grim diagnosis of our all too human condition.  What’s the cure? How do we dig ourselves out of this predicament?  How do we quit being so centered on self and become lovingly centered on others?  What must we do to be saved?

Well we must go back to the beginning, to the part the disciples didn’t understand; the part most of us never fully understand either.  The answer is in what the Eucharistic Prayer has traditionally called the mystery of faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 109) Or in the words of Jesus “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Mark 9:31

Because it is a great mystery, it is okay that we don’t totally get it.  It’s not the sort of thing you understand only, or mostly in your brain.  It is the sort of thing you understand with your life, in your living, in your day-today experiences within family, your community, and your church.  Jesus has modeled it for us, shown us the way; and we are invited to follow his lead.  We are invited to die a little to self each day, we are invited to become a little less centered on our self every time we do something truly generous for someone else.

And eventually, we will know, deep within, that God’s love really is “free, for all.”  Free for me, free for you, free for everyone, free for all people, for all time, for all needs.  Yes it’s free.  But it’s not cheap.  It cost Jesus’ his very life.  And it will and does cost us ours.  We are invited today to die to envy and selfish ambition, to pride and privilege.  We are invited today to become great by becoming small, to become a leader by becoming a servant, to grow into the fullness of Christ by becoming as a little child.

Amen and amen.

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 13, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Proverbs 1:20-33

What a perfect word for our time! Notice where it is that Wisdom cries out for our attention — “in the street, at the busiest corner” of our lives. We are in danger of missing wisdom from the Lord when our lives are so busy that we simply miss what God has to say!

Psalm 19

Speaking of listening for the wisdom and word of God — “the heavens are telling!” Without any speech, we have the presence of God displayed before us. What we need to learn, we most often can by simply stopping and looking up (and around.) Now there’s a thought!

Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 – 8:1

Another text reflecting on the wisdom of God (ironically — or, perhaps not so ironically! — portrayed in the feminine.) True wisdom “spotlessly” reflects the working of God. I love the promise, “Against wisdom, evil does not prevail.”

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Making a firm determination to follow the ways of God is often tantamount to “asking for trouble” in the world. There will be contention, there will be opposition. But, with God for us — who can be against us, eh?

Psalm 116:1-9

There is a temptation to “praise God” when we get an answer to prayer that we like. When we have cried to the Lord for help, and have received deliverance — it’s all good! But, what about those for whom the answer was not so redemptive? Are we committed to trust in the goodness and mercy of God — in advance — no matter the outcome?

James 3:1-12

Truer words have ne’er been spoken: “We all make many mistakes.” For those who speak the words of the Lord — who represent Christ — few mistakes are as onerous as those we make with our words. I learned to sing in the preschool department of my church’s Sunday School : “Oh, be careful little mouth what you say…for the Father up above is looking down in love…so be careful little mouth what you say!” Still a helpful little ditty, I think.

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus is making a firm commitment to follow the will of God to Jerusalem and all that the Holy City holds for him. This passage is a “gut check” for the disciples who claim that they will follow him, wherever he leads them. It’s going to get pretty tough. Taking up crosses is no picnic. Time for deep meditation on Jesus’ words: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I read our gospel lesson, many sermons from my childhood came to mind. In them, the question from the first part of the story, “Who do you say that I am?” was used as an evangelistic tool.  We were taught that our eternal salvation was dependent on what we “said” about Jesus, Where we would spend eternity, heaven or hell, depended on our thinking, on our believing, on our confessing the right things. And I never “got saved” because, apparently, I never thought the right things about Jesus, so I never felt him come into my heart.

In many of those same sermons, the next part of this text; the part where Jesus predicts his own suffering and Peter is unwilling to accept it, leading Jesus to yell at him,  “Get behind me Satan,” was used to talk about how much Jesus suffered for us. These descriptions were pretty vivid and made it crystal clear that the perfect, sinless, Son of God had to die because of the hormone driven, naughtiness of a twelve year old boy – namely me; it was all my fault – at least that’s the way I heard it.

Interestingly, I never heard anyone talk about how Peter failed to understand Jesus when he turned the image of being the Messiah upside down; from one of kingship to kinship, from sovereignty to servanthood.  Nor did they talk about how Jesus must have been genuinely tempted to turn away from the path of suffering; otherwise he would not have used the term “Satan” with Peter – Jesus was shouting at himself as much as he was shouting at Peter.

And, in my remembrance, the whole “Deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” mandate was really trivialized. The denial of self was equated to “Deny yourself basic human enjoyment of life and join the church.” Take up a cross became “Put up with whatever less than ideal conditions you find yourself in, it may be bad but it’s not as bad as what Jesus went through to save your sorry self from Hell, so quit complaining.” And following Jesus apparently consisted of being in church twice on Sunday and also on Wednesday night and giving enough to the church to raise the preacher’s salary. If that’s not what this text means – then what does it mean?  What is Mark trying to tell us by putting this story together in this way?

Well first of all, he’s trying to clarify for his readers who this preacher/teacher/healer/miracle worker named Jesus was.  Remember, Mark is writing after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  He is writing primarily to the members of the early church who have already heard most of the stories he is writing about.  They are the “oral tradition” of the church.  They show up in sermons, in letters, in dinner table conversation among disciples; “Hey, remember the time we were down in Capernaum?  What was it he said to that old man?  Are you sure – I didn’t hear it that way?”  Or “Now boys, break it up! Be nice to your brother.  Remember Elder John said that Jesus said we should love one another.”

Mark has taken this material and arranged it in something like chronological order – beginning with the John the Baptist and ending with the trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection.  The in between material is arranged in such a way as to make it clear who this Jesus you’re heard so much about was.

In the first half of Mark, Jesus is baptized, he gathers followers, he preaches, he teaches, he heals, he casts out demons, he becomes somewhat well known.  We have reached the midpoint of Mark’s material.  A turning point.

It is time for Jesus to make it clear to his disciples exactly what it is they have signed up for.  And in telling this story, Mark is making it clear to the members of the early church what it is they have become a part of in deciding to follow Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the Resurrected One.

Mark lays the story out in the form of three brief episodes that are connected by Peter’s Confession and Peter’s Protest.  First Jesus engages in a bit of questioning dialogue with his disciples.  This is a standard teacher technique, to force the learners into thinking more deeply than they would have if he just told them the answer.  And after a little hemming and hawing about Elijah and John the Baptist, Peter blurts out the right answer “Messiah!”

Jesus rewards him with a smile and says, “Right you are, Peter,” and then moves on to explain to them what being the Messiah really looks like. “Suffering, rejection, killed, rise again after three days.”  I’m guessing Peter heard everything but the “rise again after three days.”  And if he heard it, he had no way of understanding it.  All he knew was that this picture of what it meant to be the Messiah was upside down and backwards from what he, and everyone else he knew, thought a Messiah was supposed to look like.  It wasn’t just the suffering and rejection and death – it was also the lack of subjecting the oppressors, the Romans and their minions, to a bit of “suffering, death, and rejection,” themselves.  The Messiah was supposed to come in and kick some serious Roman behind – what is all this about “suffering and rejection and death?’

So Peter injects himself a second time, “Whoa, whoa, whoa – that’s not right! That’s not how this works. That’s not what happens to you!”  And though Peter “took him aside,” Jesus makes this a teachable moment, making sure everyone hears him when he rebukes Peter, for he knows that Peter is just saying what everybody else is thinking. Jesus isn’t really calling him Satan, instead in Peter’s words Jesus recognizes the very temptations to power, the temptations to avoid the necessary suffering, the temptations to do this another way besides God’s way that he suffered in the wilderness after his baptism.  And so Jesus yells – he yells at Satan, at Peter, at himself.

Then he lays it out for everyone – Peter, the disciples, the crowd.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  No sugar coating, no “follow me and get your emotional and spiritual needs met.” No “follow me and you will be highly respected in the community.” No “follow me and all your career and economic plans will work out.”  No!  It’s a simple, straight-forward “follow me by denying yourself and taking up your cross.”

Simple – but not easy.  Our mission is clear and at times it feels a bit like Mission Impossible.  We don’t want to suffer.  We crave recognition, not rejection.  We spend billions and billions of dollars staving off death through medical care and, from the proliferation of handguns and assault weapons in this country, it appears there are many causes for which we are willing to kill and very few for which we are willing to die.

And yet, that is the invitation.  As Bonhoeffer said “When Christ calls (someone) He bids (them) come and die.” Jesus makes it plain.  To follow the Way he is going is to turn aside from serving self and turn toward serving others.  To follow the Way he is going is to put down all the possessions and honors and expectations we have for ourselves so that our hands are free to take up the cross of suffering for, and meeting the needs of, others.  To follow the Way he is going is to not let the fear of death stop us from doing the right thing – because on the other side of that death is rising again.

Amen and amen.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 6, 2015)

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

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

We’re on a roll by this point in the book of Proverbs — it is interesting to me that the Hebrew canon’s list of “one liners,” nearly 3,500 years in the making by now, is so relevant to our short attention spans. God’s wisdom has always been pretty contrary to our own. For example, most people would be hard pressed to choose a good name over a pile of gold. In our view of things, gold wins pretty much every time!

Psalm 125

I’ve always loved heading for the mountains. There’s something so solid and serene about them, whether the softly rolling Smoky Mountains of my beloved Tennessee, the verdant Catskills in upstate New York, or the towering Rockies in Colorado. It really hit me when I read v.2 this time around — “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore.” Yeah. That. That’s why I like the mountains, and why I’m thankful for the ever-surrounding presence of God.

Isaiah 35:4-7a

How comfortable are we with the “terrible God?” Being strong and casting out fear are generally desirable characteristics of the faith-filled life. But at what cost? The results given by Isaiah sound so worth it — blind eyes opened, deaf ears unstopped, Bambi and his friends leaping about with joy (and a resonant Disney soundtrack?)

But must it be the terrible God, coming with vengeance, who delivers these startling accomplishments? It’s a rough world, and sometimes the ways of God may seem a bit rough. Pay attention to today’s gospel text and Dr. Chilton’s sermon below for further insight.

Psalm 146

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” We feel the painful truth of that line quite often, don’t we? The “princes” of modern-day life are our politicians and government officials. In America, only about 15% of the population approves of the job done by our politicians, so we don’t have much trouble following the psalmist’s advice. Trusting — actually relying on and depending on — God is another matter, however!

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17

It’s true — what goes around eventually comes around! James reminds us that decency and mutual respect should be characteristic of the Christ life. I am particularly moved, given the current climate of our culture, by v.13 — “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” I would like to add, “Every time.”

Mark 7:24-37

I’m not sure that we think much of how our gentle Jesus, meek and mild, got tired and irritable, too. A reminder, I guess, that he was “only human.” (Well, not “only” human, but you know what I mean!) His treatment of the Syrophoenician woman is shocking by our standards, perhaps; but faith is faith, and she’s got it. And she gets what her heart desires.

The poor deaf man gets his ears popped and his tongue spat upon — what kind of weird healing ritual is this? Doesn’t matter, I don’t suppose; when God works, God works. And which of us can contest the ways that God chooses to work?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

(The bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have called upon the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to join in observing September 6 as “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” This sermon is offered in response to that request.)

(Jesus) said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Mark 7:27-28

For over fifty years, Atticus Finch, the lawyer/father in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has occupied a position of “secular saint” in American culture.  He is shown to us, both in the book and in Gregory Peck’s screen portrayal, as a man of rare courage, great moral integrity, and most of all, as a man untainted by the systemic racism of his community.

Then Harper Lee published, “Go Set a Watchman,” a different book written before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but set in a time 20 years later.  She has the same characters, but they are different than they were.  In particular, the sainted Atticus is different.  He is no longer so perfect and so pure.  This later Atticus is still an educated and somewhat enlightened man for his time and place, but he is also a bigot and a racist who participates in organizations designed to keep Black people in their place.  The reaction to this new Atticus was a combination of disbelief and dismay.  This is not the man who so sat on the jail porch, unarmed, facing down the Klan to defend Jim Robinson, nor is it the man who so ably defended him in court.  We do not recognize this new/old Atticus Finch.

Most of us have the same reaction to the Jesus we see in this story from Mark’s Gospel.  We do not recognize this careless bigot as the same man who eats with “tax collectors and sinners,” who healed the Roman Centurion’s daughter, who consistently reaches out to the despised, the ignored, and the left-behind.  “Who is this?” we wonder, “Who is this man who not only rejects the woman’s plea for healing, but who crudely insults her in the process? This is a Jesus we do not know.”

Over the years, Biblical scholars and preachers have tried to mitigate the distress we feel when we are confronted by this different and somewhat unlikeable Jesus.  Some have made much of the fact that in the Greek the word used for dogs could be translated puppies or household pets, but that really doesn’t help much.  Jews did not see dogs as pets, they were seen as wild scavengers, more like our attitude toward coyotes or wolves, and the word was used by Jews to refer to heretics and false teachers.  And even if he did mean puppies, it’s still an insult. Others have pointed out that Jesus doesn’t say the dogs won’t eat, just that the children get to eat first. I don’t think this helps very much. Any way you look at what Jesus said to the woman, he insulted her.

Now others say things like, “Jesus is being intentionally provocative, seeking to draw out a response of persistent faith from the woman.  He wants her to claim what is rightfully hers . . . While Jesus “loses” the debate, he is delighted to do so, since his purpose is to provoke even greater faith.”

(Mark L. Strauss, “Mark” Volume 2 in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p.313)   I really doubt this notion, mainly because there is nothing to base it on other than our desire for Jesus to always look good. Just like we resist a racist Atticus Finch, we push back against the notion of a Jesus who was somehow less than the perfect person we believe him to be.

What would happen if we were to take the text just as it appears upon the page, without trying to read into it or read behind it or read between its lines?  In that case we are confronted with the possibility that Jesus genuinely had his mind changed by his encounter with the Gentile woman.  We see Jesus coming into this debate with an attitude of Jews first.  We see him as being, like most Galileans, somewhat contemptuous of a person from Tyre.  It was an ancient dislike based on ethnicity, on race and racial conflict. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, Tyre and Israel were long time “bitter enemies.”  Jesus perhaps thinks himself generous in even mentioning the possibility that Phoenicians will be fed at all.

What the woman does here is fascinating.  Instead of bristling at the insult, she turns it in her favor.  She picks up on Jesus’ reference to children and paints a different picture, one any of us with dogs as household pets will instantly recognize.  She says, “True enough, but the dogs don’t have to wait to eat until later.  They just sit under the table and pick up what the children spill.”  And I might add, what the children slip to the dogs because they love the dog or because they don’t want to eat liver.  Jesus hears her and changes his mind about her request and heals her daughter.  I also think he changes his mind about the nature of his mission; about the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the new Kingdom of God.

Think about this for a minute.  In Mark’s story about Jesus, this is his first recorded encounter with someone who is not Jewish, someone who is not a member of his own race and own religion. Jesus grew up in a multi-cultural context, with Greeks and Romans and others all around, but then as now, ethnic groups tend to spend most of their time together, especially in matters of religion and politics. So, this is, perhaps, the first time Jesus has had to articulate his understanding of his mission as the Messiah to someone who did not share his ethnic and cultural background.  And he stumbles and says some things that maybe should not have been said.  And the woman made him think.  Indeed, it appears she made him change his mind, which resulted in his changing his actions.  In a very important sense, Jesus “got converted” by his encounter with the bold, truth-telling, Syrophoenician woman.

This has been a year of heightened race awareness in the United States.  From Ferguson and “Black Lives Matter,” to Baltimore, to a traffic stop in Texas, to the horrific events at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, to pick-up trucks driving our streets with rebel flags flying off the back – we have been confronted with an issue most of us would rather not think about or talk about.  But we must.  We must not only talk about it; we must act, we must do something about it.

We thought we were past it, we thought we were like the Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But the events of the last year have told us a different story, have held a mirror up to our lives and let us know that we are, as a people, more like the Atticus in “Go Set a Watchman;” most of us tone-deaf to the realities of life in America for minority persons.

Today, we are called to be like Christ in his conversation with the Gentile woman. We are called to listen to the voices of those who will tell us the truth about themselves, the truth about what it’s like to be a person of color in this country.  We are called to listen, and then we are called take action, first changing those things about ourselves that can change and should be changed.  Then we are called to speak out without fear, calling our nation to listen to the voices of those amongst us who have been ignored and silenced too long.

Amen and amen.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (August 16, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
The Lectionary Lab Live podcast will resume in September!

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

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
All good things must come to an end.

So with the life of the great king of Israel, David. Honestly, we have seen David at both his best and his worst over these past few weeks of readings. A great reminder that the people of the Bible’s stories are just like us — imperfect, unholy, obedient, faithful, willing and willful. God loves us and uses us for God’s own good purposes, just the same.

Young Solomon now ascends the throne, and begins his reign well, according to the text: “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David….” So far, so good. But, we do get a little hint of trouble to come with the rest of that verse: “…only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.”

Solomon will follow God, and be blessed greatly by God — as the rest of today’s passage clearly indicates. But, he will always have a bit of a weak spot for other ways, other women (lots of them,) and other gods.

As we have learned repeatedly: nobody’s perfect.

Psalm 111
A nice text for worship, we are immediately assured of the virtue of seeking God with our “whole hearts.” Not half-hearted, mind you — God wants and deserves it all!

In an additional nod to the accession of Solomon to the throne, we have v. 10 which echoes the famous words of Proverbs 9:10 — “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” 

Whole heart, healthy respect. These are two of the prerequisites for entering the worship of the God of heaven and earth.

Proverbs 9:1-6
Wisdom is personified in Proverbs, a wise woman who provides counterpoint to the fleeting pleasures of youthful desire embodied in the “adulterous woman.” While it may be a difficult choice to make in the throes of ardent, hormone-induced passion — the mature choice is life and insight, not momentary satisfaction.

Psalm 34:9-14
One of the most poignant questions ever asked of me was by a young college student who had just returned from a short-term mission experience in Africa. Regarding this psalm, she queried me: “Pastor, I don’t understand. I met some of the most passionate believers in Christ I have ever encountered, but they are starving to death! Why does this psalm say, ‘Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing?’”

I’m still puzzling that one out.

She went on to say that the people she had left behind were not the ones who were complaining; it was those who had come from cultures of plenty and more. We decided that maybe a part of her experience was a call to wake up to the wealth with which she was blessed, and to turn that toward sharing with those whose lack was a daily part of their lives. 

Could it be that the “good” that is needed in the life of another faithful brother or sister in the Lord, is currently residing in my own pocket or bank account or other reservoir of the overflowing blessings of God.

Or, as a member of my current congregation said to me recently, “When my cup’s overflowing, I believe I need to let it run into somebody else’s saucer.” 

Ephesians 5:15-20
“Be careful how you live.”

That’s not a statement of fear or restriction, but a call to careful examination. Keep a lookout on your life; walk around it, kick the tires, be sure things are in balance.

Getting drunk? Not your best move for a real purpose in life. Walking around singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs 24/7? Well, maybe that’s not exactly what the apostle is talking about, either!

Give thanks to God at all times…have an attitude of gratitude, as the old saying goes. Not everything that happens to me is going to elicit a “hip, hip, hooray” kind of reaction — but I can be aware and open and observant to what is happening around me. And, I can remember to thank God in my abundance and to ask for God’s help when I encounter need.

John 6:51-58    
See Dr. Chilton’s explication below.

(I can’t really add anything to it…and if you can’t say nothing nice, don’t say nothing at all!)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Over twenty years ago I served a church in the suburbs of Atlanta.  That year our bishop held a series of Chrism Masses.  This is a tradition dating back to the early church. The clergy gather with their bishop during Holy Week and renew their ordination vows and receive an anointing with oil from the bishop.

In order to get there at the appointed 6:00 am, I got up at 4:30 in the suburbs. Forty or fifty Lutheran clergy gathered in the early morning darkness to drink coffee and put on our albs and stoles in the small, cold and somewhat dark chapel.  We processed into the cathedral style church in single file, singing Veni, Creator Spiritus.

We sat in the chancel, in longs rows of dark wooden pews, facing each other across the aisle, the huge sanctuary to our right unlit and dark and foreboding, the altar to our left brightly lit by ceiling lights and dozens of candles.

The bishop preached, and we prayed, and we promised to be good pastors, and we took communion and the bishop and the assistants laid hands on us and anointed us with oil and prayed for our ministry, and it was haunting and mysterious and really, really, cool. After the worship, we returned to the chapel and took off our vestments and hung them in our carrying bags and laid them across the backs of pews. Then we all went down the hall for breakfast.

This was no ordinary minister’s breakfast – eating Krispy Kreme donuts on Thrivent napkins and coffee served in styrofoam cups while sitting on cold metal chairs in the Fellowship Hall or ancient donated couches in the Youth Room.

NO, We ate in the well-appointed Dining Room with thick plush carpet and an antique walnut and gold trim buffet table covered with platters overflowing with sausage balls and egg quiche and cheese grits and fresh fruit and bran muffins; and we ate off real china and drank out of real coffee cups while seated around wooden tables covered with linen table cloths.  We were all decked out in our best dark suits and black shirts and bright white collars and gold or silver crosses.  We sat and ate and looked out at the awakening city through the plate glass windows which ran wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling along one side of the room.

After eating my fill and talking myself empty, I decided it was time to leave and I made my good-byes and headed out.  Somewhere in the bowels of the building, I took a wrong turn and instead of going out the back into the parking lot, I went out the side onto a parallel street.  As I stumbled out into the early morning chill, I realized it was raining, and I was lost, and I was being stared at by 100 pairs of eyes.

All along the narrow strip of grass that separated the sidewalk from the outside wall of the nave, homeless people were huddled on newspapers or were leaning against the building, waiting for the food kitchen in the church to open at 9:00 AM.  As I looked at them looking at me, I felt both embarrassed and vulnerable and started walking as fast as I could down the street; unfortunately in the opposite direction from my car.

I arrived at the corner and realized I had gone in the wrong direction, I needed to go back, and I turned around and, for a brief moment, I was confronted by the Cross.  As I turned, I realized I could at one and the same time see into that huge plate glass window and also down the side street.

Through the window I saw the spiritual leaders of Georgia Lutheranism: warm, dry, well clad, well fed, laughing and talking and having a good time. Without turning my head, I also saw the homeless of Atlanta: cold, wet, in shabby clothes, depressed and silent and miserable. And the question came to my mind: If Jesus were standing on this corner, to which breakfast would he go?

At the time I thought the answer to that question was easy, that it was a clear cut “either/or.”  For some reason the idea that it could be “both/and” never occurred to me.  At the time (and long into the future) it was a personal parable, a moment in which I confronted my own failure to live up to the ideals of self-giving love which I so frequently and fervently preached.  And it was, and is, a good parable and a good reminder of our call to take up our cross and to serve the “least of these.”

But, there is more than that going on here because there is more than that to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In the old days my answer would have been that Jesus would be in the street with the homeless people.  Now my answer is that Jesus would be in both places at once – drawing the people to himself and to each other…

In our gospel lesson, Jesus says, “I am the living bread from heaven that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Verse 51) When Jesus says that he is the living bread from heaven, he is also saying that other things are not.  Not the things rich people have, not the things ordinary people have, not the things poor people don’t have and so desperately want.  While providing food for the hungry and clothing for the naked are important things; they are not the only things or even the most important things.

What Jesus gave to us, to all of us, to the world, was his flesh, his very self. To use an outdated image of God; Jesus did not look down from above and see our need and then lean over the balcony of heaven and hand down to us care packages of divine wisdom and holy  food and drink.  No, Jesus came himself.

Just so, God in Christ did not and does not send divine help to us by some sort of holy UPS truck, or beam it into our midst by use of a Star Trek Transporter.  The gift God gives us is God’s very self, in the person of Jesus, in the sacrament of the table and the community of the church – for we too are the “body of Christ,” called to be “living bread from heaven.”  The gift we are called to give to the world in Jesus’ name is not our stuff, not our extra cash or excess provisions.  NO!  The gospel invites us to give ourselves, our flesh if you will, for the sake of the world and for the life of the other.

Will you?  Will you take Jesus at his word and receive his life into your life?  And will you accept the invitation to follow in Christ’s footsteps, giving of yourself for the life of the world?

Amen and amen.

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (August 9, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
The Lectionary Lab Live podcast will resume in September!

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

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Our children, no matter how rebellious or “unloving” toward us, are always still our children.

There are very few words in scripture more pathetic (as in, filled with pathos) than David’s declaration of his grief over the death of Absalom. David would gladly have traded his life for his son’s, wayward child that he was.

The fulfillment of Nathan’s prophecy aside, what parent among us cannot identify with the pain in David’s heart? After sitting with the inconsolable grief for a few moments, which of us cannot be moved by imagining the same pain within the heart of God toward each of God’s wayward children across the earth?

Psalm 130
A plaintive and elegant song for the times we, too, must “cry from the depths” of life’s dark places.

1 Kings 19:4-8
There are those places that we, both as preachers and people of God, are sometimes called to go that just feel far too wearying to endure on our own. Laying down and waiting to die sounds like a pretty preferable alternative on some days.

But, on those days, God is still there. May the “bread of heaven” that sometimes appears in the strangest ways and places fill us and strengthen us for the journey.

Psalm 34:1-8
At all times.

That’s the key phrase in this psalm text — at least, it’s a key phrase. Blessing God is fairly easy when the good times are rolling by like a parade (though, admittedly, we often forget to bless God as our first instinct.)

When the bad times roll in like a fog, our first instinct may be to offer a prayer more along the lines of “help me, God!”

I’m with Anne Lamott, who quoted a wise friend (in Traveling Mercies, still one of my favorites of her work) as saying, “The two best prayers I know are ‘Help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
More practical applications of the grace of God for everyday living from Ephesians. This is good stuff. I like that all of it comes out of the phrase, “be imitators of God… live in love, as Christ loved” in 5:1-2. A pretty good set of companion ideas when paired with Psalm 34:1 (see above.)

John 6:35, 41-51
More than one wag has commented on this series of gospel readings, “When will Jesus ever stop talking about bread?”

We all love images of freshly-baked loaves, still warm from the oven, served up delightfully for us on platters with plenty of butter or cream cheese. Now that’s some “bread of heaven” we can get into!

As Jesus’ images turn toward eating his flesh, we find that the number of takers begins to dwindle pretty sharply. More than one Christian, when faced with the complexity and difficulty of living out the Christ lifestyle, has bemoaned, “This is not what I signed up for!”


by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Many years ago, when I was a young pastor, I was teaching a Catechism Class on a Sunday afternoon. A few minutes after we started, a young man came in, toting his four-year-old sister on his hip. “Mama has to go to the hospital to see Grandma. Says I got to keep Annie.” “Which means I ‘got to’ keep Annie,” I thought to myself as I heard his mother pull out of the church parking lot.

We were studying Holy Communion. I got Annie set up in the corner with a coloring book, then I began to go over the lesson with my three students.

Question – What two things make a Sacrament?
Answer – An Earthly Element and a Divine Command.

Q – What are the two Sacraments we observe? A – Baptism and Communion.

Q – What is the Earthly Element in Baptism? A -Water.

Q – What is the Earthly Element in Communion? A -Bread and Wine.

Q – What are the Bread and Wine? A – The Body and Blood of Jesus.

Q – So, when we eat the bread, what are we eating? A – The Body of Christ.

Q – And when we drink the wine, what are we drinking? A – The Blood of Jesus.

At this point I heard a noise in the corner, and turned to see Annie staring at us, wide-eyed. She loudly proclaimed “YEECH!” Then she threw up.

Most of us are so accustomed to hearing liturgical language about the bread and wine being the Body and Blood of Christ, that we no longer really hear the crude, primal, visceral nature of such language.  At least not the way Annie heard it; not the way Jesus’ audience heard it when he said to them: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6: 51)

How are we to understand this? What are we to make of such language? What is John trying to tell us with in chapter 6, filled as it is with “bread” stories? We’ve got the feeding of the 5000, the many references to the wilderness experience and God’s provision of manna from heaven and Jesus’ claims to be the true Bread from Heaven and then, this crude, cannibalistic reference to eating Jesus himself. It’s all a bit much for our modern, antiseptic sensibilities. It sounds too much like snake-handling and poison-drinking and being slain in the spirit and all those overly enthusiastic things some remote Christians are rumored to engage in. We prefer our religion neat and clean and appropriately done and appropriately metaphorical if you please.

And, so did many of the people to whom John was writing when he composed this Gospel. They were not only offended at his language about eating Jesus; they were offended by the very idea that Jesus was really human. They preferred to think that he was some sort of ghost who only appeared in human form, but was really all spirit. There was an idea about that the body was bad and the spirit was good and that true religion consisted of being really spiritual and escaping the body. So many who became Christian with this idea decided that Jesus, being the ultimate “spiritual person,” wasn’t really human, wasn’t really real, I guess.

John’s emphasis on Jesus’ fleshiness is meant to counteract this notion. The Greek word used here, “sarx,” denotes meat, flesh; whereas the other Greek word, “soma,” just means body. John is making it clear that Jesus was a real, live, human being who ate and slept and went to the bathroom. This was important then, and it’s important now. If Jesus just appeared or seemed to be human, then his death was not a real death, his suffering was not real suffering and his resurrection was just a show, a trick, an illusion.

For the economy of salvation to really work, it is necessary that Jesus be a real human being who lived and taught and suffered and died and went to the place of the dead and was brought back to life by the power of God. Otherwise, it’s just a nice story and it really doesn’t affect anything, doesn’t communicate anything to us about God’s love and our life.

In his book “Written in Blood” Robert Coleman tells the story of a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. For various reasons, the boy was the only donor whose blood could save his sister. The doctor asked, “Would you give your blood to Mary?” The little boy’s lower lip began to tremble, then he took a deep breath and said, “Yes, for my sister.”

After the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, the little boy began to look very worried, then he crossed himself, then he looked at the doctor and said, “When do I die?” Suddenly, the doctor realized that the little boy had thought that to give his blood to his sister meant he had to die, and miracle of miracles, he was willing to do that for his sister.

The gospel is – Jesus did that for us. That’s what John wants us to contemplate. It’s not a metaphor, not a parable, not a mythological construct about dying and rising gods. John is clear about that and wants his readers to be clear also. Which is why we have the language about eating Jesus’ flesh. The word rendered as “eat” in our text is perhaps better translated as “gnaw” or “chew.” Again, John wants to drive home the point of the “real world” nature of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.

As we come to the table this morning, we are to be mindful of Jesus’ presence in our midst. It was a real presence then and it is a real presence now.  The Gospel is that Jesus really, truly came down from heaven to live among us as the fleshly love of God. The Gospel is that Jesus really, truly died upon the cross, giving up his flesh and spilling his blood, to save us from our sins. The Gospel is that God almighty really, truly raised him from the dead, brought him out of the grave to a new and eternal life. The Gospel is that God almighty really, truly has just such a future in store for each and every one of us.

And the Gospel is that when we come to the table, we really, truly take a bite out of that future.
We really, truly drink deeply of that promise. We really, truly receive into ourselves a love that will never, ever let us go – in this world or in the next.

Amen and amen.

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (August 2, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

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

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a
Two phrases from this poignant story resonate with me: “You are the man” and “I have sinned.” Boil it all down, and you have all one really needs to know about the gravity of sin and its resolution.

David is outraged and moved by the story of the defenseless lamb. Alas, it is always much easier for us to see sin in the lives of someone else; our own shortfalls are arguably “not so bad.” But, Nathan’s accusation is straight up and to the point. “You know you did it, David.”

When confronted with our sin, we can aver, justify, minimize, shift the blame or use any number of other strategies to avoid owning up. In the end, not a one of them will avail our need for cleansing and righteousness. There is only one way through to forgiveness — confession. “I did it; I was wrong.” 

The cost for sin is great; confession does not take that away. But it does make restoration possible — it opens the door for hope from despair.

Psalm 51:1-12
The textual notes tell us that this is written by David after he has been confronted by Nathan about his sin with Bathsheba. The language speaks for itself; the depth of agony, sorrow, and penitence are as palpable here as any place in the scripture.

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Can you imagine that response to a miracle? The Israelites have been dreaming of bread and “fleshpots” back in Egypt, and Moses tells them God will send them food the next morning. “Just look for it when you open your tentflap and step out.”

So, they do — and they may have been a little underwhelmed at first. “What’s that?” Kind of like children confronted with a plate of spinach or stewed carrots, perhaps. 

We aren’t always immediately thrilled with God’s answers to our prayers, are we? Sometimes, it takes some time to get acclimated and to catch up with the wisdom of what God is doing. Manna may not have been a four-course meal, but it sure did get them through some tough times in the wilderness!

God tends to come through in the clutch, even if it’s not the way we would have done it ourselves.

Psalm 78:23-29
The psalm text calls God’s manna from heaven, “the bread of angels.” Probably a little poetic license here — we don’t literally know if this is what angels eat for breakfast every morning.

But it is the symbol of abundance and provision. Good enough for angels, good enough for you and me!

Ephesians 4:1-16
The Apostle reminds us that we are definitely all very different parts of the same body. No two of us perform exactly the same functions (or see “eye to eye” on all things, necessarily!) But, we all definitely need each other in order to perform most effectively.

Besides, there is a powerful argument presented here for finding unity in the midst of our considerable diversity: we all share one hope, one calling, one one Lord, one faith, one baptism (even if I use more water than you do!) — there is one God who looks parentally upon each of us.

We are a family, after all, and though we may fuss and fight like one — in the end, we are here to stick up for one another, as well.

John 6:24-35    
People are always hungry.

Things were no different for Jesus; after a couple of “feeding the five thousand” episodes, there are those who find themselves standing in line, coming back for more. He is hard-pressed to keep up with the demand, as he evidently did not come into the world “to save the people from their hunger.”

He tries really hard to point them to the bread of heaven — not exactly the same thing as the manna they had all heard about (see above) — and promises that their spiritual hunger and thirst will definitely be satisfied if they believe in him.

“Fine, but we’re still hungry here, Jesus. What are you going to do about that?”

As we will see in next week’s lesson, Jesus will tell them that eating his flesh is the answer– but he doesn’t get many takers.

Ministry sure is hard.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I am a total and complete “land-lubber.” I get sea-sick standing on the pier at Myrtle Beach.  Therefore, it will not surprise you to learn that I know absolutely nothing about lobsters, except what I read in Wikipedia and in this illustration I clipped from an unspecified “Christian magazine” and put in a file about twenty years ago.  So, I am dependent upon those two slightly wobbly sources for the accuracy of this idea.

“From time to time lobsters have to leave their shells in order to grow.  They need the shell to protect them from being torn apart; yet when they grow the old shell must be abandoned.  If they did not abandon it, the old shell would soon become their prison – and finally their casket. The tricky part is the brief period of time between when the old shell is abandoned and the new one formed.  During that terrible, vulnerable period, the transition must be scary to the lobster.  Currents cartwheel them from coral to kelp.  Hungry schools of fish are ready to make them a part of the food chain.  For a while at least, that old shell must look pretty good.” Brent Mitchell.

“The brief period of time between when the old shell is discarded and the new one is formed” – that’s where we find the congregation of the Israelites today. They too had left behind an old shell – years, generations really, of slavery in Egypt.  It was not a good life, but it was life.  It was bad and hard, but at least it was a place where they understood the rules, they knew what to expect.  It may not have been a land flowing with milk and honey but at least there was water to drink and food to eat and a roof over their heads.  True they were slaves – but then again, it was steady work.

Here in the desert, in the wilderness – nothing was certain.  Everything was wide open: they had no jobs, no crops, no storehouses, no overseers, and no certainty about where the next meal would come from.  No wonder they were grouchy and complaining.  Truth be told, in their shoes, we would be too.

In this state of exposure and uncertainty and anxiety about the future – the past began to look pretty good.  Throughout the biblical stories of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness a constant theme is played out, over and over and over again.  The congregation of Israelites complains about their condition and blame Moses and God for getting them into this mess.  And they also look back upon their time in Egypt as the “good old days,” reciting fuzzy memories of their years of suffering and servitude.

“The tricky part  . . .  is the brief period of time between when the old shell is discarded and when the new one is formed.”  That was true for the Israelites and it is true for us.  American Christianity is in that time between shells; we are walking through the desert without the security and safety of the old ways of doing things.  Sometimes it feels like we are being forced to reinvent ourselves on an almost weekly basis and in the midst of being blown about by the winds of change we are tempted to look back on the way things used to be and to think how much easier it would be if things never changed.  We can find ourselves wishing for more stability, for more security, for “now” to go back to being like “then”.

Until I was thirteen my family lived in a little four room house on a farm we shared with my grandparents.  Four little rooms and an attic for two parents and five children.  A well in the yard for water, and an outhouse in the woods for, well, you know.  Within a year both my grandparents died and my aunt who had lived with them married and moved down the road to her husband’s farm and my family occupied my grandparent’s house.  It was a large rambling two story farmhouse with lots of rooms, big porches on the front and back, and best of all – indoor plumbing.

Our family had some difficulty adjusting to our new home.  I don’t want to be indelicate here, but when the men in the family got up in the morning, they headed outside before they remembered they had a bathroom.  More interestingly, we found ourselves living in the same amount of space we had used in the old, smaller house.  It took us a while to spread out and take advantage of all that unrestricted room.

The congregation of the Israelites complained about food and God gave them food.  In chapter 17 they complained about water and God gave them water.  As time goes on they complained about other things.  Sometimes God got angry, sometimes God didn’t; but God always responded to their need and provided for them  Because God knew that lack of food, water, and other things wasn’t what was really bothering the Israelites.  It was all that freedom, all that uncharted future in front of them.

So it is with us.  We too face an uncertain and uncharted future.  We too are often guilty of succumbing to the fatal allure of the familiar.  We too look at the way the world is changing and we become frightened.  We too look to the past for assurance: We cling to the old hymns and the old liturgies as if we can only pray and God can only hear in those words, in those ways.  We go down the hall of the church and point at pictures of pastors and confirmations of the past and think, “It was so much better when things were like that.” And maybe it was, but the fact is, it will never be that way again and we must be the church in the world as it is – not as we wish it were.

And the story of the manna is our assurance that God is with us in our wilderness, God is leading us through this time of uncertainty and growth, God is providing what we need, not necessarily what we want, but certainly what we need.

The writer of Exodus refers to the manna as a test.  Sometimes we forget that testing is an educational tool, a tool to help us discover those places where we need to learn more and grow more.  God is not trying to trip the Israelites up, not trying to see if they measure up to being the “Chosen people” – God already knows that they don’t and that such measuring up is beside the point.  God is using this test to teach them the lesson that faith is not about what we know and not about what we are capable of doing.  Faith is about trusting God in those times when we are without even the vestige of a shell of outward protection; when we are bereft of anything except our sheer and utter dependence upon the goodness of God.  To go out to pick up manna and to take only enough for one day is to trust that God will provide again the next day, and the next day after that, and yes, the next day after that.

Pray with me please:  “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 317.  Collect after the Litany)

Amen and amen.