Holy Trinity Sunday for Year B (May 31, 2015)

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

The Points and the Podcast will be up a little later today…meanwhile, enjoy Dr. Chilton’s sermon below:

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When my parents were still living, I used to call home about once a week.  It was a “News from Lake Woebegone” sort of phone call – though in my case it was the “News from Slate Mountain.”

I got an update on the latest spat at the church and how the weather and the crops were doing and finally the obituaries, which were always a bit confusing because I never really knew who was being talked about – neither who was dead nor who was mourning.

Daddy would say, “Well, I don’t reckon you heard about William McCorkle dying?”  While I was smart enough not to point out to my father that a 75 year old man dying in Slate Mountain, North Carolina was unlikely to be big news in Atlanta; I was not smart enough to refrain from admitting that I did not know who William McCorkle was.  “Sure you do,” he would protest, “He was your Great Aunt Vesta’s first boy by her second husband, Old Man Willard McCorkle.  She married him after your Great Uncle Grover Cleveland Chilton died.” Me: “I still have no clue Daddy.”  My father: “He ran that little store up on Highway 52, almost into Virginia.”  Me: “Oh yeah, I remember him.  He would sell beer to me when I was still underage and in high school.”  Daddy, “Well, he wasn’t a real Chilton, but anyway – he died.  Funeral’s at the Holiness Church on Tuesday.”

The thing that always fascinated me about these conversations is that while abstract, technical connections were important to Daddy – “Great Aunt Vesta’s boy by her first marriage,” – they meant nothing to me.  But, whenever he could identify an activity, something the person did,

I would often remember who they were.

Identity and activity are closely intertwined. When trying to describe someone else, after we say they are tall or short; fat or thin; young or old; blonde, brunette, gray, or bald; what do we have left to say?  We most often shift to talking about something they do: how they dress, how they talk, what they like to eat, the books they read, the hobbies they pursue, stories about funny things that happened while you were with them.  All of this is about activity, about doing.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday.  Traditionally, Lutherans use the Athanasian Creed on this day.  It’s on page 54 of the Lutheran Book of worship.  And on page 55.  It’s really long.  And it has lines in it like this: “Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son, uncreated is the Spirit.  The Father is infinite, the Son is infinite, the Holy Spirit is infinite.  Eternal is the Father, eternal is the Son, eternal is the Spirit; And yet there are not three eternal beings, but one who is eternal; there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited.” and so forth and so on for two long pages.  This, to my ears, sounds a lot like “Your Great Aunt Vesta’s boy by her first husband Old Man Willard McCorkle before he died and she married your Great Uncle Grover Cleveland Chilton.”

All the abstractions about both God and William McCorkle may be true and technically accurate, but for most of us, they are not particularly revealing or relevant to the way we live out our faith.  What is important to most of us about the Trinity is the way it helps us understand and participate in the activity of God in the world.  Who God is and what God does in the world is revealed to us in the Living, active Word of Scripture and the way we learn there about how God acts to save the world and us.

The three basic cycles of revelation in the Bible are 1) – God as Creator and Parent, Provider and Liberator told to us in the Creation, Exodus and Promised Land stories.  2) – God as Redeemer shown to us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. And 3) – God as Sanctifier, the one who makes us holy, bursting upon in the stories in Acts as the church grows upward and outward.  We traditionally talk about these using the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But, both in the scripture and in our lives, it is not so easy to separate things.  Genesis Chapter One talks about the Spirit of God moving on the waters and John’s Gospel in its first chapter makes a case for Jesus as the Christ as the Word of God that speaks creation into being.  Our text from Romans intertwines all three aspects in its exploration of what it means for us to be adopted as Children of God.  Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, told to us in John 3, talks about the Kingdom of God and being born of the Spirit and the Son of Man being lifted up – more mixing and matching of the activities of God in the world and in our lives.

Whatever else it may be, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is important to us as a short-hand way to remember the “many and various ways” God has revealed God’s self in the past, and as a guide to the possible ways God will continue to reveal the Divine Presence in the present and future.

The trinity reminds us that our God is an active god, not content to sit back and see what happens.  Our God is a god who has been and will continue to be engaged in the lives and goings on of the world and God’s many beloved children.

The trinity reminds us of our calling to be actively engaged in carrying out God’s will and way, mission and ministry in the world.  We are invited to jump into the work of creation, caring for and bettering the earth, which God made and then placed into our hands for safe-keeping.  We are invited to carry on with the task of redemption; taking Christ’s message of love and forgiveness, grace and renewal, to all people in all places.  We are invited to live life in the Spirit, being ever more attentive to the intimate presence of God in our lives; praying, meditating, and living out the fruits of love born through our interior communion with God.

Because, as important as it is to know who “Great Aunt Vesta’s boy by her first husband Old Man Willard McCorkle” was; it’s much more important to know how to treat him when you meet him on down the road.

Amen and Amen.

Day of Pentecost for Year B (May 24, 2015)

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

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. 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…?”)

For us, seeking to hear the gospel on this day, what exactly will the Spirit need to enable in us so that we might have “ears to hear?”

Ezekiel 37:1-14

In Ezekiel, the very bone-chilling (pun alert!) and unlikely scene is a valley of “very dry” bones. The “very dry” is important, because the author wishes to remove all doubt as to the presence of life in this desolate place. There absolutely is none. Not only is there no life, there is — symbolically speaking — no hope for the intended audience of Ezekiel’s message.

The nation of Israel has just been ransacked; the Temple in Jerusalem lies in ruins. The faithful have by and large been carried away to Babylonia in a captivity that will ensure no return to the Jewish homeland for a majority of the people who experienced it. It’s just not a good time!

And, yet…in the midst of this pile of bones, this barricade of desolation, God promises to breathe new life into God’s people. It is an audacious claim and is certainly a vivid vision. The bones rise up, receive new bodies, and are enlivened not only by the breath of life but by the Spirit of God. Hope remains alive in the midst of the most hopeless of scenarios.

Is this vision “true to life,” as you have experienced it? What are the kinds of places that God shows up? If you have been in a place where your own bones felt “very dry” and you have not received the breath of new life, is there anything in this passage that gives you hope (or at least a reasonable expectation of help) for the future?

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!

Romans 8:22-27

It can be awfully frustrating to be told, “Just be patient; remember that good things come to those who wait!”

Our lives are not often given to the pace required to wait; for better or worse, we tend not to enjoy struggling in order to get good results, either. We want what we want, and we want it now!

The Christ-life is not something that is produced in us — at least not in its fullness and entirety — instantly. “Being saved” is a process, one that Paul likens here to childbirth. Those of you preachers who are also mothers are allowed to chime in here in manifold witness to the fact that bringing a new life into the world is neither instantaneous nor easy!

But…and we can thank God here…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Even when we haven’t a clue what we’re supposed to be doing (like praying, for example) — the Spirit teaches, guides, and occasionally takes over when needed.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Take a look at the ways that the Spirit is named by Jesus in this passage:

  • Advocate (one who takes your side)
  • Truth-teller (someone whose words you can always count on)
  • Testifier (someone who speaks up for you)
  • Prover/Judge (someone who can see what is right and make it plainly known)
  • Guide (someone who knows the way and is willing to show it to you)
  • Speaker (of the words of God)
  • Glorifier (of Christ)

What are some situations in which it would be helpful to remember that the Spirit, who is always with us, can be a resource for us in these ways?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

In the fall of 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast with a fury that did not peter out until it reached the North Carolina mountains. I know, I was there. I was leading a retreat for a group of young pastors. It was their first week together. They were from all over the country. It had been a good week, a getting to know you week, but on Thursday night, it became a very interesting week indeed.

It had been raining all day and we knew a hurricane had hit the Gulf, but we were hundreds of miles away in the mountains, for God’s sake. We were safe. After dinner, I went out and sat on the lodge porch and looked at the rain on the lake, trying to do some last minute program adjustment. Suddenly, I realized what was happening right in front of my eyes. I thought, “Look at that, little tornadoes, water sprites, dancing across the lake. And waves. Big waves. Wait a minute, we don’t have waves on the lake.” Then Ivan really hit. Trees bending toward the earth, electricity going out, roofs lifting up. Light pole breaking off 5 feet in the air, power lines dancing around on the ground.

And, in the midst of that, I had an attack of the stupids. Someone came into the lodge kitchen and said there was a tree down across the road that was the only way in and out of the retreat center. For some reason, he and I decided it was vital to get that tree off the road, in the middle of a hurricane. So we got a chain saw and loaded a couple of the young pastors into my old Jeep Cherokee.  We drove down until we got to the place where the trees had fallen across the road and began to work.

The wind was blowing, the rain was falling, the trees were slick. We made some progress on one and moved up to the next one. And then; well it’s kind of confusing but I’ve never been so scared in all my life, before or since. The wind started blowing in a particularly hard and swirling manner, and the trees around us began to twist and twirl in the air and to crack and moan and make noises both mournful and threatening, and looking up into the twisting tree tops induced a swirling feeling of vertigo; and suddenly we knew ourselves to be in mortal danger and ran to the seeming safety of the car.

And now I understand what it means to be not only “amazed and astonished,” (vs. 7) but also “bewildered,” (vs. 6) and “perplexed.” (12) This out of control, rushing, “violent” wind as an image for the Holy Spirit is not a comforting image.  No way, not at all.

In the movie, “The Princess Bride,” there is an overly confidant schemer and plotter who confidently proclaims various things to be “inconceivable;” yet the very things he dismisses always happen.  Eventually his huge and supposedly dimwitted henchman turns to him and says, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

Those of us who talk about wanting to feel God’s sweet, sweet spirit in this place, or about being “spiritual but not religious” may need to think about that.  It may be that the word “spiritual” does not mean what we think it means, at least not in this context and not all the time.

We read a line like Romans 8:26 about the Spirit helping us “in our weakness,” and think “that’s nice.”  We fail to put the text in its context and quickly forget that the prevailing image here is childbirth – “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains.”  Anyone who has witnessed a birth, and especially anyone who has actively given birth, knows that this is not a sweet, gentle, non-violent process.  As a man I hesitate to talk about it, but having been present for the birth of both of my sons, I can testify, I can give a witness – it is not a sweet nor gentle process.  And I can imagine that there comes a point in every birthing process when the one giving birth yearns for help in weakness.

The bestowal of the Holy Spirit is not for the weak of heart.  “Tongues as of fire,” may mean speaking in unknown languages, but it more likely means being pushed out of our comfort zones to speak about Jesus to others in a “language” not our own, uncomfortably and fearfully learning to talk to people with whom we normally would not associate.  And it might mean speaking truth to power, addressing issues and concerns some people would rather the church not talk about.  The Spirit might prompt you to say things that are so out there, so against the grain of what most people think and believe, that someone is likely to ask you , “What have you been smoking?’  This is, of course, the 21st Century equivalent of accusing you of being drunk at 9 am.

This Holy Spirit business is a dangerous thing.  Peter is quoting the prophet Joel when he talks about women and men prophesying, about the young seeing visions and the old dreaming dreams.  We all know that visions and dreams and prophecies are dangerous things.  They are vertigo inducing and frightening.  It is better that we stay safely rocking on the porch, watching God’s mighty wind blow on somebody else, somewhere else.

But, here’s the catch – it doesn’t work to try to stay on the porch.  What’s the old expression, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”  The Spirit will find you, just like it found the apostles, huddled together in one place.  Yes, the Sprit will find you, and it will fill you, and it will give you a tongue as of fire, and it will push you out of your cozy chair and into a wild ride through the world. And really, all one can do is take a deep breath and hang on for dear life.

Amen and amen.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter for Year B (May 17, 2015)

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

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
You gotta love Matthias; he is the poster child of unsung heroes of the church everywhere.

It is “The Twelve” that get most of the attention during Jesus’ ministry — and, of course, it is the Big Three (Peter, James, and John) who get the most ink on top of that. After the shocking betrayal of Judas and the hurry-scurry days that followed Jesus’ resurrection, it takes a while for the leadership core to get around to filling out their numbers with another apostle.

An aside — I’ve sometimes wondered why Jesus himself didn’t ask them to pick a replacement for Judas. Was it just not on his radar during his post-resurrection appearances? He certainly had business with Peter (“feed my sheep”) and Thomas (“don’t doubt any longer”) and others who needed him. Or was Jesus just not that concerned with the numbers?

I know that we have a nearly legendary concern for numbers, and reports, balancing the books, filling up committees — sort of ecclesiastically rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, if you know what I mean. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Or is there? Are we consuming a good bit of our time and energy with the functional details of ministry, when we could be spending it on things that are more relational?

At any rate, Matthias is chosen to round out the Twelve. Check his record of consistency and persistence: he had been with Jesus and the other disciples “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.”

Never held a position, never had a title, never noticed until the moment of need, not even a consensus candidate during the first round of balloting. But, in the end, he was present, available, willing and able. I like the guy…may his tribe increase!

Psalm 1
Psalm 1 is perhaps the clearest presentation of the Hebrew concept of the “two ways” in all of the Bible. Exercising the distinct human gift of free will (choice,) we may follow the way of the LORD — the righteous path — or the way of the wicked.

Both ways have attendant rewards and consequences; both paths require effort. It is the latter point that impresses me as I read Psalm 1 again. We often hear words along the line of, “It’s just too hard to follow God; God expects too much of me; I just can’t keep all those commandments.”

But we fail to realize that it takes a good deal of effort to walk the opposite path — to follow the advice of the wicked, one must first take time to listen; taking the path that sinners tread requires actually walking along that way; sitting in the seat of scoffers doesn’t “just happen.” You have to decide to stop and sit a spell, so to speak.

1 John 5:9-13
John writes very much in line with the concept of the “two ways.”

The church’s testimony has always been, as summarized in v. 11, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” That’s it. Jesus is the Savior of the world. In our fractious dissent (borne of that same pesky free will we just mentioned?), we have often debated just exactly HOW Jesus is the Savior of the world — but never IF.

Whatever the HOW, John holds that the inevitable conclusion is: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Thus, has the church been given a “great commission” to teach, tell, instruct, show, demonstrate and by any and all means get the message out to the world — “believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”

John 17:6-19   
Jesus’ prayer of protection for his followers — also known as a prayer for the unity of his followers — is rooted in this same mission of making God known in the world. “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.”

Part of the church’s life (at least) is to live in imitation of Jesus; what he does, we seek to do. Making God’s name known — through the life of Jesus — seems to me to be a basic part of the church’s job description.

Who are the ones that God has given us from the world? Who are we to pray for, protect, love, minister to? In whom — and in what ways — is God making our joy full as we share the life of Jesus?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Anybody ever heard of Ernie Shore?  Probably not unless you’re a really big baseball fan or grew up in Winston-Salem North Carolina.  Ernie Shore was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox about a hundred years ago.  After graduating from Guilford College, he played for the Baltimore Orioles, was sold by the Orioles to the Red Sox along with another player named Babe Ruth.  In 1917, Ruth started a game, walked the first batter, hit the umpire and was thrown out of the game.  Shore came in and the man on first was caught stealing, then he proceeded to pitch a perfect game, getting the last 26 batters out without a hit or a walk.  He had to share the credit with Ruth.  And in 1919, along with Babe he was sold to the New York Yankees, the “player to be named later.”  By 1920 he was out of baseball.  He was later the long time sheriff in Winston-Salem and the Wake Forest University baseball team plays at Ernie Shore Field, a former minor league park.  Everybody’s heard of Babe Ruth; only a few know about Ernie Shore.

Let me read you what the Harper’s Bible Dictionary has to say about Matthias, “According to Acts 1: 15-26, the successor among the Twelve Apostles to Judas Iscariot.  After prayer, Matthias was chosen by lot over another candidate, Joseph called Barsabbas.  According to Acts, both men had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry until his ascension.  The New Testament contains no other reference to Matthias.” Wow – no other reference.  Never heard from before or since. Won the Apostleship Lottery and then disappeared from the pages of the Bible.

I’m guessing Matthias didn’t disappear from the church, just from the pages of the Bible.  It’s likely he had a long career of praying and leading, of preaching and teaching.  He had the training for it. He spent three years following Jesus, from his baptism to his ascension.  He heard the sermons, he saw the miracles, he participated in the late night conversations.  He was one of those of whom Jesus said in our gospel lesson, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (vs. 18)  Yes, Matthias was sent, in his case into relative obscurity.

Most Christians down through the life of the church have been a lot more like Matthias than they have been like Peter or Paul; just as most people who have played major league baseball have been more like Ernie Shore than like Babe Ruth.  And for the most part, that’s a good thing. Ernie Shore lived a good, solid life.  He grew up a member of a Friends Meeting, he went off to a Quaker college and got a good education.  He played baseball to earn money to set himself up in life.  His career was cut short by his decision to enlist in the army in World War I.  Though he came back alive, he was never the same player and was out of baseball in a few years.  He was the long-time sheriff in Forsyth County, NC and though he was no activist in racial matters, he was no Bull Connor either.  His Quaker religion and education saw to that. He was called to live a faithful life to the best of his ability and he did, for 89 years.

We in America are a bit addicted to fame, to celebrity, to prominence.  Why else would we pay any attention whatsoever to either Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian?  They are famous for being famous and not much else.  In the area of religion, we have a bad habit of thinking that bigger and flashier is better; why else would megachurch preachers with megawatt smiles and Late Show quality bands dominate.  And when we look away from those Babe Ruth churches, those preachers with Peter and Paul level name recognition and look at the churches most of us go to – well, we might think them insignificant or almost not see them at all.  We might miss the important things these churches are doing in their communities and are being for each other.

Because we too have been given the truth, we too have won the Apostleship Lottery, we too have been sent.  Maybe not to Jerusalem, or Macedonia, or Damascus – but certainly to Murphy and Andrews NC, to the inner city and the lonely plains, to small churches in small towns and big churches in the ‘burbs where everything looks fine but people still hurt, still need a kind hand and a loving heart.  This is where week in and week out unknown preachers prepare sermons and worship services and visit the sick and distressed.  This is where people knit prayer shawls for the hospitalized and collect food for the hungry and volunteer to staff food kitchens and raise money for Nepal and World Hunger and other needs.  This is where local churches open their doors to AA and Scouts and all sorts of other community needs and projects.

Yes we’re all Matthias.  As Mother Teresa is reputed to have said, “Not all of us can do great things for God.  But each of us can do small things with great love.” We have all had our named called, our number come up, in God’s grand mission and ministry lottery.  God has chosen us, God has blessed us, God has taught us the truth – God fills us with the Holy Spirit and sends us out into the world so that all the world will know that God is love.

Oh, by the way; the monk who taught Babe Ruth to play baseball?  His name was Brother Matthias.

Amen and amen.

Special Edition: The Ascension of Our Lord

“ . . . he ascended into heaven,” APOSTLES’ CREED and NICENE CREED

The story of the Ascension doesn’t get a lot of attention in the life of the church.  I think this is because it is somewhat hard to see the point of it.  Laying aside all the standard, modern, empirical doubts about the resurrection appearances themselves, there is still the question of why?

If Jesus was resurrected and if Jesus could flit here and there in his new resurrection body, appearing and disappearing at will as if he had Scotty from Star Trek beaming him about, why would he pull this somewhat theatrical stunt of floating off into heaven, like the Wizard taking leave of Oz in his balloon?  Why didn’t he just say good-bye and go?

Well, for one thing it was important that when he went to “sit at the right hand of the father,” people knew that he was really gone this time.  Gone and not coming back until he came back for good, came back to “judge the living and the dead.”  If he had just disappeared again, well there would have been more Jesuses seen in Jerusalem than Elvises in Las Vegas. It’s difficult to get busy with the important business of loving the Christ in your neighbor if you are constantly on the lookout for Christ in the Burger King.

The Ascension of Our Lord is the completion of his resurrection.  Christ came from God to take on our flesh, our life, our troubles, our sin and yes, our death.  In the mystery of the Three Days, sin was removed and death was defeated.  For forty days Jesus walked and talked among the believers, making sure they knew that this new life was real and not imagined.  And then he went back to God, in the spirit and in the flesh, fully human and fully divine forever and ever, amen.

And he left us here. We were all, in one sense, left behind.  We were left but we were not abandoned.  The Ascension marks the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus and prepares the way for the birth of the church with the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.  Up until this moment the Gospel has been about what God in Christ has done for us; from this day forth the Gospel is about what God in Christ is doing for the world in and through us.

This need to get on with the mission and ministry is reflected in Acts, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:10-11, NRSV)

Every time I read that I remember being twelve years old and doing, or rather, not doing, my chores. I can hear my father come around the corner of the barn or see him suddenly appear beside me in the field.  He would scowl and look disappointed and said, “What are you doing just standing there?  Get busy; we’ve got a farm to run.”  In the same way, we are reminded to stop looking up and to start looking around at the work we are called to do, at the world full of hurting people who need to hear and feel the love of Jesus in their lives.

Peace,
Delmer

The Sixth Sunday of Easter for Year B (May 10, 2015)

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

Acts 10:44-48

Let’s be honest…most of our work and worship in the day-to-day of serving God is pretty mundane. Good, pleasant, important — but not that “out of the ordinary.” I think much the same was true of Peter and the other apostles (and, probably dating back to their days with Jesus.) Every day, you get up and go do the work that lies in front of you. For Peter, that often seemed to include speaking to groups. On this day, in the midst of his everyday activity of speaking, something rather “out” of the ordinary happened: the Holy Spirit fell on an uncircumcised (read, non-Jewish) group of believers. The text says those who were with Peter and witnessed this event were “astounded.” Stuff like this had never happened before.

What did it mean? It seems that, in this post-Easter context of the continuing spread of the message about Jesus, God’s blessing and presence (which is what the Spirit symbolizes for all of us) is available to anyone. Absolutely anybody. Hmmm, go figure. That’s probably what was so astounding to them. Like us, they were tempted to believe that God’s blessing was certainly for us — and for people like us. But those who are “different?”

Upon whom would the blessing of God need to fall in order for you to be astounded?

Psalm 98

Psalm 98 is clearly a “thanksgiving” song in celebration of God’s deliverance of Israel (from Egypt, from battle, from exile, etc.) But notice that it is celebrated in the context of “the nations, the earth, the peoples.” God’s work — even when it is carried out in the particular — is always also universal.

1 John 5:1-6

In this world, there is trouble. You don’t need anybody to tell or prove that to you (and neither do the people in our pews!) John’s audience knew this for a fact — everyday life was hard! But, the beloved apostle told them that there was One who had “overcome” or conquered or subdued the world and all its troubles. That One is, of course, God — who has now through Jesus opened our lives to the same conquering power.

Again, it is not “we” who overcome — it is God. Our faith is in God and is activated by God, lest we get too cocky and think we can simply “name it and claim it” and be done with the world’s troubles. More to it than that, methinks.

I like the shading of meaning for this word that connotes “endures” or “holds on till the storm is over.” Not every victory is triumphant and shiny; many of them are gritty and hard-fought. But either way, it is the strength and presence of God with us, in us, and among us (hence, abide, in the following gospel lesson) that sustains.

John 15:9-17

Jesus’ whole modus operandi, according to John, was based on his observation of and cooperation with the One he called, “My Father.” Since the Father had loved him, he loved his disciples; since he obeyed the Father’s commands, he asks his disciples to obey his commands. The natural outcome of such love and actions is the agricultural image of “bearing fruit.” A nice, wholesome, healthy image, don’t you think? Who doesn’t like a tasty bite of fresh apples or tangy peaches right off the tree in season?

Jesus also illustrates this working of love and obedience as “laying down” one’s life for friends. Wow…what gift is more valuable than the gift of your life? I sense that “laying it down” is not always necessarily the willingness to die; few of us will be called to exercise that option! But, “giving it away” seems an apt comparison — a kind act or service at a time.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you….” Just how HAS Jesus loved you and me? Let us go and do likewise.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

And the circumcised believers were astounded because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the gentiles”

                                                                                                            Acts 10:45

In the fall of 1976 I started studying for the ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. (I was not a Baptist.  Like most American Protestant seminaries at the time, Southeastern was open to students of all traditions.  I was a United Methodist.)

We had chapel every day at about 10 am.  Most days a professor or an upper class student preached, occasionally we had special guests. On this particular day, it was the very new, and relatively young, Roman Catholic bishop from Raleigh just down the road.  Also in attendance, along with 400 or 500 students, were the members of the area’s African-American Pastor’s Association, whose monthly meeting included attending chapel and dining in the cafeteria.

Well the bishop, who was from somewhere up north, was in the middle of a carefully researched and written homily on Christian unity when he said something like, “No matter what our differences we are united in having been saved by the blood Christ, and made alive by the gift of the Spirt;” at which point several of the pastors got up, waving handkerchiefs and shouting, “Amen, Preach it!  That’s Right! C’mon!”  Manuscript pages shot up in the air and fluttered to the floor while a flustered and somewhat embarrassed bishop said gracefully, “I’m sorry.  You have to understand.  In the Catholic Church, no one says “amen” unless it’s written in the worship book.  I’ll be ready next time.”

“And the circumcised believers were astonished because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the gentiles”

The good bishop was not the first person to be astonished at an unexpected manifestation of the Holy Spirit.  Those whom the writer of Acts calls “the circumcised believers” were absolutely floored at the idea that the Holy Spirit, the spirit of YHWH, the god whom they understood to be the God of Israel and nobody else, had “fallen upon” these gentiles.  This was, to them, simply unbelievable.  And yet; it was true, it was real, it was a fact – it was happening right in front of them.

Luke uses “circumcised believers” to refer to these folks for a very good reason.  He wasn’t trying to avoid the word “Jews,” he was not trying to avoid being anti-Semitic.  After all Peter and Paul and James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus himself, were all Jews. No – the point here is simply this: up until now the believers had thought that what Jesus had done was about the Jews and about being the Jewish Messiah, so their logic said, “If you want to be a Jesus follower, if you want to be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit – you need to be a Jew first.  And becoming a Jew involves being circumcised.”  So their thought pattern went like this – everyone is welcome – as long as you first become a Jew by being circumcised, then you get baptized, then you get the Holy Spirit.

And God said, “That’s nice.  But oh so very wrong.  Let’s just skip the first parts and go directly to the bestowing of the Holy Spirt, shall we.”  And the Spirit came down, and the gentiles started waving handkerchiefs and shouting, “Amen! Preach it! That’s right! C’mon!” and pages shot up in the air and fluttered to the . . . – wait a minute – I’ve already told that story.  Or is it the same story; a story that has happened over and over again, down through the ages?

“And the circumcised believers were astonished because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the gentiles”

Throughout history, people have misinterpreted their calling from God.  They believe they have been chosen for privilege instead of purpose – they forget that they have been called to carry the word to the rest of the world, they begin to think they and those like them deserve to be God’s special ones, and that those other people, well they do not.  Women can’t preach, pagans don’t have souls, slaves are not really people, Native Americans are savages, etc. etc.  And even if we make them Christians, they must first become like us, they must cut away that which is the uniqueness God created when God created them. And God astonishes us and skips over all our objections and bestows the Holy Spirit on whomever God will, regardless of our rules and our prejudices.

It is not much of a stretch for us in the twenty-first century to accept the idea that God wants to extend the Kingdom to gentiles.  After all, that’s who most of us are.  When we hear Peter ask,

“Who can withhold the water for baptism for these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  we must ask ourselves, “From whom are we withholding the waters of baptism?”

Almost none of us would do it on purpose, but do we do it accidentally?  Have we decided that some people would rather not be a part of our type of church?  Has our invitation to the community failed to be as open to all as we want it to be?  Our calling today is to move beyond saying we’re open to all and beyond believing we’re open to all – to going out into the community and genuinely inviting anyone and everyone to be a part.  And I warn you – no matter how much you try to prepare yourself – you will someday find yourself astonished when the Holy Spirit falls upon that very person you had written off.  Just like some people were astonished when it fell on me and on you.

Amen and amen.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter for Year B (May 3, 2015)

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

Acts 8:26-40

When it comes to the task of discipleship, we are all basically committed to following Christ. In the words of an old gospel song, “I’ll go where you want me to go, Dear Lord….” (words by Mary Brown, music by Charles Prior. Listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform the hymn here.)

That task is easier said than done, though; Philip is sent down “a wilderness road.” This, of course, echoes the path of Jesus himself through the wilderness (where the Spirit had to drive him.) Philip had his own doubts when he saw that the place God was sending him was to a chariot occupied by an Ethiopian eunuch. Not your everyday candidate for conversion to Judaism or the Way of Jesus — then, or now! But, the essence of the scene is distilled by two moments:

  1. An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go…” And he got up and went.
  2. The eunuch asked the poignant question, “What prevents me…?”

Not a thing, evidently.

Psalm 22:25-31

God is the God of all people and all things — past, present, and future. While Hebrew scripture does not have a well-defined sense of resurrection and life after this life, these verses certainly give one hope while Easter is still being celebrated.

“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” (vv. 29-31)

1 John 4:7-21

As my Bubba points out on today’s episode of The Lectionary Lab Live, in these 14 verses of scripture, some form of the word love is mentioned 29 times! You reckon there’s something here for us to notice? Love begins with God, comes to us, and through us, continues throughout the world.

John 15:1-8

We find our life in Christ, as any branch that dwells in the vine (and, by extension, to the ground, the soil, the water, the sun.) Also, the process of pruning — though sometimes painful — is part of the deal.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In June of 1977, in the auditorium at Methodist College in Fayetteville, NC, I and about 20 others were ordained as deacons in the United Methodist Church – in those days a first step toward possible future ordination as Elders.  Bishop Joseph Thomas preached that night and said something I have never forgotten. “Sisters and brothers in Christ, after this night, the Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go.  If you wanted to go there, the Spirit would be unnecessary.”

I thought of those words when I read today’s Acts’ lesson about Phillip, one of the first seven deacons selected and set apart by the laying on of hands. (Acts 6:1-6) I’m pretty sure that hitch-hiking in the wilderness was not what Phillip and the others had in mind when they accepted the call to serve the Lord.  After all, the need presented to them was food distribution to the widows – nothing whatsoever was said about going on the road, preaching, baptizing or anything like that. But like the Bishop said, “The Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go,” or at least somewhere you never expected to go, doing things you never expected to be doing.

“Get up and go,” the angel said, and Phillip “got up and went.”  He was told no more than that he should head south to the road between Jerusalem to Gaza, not even what it was he was supposed to do when he got there.  This is a recurring theme in the scriptures; this business of God saying “get up and go,” and people of faith “getting up and going.”  Let’s see, among many others – there are Abram and Sarai, told to leave Ur of the Chaldees and go to “the land that I will show you.”  There’s Jonah, who first “got up and went” the other way, but after that adventure with the fish, the second time God called he came around and got up and went.  And most famously, there’s Saint Paul who, after his experience of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus was told to “Get up and go” to the street called Straight.

We are, I am, a lot more hesitant than Abram and Sarai, or Phillip, or Saul.  We are, I am, a lot more like Jonah – apt to run in the opposite direction, or at least to ask for specifics of the job and add conditions upon our participation.  “I’m available on Tuesdays.” “I’ll go anywhere – but no, not there, that won’t work for me.”  “I’m not sure I’m suited to working with those people – they push me too far out of my comfort zone.”  And do you know how God generally responds to all that hesitation and condition making?  Pretty much the way our parents responded when we explained to them why we couldn’t make our bed, or do the dishes, or mow the grass.  God stands there and listens, and then says, “That’s nice.  Now, get up and go.”

Truly, it’s a good thing that God does not fully explain things to us before asking us to respond to the call.  If God did, most of us would not say yes.  It would be too frightening.  And the reason it would be too frightening is that we would foolishly assume that God was asking us to do these impossible, over-whelming, out of our comfort zone things using our own reason and strength, our own ability and skill; and nothing could be further from the truth.  God doesn’t tell us what we’ll be doing because the main thing God needs from us is our willingness to be go, trusting that when the ministry need appears, the ability to respond to it will appear as well.

This is what happens with Phillip.  He got up and went to the south, to the road that runs through the wilderness from Jerusalem to Gaza.  And as he stood there, “an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians,” came along in his chariot.  Now, suppose God had said to Phillip, “I want you to go and talk about Jesus with one of the most powerful people in the world.  And by the way; he’s not Jewish, indeed he’s ritually unclean because of his sexuality, and he’s an African.”   How excited would Phillip have been about that?  On the one hand he might have felt overwhelmed and under prepared; on the other hand, he may have been like Paul and Jonah – unwilling to go because he didn’t want to be involved with one of “those people.”

But God didn’t give Phillip that kind of choice.  And he doesn’t give us that kind of choice either.

We are called to go where the Holy Spirit leads us – whether we want to go there or not.  We are called to open our doors, our arms, our hearts, and our minds, to all people – not just the people we happen to like and who happen to like us.  When God calls us to get up and go, the only faithful response is to get up and go.

In his telling of this story, Luke makes good use of questions.  Did you notice that?  When Phillip heard the man reading Isaiah, he asks, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The Eunuch responds by asking Phillip, “About whom is he talking?”  These are good questions and a good model for us as we talk to others about Jesus. What would happen if – instead of trying to convince other people to see things our way – we simply asked questions and listened to answers and had a conversation with them about faith?

But here’s the question in this text that really matters for us today.  After hearing the gospel, the Ethiopian says to Phillip, “Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

In the story, he is saying “I want to be baptized.” After all, Ethiopia is south of Israel – and all Southerners have a habit of asking indirect, backdoor questions?  As when my wife says, “You’re not doing anything are you?”  What she really means is, “Please take out the garbage.”

But I think this question should be taken by us in a more direct manner.  Are we preventing others from being baptized, from coming to faith, from hearing the story of Jesus?  This is the question the early church had to continually ask themselves.  The book of Acts is the story of the first Christians learning to break down traditional boundaries between Jews and Greeks, slave and free, men and women, Romans and conquered peoples, etc. etc.  And the boundaries must continue to fall.  Every time we think we’re finished, every time we think we have finally gone as far as we can go, every time we believe we have opened our arms as wide as we can open them; the voice comes and whispers in our ear one more time, “Get up and go.”

And the question is, will it be said of us, they “got up and went?”

Amen and amen.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter for Year B (April 26, 2015)

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

(reprinted by permission from The Lectionary Lab Commentary: Stories and Sermons for Year B)

Acts 4:5-12
Cheeky answer, wasn’t it?

Peter is standing — along with his accomplice, John — before the very seat of power in Israel of the first century CE. This is you or I being brought before our particular judicatories (synod, conference, presbytery, deacon body, etc.) and questioned about our ministerial practice. The fact that these men were “all” members of the high-priestly family added a bit more gravitas (if any were needed.)

“By what power are you doing these things? Who, or what, gives you the right to act the way you have been acting?”

It’s not a question one wants to answer lightly. They knew that they could get in real trouble. You or I might very well find our livelihoods on the line if brought up for questioning on a similar matter. (What if your entire pension fund were riding on the words that came next out of your mouth, for instance?)

“None other than Jesus of Nazareth — the one you crucified. God raised him from the dead and his is the only name that has been given by which we may be saved.”

Pretty specific; pretty well-defined. Not afraid to be gently, if firmly, confrontational. It’s an all-or-nothing response, when you think about it. 

Are we, who may have much less on the line, just as willing to proclaim our conviction as to the truth of the gospel today?

Psalm 23
The classic Psalm 23 provides background for the qualities of the “good shepherd.” We do well to have this passage in mind when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”

As you re-read Psalm 23 — and do take the time to re-read it, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, read it, or even preached it —  what quality (or qualities) of the good shepherd stand out to you? How have you experienced the presence of the Lord as your shepherd?

1 John 3:16-24
True love does a lot more than wait; it gives, it hopes, it perseveres, it trusts, it supports…and a whole lot more (refresh your memory at 1 Corinthians 13.)

Mainly, as the Elder Apostle writes here, it acts. Love is a very active thing to feel and do. Not just the words, lofty as they may be (love poems are among the highest literary achievements in human history.) It’s all about what you do, baby!

Don’t just tell me that you love me — show me! You don’t have to live in Missouri to subscribe to that kind of wisdom!

John says that we have not gone far enough when we have simply believed  in Jesus…we must also love (in word and deed) one another.

John 10:11-18
If you’re just in it for the paycheck, you probably aren’t too interested in sacrificing yourself for anyone at the place where you work. That’s just not a “normal” way to think, is it?

But Jesus says that living life his way is sort of like a shepherd in the old days — most likely, the shepherd had a literal financial interest in the welfare of the sheep. He was owner or part-owner of the flock, so it was in his best interest to deliver them to market (or to the shearer) in the best possible condition. Healthier sheep equals higher dollars.

But more than that, the shepherd shared a bond with the sheep. He knew them each by name (his own pet names for them;) he knew how they acted, which were prone to act up or skip out, which were prone to mind and follow in the way they were led.

The sheep also knew which was their shepherd; they got used to his (or her) voice. Even when penned with other flocks and other shepherds, only the voice of “their” shepherd would rouse the sheep to follow. The shepherd was sworn to protect the sheep, and — evidently — would put himself at risk in order to fulfill his duty.   

So, Jesus says, I am a lot like that; I know you, you know me, we’re really in this thing together. I have given my life for my sheep. All of them. Even the ones you can’t see in this fold. 

Trust me on this.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My fourth grade teacher, Miz George, died a few weeks ago. (This was not Miss, for she was married, not MS. for though she was quite liberated, she wasn’t a modern feminist, not Mrs. – just good old-fashioned, general purpose, Southern Miz George.)  She was in her 90s.  Last time I saw her was at my Daddy’s funeral twelve years ago. She came with my second grade teacher, Miz Collins.  They taught the four oldest Chilton children at Redbank Elementary School in Claudville, VA, which is the reason none of us will ever end a sentence in a preposition or say “can,” when we mean “may.”

When I saw Miz Collins and Miz George at the funeral, I was reminded of how well they took care of us, their little flocks of illiterate sheep, of so many years ago.  They did more than teach us the rudiments of grammar and the building blocks of mathematics.  They also taught us to tuck in our shirts and to say “Yes Ma’am” and “No Sir,” and “Please” and “Thank you.”  They taught us to respect ourselves and to respect others.  They kept us safe, they lead us beside the still waters of knowledge; they created a space in which our minds could grow.  They were good shepherds.

That image of those tough, kind, independent, and bossy women as “good shepherds” was helpful to me in thinking about today’s Gospel Lesson, where Jesus says of himself, “I am the good shepherd.” For those of us without any direct experience of sheep and shepherds, this analogy falls a bit flat.  If we’re honest, we’re not exactly sure what being a shepherd actually entails, not would most of us be able to tell a good shepherd from a bad one without a lot of help from someone in the know.

It’s important to know that even Jesus is not directly referring to himself as a keeper of sheep; rather he is tapping into a long standing image used by the Hebrew people to refer to the kings, priests and prophets of Israel.  These people were seen as having been given responsibility by God to take care of the people, God’s flock.  And as many of them failed in this assignment, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with tales of bad kings and false prophets.

When Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd,” he is contrasting himself with all those previous leaders who had been poor and incomplete shepherds, no better than hired hands really.  By contrast, Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, the one truly ready to “lay down his life” for the good of the sheep. Of course, that is what Jesus eventually did upon the cross, and it was that act of laying down his life for the sheep, all God’s people; which are, after all, all people from every time and every place – that created the new community, the new flock, that we call the church.  In this new flock, we are all both shepherd and sheep – called of God to care for each other and for the world.

Most of us have seen the Hollywood movie, “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.”  The movie only told part of the story.  Behind the movie is another, more important story.  In his book, “Miracle on the River Kwai,” Ernest Gordon says that Scottish soldiers, forced by their captors to labor on a jungle railroad, had degenerated to a level of barbarity, of animalistic behavior toward each other in a struggle to survive.

One afternoon, a shovel was missing.  The officer in charge became enraged.  He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else.  When nobody in the squad budged, the officer took out his gun and threatened to kill them all, there, on the spot.  It was obvious the officer meant what he said.  Then, finally, one man stepped forward.  The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and proceeded to beat the man to death.

When it was over. The survivors picked up the bloody corpse and carried it with them to a second tool check.  This time – no shovel was missing.  There had been a miscount at the first tool check.

The dead man was innocent.  He had voluntarily died to spare the others.  What was it Jesus said, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep?”

That’s not the end of the story.  The fact that someone had died to save for them worked a profound change on the prisoners.  As one of them said, “we wanted to be worthy of the sacrifice.” Rather than compete with one other in order to live, the prisoners began to treat one another as brothers, looking out for each other and taking care of each other.

When the victorious allies swept in and liberated the prison camp, the Japanese guards were terrified.  They fully expected to die, to be executed on the spot.  Their former prisoners, not little more than skeletons, lined up in front of the guards and began to shout. “No more hate.  No more killing.  What we need now is forgiveness.” The Japanese guards are stunned, and broke down weeping.

(Source: Phillip Yancey “Rumors of Another World”)

Sacrificial death had transformative power.  The death of an anonymous prisoner transformed the POWs from isolated and competing individuals into a community who cared about and for one another.  The sheep became shepherds to one another.

This one man’s sacrificial death also transformed the way the prisoners saw their captors.  When the war was over, they chose to treat their oppressors as lost sheep – not as ravenous wolves.  They saw them as the “sheep not from this flock,” that Jesus spoke of and decided to forgive them and love them.

We are invited today to reflect upon the sacrificial death our good shepherd died for us. We have an opportunity to open ourselves up to the transforming power of the gift of new life, letting our lives be changed by the Risen Christ living in us and in this community.  We are called to continue the work of the good shepherd, caring for one another, loving each other, dying a little for each other, opening doors and tearing down barriers, bringing everyone into the sheepfold, into God’s beloved flock.

Amen and amen.

The Third Sunday of Easter for Year B (April 19, 2015)

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

Acts 3:12-19

Peter sure loved to preach! (Maybe he just liked talking and couldn’t resist a captive audience.) Peter is pretty clear, when the gathered crowd is stunned and amazed at the healing of a lame man, that neither he nor John did this on their own. He immediately gives praise and credit to God — notably, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” As his ultimate purpose is to point to Jesus, this is a significant effort to tie the life of Jesus to the ongoing work of God through Israel. Peter also works in the prophets, in addition to the patriarchs — you might say no sermonic stone is left unturned! Think for a moment of the ways your knowledge of  Jesus is tied to the actions and words of those who have come before you. Who are the “patriarchs” and “prophets” in your world?

Psalm 4

“You gave me room when I was in distress.” One of my favorite lines from the Psalms. Think of those times in your life when the “weight of the world” has been pressing down on you. Is there any gift more precious than “room to breathe?” God is the God who makes room!

1 John 3:1-7

John tells the Beloved Community of the church some important things about the ways we should “be” in the world — what we should “do” as children of God. (Listen to the Lectionary Lab Live podcast for Delmer’s crusty old joke about “Do-be-do-be-do!”)

Luke 24:36b-48

At some point, we who have heard and read the Easter story dozens (if not scores or hundreds) of times might be tempted to ask, “Geez, Louise! What does the man have to do to convince these disciples that he’s really alive and he’s really real?” After hearing from the disciples from Emmaus, Jesus shows up in the midst of the group and scares…well, the bejeezus…out of everybody! They think he’s a ghost. A few calming words and a piece of broiled fish soon prove that he is, indeed, a very real presence with them. It is, once again, Jesus’ opening of their minds to the words of scripture that finally brings understanding. He also gives them the command, “…you are witnesses of these things.” The idea is that they should tell others what they have seen and heard (that’s what a witness does, isn’t it?)

How important is our own willingness to gain understanding from the study of scripture? And, what will we do with what we know?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I served in the Atlanta area in the early 90s.  While I was there, a popular radio station went through a format change.  For many years a man named Ludlow Porch had a folksy, genial, call-in talk show that sort of reminded you of his name: as you listened you felt as if you were sitting on the front porch, sipping on a glass of sweet tea or lemonade, gossiping with your neighbors about this and that.

The station decided that although Ludlow was very popular with the older, native born southerners, Atlanta was changing and they needed a new style to attract newer, hipper, edgier listeners.  So they got rid of him and brought in a minor league “shock jock,” kind of like Howard Stern.  He was rude, crude and obnoxious.  His daily topics were things like “Should Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses be shot of sight for disturbing the peace?”  He hated the church, he hated preachers.  He suggested to children that they should steal money from the offering plate and that they should sue their parents for forcing them to attend church.  When I moved to Nashville, one of the things I did not miss about Atlanta was hearing about his on-air antics.

Imagine my surprise when a few years later I read in a religious journal this item.  “A radio station “shock jock” who made regular, hateful diatribes against Christians has professed belief in Christ. (The DJ) was converted after leaving the station in a contract dispute and taking a job as car salesman. In an address to a church convention . . . (he) said he was impressed by the quiet witness of a fellow salesman.” Hmm, “quiet witness.” Must have been a Lutheran, don’t you think?

In one way or another, all of our lessons remind us of our call to be “witnesses,” to tell to others what we have seen and heard of the mighty deeds of God acting in Christ.  In Acts we read, “. . . whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” (verse 15)  In First John, the writer gives his witness, carefully differentiating between what he doesn’t know; “what we will be has not been revealed” and what he does “What we do know is this, when he is revealed, we will be like him . . .”(verse 2) And in the Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds the disciples of why he came, ‘to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, (verse 46) what must be done, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in his name to all nations  ,” (verse 47) and what their roles is to be, “You are witnesses of these things.” (verse 48.)

Yes, they are witnesses and so are.  And it is okay that most of us are quiet witnesses, like the man who was instrumental in the conversion of the shock jock in Atlanta so many years ago.  About a month ago an old preacher died somewhat quietly in Blue Ridge, Georgia.  His name was Fred Craddock and he was well-known among preachers and a few other folks.  Years ago he wrote a book called “Overhearing the Gospel.” He wrote about how people respond best to indirect and gentle witness, things they can observe and hear and think about on their on time and in their own way.  This is what being quiet witness is about, telling the truth as you know it and nothing more.

Witnessing is the telling of personal experience, what we ourselves have seen and heard and felt. When one is a witness in a court of law, the lawyers and judges generally don’t care about your opinion about what you think might have been the motivation for what happened – no, they simply want to know what you know, what you saw, what you heard.  How many times on Law and Order have we heard a lawyer say, “I object, calls for a conclusion from the witness.”  In witnessing, we don’t have to draw conclusion or make arguments – all we must do is tell the truth as we know it.  In a Christian context, this is not just any personal experience, rather it is the story of our experience with the word of life, the Risen Christ. For us to be a witness requires simply that we be willing to tell the world about our encounters with the Living word of God.  It is up to others to draw their conclusions in God’s own good time.

It was in seminary that I became friends with an African-American preacher named Larry Blackwell.  We lived and had churches in the same small town about 35 miles from the school we both attended and we car-pooled in together most mornings.  It was he who taught me the traditional preacher’s refrain, “Can I get a witness?” used to invite response from the congregation.  That Jesus’ question to us today:

“Can I get a witness?

Can I get somebody to tell my story to the world?”

“Can I get a witness?

Can I get somebody to tell their neighbor about the love of God in Christ?”

“Can I get a witness?

Can I get somebody to live a life of joyful service, loving friend and enemy alike?”

“Can I get a witness?

Can I?”

Amen and amen.

The Second Sunday of Easter for Year B (April 12, 2015)

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

Acts 4:32-35

There have been any number of movements to have us “get back to the early church.” Even the early church was trying to “get back” to the way Jesus did things. Here, the most radical idea is that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.” Makes sense, since Jesus owned nothing and lost what little he had to the gambling soldiers at the cross. Working out from that point, the church discovered that — together — they owned just enough to take care of one another. Nobody was too rich, and nobody was too poor.

Not sure how well that flies in our contemporary culture — but, that’s what it says! How will these words challenge you (individually, and all together) in considering what it is that you “own?”

Psalm 133

This is a power-packed three verses! Dwelling together in unity has always been a challenge for God’s people. But when it works, it really cooks! The pouring of oil is a sign of “anointing” for a purpose — in this case, the setting aside of Aaron as high priest among the Hebrew people. Taken in the context of kindred dwelling together, we might well see an illustration of our common call — our anointing — to be bearers of the steadfast love of the Lord in a world filled with discord, disunity, and all around dysfunction!

The dew from Mt. Hermon becomes the source of the headwaters of the Jordan River, which then flows and waters the whole land of Israel. It literally is the source of life. So, apparently, is the sense of God’s dwelling among us — with us — and flowing through us into the lives of others. What does it mean to you to think about being called as a bearer of God’s love and life-giving blessing to others?

1 John 1:1-2:2

John brings it own down to the “getting real” level of life. The story of Jesus is not just a bunch of theological mumbo-jumbo; it’s all about the things we have felt, heard, seen, and experienced. When it’s time to “share your faith,” this passage is a great model! Don’t worry if you don’t know all the “right words.” You know what God has meant to you, and that’s the gospel truth that we have the privilege of passing on.

John 20:19-31

The story of developing faith among the disciples after Easter continues in this week’s gospel text. We saw last week that John, Peter, and Mary Magdalene all had different experiences at the empty tomb. They each had to make up their minds about what to believe, in their own way, space, and time. Now, we get Thomas — the “give me the facts” guy — who can’t quite believe just based on the experiences of others. He has got to know it for himself.

Thomas is not so much a doubter as he is a realist. He’s practical. He doesn’t rush into something that he can’t fully commit to. I kind of admire him, when I stop and think about it. But his “coming to faith” is, in the end, not so much a matter of adding up the facts as it is encountering Christ face-to-face. Are there any ways that we, who will never “see” Jesus like Thomas did, still have an opportunity to encounter Christ for ourselves?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When you hear the word “church,” what picture comes to your mind? Just close your eyes and think “church?”  What did you see? A large neo-gothic cathedral? A picture perfect white frame building with arched windows and a high steeple? Perhaps a sturdy brick building with a bell tower? Maybe something more modern; with soaring glass walls and sharp angles vaulting toward the sky? Maybe a community gathered around a Word and Sacrament, sitting in folding chairs in a room used for something else most of the time?  Perhaps a stage with people playing drums and guitars and people with closed eyes and upraised arms singing words of praise? What do you see when you hear the word church?

I’d almost be willing to bet none you saw fifteen or twenty scared and lonely people, huddled behind closed and locked doors, whispering among themselves, jumping out of their skins at every noise from the outside. Whatever our image of church is, it usually doesn’t include locked doors and frightened people.

Yet that is the picture John paints of the very first church. First Church, Jerusalem: gathered together on that first Sunday after Jesus’ death, huddled and hiding, trembling and terrified, lonely and loveless. They’re not much of a church; no organ, no pews, no pulpit, no stained glass windows, no joy, no praise, no word, no sacrament. Nothing but a room to meet in and memories to talk about.

“What was it he said at Supper the other night? Something about the bread being his body and the wine his blood? Peter, what did he mean by that?”  “Did you hear what Mary Magdalene and the other women said? They said they went to the tomb this morning and Jesus’ body was missing, the stone was rolled away and the body was missing. And Mary Magdalene said she saw the Lord?”
“Well, sure, did anybody check her breath to see what she’d been drinking? She saw Jesus alive this morning? Right!  And so on.

They talked, they fretted; they worried themselves sick about what it all meant and what the Roman soldiers or the Chief Priests might be up to. And maybe, just maybe, somebody in the room was praying, but it’s not likely.

Doesn’t sound like much of a church does it? Preaching professor Tom Long said they are a picture of the church at its worst, “scarred and scared, disheartened and defensive.” Long wonders what sort of advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members?

THE FRIENDLY CHURCH WHERE ALL ARE WELCOME?  Hardly. Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality.

THE CHURCH WITH A WARM HEART AND A BOLD MISSION? Forget it. This is the church of sweaty palms and shaky knees and a firmly bolted front door.

Here is a church that has almost nothing going for it, has practically no claim to being church except . . . . except that when they gathered, the Risen Christ pushed through the locked door and stood among them.

That is what turned that little group of scarred and scared people into the church, the Presence of the Risen Christ in the room. It wasn’t anything they did or didn’t do, it wasn’t anything they said or didn’t say. Church happens when the gathered community pays attention to the presence of the Risen Christ in the room.

And, when that presence is ignored, nothing of any consequence can or does happen. It was the disciples’ awareness of and attention to the presence of the Risen Christ that made the difference then; and it is our awareness of and attention to the Presence of the Risen Christ that makes the difference now.

Jesus comes to us today, Jesus comes to us showing us his love for us by showing us the wounds he has suffered on our behalf. Jesus comes to us offering us peace and the fiery breath of the Holy Spirit. Jesus comes to us, to tell us, I love you and I have great plans for you!

Are we paying attention?

Amen and amen.

The Resurrection of the Lord (Easter Sunday) for Year B (April 5, 2015)

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“No! Wait! He’s Up!”

When I was in elementary school one of my favorite programs was what my brother and I called “The Wrestling Show.”  Whenever it was on, we parked ourselves on the floor as close as possible to the television set to cheer on our heroes Johnny Weaver and George Becker as they battled the evil Rip Hawk and Swede Hansen.

This was real low-rent entertainment, nothing like the arena spectacles they show now.  There was just a wrestling ring in a room in the High Point NC TV studio, with a couple of rows of fans sitting in folding chairs on one side.  The announcer was Charlie Harville, who also did the local sports news and play-by-play at high school football games and the occasional supermarket ad.

When I got older I figured out that the matches were carefully scripted morality plays in which you could rely on the bad guys to be gleefully nasty and to always cheat and the good guys to be clean-cut and moral and admirable representatives of truth, justice and the American way; but when I was nine it was all very, very real and very, very exciting.

The script always went like this.  Things would start out even, then the good guys would start to get the upper hand, then the bad guys would start cheating, the good guys were being thrown around the ring like rag dolls, one of the bad guys would put the good guy’s head between the ropes, the other bad guy would get out of the ring and grab a chair and hit the good guy with it.  All the while the announcer would be saying things like, “Oh, my goodness!”  “This is bad!”  “I don’t see how Johnny will get out of this.”  Then one of the bad guys would pin the good guy on the floor and the referee would start counting the three count and the announcers would say, “He’s down, he’s out, this is over! There’s no way out of this! No! Wait! He’s up!” And the good guys would miraculously recover and win.

It may seem silly, but “No! Wait! He’s up!” is the first thing I think of every Easter morning.  Long after I (mostly) forgot about TV wrestling, I remembered Charlie Harville screaming into the microphone “No! Wait! He’s up!” and the startling and exuberant “terror and amazement” of feeling utter and complete sadness and despair transformed into unexpected joy and hope.

The two Marys came to the tomb expecting to find a dead body that had been unceremoniously shoved into the grave before dark on Friday.  They assumed Jesus was dead; no they “knew” Jesus was dead, they had seen him die, they had seen or heard about his trial and torture, they had followed at a distance while he carried his own cross through the city to the place of execution.  They knew about all that had happened, and Mary Magdalene had followed the burial detail and knew where he was laid.  They had no doubt that Jesus, their Lord and Messiah, was dead.

And with him, all their hopes and dreams for a new day had died also.  The bad guys had won. The Devil, the Romans, the religious status quo, those with a vested interest in things staying like they were, the list could goes on and on, down through the ages.  For the Marys and the disciples and crowds who shouted Hosanna last Sunday, it was over.  It was done.  Yes, the bad guys cheated. Yes, the bad guys were cruel and nasty and gleeful as they executed in their evil schemes.  And none of that mattered, for they had won.

Evil had won and good was not only down for the count, good had been completely counted out and dismissed for ever.  “Oh my goodness. It’s over, it’s hopeless; there’s no way out of this.”

And then the Marys came to the tomb.  Instead of having to find someone to roll back the stone, they found it already moved.  Can’t you see them looking at one another in surprise and not a little wariness, perhaps wondering what new indignity Jesus, even in death, had been made to suffer.

Tentatively, they enter the tomb and saw a young man, dressed in white, casually sitting there, apparently waiting for them.  “They were alarmed,” Mark says. What an understatement!  Any one of us would have been scared out of our wits.

And then the young man looked at them and said, “No! Wait! He’s up!”  Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but that’s what he meant.  He actually said, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised.”

Life gets pretty heavy sometimes, doesn’t it?  Personal issues begin to weigh us down.  Health concerns for ourselves or a loved one.  Death intrudes on all our lives from time to time and we can feel ourselves almost overwhelmed by grief.  Finances have been tough for many the last few years and you begin to wonder how many times you can rearrange your money to make it last, to get by. Like the wrestling announcer said, “Oh my Goodness. It’s over, it’s hopeless, there’s no way out of this.”  And the Gospel says to us, “No! Wait!  He’s Up!”

The state of the world can get alarming.  It really doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican (or neither), Fox News of MSNBC; there is plenty going wrong in the world for us to fret about.  We can all look at ISIS and Russia and the Ukraine and the rebels in Nigeria and continuing racial unrest in America and the impasse in Washington, and the environment, and, and, and . . .  and throw up our hands and echo Charlie Harville “It’s over, it’s hopeless; there’s no way out of this.” And the empty tomb says, “No!  Wait! He’s up!”

The message of Easter, the message of the Resurrection of Jesus, is that God never gives up in the battle between good and evil.  To those who say that power and violence is the way to live, God answers with the weakness and sacrifice of the cross – a call to live as a servant people humbly caring for others in imitation of Christ.  And when the world apparently wins, when evil has the upper hand and beats us down, which it inevitably will– the Gospel calls us to look not only to the cross but to the empty tomb, to remember that on the other side of our cross there is the Christ.  With “No! Wait! He’s Up!” in our hearts, we can live each day free of fear as we go out among the dangers of this world to love and serve our Lord by loving and serving our Lord’s beloved children.

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear . . All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Acts 10:39b, 43

Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen indeed!