A Word About the Lectionary Lab Live

A good number of weeks and months ago, we embarked on an expansion of our Lectionary Lab idea with the weekly podcast called “Lectionary Lab Live.” We couldn’t really think of a better name, so that’s what stuck. We love talking texts and ideas for preaching, and have been amazed at the response and growth of our listening audience. We plan to continue — and even hope to enhance — the Lec Lab Live experience in the Fall.

However, in order to keep ourselves fresh and work on some of said enhancements, we are going to have take a sabbatical break during the month of August. We sincerely hope that we don’t disappoint any of our listeners too badly. Y’all please come back for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost on Sept. 7, 2014. Okay?

John and Delmer

Year A: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (August 3, 2014)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for a Lectionary Lab Live special announcement

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 32:22-31
Every time we approach this text, we are tempted to focus on the question, “So who is ‘the man’ that Jacob wrestles with?” It is certainly intriguing — and the most common approach is that Jacob is wrestling, or struggling, with God.

To be honest, the ancient text is not that clear; that this is a heavenly, or other-worldly, being is fairly clear from the context. The opponent is merely called ‘iysin Hebrew — “man, person, someone, whoever.” Even when Jacob names his opponent as divine, it is elohiym — “mighty one, great one, judge.” This word is certainly used to refer to God in other texts, but can basically be any supernatural being (as the spirit of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28:13, or angels in Psalm 8:5.)

Perhaps the more important focus is on the fact that Jacob is wrestling. In this story, we have summarized his lifelong struggle with God, others and even with himself. He has been extraordinarily persistent in obtaining his goals, and he has survived often by the wit of his mind rather than the sweat of his brow (as was previously pointed out.)

Now, on the eve of his great reckoning with the brother who has sworn to kill him, Jacob again persists in battling what should be a superior being (one who is not, however, above triumphing with a “low blow” as in v.25.) 

It is Jacob’s submission to the greater power of God that matters here. The trickster, the joker, the one who has struggled his way to the top — now holds on for dear life and says, “I will not move on without the blessing of God.” He has come as far as he can in his own strength. 

And, thus — a new name. (See, Harry Potter hasn’t got a thing on the Bible!) The change of name signifies a change of heart, of commitment. No longer the Leg Puller, he is now The One Who Struggled — and Overcame

Jacob has finally arrived — he is Israel.

Psalm 17:1-7, 15
The psalm offers connection to the first lesson with the phrase, “if you visit me by night.” We are examined by God through the testing of our own lives. Sometimes, it is sleepless nights that offer insight or, at the least, deep examination of what matters most to us. May we wake to the satisfaction of God’s likeness in the world around us.

Isaiah 55:1-5
Thirsty, but there’s no water; hungry, but no money for food. What a vivid description of the way we come to God, seeking to be filled…to be saved! 

We are filled with God’s goodness, which is better than bread. Sating the senses lasts for a time, but life in the steadfast love of God — well, now you’re talking about a very long time, indeed!

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
There is no more personal nor important idea than v.18: “The Lord is near to all who call on him…in truth.” In a time when doctrinal issues divide God’s people all too easily, one of the simplest remedies is to remember that, finally, all any of us have to hope for is that God will hear us when we call. God is the final arbiter of truth, much as we might like to stake our title to that claim.

Romans 9:1-5
Paul clearly affirms the work of God through the nation of Israel. They have produced a mighty list of spiritual blessings: the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs and — last but not least — the Messiah!

It is stunning to stop and read that list and think of all that we would NOT have without God’s patient working through God’s people, Israel. No wonder Paul says that his feelings for his Jewish brothers and sisters was an “unceasing” passion.

Matthew 14:13-21
Again, the bulk of the attention in this story goes to the sensational — Jesus’ feeding of more than 5,000 people. The miracle deserves close examination and its implications are, indeed, many and applicable for our lives (you will enjoy Dr. Chilton’s treatment, below.)
But do not pass too quickly by the opening phrase of the text: “When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there….” Jesus took a blow to the heart when he learned of the grisly demise of his elder cousin, John the Baptizer. 

I once heard Dr. Henry Blackaby say, “There is a great cost to those you love in order for you to be obedient to the will of God.” I can’t help but wonder if something like that didn’t wash over Jesus that day. Certainly, John was accountable for his own life and made his own decisions. Yet, how many people would be called to give their lives for this “call of God” on his own life?

There is always a cost to follow Christ. Sometimes, that cost drives us to withdraw for a moment, to count again just exactly what that cost is to ourselves and others. Hopefully –and by the grace of God — we find a way to emerge once more committed to following “the steps of Jesus where’er they go.” (Words: Ma­ry B. Slade, in The Am­a­ranth, by At­ti­cus G. Hay­good and Rig­don M. Mc­In­tosh, Nash­ville, Ten­nes­see: 1871).

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

While I was in college, I went to see a college chaplain to talk about the things in the creeds I didn’t believe.  I really expected her to try to argue me into belief.  Instead, she smiled and leaned back in her chair and said, “Yeah, a lot of people have trouble with those ideas.  Instead of talking about what you don’t believe, why don’t we start with what you do believe.”

As we talked through the Nicene Creed, we came to the line, “for us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven,” and I realized that as much trouble as I was having with the “he came down from heaven,” part, I had no doubt that whoever Jesus was and whatever it was he did on Earth, he did indeed do it, “for us and for our salvation.”  It was a tiny foothold, but it was a place to start. I thought of that conversation when I read Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand.

For the last few weeks, our Gospel lessons have centered on Jesus parables of the kingdom.

“The kingdom of heaven is like – – a sower goes out to sow, a mustard seed, leaven in bread;” all of which have to do with how the kingdom takes a small thing and turns it into a big thing quickly.

Today’s lesson shows that “the kingdom of heaven is like a man who took five loaves and two fish and turned them into more than enough for over five thousand people.”  This lived out parable also show that the kingdom of heaven, in the person of Jesus, is indeed here, “for us and for our salvation.”

As the story opens, Jesus has just learned the sad news of his cousin John (whom we know as John the Baptist) being beheaded by the king.  Jesus needs time to grieve and acts to get it, stepping into a boat with his disciples and sailing across the lake to a lonely place.  But the crowds figure out where he is going and run to meet him.  Can’t you just imagine Jesus looking out at that crowd and thinking, “Come on people, give me a break.”  I’m almost positive some of the disciples, probably Peter and James and John (the Sons of Thunder) were already out of the boat, acting like burly body-guards, pushing people away.

But Jesus will have none of it.  The text says “he had compassion.”  For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.”  The kingdom of heaven is like – – – Jesus.

So, in the midst of his own grief, Jesus reached out to those in need.  Too often, we leap over the next few words to get to the miracle part, but we need to linger here a minute.  The text says, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”  In the mainline churches, many of us have shy away from the healing ministry of Jesus.  Perhaps it reminds us too much of tent revivals and TV evangelists with big hair and expensive suits.  It’s not so much that we think it’s wrong; it just seems a little tacky.

But Jesus’ ministry of healing was a profoundly important part of his mission.  Jesus was not, in the words of an old Johnny Cash song, “so heavenly minded that he was no earthly good.”  Jesus changed people’s lives in the here and now as well as in the sweet by-and-by.  For us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to take up our cross with his, we must embrace our own call to cure and heal the lives of others.  It is a call for us to go beyond the anointing with oil and laying on of hands to a ministry of getting involved in the nitty-gritty of people’s day to day needs and problems.  We are called to join Jesus in having compassion and in channeling that compassion into positive action on behalf of others.

Now, here comes the part of this story that directly relates back to the mustard seed and the leaven.  Just like the disciples, we look upon a world full of problems and we think there is nothing we can do, or that what little we will do won’t amount to much.  With the disciples, we say, “Send the crowds away  . . . we don’t have anything here but five loaves and two fish.”

We can’t do anything about it; we don’t have anything here but some old folks and a few kids.

We can’t do anything about it; we don’t have anything here but enough money to pay the bills.

We can’t do anything about it; we don’t have anything here but, but, but, but . . .

And Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.”  Bring me the five fish and two loaves.  Bring me the old folks and kids, bring me your money, bring me what you’ve got.

And Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to the disciples to distribute. And it was enough for five thousand men, plus the women and the children. Indeed it was more than enough, there were basketfuls left over.

The kingdom of heaven is like – a mustard seed that turns into a tree that grows big enough for a bird to roost in.

The kingdom of heaven is like – leaven that a woman puts in the dough and the bread rises and rises and rises.

The kingdom of heaven is like – Jesus taking loaves and fishes and turning them into a feast that knows no end.

The kingdom of heaven is like – a congregation of Christians bringing all they are and all they have to Jesus, and being ready to be a part of the amazing new things God will do through them.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (for July 27, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 29:15-28
Ah, the trickster is tricked! We’ve been following Jacob’s progress with some interest, as he is destined to carry the covenant promise from the LORD for Israel. He came from the womb “pulling his brother’s leg” and has made his way through most of his life by the wit of his mind, rather than the sweat of his brow.

Now, he meets his first match — his elder uncle (and prospective father-in-law,) Laban. Great evidence here to be careful about making lifetime commitments when in the heat of love, or perhaps any other strong emotion! Jacob is duped into giving up seven years of “hard labor” in order to marry his true love’s sister. After he learns of the fateful switch, he is more than a bit miffed (yeah, how do you think Esau felt that day you “bought” his birthright for the soup, huh?)

He soon concludes a bargain to add another seven years of labor and get what he wanted the first time…and learns a life lesson about “do unto others” in the process. We’re not done with Jacob yet; he has one more “match” that he must endure, with an even greater opponent than Laban. Just how far his wits will carry him remains to be seen.

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
This psalm reminds us that God is still at work, even when the details of our daily lives seem to offer an interruption. God’s promise to Abraham endured his own faltering detours; Isaac, though a man of few words and unfortunately tricked into derailing the covenant blessing to the wrong son, is still part of God’s plan. And, even the trickster Jacob is ultimately used to impart God’s blessing to a nation and to the world. Good stuff, here!

Psalm 128
What greater blessing can there be in life than to be able to see one’s children’s children? Though this is not required for a faithful and fruitful life (as not all follow the path of bearing and rearing children,) it is a notable blessing, nonetheless. 
 
1 Kings 3:5-12
I am of the age that I remember my children watching a TV show on theNickelodeon network when it was new to cable television. The network still serves an audience of children, but also reaches many adults with its “Nick at Nite” and “TV Land” programs, offering reruns of popular shows from years past (long past, in some instances!)

One of the favorite shows in the early days of Nick was “What Would You Do?” Host Marc Summers polled audience members about their prognostication of probable outcomes to pre-set scenarios showed on videotape. There were also various and sundry weird, gross, and outrageous stunts performed by cast members and audience members. It was all in good clean fun, right?

The point of my rambling is that when I read the choice laid before Solomon, I can’t help but wonder, “What would I do in the same situation?” If I was asked by God to choose the one thing that I wanted to receive from the Almighty, I wonder if I would respond as did the ancient king, or would my choice be more like that of Jim Carrey when granted omnipotence by Morgan Freeman? (catch a clip ofBruce Almighty here)

Maybe the stakes aren’t as high for us as they were for Solomon or Bruce…but what do we do with our everyday requests before God?

Psalm 119:129-136
The continuous reading of Psalm 119 has highlighted numerous characteristics of God’s words to us. I like verse 130, with its images of light and understanding. 

My colleague (Bubba #1) tells the story of the time when, as a young seminarian, he supplied for a rural parish, bringing forth his best exegetical effort for the dozen or so people gathered to hear him. After the service, the matriarch of the church placed her seal of approval upon his effort by acknowledging, “I like your preaching; you’re just like us — simple!”

Romans 8:26-39
I don’t know what else to say, other than that on some days, I really need to trust the words of the apostle here. I rely on that Spirit who prays when I “do not know how to pray” and when I find my own sighing to be “too deep for words.”

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Everybody has some kind of idea about heaven, even if they don’t believe in it or they call it by some other name. Jesus talked a good bit about the kingdom of heaven, though his words weren’t nearly as eschatological as ours tend to be. He seemed to be fixed a little more on the “here and now” than on the great “bye and bye.” I suppose it’s actually some of both though, isn’t it?

At any rate, we have five (or six) rapid-fire analogies to ponder in our consideration of Jesus’ view of heaven. A seed, some yeast, a field, a pearl and a net full of fish. All very earthy (except the net and the fish, I guess.) They suggest immediacy, purpose, worth, effort, variety — what else? What do Jesus’ words concerning “heaven” mean to you?

As usual, Dr. Chilton ponders and challenges in the related sermon, below.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Back in June I went home to the farm to attend a family reunion; the Hubbards, my Mama’s people.  While I was there I took a little side trip to go out to the church cemetery where my Daddy and his parents and my grandparents and, well – you get the idea – are buried.  On the way to the cemetery I drove by my great-uncle Harry’s place and my wife said, “Isn’t that where the uncle lived who had all the clocks?” And so it was.

My uncle loved mechanical clocks and pump organs.  He spent a considerable amount of energy looking for clocks and organs. He expended an equally considerable amount of money acquiring said clocks and organs.  And he spent most of the last 20 or 30 years of his life repairing and maintaining those clocks and organs.  Last estimate I heard was that he had over a hundred clocks and 13 organs in that old house when he died.

One day a man had come to deliver heating oil or diesel fuel for the farm machinery and he had come into the kitchen to get my uncle to sign for the shipment.  Just as he prepared to leave, all 100 clocks went off.  He was so amazed that he asked if he could stay until the next hour so that he could hear them all go off again. Nothing could have pleased my uncle more.  He took the man on a tour of the house, showing his grandfather clocks and mantle clocks and table clocks and railroad cloaks, etc. etc.   And when he ran out of clocks, he sat down and played a few hymns on one of the pump organs he had restored.

The time came for the clocks to chime and the driver of the delivery truck sat as if in a trance, listening with his heart as well as his ears.  He got up from the table and said to Uncle Harry, I have several more stops to make.  Would it be all right if I brought my wife and children back tonight so they can hear this?”  And of course Harry said yes.  When the man returned that night, he sat through another couple of sessions of chimes ringing.  And after that, he always timed his visits to make sure he got to hear the chimes go off.

I thought of my uncle and his clocks and organs when I read todays Gospel lesson:

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has to buy that field.  Again the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; one finding one of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (vs. 44-46)

Uncle Harry found most of his clocks and organs at yard sales and estate auctions and garbage dumps.  He discovered things no one saw value in and knew what they were and made them his own.  The deliveryman also discovered something many other people knew about but paid little attention to.  I had been in that house many times when all hundred clocks went off at the same time; I was 12, I just complained that I couldn’t hear the TV.  But this man knew that here was something unique and valuable, something to be treasured.

The kingdom of heaven is like that, Jesus says.  It is not much something you can figure out or go out and find.  You don’t shop for it at a store or order it at amazon.com.  You can’t decide you’re going to get the kingdom through 7 easy steps you heard on an infomercial on TV or an ad you saw in the back of a magazine or online.

No, the kingdom of heaven is more like something that you stumble upon while doing something else, such as delivering heating oil, or plowing a field, or casually walking through a yard sale.

There is, for most of us, something of an “Ah ha!;” quality, an experience of “Oh my goodness, now I get it!” sensation about the kingdom of heaven.  It is not always sudden; indeed it is more often a slow, gradual and growing awareness of what God is really like and what God is actually expecting of God’s people in the world.

But it always has an epiphany feeling to it.  We go along, thinking that being a Christian is about behaving correctly and by certain standards, or we have always assumed the faith has to do with worshipping in a correct and appropriate way, all things done decently and in order.  Or perhaps we have believed that it had to do with the content of the faith, accepting and embracing certain “true things,” about God and Christ and the Holy Spirit  and how we should behave and what things we should do because we believe these things.

And yet,  there comes a moment in our life when we need something more, something that our all our ideas about behavior and worship and belief, etc. aren’t so much proven wrong as they are shown to be relatively insignificant.

  • There comes a time when someone dies and the bottom falls out of life.
  • There comes a time when someone whom we would have trusted with our life betrays us.
  • There comes a time when we are one who stumbles and falls and fails, and stands convicted of being the sinner we have regularly confessed ourselves to be.
  • There comes a time when we need the things we have always said about God’s steadfast love and everlasting mercy and forgiveness and renewal to be true, not just for the world, but for us.

And the Good News is, these things are true.  When we are in that moment of need, when we experience the warm and gentle love and the complete forgiveness and the healing power of God in our lives – it is in that moment that we have stumbled upon the treasure in the field, the pearl of great value; it is then that we will hear in our hearts the sound of a hundred chimes, ringing out our joy at being found in the kingdom of heaven.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (July 20, 2013)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 28:10-19a
Jacob — the trick-playing, blessing-stealing exile — gets his first taste of God while camping out under the stars. The famous “Jacob’s Ladder” dream, replete with angelic beings and a personal appearance by Yahweh, causes him to wake up to the presence of God all around him. “Wow…the LORD is in this place — and I didn’t even know it!”

How many times are we, like Jacob, surprised that God might be up to something that we’re not in on, or that we didn’t personally design or approve?

This passage always causes Led Zeppelin to hum through my brain. Stairway to Heaven wasn’t written for this text, certainly, but there are a couple of nifty lines that make you wonder about Jacob’s journey:

Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder. 

 
Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know, 
The piper’s calling you to join him…
Ooh, it makes me wonder!     (words by Richard Plant, 1971)

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
The Psalmist’s words could have been custom-written for Jacob, couldn’t they? But, then again, they describe us all pretty well. There’s material here for multiple sermons, and inspiration for most of life’s toughest situations. I like praying verses 23-24 on those days when I feel a little “off,” but can’t quite figure out why. So often, there’s something that lies just outside the periphery of my own self-examination — something that could use a little dusting up with regard to my attitudes or actions.

For those of you who might be looking for a nice contemporary expression of the text, check out “Highest Place” by the group Desperation Band. You can hear a pretty decent recording here.

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
Verse 17 is perhaps the key in keeping with the theme of today’s readings: “For you show your strength when people doubt the completeness of your power, and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it.”

Jacob certainly had an inside straight on insolence; as we walk the path with him for the next couple of weeks, encountering those powers greater than himself (a crafty father-in-law and an arm-wrestling stranger in the night) — we, too, will experience what it means to understand the strength of God, even when we have our doubts!

Isaiah 44:6-8
A fairly direct challenge from God, spoken through the words of the prophet in v. 7: “Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.”

Any takers?

Psalm 86:11-17
One of the consistent themes of scripture is the call to serve God with our “whole hearts.” Jesus put it plainly in the Sermon on the Mount: “You can’t really serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24)

The psalmist gives a beautiful account of what the whole heart is like, replete with words suitable for song or prayer: ” Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”

Romans 8:12-25
I love the language here of labor, childbirth and what it means to be children of God.

I suppose my maleness makes me suspect to read too much into the whole labor thing…there certainly is groaning and pain in the process. But, on the other side of the birth trauma, we generally acknowledge the joy of a new life brought into the world. Baby time is happy time!

It strikes me how fundamental is the joy of realizing our relationship to God through the life of Christ. Like babies, we are happy to babble at the One who has birthed not only us, but all of creation. The Aramaic word Paul uses here to name God, Abba, is said to come from the sound an infant makes when responding to his/her earthly daddy: “babababababa.” (Babies are so cool.)

It’s just fun to make the sounds, isn’t it? Go ahead…give it a try. Lallate to your heart’s content! 

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Weeping and gnashing of teeth. Burning the weeds to separate them from the wheat.

Not our favorite images for preaching, are they? What does it mean that some among us may be sown from the good seed, and others from the bad? Nobody really wants to be considered a child of the devil, do they?

We certainly need to remember that patience is required in this process of winnowing the wheat, and that the separating is not really our task. We are sowers of the word and reapers of the harvest. It is the Lord of the harvest who will draw any separating lines that need to be drawn.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Have you noticed how often people try to divide the world into, well, two kinds of people.

Mark Twain said, “There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.” Amen to that. 

A man named James Thorpe said – “The world is divided into two types of people: those who love to talk, and those who have to listen.”  Ooh, I wonder which one I am.

I like this from Joy Mills, “There are two kinds of people in the world: the Givers and the Takers. The difference between the two is that the Takers eat well, and the Givers sleep well at night.”  Ouch.

Of course, good old Dear Abby weighed in on this: “There are two kinds of people in the world – those who walk into a room and say, ‘There you are!’ – and those who say, ‘Here I am!’ ”

And finally, we have humorous writer Robert Benchley’s Law of Distinction, “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.

In today’s gospel lesson, we are dealing with people who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad, the righteous and the evil.

And these people who believe in two kinds of people also believe, with all their hearts, that not only are they themselves the wheat, the good people, the righteous ones; they also believe that they know who the weeds, the bad people, the evil ones are.

And what is more, they apparently believe that it is their job, their responsibility, their holy obligation to rid the world of the weeds.  And to all this, God says NO!

First of all, (and I admit I’m going to be real Lutheran about this) there aren’t two kinds of people in the world.  In reality there are two kinds of people in each of us.  Luther’s phrase was simul justus et peccator.  It means we are both justified and sinful, saint and sinner, all the time.

The great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it like this in the Gulag Archipelago:    If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

To separate the wheat from the weeds, the good people from the bad people, the righteous ones from the evil ones; would, as Solzhenitsyn says, require us to destroy a piece of our own hearts. And the Master does not wish for us to do that.  That is God’s job, not ours.

Secondly, sitting around worrying about who’s good and who’s bad, who’s in and who’s out, who’s really righteous and who’s a pawn of the evil one; distracts us from the real work God has called us to, the work of proclaiming and living the Kingdom of God.

Did you notice that the lectionary reading skipped a section?  Usually the committee does that in order to make the reading more clear, to leave out what they considered a rabbit trail, an aside that gets in the way of understanding and appreciating the overall text.  Usually they’re right – this time I think they are wrong.

Listen to verse 31-33:

31 He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32  It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

  • Verse 24 – the Kingdom of heaven is like – a field with weeds etc.
  • Verse 31 – the Kingdom of heaven is like – a tiny seed that grows quickly and very large.
  • Verse 33 – the Kingdom of heaven is like – yeast – it is tiny, but makes the flour grow big.

The point is: don’t worry about the weeds, just spread the good seed of God’s love.  Like mustard seed and yeast that grow big and spread quickly, so it is with the kingdom.

We as laborers in the kingdom of heaven are not called to the task of separation and judgment. That belongs completely to God and the angels, who are much better suited to the task.  Our calling is to spread the seeds of God’s love in word and deed, trusting God with the outcome

There has recently been some conversation in the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church about how open the table should be.  Can anyone come, or should communion be restricted to the baptized?

I recently read a true story that solidified my opinion that the table must be open to all.  Listen.

Tara Edelschick was raised in a secular household, with no exposure to religion except occasional stories from her parents about growing up Jewish and Lutheran.  She grew up, went to college, got married, got pregnant – all the while having no connection with any faith or faith community,

Then, in a fatal two week period, her husband died from complications during a routine surgery and her baby was delivered stillborn.  She spun out into both depression and a search for meaning.

She went in a lot of directions, most of them all at once.  Psychics, New Age thinkers, meditation classes, prayers to a god whom she didn’t believe existed.

In the midst of this she began reading the Bible, the gospel of John, on the phone, out-loud, with Tony, a friend and the only Christian she knew.  Tony said he was not going to try to persuade her, he would just read the Bible with her and let God do the convincing.

Tony got after her to go to church, so she googled “liberal churches in New Jersey” and went to the closest one. I’ll let her tell the story:

“They practiced ‘open table fellowship.’ I had no idea what that meant, but when everyone else got up to stand around the fancy table, I didn’t want to be left sitting alone in my seat.  By the time I figured out that everyone was up to take communion, I had a choice:  Did I still want to go it alone, trying desperately to keep all the balls in the air?  Or did I want to admit that Jesus had offered himself up so that I didn’t have to be alone?  To admit that I had little control but was infinitely loved?

Having the choice of Communion made it clear to me what I wanted.  After months of trying to find out what I was looking for . . . . I had to admit what I had fought so long to resist: I was hungry for Jesus.

In the end, all my searching for something in which to place my faith didn’t lead to a well-reasoned decision to choose Jesus over other gods.  Instead, God offered me (God’s) self in the form of Jesus.  I didn’t have to find (God) or explain (God) or even make sense of (God); I just had to say yes.”  (Christianity Today, July/August, 2014 p. 95)

God’s arms, God’s community of grace, God’s Kingdom of heaven, are as open to all as the communion table at that so-called “Liberal church in New Jersey.”  And our call is to be like that church– to open our arms without judgment or reserve, ready to welcome any whom God brings to us.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (July 13, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 25:19-34
As mentioned in last week’s commentary, there is not much press given to Isaac’s role as a patriarch of Israel. He always gets “stuck in the middle” between Abraham and Jacob, as if fathering a child was his greatest contribution. Certainly, he gets credit for that; he actually becomes the father of two strong twin boys whose lifelong struggles illustrate ours very plainly.

However, notice that, first, Isaac was a man of prayer. His faith in God is pretty quiet compared to the other dramatic stories that surround his, but when faced with the major obstacle of a childless wife, he does not plan and scheme as did his own father (see Genesis 16 for “The Hagar Affair.”) Instead, v. 21 tells us “Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife….”

Good example for us, eh? How often do we manage to make prayer our FIRST resort, rather than our last?

Psalm 119:105-112
How valuable is the word of God? The gospel lesson for today will be built around the image of “sowing the word” — it is precious seed, indeed. Psalm 119 gives us a couple of illustrations of just how helpful and important the word of God is to us.

“A lamp unto my feet” is about lighting the way in the midst of darkness. Have you ever tried to find something in the middle of the night, without turning the overhead light on? Ever had to traverse a trail outdoors after dark, especially on a moonless night? A “flashlight” ( our equivalent of the ancient torch or lamp) sure comes in handy, doesn’t it? You don’t have to illuminate the entire area…you just need a focused beam to show you the next step. 

There are “many dangers, toils and snares” that await us in life. The word allows us to avoid an awful lot of the latter, according to the psalmist. 

Isaiah 55:10-13
Another real-world image for the importance of the word of God. It is like the rain and/or snow that fall; they serve to water the earth, making ripe the conditions for the wheat (and other crops) to grow. When the wheat is harvested, ground into flour, then baked into bread — we can eat! The rain didn’t directly produce the bread, but it sure played a vital part in the process.

So with the word of God; it enriches our lives and produces the spiritual food that we need. 

Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
God is praised for many reasons in this psalm text, not the least of which is that God answers prayer!

God also forgives our iniquity, which threatens to overwhelm us (sin is a heavy burden, you know.) God waters the earth, provides the people with grain, makes the meadows full of grass, which makes a rich haven for the flocks and their shepherds. These are strikingly mundane details, on the one hand; on the other, do we take time often enough to thank God for such everyday –and sometimes, miraculous — provisions?

Romans 8:1-11
Paul’s anguish, carried over from Romans 7, continues somewhat in Romans 8. However, the struggle of the flesh vs. the spirit is set in the context of the ultimate victory of Christ. (See 7:25 and 8:1.)

We tread carefully along a dualistic path when we preach here; implying that Jesus’ followers are no longer creatures of the flesh is less than realistic. Surrendering futilely to the difficulty involved in living as “spiritual” creations is not a proper option, either. 

Perhaps it is a postmodern reading (though I expect Luther would beg to differ,) but what a grand text for understanding the “both/and” nature of discipleship, as opposed to the “either/or” argument offered by gnostic heresy and spiritual elitists. 

We are both sinner and saint; we are flesh infused with spirit. We live with feet firmly planted in two worlds, at least while this one lasts. Which nature “wins” in the struggle of our daily lives? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Which leader do we choose to follow?

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
My good friend and colleague, Dr. Chilton, had a good comment in his previously published sermon on this passage (which you can find here.)  The point of Jesus’ parable is not so much about our technique for “sowing the word” as it is about our constancy –without regard to success or cost — in doing so. 

Arguments are often made about the certitude of our demographic targeting, the success of planting churches in growing neighborhoods, and the conservation of scarce resources in underwriting the church’s “mission.” 

Is there room for the kind of action that Jesus seems to affirm, which Dr. Chilton describes when he writes,  “We are called to sow the seed of the kingdom, indiscriminately, wildly, prolifically, tossing out bouquets of God’s love to everyone around us?”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Yogi Berra once famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road – take it!”  He was encouraging people to act; like my daddy said, “Don’t just sit there, do something.”

But the problem is, which road we take matters. Really matters. It is not something to be settled by tossing a coin.

Paul, in verse 2 our Romans text, draws a pretty stark line between two laws; “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” and “the law of sin and death.”   These are the two roads in life, and sometimes it’s really hard to tell them apart

C.S. Lewis said that every day of our life we are moving toward our eternal destination; that each step we take, each act we make, is a move toward either heaven or hell. That’s enough to make a person decide to sit down in the road and think about it a while before moving.  After all, one would not want to move in the wrong direction.

Bob Dylan wrote a song that said, “You gotta serve somebody. It might be the Devil, it might be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”

Now most of us do not willingly sign up to serve the “devil,” but we have to admit that, even when we have the best of intentions, the things we do often end up helping making things worse instead of better.

The key to understanding all this comes in something Paul says in verse 6, “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace.” (Common English Bible)

Most of the time, most of us think of selfishness in terms of greedy little children hogging all the candy (even when those “little children” are grownups and the “candy” is both much more expensive and much more dangerous.)  Or perhaps we think of someone who absent-mindedly assumes that the world revolves around him and his wants and his desires.

All of that is certainly true, but Paul is getting at something much more profound and dangerous and widespread.  Paul is talking about the basic orientation of our lives.  He is asking us to look at the question, “What is the center of your life?”  What does your world revolve around?”

And there are only two possible answers.  One is that your world is centered on “life in Christ Jesus,” and the other is, “your life is centered on the self.”  For Paul, those are your choices; that is the fork in the road, here’s the moment you decide which team you are going to play for, what direction you intend to head when you put your foot down.

Augustine of Hippo called sin and selfishness being “bent in on oneself,” incurvatus in se, in Latin.   Martin Luther said  that our nature is so deeply curved in on itself that we  bend, or twist,  the best gifts of God into a shape that serves us rather than serving God. And, we are so bent that we are not even aware that we are doing it.

As Paul points out, life centered on the self, bent in on the self, is a dead end street.  “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death,” There is not future in it, at least not a future with God.

For, when one is bent in, curved in, twisted in, on the self, one can see nothing else and has time for nothing else.

It would be a misunderstanding of Paul to think that what he is telling us in this text is that we should straighten up and fly right and quit being so selfish.  This is not an exhortation to be a sharing, caring good person. Paul is not seeking to give us an “attitude adjustment” through the means of a good, stern talking to.

  1. Paul is reminding us that there is a way for us to get unbent, but it is a way that comes from outside ourselves.  It is not something we can decide to do; we have such a natural inclination toward self-regard and self-involvement that we are incapable of fixing this.

Verse 2 reads: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”  “Has set you free” is past tense. It is already done, we are free from the chains of self-regard that have bound us; but unless we know we are free, we stay bent, we remain twisted, we continue to dwell on self and not on the love of God in Christ.

What we all need is to be told and reminded that we are free from this addiction to ourselves.  Thus in verse 9 Paul says, “But, you aren’t self-centered.  Instead you are in the Spirit. . . . ”

There is a beautiful image for this in the “Hymn to Joy”

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.

Flowers drooping, sagging, the petals tightly compacted in the cool and wet of early dawn.  Then the sun comes up and warms up the world and you can see flowers straighten and turn toward the sun; unfolding as the hymn says.

The sun of God, the bright and warm glow of God’s love for us in Christ, unfolds us, straightens us up, turns us toward the light.  It is not something we do, it is something God has done for us.  But because of it, we are no longer turned in but instead we are able to face out to the world; like a flower reflecting the bright love of God into the world and helping God melt hearts and straighten out lives.

Yes, we are not self-centered, we are in the Spirit, we are in Christ, we are in God’s love, we are on the right road, we are serving the Lord, we are moving in the right direction.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (July 6, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
An evocative story, on several levels. Poor old Isaac and his story so often get short shrift when compared with the other “patriarchs” of Genesis! Even in today’s text, he is almost secondary — an adornment to the text, which focuses on the faithfulness of Abraham’s servant and the willingness of Rebekah. But, I digress…

Since we read last week’s text concerning God’s testing of Abraham, the years have passed, Isaac has grown to marriageable age, and “the LORD has greatly blessed” Abraham. Unlike Tevye (of Fiddler on the Roof fame,) he IS a wealthy man!

Just one more detail needs to be managed: a proper wife for Abraham’s heir. The arrangement between the servant and Abraham is both intimate and intricate — 24:1-4 indicates the servant (most likely Eliezer, who has been Abraham’s house steward for many years, cf. 15:2) was asked to place his hand “under Abraham’s thigh.” 

That’s about as intimate as it gets, don’t you think? It is highly likely that this involved grasping Abraham’s genitals, as if to say to the servant, “Look, this is my entire future family we’re talking about here…this is IMPORTANT!” 

Certainly, the servant took his commission seriously. The almost painful repetition of the story word-for-word at each telling of his assignment serves to drive home the point that he did NOT want to mess this up. And, he doesn’t. The servant even prays to the “God of my master Abraham” for guidance. He is faithful in every detail.

Thus, the story positions Rebekah as divinely destined to fill her role as wife to Isaac, and bearer of the continuing line of covenant-bearers (after a little folderol with pottage and birthrights and such…more on that later.)

I love the line in v.64: “When she saw Issac, she slipped quickly from the camel…” The Hebrew word is napal, which usually means “to fall, or to cast (as in cast lots).” She fell off her camel when she saw young Isaac! Theirs is an actual love story (see the conclusion in v.67.) 

Those are so rare in these harsh times; maybe I’m overly romantic and I’m just stretching the interpretation a bit here, but indulge me, will ya’? There’ll be plenty of time for drama later.

Psalm 45:10-17
Psalm 45 matches nicely with the Rebekah/Isaac story. “Forget your people and your father’s house, for the king will desire your beauty…. [You] will have sons, and [God] will make them princes in all the earth.”

These primal stories were important for the Hebrew people as they looked back and saw the faithfulness, not only of their ancestors, but of God in keeping God’s covenant promises.

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Where do you find better love poetry (to celebrate a love story) than in the Song of Songs? Gotta love the eternal optimism of youth in this paean to the power of love: “the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come….”

Zechariah 9:9-12
The prophet’s words echo the singing of the “daughters of Zion and Jerusalem” — and remind us that God’s purpose has often been ushered in on the backs of lowly animals like camels and donkeys. All God’s creatures got a place in the choir! (a pretty cool video of this song can be found here)

Psalm 145:8-14
Nationwide Insurance has made their impression on the American psyche with their trademark slogan, “Nationwide is on your side.” They’ll be there for us in times of trouble, right?

The psalmist predates Nationwide by several thousand years with his assertion that “The LORD upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.” That’s who’s on your side!

Romans 7:15-25a
I’ve always considered this stretch of Romans 7 to be one of the Bible’s most honest moments. The Apostle, prone to bluster and braggadocio so much of the time, here identifies the most human of frustrations: “I don’t understand my own actions.” 

Sin is a powerful force in our lives, even after our acceptance of Christ and commitment to walk in his ways. It’s kind of the ultimate inconvenient truth that is outlined here — “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Don’t you hate it when that happens?

There is help– and, ultimately, victory — in Christ. But it’s a grind sometimes.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Christ’s words to close this section of the gospel reading are the perfect prescription for the woeful misery described by Paul in Romans (see above.)

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Lord, let me take up your yoke just one more day — today.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Huston Smith is a Methodist who has long been an authority on world religions.  He was one of many people of many faiths and many countries who were asked to contribute an essay to a book called “How Can I Find God?”  In his essay, Smith told this Hindu story.

The disciple said to the master, “How can I find God?”  Instead of answering the question, the master led the student down to the river.  After staring out over the water a few minutes, the master grabbed the student and pushed his head under the water, holding him there for several minutes while the student struggled to get free.  Finally the master let him go and the student emerged from the water sputtering and gasping for air.

After a few minutes, the master smiled and said, “So how did it feel down there?”  The student stared angrily at the master and replied. “It was awful. I thought I was going to die.”  The Master smiled again and said, “When you want God as much as you wanted air, when you feel like you cannot live without God in your life; then you will find God.  Or rather, then you will realize God has already found you.”

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Jesus’ point in this text is simple – people aren’t really serious about finding God, so they avoid God by complaining about the messengers.  The ones complaining about both John and Jesus purport to be serious seekers after God, but what they are really looking for is a God made in their own image, not the God in whose image they were made.  They are seeking a religious experience that will fit appropriately into their lifestyle, a religious experience that they can control and regularize.  Jesus would agree with the master, when people want a relationship with God as much as a drowning man wants air; when people believe they will die without God, then the pettiness will cease and people will look around and discover God and holiness all around them.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in his book “Living Jesus,” points out that in Matthew, the character of Jesus is drawn in sharp contrast to the scribes and Pharisees and their way of approaching God.  They have transformed the Torah, the teaching from God, the revealed will of God, from a living and exciting invitation to holy living into a heavy burden on the people.  They have expended it into law after law, long lists of that which is clean and unclean, exact formulas for ritual observance that one must follow to a T.

They have turned God’s word of steadfast love into a word of perpetual judgment and duty.  The yoke of the Law, of working in the Kingdom of God, has become an albatross around their necks, weighing them down and holding them back.

The ancient Jews, the scribes and Pharisees were not unique in this attempt to corral and control God; the effort to bring some sort of order into the wildness and chaos of God’s ways with the world.  Down through the years, we have habitually sought to create systems by which we can assure ourselves we are all right, all right with each other and with God.  And none of it ever works, really.

At some point all our systems fail, because we fail.  No matter how cleverly we put the system together, there is a flaw in it.  And the flaw is us.

Paul gives clear voice to this flaw in what is now a classic description of what the basic Lutheran prayer of confession refers to as our “bondage to sin.”  The problem with all the human ideas about how to be religious is not that they are failures of logic or are inconsistent systems of ethics or that they even ask to much of us.  The problem is, as the comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”

When Paul says in Romans; “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want,  but I do the very thing I hate.” and again “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it;” we are all forced to nod with sad and rueful recognition.  Our behaviors big and small are very seldom completely consistent with our better selves and we, like Paul, long to know not only why but how, how will we ever get off this endless cycle of failure and guilt?

The promise of the gospel is that Jesus has come to rescue us from ourselves. In verses 25-30 of our Gospel, Jesus he proclaims:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In the midst of our confusion and despair, God comes to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  God comes to us and reminds us that the divine/human encounter is controlled not by us, but by God. We do not find God through wisdom and intelligence; God finds us and reveals God’s self to us when, helpless as a baby, we need and want God the way we need and want air to breathe.

Jesus invites us to lay our burden down and take up the yoke of the Gospel with him. I wonder what burden each of us might need to put down in order to take up the yoke of Jesus, the cross of Christ?  What sin of our past haunts our present?  What doubt in our mind troubles our spirit?  What feeling of inadequacy or unworthiness keeps us from offering ourselves as a fellow laborer with Jesus in the Kingdom of God?  Whatever it is; Jesus invites us to put it down, lay it aside, kick it to the curb, leave it behind as we accept his offer to share in the work of the Kingdom, the work of telling the world of God’s goodness and love.

Take a deep breath, feel the air fill your lungs.  Now, take another breathe and breath God in, let God fill your lungs with forgiveness and love and holiness.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 29, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 22:1-14
I’ve often wondered why God felt the need to “test” Abraham. I mean, geez, just take a gander back over everything that’s happened to him since God called him in chapter 12. What else does the man need to endure in order to demonstrate his faith in God’s plan?

Okay, there was that little white lie about Sarah being his sister, and the dalliance with Hagar that produced a  soon-to-be mortal enemy of Issac, the child of promise. But, other than that….

I suppose God doesn’t need a reason to allow a little testing in the lives of God’s people of faith; this story certainly sets the bar at the impossibly high level of willing sacrifice of one’s own child. The other thought I have often had when considering this story is that it would have been much more tolerable for Abraham to offer his own life than it must have been to consider placing Isaac on that altar.

There is the issue in this text of violence to children, and it seems awfully harsh to our 21st-century sensibilities. Certainly, I cannot justify a hermeneutic that would make such actions the norm or desirable for “faith-testing” in our day and time. I cannot speak for God on this one.

All I know is that Abraham trusted and God provided. Isaac survived, as did the promise of God.

Sacrifice and deliverance never dwelt more closely together than at the moment God’s command stayed Abraham’s hand on Moriah — that is, until the cry of the Christ at Calvary.

Psalm 13
“How long, O Lord?”

Countless lips have breathed the prayer, before and after the psalmist set this text. There are those moments in life that we feel that God has certainly forgotten about us — or, at the very least, that God is not paying attention!

With darkened eyes and shaken soul, it is still the song of our salvation that lifts from a trusting heart. Is it naive to remember the goodness of God from our past in hopes that God will hear our prayers yet again in our next time of trouble?

Naive, maybe; faithful — certainly.

Jeremiah 28:5-9
“Not so fast, my friend!”

Jeremiah throws down a bit of a gauntlet before his colleague, Hananiah, who was most likely trying to soothe some political feathers with his prophecy about Israel’s soon redemption from the oppression of Babylon. Jeremiah, fit with a wooden yoke about his neck, was all for Hananiah’s optimistic prediction.

But, he knew that there was a lot more to this prophetic gig than fancy words and popular remonstrations against an unpopular oppressor. In order to proclaim, “the word of the Lord, ” it is helpful for one to have actually gotten a word from the Lord!

Preachers, we had best take note.

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Sometimes, it’s just good to know the secret handshake and be a part of the club. Verse 15 is one of my new favorites: “Happy are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance….”

Romans 6:12-23
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of “slave and master” language in the Bible. This is just one more bit of biblical anachronicity that tends to make us uncomfortable. But, in this instance, I think it’s worth it to try and get past our cultural misgivings in order to understand the power of the image.

We do tend to offer our allegiance to causes outside of ourselves, don’t we? We can become “slaves” to all sorts of things in life: our work, our play (are you ready for some football?), our desire for success or acceptance.

The Apostle here writes about our slavishness to sin, pretty much a done deal if you accept the theology that underlies the rest of Romans. We’re chained to a sinful lifestyle, and it ain’t pulling us nowhere but down!

In Christ, God offers us the chance to become slaves to righteousness. We “surrender” and “present” ourselves as “living sacrifices” (see Romans 5:1-2, a powerful image when coupled with the Isaac story, above.)

This slavery, however, has a much different result: not death, but instead the free gift of eternal life in Christ.

Matthew 10:40-42
Four sure-fire ways to reap a heavenly reward:

  • offer a cup of cold water to a child (I suppose juice or even Kool-aid might do)
  • welcome a righteous person
  • welcome a prophet
  • welcome the one who comes in Jesus’ name

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

(Delmer will be back next week!)

It was an old joke long before my pastor ever used it – but he never got tired of illustrating his point with it. “Whenever you see a ‘therefore’ in the Bible,” he’d intone, “you need to be sure you know what it’s there for!

I guess the stunt must have worked, because every time I read a passage like the one from Romans for today – I stop to consider the purpose for the “therefore.”

The Apostle has just concluded a passionate appeal, refuting the logic of some who wanted to argue that God’s grace is faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound – okay, apologies to Superman for that one! Anyhow, since God’s grace always abounds even more than the effects of sin, there were those who argued that we should perhaps consider sinning more so that God can forgive us more!

“No way, Jose!” said the erstwhile Paul – or, words to that effect.

It just doesn’t make sense for a believer in Christ – who has died with Christ in baptism – to continue living in sin for ANY reason, but certainly not in order to receive the grace of God. (James would later write that “God does not sin, and does not tempt any of us to sin, either.” See James 1:13)

So, the “therefore” in v. 12 kicks us back to Paul’s thesis: you don’t belong to sin anymore! That’s why sin needn’t have its way with you (a better translation of “dominion,” if I do say so myself!) After all, we are a people who live under grace!

Now, that’s an evocative phrase if I’ve ever heard one! Living under grace…

I wonder how that’s like living under a roof when the weather turns cold, or walking under an umbrella in a rainstorm? The roof certainly helps to keep you warm – and the umbrella keeps you dry (mostly) until you can get in out of harm’s way.

Maybe grace does function something like that. Sin brings the storms of evil into our lives – grace offers a means of protection and help. What a nifty idea! Here comes sin – I whip out God’s grace, and voila – I’m saved!

I could just go right ahead on and live my life, and never really worry much about the consequences of my actions. Sin – schmin! Grace has got me covered, right?

Hmmm… that’s evidently the way some folks were treating God’s grace, and Paul utters his second “By no means!” in verse 15. This is another way of saying, “Don’t even think about it; just don’t go there.”

God’s grace is not something that is meant to give us a license for living lives devoid of costly discipleship. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer detailed this concept vividly, arguing that if we are not careful, we will make God’s rich gift of grace into something that is “cheap” – received too easily and considered too lightly.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1960), p. 36.

What Pastor Bonhoeffer was describing – and what Paul is trying to explain to us in Romans — is the process known as sanctification. That’s a big, churchy-sounding word – but one that is important for us to understand. While the call to follow Christ is not a call to come and be perfect, it is a call to “come and die” to our old ways of living, our old ways of thinking and doing and being.

We have received a new life in Christ – and what is old simply cannot stay. Things are different because of Christ – we are different! And difference requires some discipline in our lives.

Again, Bonhoeffer writes: “the purpose of such discipline is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community consisting of [men and women] who really live under the forgiving mercy of God.” (ibid, p. 288)

Really living under the forgiving mercy of God means, I suspect, that there are those times when we will mess up; our hearts will hurt because of the harm we have caused to others, to ourselves, and to God. But, God’s mercy will be there to forgive and heal us – and to help us in our efforts to do better, to live in ways that are more like Christ.

Not more sin so we can get more grace – rather, more grace so that sin is diminished, and the life of God that is ours in Jesus Christ grows and abounds and covers us now and for eternity.

Amen? Amen!

Year A: The Second Sunday after Pentecost (June 22, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 21:8-21

Does God ever have a Plan B?

I can’t help but think about that as I read about God’s provision for Hagar and Ishmael. Isaac is the child of promise, but God promises that Ishmael will not be forgotten. He will have God’s blessing in his own right.

It could be that we just need to remember that God’s work is always bigger than we know and is going on in more places (and in the lives of more people) than we can see.

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

It is helpful, from time to time, to receive a “sign” from God that God’s favour does, indeed, rest on us.

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Verse 9 resonates with preachers, does it not? Just try not preaching!

Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18

The Christian church would later read this psalm in light of the actions of Jesus (especially the day he kicked a little money-changer butt in the Temple.)

Both for Christ, and for God’s people throughout time, this has been a prayer for God’s protection and deliverance. It is, after all, God that sets us all free.

Romans 6:1b-11

If grace is always bigger than sin, why shouldn’t we sin a lot so that we can get a lot of grace?

People have been asking that question ever since Paul’s time. The answer is still the same – “Are you an idiot?” Sin just never turns out well – which is why our sins have been crucified with Christ.

Let them go; let God make you dead to sin. You won’t miss it, I promise!

Matthew 10:24-39

Jesus has more than one hard-to-hear saying in this passage. We are reminded that his life was not an easy one, and since we are following him ours may not be, either.

The takeaway is found in v.39 – “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Good enough, good enough.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Jesus says some scary things, some really hard-to hear things in today’s Gospel lesson.

“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Let’s be honest, if these words did not have Jesus’ name on them, we would consider them the ridiculous demands of an evil person; possibly the leader of a crazy cult – like Charles Manson, or that guy in Nigeria who captured all those school girls.

All of us are here in church today because in one way or another we consider ourselves Christians and we have some desire to live a good life.  And we believe that part of that effort to lead a good life is coming to church and hearing the Bible read and sermons preached on what has been read and we have to ask ourselves – “Okay, how is all this stuff about wielding swords and family feuds supposed to help me be a better Christian?  Seriously, what’s the deal with this?”

A few years ago a young woman who had an appointment with me arrived a little early and was shown into my office to wait while I finished up a meeting down the hall.  As I came into my office she turned from the wall where she had been examining my diplomas.  She pointed at one of them and said, “What is ‘Spiritual Direction’?”

I fumbled around for an answer and finally said something like, “People come in to see me and I listen to them talk about their life, sort of like going to a counselor but, instead of whatever therapist might say, a spiritual director tries to help people find where God is in their life.”

“That’s funny,” she said, “I should think it would be more important for them to figure out where they are in God’s life.”  (I was tempted to take the diploma off the wall and give it to her – with my name scratched out and hers written in.)

Things change when we turn the question around.  Instead of asking “What is God doing to make my life better, more whole, more spiritual, etc.”  The real question is “What am I doing to involve myself in the work and will of God in the world today?”

Seen in this light, the scary things Jesus said make perfect sense.  If you are going to go with Jesus, you have to be ready to go all the way.  If you are going to go with Jesus, you have to be prepared to choose the Kingdom of God over your neighbors and your family and most especially over yourself.

It is not an easy choice to make.  Indeed, in both the Gospel and in Romans, it is a choice that is compared to death.  Matthew says, “. . . those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” and Paul writes, “(we) were baptized into his death . . .” and “. . . our old self was crucified with him . . “ and

“. . . we have been united with him in a death like his . . .”

Yes, following Jesus is not so much about finding where God is in our life; it is more about finding those places where we are called to be in God’s life, what we are called to do in the Kingdom of God.

Ultimately – the hard, crazy, scary things Jesus has said to us today are still hard, but maybe not so crazy or scary after all.

They are not crazy because they tell us a true thing about life, a thing that everyone needs to learn in order to be truly and completely human. That thing is this, “It’s not about you.”  It’s not about you and how many people like you, it’s not about you and your wonderful family, it’s not about you and your successful and prosperous life; it’s just not.  Paradoxically, the sooner one learns this the happier one is.

Well, the ego says, if it’s not about me, what is it about?  It’s about God and God’s love for the entire world, the whole creation.  From the hairs of each of our heads and the life of sparrows to the fate of the earth and the future of the human race, it’s all about God and God’s will and God’s way and our place in that grand movement into God’s promised tomorrow.  We are called to be a part of the new heaven and the new earth God is actively creating now.

And the things Jesus says are not scary, because they contain within them the promise of resurrection, the promise that we will also be a part of the new thing God is doing.  “. . . those who lose their life will find it,” Matthew says.  And in Romans, we are reminded that “. . . we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus invites us to “take up a cross and follow him.” He is not very specific about what that means; he does not provide a contract or a job description.  Rather he invites us to give up all and follow.

How have you responded to that invitation? Have you taken up your cross?  Have you accepted your place in the Kingdom of God?  Have you turned your back on all else, committing yourself completely to Christ?  If not, why not?  If not now, when?

Amen and amen.

Year A: Trinity Sunday (June 15, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
In the beginning, before there were any of the spectacular results of creation/order, the ruach — the Spirit/Breath/Wind that comes from God — was moving (or hovering, or even “brooding” as a mother hen) over the stuff of primordial existence. I like the mysteriousness — the ethereal, quasi-substantial, almost eerie beginning of this Genesis passage.

Before anything was solid, well-lit, clearly defined or ordered to the smallest detail — God was there, stirring the pot and sticking God’s finger into the stew, so to speak, trying and testing the recipe.

There is great comfort to be taken from the care with which God sets the world in place; each creature, every cloud, the mountains, the trees, the lakes, the oceans — all get the determined (and, I believe, delighted) focus of the Creator at one moment or another.

That God cares enough to put “our” world in such good order is an assuring bit of knowledge. But, I must admit that I appreciate all the more the fact that, even when life is chaotic — unformed, coming apart at the seams — the Spirit of God is still and always there. 

We can all use a little “brooding over” from time to time. In what ways have you noticed the spirit of God hovering over your world/life, lately?
Psalm 8
IMHO, one of the finest choral settings (ever) of this psalm text is that of Tom Fettke and Linda Lee Johnson, released as “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” in 1978 (see link for anthem here.) 

If you are unfamiliar with this piece — or if you would just like to enjoy a moment of worship thanks to the wonder of internet technology — here is a very nice recording of its performance by the combined choirs of Beymer United Methodist Church, Hope Presbyterian Church, First Presbyterian Church, and the Polk Community College Chorale of Winter Haven, Florida.

Alleluia! 

Notice the “detail work” God does with God’s fingers — not just broad strokes, but the finer stuff. What would you consider to be the “work of God’s fingers?”

2 Corinthians 13:11-13
One of the “trinitarian formulas” included in the New Testament, of which there are not many. 

Note the absence of “Father, Son, Spirit” language here — instead, a focus on grace, love, and communion (koinonia) as the outworking of God’s personalities.
How might we need to be open to re-imaging in our understanding of God’s unique three-in-one existence as part of our own theology/worship today?

Matthew 28:16-20
As part of the “Great Commission” — which, in evangelical circles, at least, often focuses mainly on Jesus’ command to “GO” into all the world — Matthew’s gospel records one of the few references to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as part of the injunction to baptize in the name of God.

Commentators differ as to whether this quote is original with Jesus, or was a later insertion by the worshiping community as they worked out what it meant to know” God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” (from the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy by The Rt. Rev. Reginald Heber)

Personally, it matters little to me whether the words came from Jesus’ lips on the day of his departure; they are the truth for our worship and practice today, as they have been for generation after generation of Christ’s followers. 

Let us not strain too mightily at theological gnats in order to swallow doctrinal camels, thereby missing the joy of God’s presence in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s people.

As my Bubba mentions in today’s Lectionary Lab Live podcast (see link above) — there are certainly other appropriate ways to name the trinitarian nature of God. Notably, “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” has seen a fair amount of use. What other descriptions of God’s three-part nature can you think of?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The most difficult course I took in college was “Art Appreciation.”  Not that it was all that difficult in itself, it was simply very difficult for me.  Imagine a southern boy, fresh off the farm, sitting in a dark room with a tiny French woman named Adele Legreue showing slides and encouraging us to, “live into the painting.”  “Let it speak to you,” she chirped, “invite the art to commune with your spirit.”  To say I didn’t get it would be a vast understatement.

I kept asking, with pen poised over paper to write down the definitive answer, “What does it mean?” and she continually replied, “It does not mean anything, it just is.  Experience it with an open mind and see what you see.”  Suffice it to say, I didn’t “commune” with many paintings that semester.  But a few years later, in a seminary class called “Systematic Theology,” her words came back to me and I thought, “Maybe the doctrine of the trinity doesn’t mean anything either, maybe it just is; rather than figuring out how it works, I need to examine it and learn from it.”

Like art, the trinity is a mystery and any attempt to define, label, dissect or analyze a mystery keeps us at arm’s length from the truths it has to show us.  When we try to define the Holy Trinity in clear, crisp, antiseptically clean and philosophical language; we prevent ourselves from being drawn into the relationship with God that the doctrine of the trinity reveals to us. So here are some things I learned “communing” with this doctrine.

It helps us maintain a healthy balance in our view of God and the spiritual life.  Most of us, most of the time, tend to be what I call “closet Unitarians;” that is, although we believe in the idea of God in three persons, the fact is that spiritually, emotionally, practically – we quite naturally relate to one of the three persons mare than the other two.

Some people see God as high, mighty and powerful, the creator of all that is; “immortal, invisible, God only wise,” as the hymn says. We think of the Creator as God and of Jesus as a good friend and the Sprit as that warm feeling one gets at sentimental religious moments.

Others of us center our faith on Jesus the Christ.  We focus on the central story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection; we tend to think of the Creator in terms of the one whom Jesus called Father and the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ among us.

And still others of us gravitate by nature and inclination to the Holy Spirit.  We tend to get impatient with theological discussions or doctrinal debates.  We long to feel God in our lives; we yearn for nudge of the Holy Spirit to guide us in our daily walk.  The Creator is a bit distant and Jesus of course died for us, but the Spirit fills our life now.

Each of these is an authentic way of experiencing and relating to God, but for a healthy spiritual life, balance is needed, and the doctrine of the trinity helps us keep our balance by reminding us of those aspects of God we do not easily see. The trinity reminds us that the God who created the universe is also the God who lived among us in person of Jesus Christ and is the same God who nudges us and comforts us in our day-to-day lives.

A second exploration is tied to the first.  Simply put, not even God goes it alone.  God needs and lives in community and so do we.  God lives in the community of the trinity – with the Father, son and Holy Spirit all equally God, all individual and yet all unified, all one.  How this can be is a great mystery; yet it is a mystery that speaks to us our need as individual Christians to line in communities of faith; equal, individual – yet one.

Within the community of faith we need those who relate to God ways different from our own.  We need each other, to keep our faith and our community in balance.  We need those with an intense reverence for God, we need those who are head over heels in love with Jesus, we need those who are in tune with the vibrations of the Sprit; we all need each other in order to be complete and whole.  We need each other to be a complete and whole community of faith.

A third exploration has to do with the recently revived question of the gender of God and inclusive names for God. “Recently revived,” because this was a hot topic in the church of the first few centuries.  There are those who have trouble referring to God as Father.  Those of us who have chosen to retain the traditional and Biblical triune name language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit must recognize that the issues raised are legitimate, particularly the assertion that God is neither male nor female and that to name God as male undercuts the Biblical teaching that all people, male and female, are made in the image of God.  I found some help on this question in Jurgen Moltman’s book of the Holy Spirit.  He writes,

“If believers are born of the Holy Spirit, then we have to think of the spirit as the ‘mother’ of believers, and in a sense, a ‘feminine’ Spirit.  If the Holy Spirit is the Comforter, as the Gospel of John understands the (spirit) to be, then she comforts ‘as a mother comforts,’ (John 14:26)  In this case, the spirit is the motherly comforter of children . . .Linguistically . . Spirit (ruach) is feminine in Hebrew . . .”

Recognizing the femininity of the Holy Spirit will help all of us restore balance to our view of the mystery of who God is.

I close with a brief story from Disciples of Christ minister who was putting his 4 year old daughter to bed one evening.  She said, “Daddy, I don’t understand life.”  The minister said “I don’t understand life either, but the best part if working it out together.” She smiled and yawned and said, “Yes, and the funnest part if doing it with God.”

I don’t really understand either life or the trinity.  But I am sure of two things.  They are mysteries to be explored and the best and the funnest part is doing it with God.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Day of Pentecost (June 8, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

[If the passage from Numbers is chosen for the First Reading, the passage from Acts is used as the Second Reading.]

Acts 2:1-21
We have mused and bemused over this story for years now; most of you have tried to preach it every which way you could possibly think of. I heartily commend the sermon below by my Brother Bubba, Dr. Chilton, for a fresh take on the activity of God the Spirit in the midst of the believers on this Pentecost Sunday.

It may not be necessary, but I like to point out the miracle of “spiritual hearing” in this text — not the generally-assumed miracle of “speaking in tongues” that is so often accentuated. Vv. 6 and 8 clearly indicate that, no matter where you were from or what language you spoke, if you were in the room that day you heard the gospel proclaimed in your native tongue (I have, at times, wondered if I’d been there, would Peter have begun his address with, “Now, ya’ll settle down…?”)

Numbers 11:24-30
We don’t often think of this way, but Moses and 70 of his friends got together for a little “pre-Pentecost” warmup in the wilderness here in Numbers. God “comes down” to speak with Moses, and the spirit is divided ( whether in tongues of fire or not, we are not told) so that a portion rests on each of the elders.

There were two guys who were lagging behind — Eldad and Medad (I just love those names!) — but they got a dose of the spirit, too! Similarly to the Pentecost experience, all of these gentlemen began to speak the words of God at the prompting of the Spirit.

Three things strike me: 

  1. God evidently feels pretty strongly about God’s people sharing God’s word
  2. The task belongs to all of God’s people, not just the Moses’ and Peters of the church
  3. If God has called you, sooner or later God is going to find you no matter where you are (in the tent or not!)

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
The psalm reminds us of the creative work of the Spirit, echoing the opening passages of Genesis. It was the ruach (“wind, breath, spirit”) of God present in the beginning that brought order to the creation. It is the same ruach that brings renewal to our lives — re-creation, if you will, over and over again!

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
The Holy Spirit brings many gifts into the lives of Christ’s followers; the first gift is the ability (or will or desire, depending on your theological perspective) to say, “Jesus is Lord.” 

After that — both occasionally and consistently — the Spirit gives other gifts of grace that are expressed in the lives of Christians. Some of these expressions are for the purpose of “work” that needs doing; others are for “service” that needs rendering. But some of the greatest gifts are those that simply demonstrate God’s “grace”– unexpected, unearned, just because.

John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39
We read this snippet from John 20 earlier in Eastertide; sometimes overlooked in that dramatic account that results in Thomas’ profession of faith is the “breathing” of Jesus on his disciples so that they can receive the Spirit.

Is this a separate manifestation from the day of Pentecost? Why are there no “tongues” evident here (the spoken kind or the fiery kind?) What is the purpose of Jesus’ breath on the 10 (remember that Judas and Thomas were absent this day.)

This could be seen as a preparatory movement toward the coming experience of Pentecost; Jesus could be preparing their minds and hearts for the “coming” of the Spirit. Or, this could just be a Johannine quirk or twist in the text. As students of the Synoptic gospels like to say, “Oh, well — that’s John for you!”

The close tie to forgiveness of sins is interesting; but, in the context of the rest of the story, I believe that it is the closeness of the Savior himself that is the real key. Jesus, though different than he was when they knew him before his death, is still with them. He is close enough that they can feel his breath. And with the coming of the Spirit, that’s just how close he will always be.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The earlier cut from John 7 connects with Jesus’ language to the woman at the well in chapter 4; the Spirit is the source for “rivers of living water” in the lives of believers.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Acts 2: 2 – And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

And here’s my question. If the Holy Spirit is indeed like a “violent wind,” like an untamed hurricane or a sudden and destructive tornado, what makes us think we want it in our lives?

In my mother’s Methodist Church they sing a song that goes, “Breathe on me Breath of God.” It’s a comforting image; like a baby sleeping on your chest, or a wife or husband curled up, dozing at your back, breathing a sweet gentle breath.

Or, have you heard this one? Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me, Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. That one’s best if you sway and hold your arms up. Spirit of the Living God, Fall afresh on me. Or close your eyes:  Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.

Or, do you know  this one? There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, And I know that it’s the spirit of the LORD. You know that do you? I wish I could be so sure; then maybe I wouldn’t be so afraid.

For you see, the Bible says that is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God, and I think our scriptures show us this fearfulness very clearly. I don’t think the Spirit is always all that sweet and gentle. Indeed I think the Spirit is a lot like my Mama.

When I was a young teenager; Mama and Daddy went to work in the Cotton Mill to supplement the family income. Up until then we got by on just the tobacco crop. They still raised  tobacco, they did it after work and on weekends, and expected a lot of help from their children.

They would leave for the mill around 6:30 AM. They would put a list of things to get done in the middle of the table for the children to see when we got up, some to be done around the house, most in the fields. They got home around 3:30. We tried to figure out how long it would take to get the jobs on the list done, then we always waited until the last possible minute to start working.

One day, we had done nothing on the list. It was about 11:00 or 11:30 AM. We were drinking Kool-Aid and eating peanut butter and cracker sandwiches and watching the Dialing for Dollars movie on Channel 8 out of High Point, NC when: “. . .suddenly, from the kitchen door there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire room where we were sitting . . . “

and the name of that wind was Mama and she was some kind of mad. She had gotten sick at work and came home early, and instead of finding her children busy about the business she had left them to do, she found them sitting around, doing nothing.

Mama roared into the den, the fly swatter she had grabbed off the hook by the kitchen stove in hand. She drove us out of that house, across the yard and up the hill, into the fields where we were supposed to be hoeing tobacco.

We danced into that field – Mama’s hand on the back of our neck, swatting at our legs and behinds, while we stretched our feet and bottom as far away from her as we could get to avoid the switch. Yes, brothers and sisters, I believe the Spirit in Acts, Chapter 2 is a whole lot more like my Mama on a bad day than any sweet, sweet spirit, any gentle breath of God, we might conjure up.

It was fifty days after Easter. And the disciples had done very little in that time but hang out with Jesus, spending some quality time with their Risen Lord. Then he left, really left, ascended into heaven left. And before he went, he told them to get busy, he told them in Acts 1: 8, “you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.” And then he ascended. And after he went up, angels came to them and said, in essence, “Quit standing around. Get busy.” (Vs.11)

But, they really hadn’t been doing anything yet. And as our story opens, they were all together in one place, probably drinking first century Kool-aid, i.e. watered down wine, and munching on fig and bread sandwiches, looking out at the crowded city streets, which are, after all, more entertaining than a TV movie. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting .”

And, as the rest of the story tells us, that wind gave them a job, and the ability to do the job, and then it drove them out into the street so that they would get busy doing that job.Which is why the Holy Spirit, the mighty and powerful wind of God, is more like an angry Mama than any sweet baby or gentle lover.

And, on this Pentecost Sunday, 2014, that Holy Spirit is after us.

It is after us to get out into the world with the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

It is after us to get busy with what we have been called to do.

It is after us to quit worrying about being together in one room and to start worrying about going out together to witness to those in need of God’s love.

It is after us to look around us and see who it is that we know or know about who needs to know about the love and grace and forgiveness of God in Christ.

It is after us, and the only question right now is this:

Are we going to go voluntarily, or is Mama Spirit going to have to make us go?

Amen and amen.