Year A: The Resurrection of the Lord (Easter Sunday — April 20, 2014)

Click here for today’s texts

Click here for The Lectionary Lab Live podcast [ENCORE PROGRAM with Bishop Julian Gordy, Southeastern Synod ELCA]

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

(Reprinted with permission from The Lectionary Lab Commentary: Stories and Sermons for Year A)

Acts 10:34-43
Love Wins, the recent book by evangelical pastor Rob Bell, has climbed as high as #2 on the New York Times bestsellers list and is currently #8 in the “All Books” rankings on Amazon.com. It has also raised the hackles and the blood pressures of countless detractors and supporters as the (perhaps uniquely “modern”?) debate over eternal destiny and the “will of God” has heated up.

What does Peter say in his post-Easter message, referring back to the mighty events of that first resurrection Sunday?

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality,but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him…. God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…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.”

What does it mean to believe on Easter?

Show up for church in a shiny new outfit? Cling to faith like a well-worn security blanket? Hope, desperately and against all odds, that it will all work out okay in the end, God willing? Pray a “sinner’s prayer” someone told you about?

As one of the pastors of my youth used to say: “Whatever blows your hair back!”

Peter also says, “We were witnesses…how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed… for God was with him.” Hmmm, maybe the example of the Christ himself is what we take away from what it means to “believe” on Easter!

Jeremiah 31:1-6
Thank you, Jeremiah, for recording these eternally passionate and significant words: Thus saith the Lord, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
It is a virtual certainty that Jesus, as a Jewish rabbi, knew this “hallel” psalm very well and, most likely, used it in personal and corporate worship. It takes on extra significance on this Resurrection Sunday with phrases like, “I shall not die, but I shall live…” and “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.” ( vv. 17, 21)

It is worth noting that the Christ’s foundation for faith and trust in God is the same as ours, in v. 1: “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!”

Colossians 3:1-4
One of the great rhetorical scenarios of the scripture occurs here — “if you have been raised with Christ.”

Well, people of the resurrection…have we, indeed, been raised with Christ? Then our manner of thinking and living has been set and settled! “Seek…set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

John 20:1-18
Lots of sermons and commentary available on this text…and with good reason! What a beautiful, tender, compassionate encounter with Jesus; feel your own heart rend with the words, “Woman, why are you crying?”

Easter tends to be a bright, blaring, almost boisterous celebration in most of our churches…again, with good reason! But remember that there will be parishioners in our pews who have come, — amidst the egg hunts, wardrobe parades and homiletical fireworks you are sure to unleash — with tears on their cheeks and heaviness in their hearts.

Jesus longs comfortingly to speak their names, too.

Matthew 28:1-10
Here’s the “fireworks” version of the story (see commentary on John 20, above.)

Earthquakes…lightning…rolling gravestones…shaking and quaking…”dead men” walking and angelic visitors. Matthew’s dramatic telling has it all!

But this story is not ultimately about Hollywood-quality special effects — it is about worshiping at the feet of Jesus and hearing his firm assurance, “Don’t be afraid!”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

About fifteen years ago I attended a funeral in Nashville.  It was for the sister of a parishioner who was also an acquaintance of mine.  It was a lovely and unique service, because this particular United Methodist Church was a lovely and unique congregation.

As I sat there listening to the prayers and the sermons and the family eulogies I thought to myself that Holy Saturday was a perfect day for a funeral.  Just as the church sits uneasily poised between Jesus’ death on Good Friday and the joyous news of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning – these family and friends sat in church that day, precariously balanced between the facts of her life and the hope of her resurrection.

The service was a little long by Lutheran standards and the room was a little warm, and some of the eulogizers took a little while to get to the point, and my folding chair was a little hard, and well, I started to get a little sleepy and distracted.

Anyway, I shifted my weight and stretched my neck and when I did I spotted something: up to the right, high up on the wall, almost to the ceiling, was a big, black, square speaker, tilted out from the wall.  And there was something red squeezed in behind the speaker, wedged in between it and the wall.  I stared at it for a while until I finally figured out what it was – a big, red, heart-shaped balloon. No doubt it had drifted up there during some congregational event and no one had been clever enough or brave enough or industrious enough to get it down.

Those familiar with Roman Catholic piety will easily figure out what popped into my mind: The Sacred Heart of Jesus.  It was a strangely comforting thought for a protestant minister, the love of Jesus peeking down at us, half-hidden behind that speaker.

As we gathered and shared very human thoughts and feelings about life and death and grief and hope; that red, heart-shaped balloon helped me remember that God was there too; mostly hidden, lurking in the background, looking in on us with love.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that that little balloon behind the speaker was a metaphor for the life of faith we live each day.  We are here this Easter Sunday to celebrate an unusual thing – an empty tomb. We are not here because of what the women and the disciples did find on that first Easter morning.  We are here because of what they did not find.  They did not find the body of Jesus.

Martin Luther frequently talked about what he called Deus absconditus, “the hidden God.” He said that all of us try very hard to find God in the world, but God plays a game of peek-a-boo, of keep-away, of hide-and-seek, with us.  We look for God in happiness, or success, or in healing power, or in financial security, or in material bounty.  And then our health fails, or we lose our possessions, or we become depressed or unhappy and we cry out like Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” We wonder, sometimes to ourselves in the middle of the night, or out-loud with our friends and loved ones; “What did I do to deserve this?  Where is God in my misery?”

And it is at this very point that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection; the awful cross and empty tomb, begin to speak to us and reveal to us the hidden God who saves.

God is hidden from us, and will be until we are able to let go of all else and place our trust in the love and power that emptied the tomb.  When we have turned that corner we will begin to see signs of the risen Christ all around us.  Not in wealth, or power, or even human happiness; not in success in the world or applause from the world.

No, we will begin to see the signs of God in the risen body of Christ in the world, in the community of saints and sinners gathered around word of love and sacrament of hope.  We will see God in the unconditional love that parents have for children and which the rest of us try to have for each other.  We will see God in the selfless sacrifice of friends who come to our aid in times of desperate need.

We will see God in the lives of saints like Desmond Tutu and Teresa of Calcutta and in the lives of saints like you and like me; we whose sinful humanity often hides the risen Christ who now lives within us.  We can and will see God in the saints behind us, and before us and beside us.

We will see God in the little miracles that fill all our days, like red balloons at funerals that shout out to the heavens, Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed!

Amen and amen.

Year A: Maundy Thursday/Good Friday

A BONUS SERMON FOR HOLY WEEK
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

At a preaching seminar a few years ago I heard Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie, former chaplain to the US Senate and longtime pastor of First Presbyterian in Hollywood, CA. tell about a time he was in a jewelry store in LA, picking up a new watch battery.

While he was there a young woman came in and asked to see some crosses. The clerk took her to a display case and proceeded to show her a selection of large, expensive crosses;  like the fashion accessory crosses worn by hot actresses and hip rap stars. The young woman said, Oh, I don’t want anything like that. I want an everyday cross.

AN EVERYDAY CROSS, she said. And when Dr. Ogilvie told that story, I began to wonder, “What is an everyday cross?” And more importantly, I thought, “Does she, do I, do any of us, really want one?”

All of us want, I suppose, the Cross of Christ in our lives. We want the salvation that Cross promises, we want to know that our sins are forgiven, our failures are forgotten, our souls rescued from the pit of Hell by Jesus’ death there on that awful instrument of torture and execution. That Cross and its benefits we know we want in our lives.

But what about an everyday cross? What about a cross that is uniquely ours? A cross that we pick up in obedience to our Lord’s invitation to take up a cross and follow Him? Is that a cross we want?

I remember a time back in the sixties, back in the days before cable TV and state lottery, back when we were all more easily entertained, they had the Super Market Races on TV. They were sponsored by a supermarket chain and worked something like this: they showed taped races from New York and California horse tracks and the stores ran specials and gave out prizes depending on which horse won. My late father-in-law used to tell a joke about two farms boys (we’ll call them Bill and Jack)watching the Supermarket race after supper one night. Bill said, “I bet you $5 horse #3 wins.” And Jack said, “You’re on!” Sure enough, #3 won. Bill grinned and said, “Aw, I can’t take your money. I saw it last night on the other channel and knew #3 won.” Jack replied, “Go ahead and take it. I saw it too, but I didn’t think he could do it again.”

Those of us here today, hearing again the story of Jesus’ crucifixion are like those two farm boys; we have already heard this story and we know how it comes out, we already know about the Resurrection, we already know who wins. And the issue of FAITH comes down to this, either we believe he can do it again, or we don’t!

You see, it is one thing to sit in a lovely, awe-inspiring naves and sanctuaries and look back at the Cross of Christ as an historic event, over and done with; and to profess our faith that Jesus died there  and three days later rose again.

It is quite another thing to hang on the other side of the cross, to hang where the Cross is still a present event, and to profess faith in Jesus. That is where the question of whether or not we truly want an everyday cross is a real question.

That is where the two thieves are, hanging with Jesus on the other side of the cross, where the end of the story is still in doubt. We are mistaken if we see the Cross of Christ as a past event, over and done.  Each of us, in one way or another, hangs upon a cross with Christ.

It may be a personal cross, a cross of suffering and illness, or a cross of shame and embarrassment, or a cross of loss and confusion, or a cross of fear and frustration. It may be a cultural cross, a cross of rejection and alienation, a cross of being an outsider in an insider’s world, of being the wrong gender or color or nationality or orientation.

It may be a cross of caring, a cross of being aware of the suffering and pain of others, of being concerned for those who are poor or oppressed or hungry or unjustly imprisoned.

Whatever it is, somehow, someway, each of us hangs there on our everyday cross with Jesus, and the question of faith is: We have seen this race before. We know God brought Jesus forth from the grave; do we really and truly believe God can and will DO IT AGAIN?

That is the essence of faith; that is truly what Martin Luther meant when he said that a true Christian theology is a Theology of the Cross. Do we indeed believe that there is Hope in our hardship, Salvation in our suffering, Redemption in our rejection,  Everlasting life in OUR everyday cross?

Can we look from our cross to the Cross of Christ and cry out from the bottom of our hearts:

JESUS, REMEMBER ME WHEN YOU COME INTO YOUR KINGDOM!?

AMEN AND AMEN!

Year A: Palm/Passion Sunday (April 13, 2014

Click here for the Liturgy of the Palms
Click here for the Liturgy of the Passion

Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Liturgy of the Passion
(as featured in The Lectionary Lab Commentary: Stories and Sermons for Year A available on Amazon.com)

Isaiah 50:4-9a
As we enter Holy Week and reflect on the suffering of the Lord, vv. 7-8 perhaps give us a glance at the source of Christ’s determination and strength in the face of scorn and abuse. “The Lord God helps me…I know I shall not be put to shame…he who vindicates me is near.”

Good words with which to pray for these, or any days.

Psalm 31:9-16
In a similar vein, the first half of the psalm reading reminds us vividly of the separation and sorrow experienced by the Lord; this is one of the places we point to when we hold forth the claim that Christ experienced the full depth of what it means to be human. Life is filled with pain!

However, the closing sentences once again point to a different and deeper reality in the midst of the pain — “I trust in you, O Lord…let you face shine upon your servant. Save me in your steadfast love.”

Like Christ as he prepared to face the cross, unless God saves us, we are lost!

Philippians 2:5-11
The ancient “Christ Hymn” lays out for us the cycle of submission, suffering, salvation and exaltation that Jesus has undergone “for us.” Remember, though, that this is not just the work of the Savior: we are invited to have “the same mind” that was in Christ Jesus. 

God’s work in the world — which requires these same qualities of submission and suffering in order to see these same results of salvation and exaltation — is OUR work.

In what ways is God calling us to submit and to suffer?

Matthew 26:14-27:66
The lengthy (and weighty) reading of Matthew’s text hardly needs commentary; the story speaks for itself, as it were. One thought that occurs to me is that we often peg Judas Iscariot for “selling out” in his betrayal of Christ. “How could he do that for 30 pieces of silver?” we often ask.

But, Judas is not the only one who “sells out” in this story: Peter, who boldly promises what no disciple had ever promised before (“I’ll die for you!”) sells out and denies Christ three times; James and John “sell out”– they can’t even pay the price of a little lost sleep!

The high priest and the Jewish council “sell out;” when they can’t find any real evidence against Jesus, they just rent some testimony. Pilate “sells out” when he tries to dodge his decision by releasing Barabbas; the “angry crowds” sold out by first screaming for Christ’s crucifixion and then by deriding him and shaking their heads.

The brave Roman soldiers even “sold out” in their job performance, bringing the whole cohort* (probably 500-600 men) in to observe the brutal beating of this single, solitary “criminal.”

Only a couple of characters manage to stand up for Jesus in this story: Simon of Cyrene, who may or may not have had a choice, but nevertheless bears the cross of Jesus; and a Roman centurion who is the only person in the story who seems to “get it.” His commentary stands in stark contrast to the rest of the scene: “This man was God’s son!”

Bottom line: there’s plenty of blame to go around here — it’s not all on Judas. We might want to consider that as we gather with the crowds in our own lives this week. Will we “sell out” or will we “stand up?”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cohort_%28military_unit%29

Liturgy of the Palms

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Psalm 118 gives the background of the “festal procession” (v. 27) witnessed in the gospel account of the Palm Sunday parade.

Matthew 21:1-11
There is perhaps no greater irony in all of the Bible than the crowds gathered on Sunday, shouting “Hosanna!” and assembling again on Friday, screaming “Crucify him!”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In today’s Gospel readings; the first telling us of Jesus  of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the second vividly portraying his trial and crucifixion; we have a laid out before us what Martin Luther and other Reformers identified as the two theologies which have competed  for our allegiance down through the ages.

One is the Theology of Glory – which  looks for God in the good, the beautiful, the strong and the powerful.

The other is the Theology of the Cross- which  looks for God in exactly those places where we feel God’s absence: in pain, in humiliation, in suffering, in weakness and foolishness and death.

A Theology of Glory is concerned with health and happiness and prosperity.  A Theology of Glory centers on what God can do for us; how being a person of faith can make us more popular and powerful and successful.  At the time of the Reformation, it was centered on the penance and relic system.

Today it spreads out across the “spiritual but not religious” folk who swear that breathing right and arranging your furniture correctly unleashes your power;  it moves through the Babylonian captivity of the Mainline Churches in the Land of Pseudo- Social-Science gurus who will tell us everything from how to raise money to how to get more members using the results of the latest research and business techniques,  and on to the evangelical cult who find their wisdom in the land of Christian Bookstores filled with books like “The Purpose Driven Life,” or “How to Unlock the Bible’s Wealth and Prosperity Principles.”  A  Theology of Glory is all about power and control and winning and living large.

A Theology of the Cross is concerned with God, with who God is, and with what God wills and with what God has done for us on the Cross and with what God calls us to do in response. A Theology of the Cross is concerned with what looks like failure, with what appears to be disaster, with what seems to be the utter and complete absence of God in our more desperate and trying moments.

A Theology of Glory centers on some formulation that makes the difficulties of our lives okay, makes everything all right, that somehow turns the evil and hurt we experience into a moral good, in the long run, in the overall scheme of things. A Theology of Glory has to have God, and us, in control and good always winning.

A Theology of the Cross makes no attempt to either justify of condemn, to either find God’s hand or lament God’s absence.  A Theology of theCross points and weeps and realizes that we humans are of so very much in the need of the grace of God. A Theology of the Cross brings us to the stark realization of our own mortality and imperfectability, or our need for rescue from outside ourselves.  A Theology of the Cross calls a thing what it is, Luther said;  death is death, Sin is sin, horror is horror, suffering is suffering.  There is no window dressing that can make them anything else. And yet, and yet, it is in the stark, cold cross that we are saved.

In our text from Philippians, we see Jesus modeling for us that which we are called to do – for salvation is not just about the Cross of Christ; it is also about the Cross of Delmer and the Cross of Jane and the Cross of John  and the Cross of  . . . .  put your  name in that blank.

Jesus showed us the way.  We have been called to follow him on that way.  For Jesus, that meant giving up whatever glory he had – and he had it all:  Glory, power, wisdom, you name, he had it and he let it go.

The word translated into the phrase “exploited” – means “clung to,”  “held on to,” “clutched at.”  Jesus had everything and instead of clinging desperately to it, he opened his hands and his life and let it go.

Many of us spend our lives striving and self-improving and working and networking and dieting and working and investing and saving to get what Jesus had and let go. The “Spiritual but not religious” folk who encourage us to seek the holy within, to get in touch with our inner divinity, to ascend to the level of our own holiness; have gotten it backwards. “Equality with God” is not a thing to be sought, but a thing to be let go.

Jesus went further, not only did he give up all the power in the universe; he completely emptied himself of it, got rid of it, purged it, flushed it, threw it away, Jesus then became as we are, and then went further than most of us are willing to go; he became a servant to others, a slave.

In completely humbling himself – he went from being everything to being nothing.  From being in charge of the universe he went to being in control of nothing; from being the agent of creation he went to being de-created by dying upon a cross. And there, there dying on the cross as the ultimate servant of humanity is where we will find God – or rather where God finds us.

For it in in our own crosses that we find ourselves driven to Christ for salvation – it is when we stop chasing after whatever it is we think will justify our existence – it is when we release ourselves from the relentless pursuit of success and happiness that we take as every American’s birthright – it is when we open our hands and let loose of that knot in the end of our existential rope – that God can begin to come to us.

When we let ourselves become more human and then more fallible and then more frail – when we move beyond just being ordinary into an intense awareness of our sinfulness – when we begin to die with Christ – then we begin to become converted.

For to be a Christian is to die and rise with Christ – there is nothing that can save us but the cross – there is no place we can turn for help but to the cross – there is no way to God but the way of the Cross.

But we must not just sit back and passively accept the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross.  That is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” God’s grace is free, but it is not cheap. We must imitate Christ in dying to the old self.

Christ’s act of saving us began in the incarnation – the letting go of heaven and the embracing of being human,  including the human fate of suffering and death. This is dying we are talking about.  It is not easy.  It is painful and arduous and time-consuming.   Once we have turned our faces to follow the way of the cross, we discover each day new things about ourselves that need to die in order that a new Christlikeness can be born within us.

To be saved is to follow Christ to the Cross, knowing that the old person you have been must dieand not knowing if you will survive, but knowing only that you cannot go on as you are.  To be saved is to give up on your “self” and place everything in the hands of God.

Upon the Cross – Jesus said both, “Into your hands I commend my spirit!”  and, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To go to the Cross is to go to one’s spiritual death because one must, without sure knowledge of what comes after.

It is in that moment when we despair of saving ourselves that God can save us.

We are called to the Cross.

We are called to die to who we think we are.

We are called to cease our endless rounds of striving.

We are called to conversion.

We are called to death.

We are called to life.

We are called to Christ.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fifth Sunday in Lent (April 6, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Ezekiel 37:1-14
The rich texts selected for this Sunday invoke a number of themes: life and death, hope and despair, help and abandonment, etc. You almost have to choose one set of ideas and use them as a lens through which to read the texts. One such theme, or lens, that strikes me is the places that God meets us in order to do, or accomplish, God’s work.

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 130
The psalm text starts in the pit — and moves from there.

Notice that, again, we have a speaker for God expressing hope for God’s help while waiting in a difficult situation. Are you beginning to sense a theme, here?

Verse 6 is evocative, especially for anyone who has ever experienced waiting up all night, praying that the morning light would come and that “things will look better tomorrow.” There is certainly a ring of truth to that. The psalmist says that waiting for God’s redemption while in a deep, dark place is like that.

Ever been in a pit, waiting for some help from God (or anyone else, for that matter?) What did it feel like when help finally came? Why is it that we associate help from God most often with the low places in our lives??

Romans 8:6-11
Paul writes about another contrast of places that God does God’s work: the flesh and the spirit. I don’t think the point here is so much that God wants NOTHING to do with the flesh, and EVERYTHING to do with the spirit. After all, scripture teaches us that God created our flesh and called it, “good.”

Rather, I think Paul wants us to understand that flesh is, by its very nature, limited — especially when we forget that it is God’s spirit — the same word is translated as “breath” — that God placed into each of us. The spirit and the flesh are designed for co-existence. The spirit needs the body in order to “flesh out” God’s will for our lives. And the body certainly needs the spirit in order to receive the guidance and sense of the mind of God.

A person can become so overbalanced in the “spiritual” direction that they fit the stereotype of “so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.” So, balance, folks…balance is what we need!

What kinds of things help to keep you in balance in your physical and spiritual life? Are there any warning signs that you should pay attention to in either (or both) of these areas?

John 11:1-45
Dr. Chilton treats this story well and extensively in his sermon (below.) The story is provocative on several levels.

  • Why does Jesus decide to stay for two more days after he learns that Lazarus is ill? Just how exactly was God to be “glorified” in Lazarus’ death and resuscitation?
  • Is Thomas really the doubting disciple that many assume him to be? In what ways is his statement in v.16 a “profession of faith?”
  • Jesus asks both Martha and Mary if they believe in him, if they trust him to do what is best. In what way is this a story about belief…and how hard it is to hold on to sometimes?
  • How hard was this experience for Lazarus? We don’t get much of his perspective, but coming back through the portal from death into life certainly demanded a level of belief and trust in what Jesus was doing that is unparalleled by any other experience expounded in the scripture. We may blithely assume that being made “alive again” in the way Lazarus was in this story is a good thing — but, then again, maybe not. Once on the “other side,” would any of us really like to come back into this life of sin, sickness, hurt …not to mention decaying bodies?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My grandfather had a very sly wit, one that snuck up on you.  He used to tell a story about a man who died.  They had the funeral at his home, with the preachers and immediate family on the porch, mourners standing in the yard and an open coffin in the back of a mule-drawn wagon.  After several sermons and much weeping and gnashing of teeth, the widow climbed onto the wagon seat next to the undertaker who drove the wagon up the hill to the family cemetery. The road went underneath the limbs of a very large oak tree and the wagon bumped heavily on an exposed root.  At that moment, the “deceased,” snorted and coughed and sat up in the casket – not dead but alive, having been in a deep coma, apparently.   Some years later, the man died again.  His funeral played out exactly like the previous one. As the wagon neared the oak tree, the widow leaned over and whispered to the driver, “Why don’t you go wide around the tree this time?”

Every time I read the story of the raising of Lazarus, I think of Grandpa’s little tale.  In particular, I think about two things – 1) in both stories there was someone (or some ones) who would have preferred that the corpse stay dead, and 2) it always makes me wonder how the deceased felt about coming back to life.

Some of the people were not happy that Jesus had brought Lazarus back to life. There is a hint of their discomfort in verse 37, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  Things get really heated in the aftermath – in the verses following our reading.  There the writer contrasts those who believe with others who “went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.” What follows in verses 47-50 is a scene of cold, political calculation. They cared nothing for the fact that Lazarus had a new lease on life, that he had been restored to the arms of his loving family and friends.  No.  All they cared about was that a person like Jesus would upset the political and social balance of power, might upset and frighten the Romans and, in the process, threaten the elites own positions of wealth and influence.  So they decided, “Better for him to die than all of us,” and the wheels were set in motion for the death of Christ.

Does Jesus frighten you?  More importantly, does the gospel of Jesus Christ threaten to upset your life?  If it doesn’t, you haven’t been paying attention – either to the Gospel or to your life.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when Christ calls us, he bids us to come and die.  That is meant both figuratively and, ultimately, literally.  We are called each day to die to selfishness and privilege. We are called to regularly examine our lives and let go of all the many ways we resist Christ by holding on to our dignity and our precious individuality.   Christ calls us to drop those things so that our hands will we free to pick up our cross of servanthood and our lives will be free to follow Christ in a life devoted to serving others.  If that does not frighten us and threaten our sense of security and our plans for a safe and leisurely retirement – then we have failed to understand the nature of what it means to be a Christian.  If we’re honest, most of us would rather drive the wagon of our life in a wide loop around that particular tree.

Which leads me to my thought about how the deceased may have felt about being recalled.  I don’t know what Lazurus’ life was like before he took sick and died; but from the fact that Jesus loved him (vs.3) and his sisters grieved him so, and the whole community turned out to mourn with them, he must have been quite a guy, with a pretty good life. So, though we don’t know much about what happens after death, given the fact that Lazurus appears to have been a righteous person and considering all the stories of the tunnel of light and the warm, loving presence who receives you that we’ve all heard – I just imagine Lazarus settling in to eternity quite happily.

And then he gets the call, “Lazarus, come out!” and there’s a whoosh, and a movement faster than the speed of light and then, instead of being in warmth and light and love, Lazarus finds himself back in a cold, dark tomb, bound head to foot in burial cloths and about to gag on the stink of his own rotting flesh.   I don’t know about him, but I’m thinking that  if it had been me, I would not have been happy about this.  And, eventually, he will hear the story about how his good friend Jesus, who loved him, let him die and rot in the grave, so that Jesus could demonstrate his divine Son of God healing skills.  After all – isn’t that what Jesus said and did?  “What kind of Messiah is that” Lazarus thinks, “who will let you die so he can show off?”

How often have we found ourselves wondering what God is doing in our lives?  We love God, we trust God.  We love Jesus, we trust Jesus.  But sometimes one has to wonder.  And the reality is, as it says in Ezekiel, the wind, the breath of God, the spirit of God, blows where it will when it will and we are never totally sure when and where that will happen; or where that wind might blow us and what it might do to us and through us.  Just as God used Lazarus to show forth Jesus as the Son of God, full of God’s power and glory and love; God uses us in the same way – and often times we are no more aware of what we’re doing and no more responsible for its success than a corpse in a tomb.  God acts in and through us just as God acted in and through Lazarus.

We are bid this day to die and live with Christ.  We are called to come out of the dark tomb of our fear and hesitation; we are commanded to unbind ourselves from the limitations imposed by our desire for stability and success.  Dying to self and embracing God’s future, we are invited to step out with Jesus and Lazarus and all the saints into the grand adventure that is life after death, an adventure that that begins now and continues through the grave into eternity.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 30, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

1 Samuel 16:1-13
God’s conversation and calling for Samuel functions on many levels; in the context of today’s readings, it is most likely about “seeing what God sees” and not what we are prone to focus on with our own eyes. It might be fruitful to discuss a bit about how God’s perspective differs from our own. What can God “see” from God’s vantage point over life that we might not be able to? How do things look “down here” on the ground as compared to the view “up there” from on high?

Of course, the real place that God looks is “on the heart.”  What does this evocative phrase mean, do you think? When God looks “on” or in to any of our hearts, what does God see?

Psalm 23
There are very few texts in the Bible that are as well-known (and, one might say, well-worn) as Psalm 23. Yet, like so much else of scripture, there is always something new to be seen. Personally, I had never thought about the depth of the darkness in v.4 — traditionally translated as “the valley of death.” Here, it is the darkest valley. Either way, not much light!

Combine that with the previous statement in v. 3 — “God leads me in right paths…” I may not be able to see a thing because of the darkness that surrounds me (literally or figuratively.) But, I don’t have to find my way alone, anyhow; God (who has excellent night vision, one must assume) is choosing the path. My feet will not slip!

Do you have any personal experience with trying to find your way in the dark? Have you ever slipped and fallen because you couldn’t see where you were going? How helpful would it have been to have a guiding, steadying hand to lead you along?

Ephesians 5:8-14
Another great text about dark and light — and about seeing and not seeing. I love the emphasis in v. 10: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” In other words, don’t feel bad that being a Christian (and acting like one) doesn’t come with an instruction manual — at least not one that is readily digested in Seven Secret Steps to Spiritual Success or Ten Tremendous Truths to Help You Triumph or some other contrived-sounding sermon title you may have heard!

The spiritual life takes work, discipline, effort — and time! Paul was famous for comparing growth in the Christian life to that of a newborn baby. Babies have to find out what is good for them — and, when they do, they’ll let you know about it! If you’ve had some setbacks in your spiritual walk, join the crowd! Believe it or not, even your pastor has not gotten it right all the time. Pastors are, in fact, sometimes a sorry lot of sinners who stand as much or more in need of redemption as their church members!

In the meantime, with the light the Lord has given us, we try to help one another “find out what is pleasing to the Lord” — and then we do that. It’s a good plan.

How have you been helped along the way by another Christian to do something that made your spiritual life stronger — and, perhaps, more pleasing to the Lord?

John 9:1-41
Man, oh, man…is there lots to talk about in this story!

It’s so long that one of the best approaches I know is simply to read it — I like having members of the study group “read around the table,” taking a few verses at a time, or having different people read the “parts” of different characters — and then to comment on what you’ve heard.

What do you think the blind man learned from his experience with Jesus during this story? What about the parents of the blind man; what did they think, feel, and/or learn from this encounter? What is going on in the minds of the Jewish rulers, who are obviously getting more and more upset with Jesus? And, finally, what additional comment do you think Jesus himself would offer if you could have talked to him right after all of this happened?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“The disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?Jesus answered them, “Neither this man this man nor his parents sinned . . . “ John 9:2-3a

Seminary professor Haddon Robinson tells the story of a young woman who talked to her pastor about her sin of pride. She says, “Pastor Jill, every Sunday I come to church and look around and think to myself that I am the prettiest girl in the church. I try to stop but I just can’t. Am I horribly sinful?” Pastor Jill looked at her and said, “No dear not sinful; just horribly mistaken.”

In today’s Gospel lesson, the disciples come to Jesus to talk, not about their own sins, but the sins of others. Wondering whose sin caused the young man to be born blind. Jesus tells the disciples that they are horribly mistaken.  We all understand their question.  All pastors have gone to visit the hospital after someone has had a heart attack or a terrible auto accident or a diagnosis of cancer and the question comes, “What did I do to deserve this?”

A few weeks ago my mother called me with what she calls “a preacher question.”  She has a pastor, but since he’s a part-time at their church she doesn’t want to bother him, so she calls me, assuming I have more free time, I suppose. She said, “Help me know what to tell Bill Smith’s grandsons. He was 61, died this week.  They’re 6 and 9 and always sit with me in church.  They want to know why God killed Grandpa. What do I tell them?”

My son, told me over dinner a few years ago that God was punishing him for going off his Lenten discipline. He had given up fast food for Lent but had dinner in a Burger King on the way to a basketball game and got food poisoning. I really couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not, but told him his worst sin in this case was blaming God for fast food.

In the wake of the earthquakes and tornados and tsunamis and other natural disasters, some TV preachers always decide they have to figure out what sins the people had committed that caused God to punish them.

And to all of this Jesus says, “You are horribly mistaken.”

The most important theme of Lent is “turning to and fro with God;” turning from fear to faith, from sin to grace, from the world to God, from the dark to the light. And focusing on the sinfulness or saintliness of others distracts us from paying attention to our own relationship with God; our own turning to and fro.

In the early Twentieth Century, The Times of London, a newspaper read all over England,indeed all over the world; invited famous writers to answer the question:

What is wrong with the world? In response, they got many long essays spelling out the problems and also, as a bonus, the writer’s assessment as to who was to blame.

God, the Devil, the Church, the Communists, the Fascists, White people, Black people, Asians, Hispanics, the Jews, the Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, the Moslems, and the Americans. It was women, men, “The Older Generation” and “These Young People Today.”

Christian writer GK Chesterton wrote:

Dear Sirs, 
What is wrong with the world?  I am.
Sincerely, 
GK Chesterton

We all sometimes need this reminder, because all of us are sometimes “horribly mistaken”about the sins of others and the sins of ourselves. We have an unfortunate tendency to believe our sins are easily forgiven, but those of others, well, “…not so much.”

In the series of novels about the small town of Harmony, Indiana, Phillip Gulley’s Quaker preacher often reminds his parishioners that, “every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”    Although those of us who are Lutherans remember Luther’s words about being “saint and sinner at the same time;” we often act as though our saintliness is better than that of others and our sinfulness not as bad. We appear to believe that, if it were only our sins that mattered, then Jesus would not have had to die on the cross; just a good, stern talking to would have taken care of it. It was the sins of others that caused Christ to die. But we are “horribly mistaken.”

And the Good News is – God knows who we are, God knows what we have done, And God loves us anyway. And there is no mistaking that.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Third Sunday in Lent (March 23, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 17:1-7
The opening line of the Exodus text is as ironic as it is true to life — “From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages….” Though Sin in this verse is simply a place name and not a description of our lives apart from God, there is something to the notion that we do fall into the trap of “sin” by stages. None of us ever sets out on any particular day to do something bad or horrific; we often move into dangerous and hurtful behaviors one step at a time. (Okay, that little free sermon is done for!)

The issue here is really one of trust in God — again! One would think that, since the Israelites had fairly recently been delivered from Pharoah by fairly dramatic action (see Exodus 14) and had been fed when they were hungry by the miraculous provisions of manna and quail (see Exodus 16) — that they could have been expected to exert a modicum of faith in God when the time came for them to be thirsty. Alas, we humans seem to have very short memories and/or attention spans when it comes to having our needs met by others (including God!)

God’s proposal for slaking their thirst is unique, to say the least; God will stand in front of them and provide water from a rock. Just another, everyday miraculous occurrence. How many miracles does it before one is able to trust wholeheartedly in the care and provision of God, do you think?

Psalm 95
The psalm reflects the experience of the Hebrew people in the wilderness; God was, indeed, a “rock” of salvation when God brought the water into their midst. God’s care is compared to that of a shepherd for his sheep — an image that occurs frequently in scripture (the word shepherd is  used well over 100 times.)

What motivates a shepherd to care for the sheep? What motivates God to care for God’s people?

Romans 5:1-11
It’s something of an old preacher’s joke: anytime you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, you should find out what it’s there for! That’s actually pretty good advice. A brief glance back into chapter 4 of Romans tells you that Paul just finished speaking about placing our faith in the promise of God — a promise made to Abraham, carried through the long line of Jewish successors, and fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Therefore – because of all that has gone before — we have peace with God. The passage goes on to list a number of other “benefits” of the faith that we place in Jesus. What are some of the other things listed here that follow this important therefore?

John 4:5-42
We have a very long story here — in fact, this is the longest recorded encounter that Jesus has with one individual in any of the gospels. There are lots of ways to look at the story:

  • It is an illustration of the lengths to which Jesus will go to reach out to just one person
  • It is an example of a very conversational way to “witness,” or share our faith with another person
  • It is a model for breaking down cultural, religious, and social barriers
  • It is a reminder that “nobody’s perfect,” and that we can all get a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance at life
  • It is a demonstration of the power of a positive example in the midst of a community

What is the most interesting thing that you notice when you read or hear this story?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was ordained many years ago in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in a church not far from Fort Bragg.  An old college friend drove several hours to be there.  After the service that evening, he gave me a ride to the house where I was staying with another friend during the clergy conference that was to begin the next day.  Our route took us through a part of town where “working girls” offered their services to GIs.  We came to a stoplight, and they spotted me sitting there in his open-bodied Jeep.  I was wearing a black suit and clergy shirt.  Several of them came over to the car and began talking while we waited for the light to change to green.  I said to my friend, “Get me out of here or this might be the shortest clerical career on record.”

He laughed as we drove away and then he said, “Well Delmer, I’m just a lowly English teacher, and you know I don’t go to church very much, but the way I read the Bible – aren’t those the very people you’re supposed to hanging out with?”  I’ve known the man a long time and I still hate it when he’s right.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is hanging out with one of the wrong people; actually a woman who is wrong in multiple ways:  she’s a Samaritan, she’s a woman, and she’s a woman with a past.  Three strikes and you’re out; except, not when the umpire is Jesus.

Today, Samaritan is a good word – mostly because of Jesus’ story about the “Good Samaritan.”

I found out recently there’s a club among people who do a lot of vacationing using RVs:  it’s called the “Good Sam” Club.  But in Jesus’ day there was a great deal of well; plain out hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans.  It’s a family thing.  Somewhere along the way – they got split off into two groups, both claiming to be continuing the “true religion of Abraham.”  The details don’t matter for this sermon, it’s enough to know that Jews didn’t usually travel in Samaria, and certainly didn’t sit around chatting pleasantly with Samaritans in the middle of the street in the middle of the day.

Add to that the woman thing. In that day and in that culture, no holy man would dare to be seen alone with a woman.  We understand; then as now, people can get the wrong idea.

No, a man didn’t sit around talking to a woman, particularly if the woman, like this one, had a questionable moral character.  The text doesn’t say why she had had five husbands, but the line -   “and the one you have now is not your husband” hints that she is a person with somewhat loose morals.

So she had three strikes against her – and Jesus ignored all three strikes.  He is sitting alone at the well, hot and thirsty and the woman approaches with the means to get water from the well, and so, Jesus asks her for a drink.  And the woman could not have been more shocked if he had asked her to fly him to the moon.  She was just as aware as he of the things that stood between them, and she could not believe that he had chosen to ignore all those social barriers in order to speak to her.

She says, naming two of her three strikes, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  And just so we don’t miss the point, the writer chips in with an editorial comment – Jews do not share things with Samaritans.

After some confused conversation about water and living water and her personal life comes up and Jesus still doesn’t blink, doesn’t reconsider or clam up; he just keeps talking to her – about religion and true worship and the Messiah and just then the disciples show up, and to drive the point home even more, the writer tells us they were “astonished” to see him talking to her.

The Greek word translated astonished here carries with it the implication or the hint of fear; it is used when something has happened that no only surprises but also frightens.  What are the disciples afraid of?  The Samaritans?  The Authorities?  The future?  Change?  What?

There are more than a few questions in this story for us.  We need to ask ourselves if there are any social barriers we are afraid to cross in answering God’s call to spread good news about Jesus into all the world?

If there are, we need to ask ourselves further – What are we afraid of?  What might happen?  What might change?  What might we lose?  What might we gain?

The end of this story shows the woman going back to her village to talk to her friends and relatives about what has happened to her; about the man who ignored all the reasons to say no in order to say yes to talking to her.  She doesn’t try to convert them or convince them.  Indeed she witness with a question.  “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Just as Jesus talked with the woman as an equal and as a friend; that is all we are called to do as we share with the world our encounters with the holy.  It is not required that we either explain or expound – all we are asked to do is tell and invite.

I have often wondered in the last 35 plus years; what might have happened had I – instead of sitting silently in that Jeep, in my black suit and clerical collar, Bible and Prayer Book clutched tightly in my hands – what might have happened  had I smiled and turned to those women and said “Hello, my name is Delmer. Would you like to talk?”  Maybe nothing; maybe for one of them, everything.  We’ll never know – because I was too astonished and afraid to try.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Second Sunday in Lent (March 16, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 12:1-4a
Sometimes, it’s helpful to realize when the scripture is telling us a “story within a story.” There are two great examples of this today, with the reading in Genesis and the gospel account from John.

On the one hand, this brief passage in Genesis is about the straightforward calling by God of a man named Abram. God wants Abram to do some big things — beginning with leaving behind his comfortable, familiar life and departing for a place that he has never lived before. God assures Abram that he will be shown all that he is to do, and that there will be a “blessing” in it for him. (The word here in Hebrew, barach, is the same word used for the way we are to worship — literally, “kneel before” — God.) God intends to something very weighty and important in the life of Abraham.

Abraham’s response is obedience — hence, in v. 4, “So Abraham went….” Good story, good lesson.

But there is a deeper intent on God’s part here, one that may go right by us if we don’t pay attention. True, God desires to “bless” Abraham for his faith and obedience — but the deeper purpose of God is to bless “all the families of the earth” through Abraham. The blessing of God is not a thing for Abraham to hold on to too tightly; it is bigger than just his own life.

Do you think that there is any connection from Abraham’s call to obey God, and to receive a blessing, and the call of God in our own lives? If so, what about the issue of “being a blessing” to others in turn? What purposes might God have for your life — so that others might receive the blessing of God through you?

Psalm 121
Due to the extremely popular translation appearing in the King James Version of the Bible, verse 1 in this psalm has often been interpreted as encouraging us to “lift our eyes to the hills” in order to look for help in the difficult moments of our lives. I love the hills and mountains as much as anybody, but the translators of that beautiful text missed the point (literally — the punctuation in the text is misplaced!)

“I lift my eyes to the hills” is something of an act of wonder and questioning — one might even say, exasperation. In the midst of a difficult moment, the psalmist asks, “Where does my help come from?” Will I ever get any help here? Am I on my own in trying to sort out this sometimes messy event known as life?

Then, after the question, comes the answer. “No, I’m not alone — because my help comes from the LORD, the Creator of heaven and earth!”

Notice that the rest of the psalm is an indication of the ways that the psalm writer gives testimony of God’s presence all around. Day and night (sun and moon,) waking and sleeping, going in and coming out — in all of these places, God is present. God helps!

As you reflect over the circumstances of your own life, can you see times and ways that God was present with you, a “very present help in trouble?” (cf. Psalm 46)

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Paul references the story of Abram (who was later called Abraham) as he continues a discussion of what makes a person “right” with God. At issue is the idea of earning a payment, versus receiving a gift. The apostle feels that God’s grace to Abraham — and to each of us — is the latter. We have received the gift of God in the form of righteousness in the same way that Abraham received it: by faith.

What does it take to “believe” that God loves us and offers us the gift of salvation? What does your own faith look like and feel like?

John 3:1-17
Now, for a classic conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is identified as a Pharisee (basically, a member of a particular “denomination” of Judaism) and that he is a “leader” among his people. He wants to understand more about the kind of “signs of the kingdom” that Jesus has been performing in and around Jerusalem (see the previous chapter 2 in John’s gospel.)

Jesus moves the conversation to the ultimate sign of God’s presence — a “new birth” that comes from above. Nicodemus misunderstands and thinks that Jesus is speaking of a “second birth” according to the physical nature. Jesus responds that having a new life from God is much more like feeling the wind blow than it is being “born again.” It is a bit unpredictable — and certainly uncontrollable — but you definitely know it when it happens.

Again, we see that there is something of a “story within a story” unfolding as these two men talk; Nicodemus begins the conversation in the dark (literally.) As Jesus reminds and encourages him to take a look around at the working of God all around him, the light dawns on Nicodemus. Just in case we might miss it, Jesus sums it all up in the famous words of John 3:16-17. God has always loved the world, and has always wanted to see the world saved from perishing. Hence, the opportunity for a “second birth” — a second chance — a new life!

What does it mean to you to be born of the Spirit? How does the coming of Jesus into the world affect the (evidently) long-held plan of God to bring redemption for all creation? To put it another way, how is it that Jesus accomplishes the salvation of the world — as best you can understand it?

Matthew 17:1-9

This text was discussed for the Sunday of the Transfiguration (available here.)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In his book, Following Jesus without Embarrassing God, Tony Campolo tells a story about Randy Johnson, who was President Lyndon Johnson’s nephew.  Randy was a mediocre quarterback on a mediocre Oklahoma State football team.  Nobody would have noticed him except for the fact that he was LBJ’s nephew.

It was 1966 and Oklahoma State was close to finishing another bad year, except for their final game against arch-rival Oklahoma, a top ten team on their way to a bowl game. State should have been beaten easily, but you know how it is with big rivalries; it was a close game right down to the very last.  But with 8 seconds left Oklahoma State was behind by 6 points, it was raining hard, and they were 80 yards away from the goal line.

The coach called time-out and sent in all the seniors so they could finish the game on the field.

He said to third-string quarterback Randy Johnson, “Call any play you want.  It’s over.”  When they came out of the huddle, the coach couldn’t believe his eyes.  They were lining up for play 13.  Play 13 was a trick play they never used in a game for one simple reason – it had never worked in practice.  But, they ran play 13.  And it worked.  They went 80 yards on that one play and kicked the extra point and won the game.  While fans stormed the field and players jumped up and down, the coach just stood there in shocked disbelief.

In the locker room, the coach asked Randy, “Why?  Why did you call play 13?  And Randy said, “Well Coach, we got in the huddle and I looked at old bill and there he was injured for two years and never getting to play much and now it was all over.  He had tears running down his face and I looked and saw his number was 8.  Then I looked around and there was George and he had come to practice and worked hard for four straight years and only gat to play one or two times and now it was over and there were tears running down his face and I looked and his number was 7.  So I added 8 and 7 and got 13; so I called play 13.”

The coach just stared at Randy a minute and said, “But Randy. 8=7 isn’t 13 – it’s 15.”  Randy thought a minute and said, “Well coach, if I was as smart as you, we would have lost the game!”

Campolo concluded, “Sometimes the ‘correct’ answer is not the ‘right’ answer.”

When I read in John about the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, I sometimes feel like I listening to Randy Johnson and his coach discuss Play 13. Nicodemus is looking for the correct answer, Jesus is trying to give him the right answer, and poor old Nick can’t seem to make “the math work.”

He, like many others, is looking for correct answers to life’s many questions.  I’m guessing he would prefer something along the lines of “10 things you can do to guarantee your place in God’s Kingdom,” or “Get closer to God the Rabbi way – Four weeks to a holier you.”

Instead he gets riddles along the lines of 8+7=13.  “You must be born again” or was that, “you must be born from above?”  Either way, it doesn’t make much sense.   How can one crawl back in the womb after one has grown old?  I don’t get this.

Like Campolo said, “Sometimes the correct answer isn’t the right answer.”

Just like Nicodemus – we look for correct answers, proper answers, appropriate and sensible answers to life’s many questions.  We want things to be logical, to be sensible, to be grounded in good research and proper documentation.  And then we read the Bible and hear Jesus talking about being “born from above,” and the “Son of Man,” being lifted up like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, and then we have to look up that strange story about the Exodus and Israelites being rebellious and bitten by snakes and getting sick and dying and then Moses makes a bronze serpent and puts it on a pole and carries it through the camp and people look at it and get healed and this is like Jesus; oh, I see that’s like Jesus on the cross and, and, and . . .it’s enough to make your head spin.

But like Campolo said, “Sometimes the correct answer is not the right answer.”

Because the Son of Man being lifted up is the right answer, and it’s not an answer any of our human logic or philosophy or science would have come up with.  It is the moral equivalent of 8+7=13.  Though God in Christ going to a cross to die for us makes no sense in human terms – by divine calculus it is the right answer every time.  Because it is most certainly true that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Amen and amen.

Year A: The First Sunday in Lent (March 9, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Every detail has a purpose when it comes to reading scripture. One might well wonder what the purpose of the serpent is here. There has been lots of ink spilt over this passage, but for today, I’m going to go with the idea that somebody had to introduce temptation — choice between what’s right and wrong — into the idyllic scene in Eden. If you never know that you have a choice, it’s hard to say that you have free will.

And so, the serpent — in this account, a creature of God like everything else in the garden — is given the task of inserting the skillful question, “Did God really say…?” Over the years, interpreters have placed the image of Satan and the devil on this moment in Bible history, and it certainly relates to the gospel passage for today in which Jesus must face his own temptations. But try for a moment to let the story be what it is — a simple story about what it’s like to face a choice between something that looks good, seems delightful, appears to be desirable (not to mention something that will make you more desirable!) — and what you’ve always been told is a sure path to pain, suffering, heartache, and the death of openness, honesty, and trust.

Which of us really thinks that we might have avoided the first taste of the fruit?  (The text doesn’t say that it was an apple, though that is most likely what’s in your mind.) As creatures of free will, the power to choose is ours; but, the cost for such power and freedom is the “right” to live with the consequences of our choices. In the moment that we choose, we often discover that we are naked (not that there was ever anything wrong with that!)

Why do you think the first response of the man and the woman was shame? Why did they feel the need to cover themselves?

Psalm 32
The psalm opens with a happy discussion about regaining the clarity of spirit, soul, and mind that comes with the acknowledgment and forgiveness of sin. Whew, it feels good when you know you’ve been caught — or after a time of carrying the heavy weight of secret sin — to get it all out in the open and have it dealt with, doesn’t it? Even if it costs you and there’s restitution to be made, it’s all worth it just to feel “right” again.

Notice in vv.2-4 that the body is very much affected by what happens in the mind and the spirit. Have you ever experienced this? Why would the body “waste” and our spirits “groan” as long as we have a problem with sin in our lives?

Notice also the remedy for such malady, given in vv. 5-7; what does the text say is the key to gaining relief from the pain and suffering of hiding our wrongdoing?

Romans 5:12-19
The Apostle Paul, writer of the book of Romans, loved to go on and on when he was captivated by a theological idea. This series of verses is a great example of a kind of theological run-on sentence — which most of us were taught to avoid when we learned our grammar and composition! But, it is a sublime statement if you boil it down to its most basic thought.

Begin reading in v. 12, then skip over all the other stuff (good stuff, but not necessary on first reading in order to get at what Paul wants to say) and go to the last phrase of v. 19. Doing so shows you the original sentence Paul had in mind before he was struck with his biblical flight of fancy:

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned– so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

Now, with that idea firmly fixed in your mind, go back and read all the in-between stuff that Paul wrote. It’s a fabulous passage and wonderful statement of how, though we all are prone to follow the way of our ancient ancestor, Adam, who chose the way of disobedience to God, we are now able to choose the way of forgiveness, peace, and life through the obedience of Jesus Christ.

Ooh, I almost felt like taking off on a little flight of fancy myself!

Matthew 4:1-11
This passage serves as the scriptural basis for our practice and observance of Lent for the next 40 days (Sundays excluded.) Jesus spent this intense time in the wilderness facing questions about his identity as the Son of God. The temptation — or “testing,” as the word may be translated — was to demonstrate just how strong was his resolve to choose, time and again, to follow the will of God.

We might say that Jesus spent these 6 weeks seeking to understand just exactly who he was and what God wanted him to do. That is our purpose in Lent, as well; we seek to take the extra time to focus internally on our spiritual state, and externally on the will of God as revealed to us in scripture (notice that Jesus repeatedly used the resource of scripture in his encounter with the devil) and in the life of our Savior.

An excellent Lenten discipline, as you study scripture with others for the next 6 weeks, would be to keep a notebook (or laptop) with your thoughts and answers to these same two questions: what do I understand about who God wants me to be? What am I learning about what God wants me to do?

If you undertake this effort, you may be very powerfully surprised at what you will learn when you flip back to read your notes some time after Easter.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was with a group of clergy the other day and heard about an acolyte who caught her hair on fire during communion.  I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I think it had to do with a relatively small chancel, lots of candles including torches in floor-stands, and longish hair.  At some point she got too close to a candle and her hair caught on fire.  At first people just smelled it, then she turned to one side and the choir saw it, then the assisting minister saw it and started beating it out with his hands while family members got up from their pews and headed for the front.  After it was all over, someone commented to her about how calm she had been and she drew herself up and said, “I AM an acolyte and acolytes DO NOT panic!”

It is good to know who you are and how it is you are expected to behave. Our Gospel Reading from Matthew turns on those very questions of identity.  While Jesus was in the wilderness, fasting and praying, he wrestled with bedeviling questions of identity; of what it meant to be “the beloved Son of God.”

In last the verse of Matthew, chapter 3 – following Jesus’ baptism, we hear God’s voice from heaven proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Then today’s reading starts, with Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where the devil begins to work on him.  The devil does not question whether or not Jesus is the Son of God – that’s not what “if you are the Son of God” means in this text.  It’s more like, “If you are the Son of God, (and I know that you are).”  Perhaps something like “since you are the Son of God,” gets at the meaning better.  The devil is attempting to lead Jesus away from the true path into an almost true path.

First, the devil tried to get Jesus to use his powers to satisfy his own needs. “Since you are the Son of God,” why don’t turn these stones into loaves of bread. Jesus was fasting, so it is reasonable to assume that he was hungry.

Then, the devil tried to get him take an easy way to calling attention for his message.  “Since you are the Son of God,” why don’t you throw yourself off the temple?  God won’t let you die and people will know who you are and listen to you.

Finally, the evil one put aside all pretense and said it plainly, “Worship me, and I will let you rule the world.”

All of these temptations have an almost rightness about them.  Stones into loaves; feed a hungry world.  When you throw yourself off the temple and the angels catch you, everybody will know you are the Son of God; they will really listen to and obey you. Rule the world; wow, you can legislate morality, create peace with justice, usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But, but.  These temptations also have an air of desperation about them.  “Okay, I’m the Son of God.  What do I do now?  My father expects a lot from me, and I’m not totally sure about what it is I’m supposed to do.”

While Jesus is fasting and praying and thinking these things, the devil comes and offers his “suggestions.”  And Jesus responds, “I am the Son of God, and the Son of God does not panic.”

The Son of God trusts the written Word of God and the Holy Spirit to lead him to a clear awareness of who he is and what it is he is called to do.

Lent is a time for us to fast and pray and think about questions of identity and mission; of who we are and what it is we are to do.  And like the acolyte with her hair on fire, we must not panic.

We must firmly say “I am a beloved child of God, and children of God do not panic!”

Just as the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism, the Spirit also came upon us.  Just as the voice from heaven claimed Jesus as God’s beloved Son; at our baptism words were spoken that made it clear that we too are claimed and loved by God.  And just as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, we too have been led into a time of prayer and fasting.

Both as individuals and in our congregation, it is important for us to take this time to look at our lives, to reflect on the gifts God has given us, the abilities God has blessed us with, the opportunities and relationships God has laid before us, and ask ourselves, “Am I, are we, using these things for ourselves only, or are we using these gifts to reach out to and serve the world in God’s name and with God’s love?”

As a congregation, are we anxious about our future, anxious enough to attempt desperate measures to make the world notice us again?  As a Christian people in an increasingly secular nation and world, are we so concerned about pushing our agenda that we will engage in political strong-arming to get our way in the public square?

Or, are we sufficiently confident in our identity as children of God, trusting enough in God’s love and guidance; to step out into God’s future full of energy and enthusiasm for whatever mission and ministry God has in store for us.

I close with a prayer that is found in the service for Evening Prayer in both the Lutheran Book of Worship (p. 153) and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (p.317)

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Sunday of the Transfiguration (March 2, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 24:12-18
All of the texts for today are coordinated in support of the gospel account of Jesus’ transfiguration. The presence of Moses certainly figures prominently, and the account from Exodus gives us a glimpse of Moses as the one who is called into the presence of God in order to receive an important message for the people. There are a number of important symbols, or clues, to be considered here — the mountain, the cloud, the fiery presence of God. All of these are reflected in the Matthew account about Jesus on the mountain.

The numbers in this passage are quite interesting to consider, as well; 40 days and nights is a “biblical standard” for a holy experience, as this is the time that God caused rain to fall on the earth (a form of cleansing) in the time of Noah, as well as the number of years that Israel would wander in the wilderness due to their disobedience to God’s command to cross over and take possession of the Promised Land. Jesus was in the wilderness for the same 40-day period during his fasting and temptation by the devil.

The six days of waiting by Moses, before he is summoned into God’s presence on the seventh day, provides a mirror image of the creation story; God worked for six days, then rested. Moses now waits for six days, and is given his assignment on the seventh. This six days plus one is reflected in the gospel account, as well.

It might be fruitful to discuss this idea of “waiting” before God in a time of spiritual preparation, especially since we live in such a hurry-up world — one that is based on “fast” food and “instant” gratification. Are there times that we particularly ought to consider slowing down and simply waiting in the presence of God in order to have our hearts tuned and our spirits reset to the rhythm of the holy? Have you ever experienced moments like this? How did it happen — and how can we experience them in our continuing walk of faith?

Psalm 2
This psalm comes from the corporate life of the nation of Israel — it was used on the occasion of the anointing of a new king. The word for “anoint” is the root word for messiah, or by the time of the New Testament, christ. In each setting, it means an individual that is set apart for a special purpose — often, the king (or priest) would be anointed with oil as a symbol of God’s blessing on their life.

For Israel, this holy calling — anointing — was a sacred moment; Psalm 2 quickly became identified in the Christian community as picturing the life of Jesus. The lines that jump out on this day include v.7 : “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” This is, of course, nearly verbatim in the account on the mountain when the voice from heaven speaks about Jesus.

What do you think it means to be anointed (chosen) by God for a special purpose? Are there ways that each of us — and, perhaps, all of us — are anointed and chosen by God?

Psalm 99
The second piece from Psalms also contributes language to the background of the transfiguration scenario: the mountain of the Lord, the pillar of cloud, the presence of revered leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Samuel.

Why is it important for our faith to see continuity in the ongoing work of God throughout several generations, and over the course of many years? Are there particular revered leaders, or “saints of the faith,” that you look back to and draw inspiration from?

2 Peter 1:16-21
Peter was there; writing now as an elder statesman of the faith, Peter says, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty!”

What he doesn’t say is, “And we didn’t get it!” The gospel story tells us that Peter might just have missed the deeper point that God was trying to make with the whole transfiguration event. As a man of action (usually along the lines of “open mouth, insert foot”) — Peter wanted to rush into a display of worship and awe over the scene displayed before him. Notable and noteworthy. But God really needed him just to get quiet and pay attention to what Jesus was saying — not to rely so much on his own efforts.

The more mature Peter now advises, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Wait; listen; pay attention.

Peter closes his admonition by reminding us of the power of listening to God together, in community. The words of scripture and the experiences of worship and service are not intended as lone actions by solitary Christians. We really do need each other!

What have been some of the most important and/or formative times with others in your Christian experience? Has there ever been a time when you learned the value of speaking less and listening more?

Matthew 17:1-9
There are so many excellent opportunities for discussion around this story! You might take a few moments to think and discuss:

  • Why does Jesus select Peter, James, and John from among the other disciples to come up with him “by themselves” for this experience on the mountaintop?
  • What is the purpose of Jesus’ transfiguration? The word is the same root as our English word metamorphosis — “a change in form.” Do you think it was more a case of Jesus changing form before the eyes of the disciple, or perhaps of his true nature being revealed?
  • What symbolic meaning is added by the appearance of Moses and Elijah?
  • Go back and read Matthew 3:17; compare it to verse 5 in this passage. What is consistent about the message given by “the voice from heaven?” Is there any difference in the two passages?
  • How significant is the touch of Jesus in v.7?
  • After the fireworks of the transfiguration, the scene returns to just Jesus and the disciples. Why?
  • Why does Jesus tell them not to tell anyone else about this event until after the resurrection?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My older son is a science guy; his parents, a preacher and a social worker, most decidedly are not. This became very clear to us one day when he was seven.  My wife and the boys were fishing in a little pond in our sub-division.  The sun was setting and the western sky was full of colors; red, purple, orange.  The four year old asks, “What makes the sky so pretty?”  Mom answers something about God creating natural beauty for our enjoyment and to remind us of the presence of the holy in the world around us.  And the seven year old says, “Well, Mom, actually it’s just the sun reflecting off dust particles and moisture in the atmosphere.”  Like I said – a science guy.

The Transfiguration is one of those stories in the Bible that mystifies us. If we had been there and saw what Peter and the others saw, we would probably have been terrified as well.  As it is, we can stand back from the story and try to figure out “what really happened?” We want a “dust particles and moisture” answer, and there isn’t one. And looking for such an explanation will keep us from seeing some very important things going on in this story.

A more fruitful question for us to think about is “Why did Matthew think it important to tell us this story?”  And “Why did he tell it to us in this way?” This is one of those times when it’s important to step back and look at the big picture, at the overall story of Jesus, and the ways Jesus’ story connects with the story of Moses.  Matthew’s gospel has as an underlying theme the idea that Jesus is a new Moses and the writer employs many parallel images in telling us about Jesus.  The reading from Exodus makes many of those connections easy to see; holy mountain, voices from heaven, clouds, fire, over shadowing.  Even Peter’s suggestion of the dwellings recalls the Feast of Booths, a Jewish festival during which people lived outside in little tents to recall the time when the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness – following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Focusing in a little closer, we remember that we’ve heard that voice, those very words before.  When was that?  Oh yeah, it was at Jesus’ baptism, at the beginning of Jesus ministry.  And right after he was baptized he went into the wilderness to wrestle with Satan over what it meant to be the Son of God.  And here we are, after a couple of years of teaching and preaching, at the Transfiguration.  Just before this, in chapter 16, Jesus has asked the disciples his famous, “Who do people say that I am” question.  This leads to Peter’s famous “You are the Christ” statement.

After this, Jesus explains that being the Christ means he is to suffer and die, and you will recall, Peter didn’t like that idea and protested, which lead to Jesus’ even more famous statement, “Get behind me Satan,” which is an echo of his time of temptation in the wilderness.

And now, we come to this day, this moment, of Jesus going up the mountain with Peter, James and John. There is a cloud, something happens and Jesus glows with holiness and divine glory, and Moses and Elijah appear talking to him.  While the disciples shrink back in fear and wonder a voice thunders, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”  And then it’s over and Jesus reaches out and touches the disciples and tells them everything is okay.

And what are we to make of this?  Put another way, what difference does all this make to us?  Is this just a bit of the sun reflecting off dust and moisture; or is there something here about Jesus and God’s holiness, God’s beauty and, more importantly, God’s love?

At the very end of the Gospel lesson, there is this peculiar little line where Jesus tells the three witnesses not to tell anybody about what they’ve just seen and heard “until after the son of man has been raised from the dead.”

There are a couple of important things here. One is that it would be difficult to get anyone to believe you.  This would be a first century equivalent to telling people about being abducted by aliens.  It’s just too strange and pointless to be believed.  Healings and casting out demons and the feeding thousands of folk are somewhat reasonable uses of divine power; but just lighting up Jesus’ just seems kind of random, unless you were there.  So, Jesus says, just keep this to yourselves.

But, after the resurrection, this day on the mountain with Jesus is another piece of evidence about who Jesus was and is, and what God was and is doing through him. So, as we see in our second lesson, Peter backs up his preaching about Jesus and the resurrection with his testimony about the miracle he saw and the voice he heard.  Then it becomes a piece of the long story of God reaching out to all of us with a message of love, compassion and steadfast mercy.

And, truth be told, if we would take a good look in the mirror, most of us can find ways we have been changed, transfigured, by the presence of the holy in our lives.  No, for most of us,  it’s not been a dramatic change – at least not as dramatic as Jesus shining as bright as the sun, or even Peter’s change from cowardly denier of Jesus on the night of his trial to brave preacher of Christ on the day of Pentecost; but we have all changed.

Yes we have been “transfigured,” by having Christ in our lives.  We are less selfish and more generous than we used to be.  Less judgmental and more tolerant, less anxious and more trusting, we do fewer bad things and more good things. If we look back at the long story of our personal relationship with God, we will find that we have been “transfigured” by God; smoothed out, reshaped, and formed more and more into the image of Christ.

And like Peter, we called to tell the story of our encounter with the holy, we are called to give our testimony of the voice that has claimed us as God’s beloved child, and the glow of joy that fills our lives when we remember what God in Christ has done for us.

Amen and amen.

 

Year A: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (February 23, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Sometimes, we may feel the the “commandments” of God are so lofty and ideal that we can’t really hope to keep them. This section from Leviticus is a version of the more famous Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20 — but seem to be a bit more focused and “down to earth.” You might say they are kind of a practical guide to holy living.

The word holy means, “something set aside” — the idea here is that, as people of God, we live in a different kind of way because of our relationship to God. We are set apart by the distinction of who God is, not necessarily because we are special in and of ourselves. As you read through the listing of ways that God wants God’s people to act, can you think of any ways that we can and should live out these commands in our day and time? (For example, what does it mean to leave something from our own “harvest” for those who are poor?)

Psalm 119:33-40
This famous psalm contains 22 8-verse stanzas, of which this is the fifth. Each succeeding stanza, besides forming an acrostic based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, has something of a mini-theme that relates to the overall theme of the dependability and necessity of God’s word (Torah, to the Jews.) What would you suggest as the “theme” for this passage?

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Speaking of themes, the last several readings in Corinthians have followed a similar idea: God has sent Jesus Christ to be the beginning, source, and wisdom of our lives of faith. Today, we see Jesus as the foundation upon which our lives are built. Interestingly, the verses that are not included in the reading (vv. 12-15) offer additional explanation as to the materials we use during our lifetimes to construct our “houses.” We can build on the foundation Christ has laid by using things that will last, or things that will be consumed by the fire of trial.

What kind of life are you building on the foundation of your faith in Christ? Is your life one that makes Christ — who holds your life, and is in turn held by God — proud?

Matthew 5:38-48
This section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount compares quite closely to the reading from Leviticus for today (see above.) It is very much along the same kind of theme; the way you live your life as a follower of Christ, and a child of God, matters!

The word translated as perfect in v. 48 has given some people cause for consternation; if, after all, God wants us never to mess up and to always perfectly accomplish God’s will — then we’re all pretty much toast! It actually has more of the connotation of “getting [eventually] to the goal God has set for you.” Living for Christ is something of an ongoing process.

Looking over Jesus’ statements here, what are some ways that living these ideas out can help move us along the way of progressing, or growing, in our “real-life” faith?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

  • “On a scale of one to ten, how good is the pizza at the Mellow Mushroom?”
  • “On a scale of one to ten, how good is the movie “Philomena?”
  • “On a scale of one to ten, how good-looking is your brother’s girl-friend?”

I was trying to remember when the whole “scale of one to ten,” with ten being perfection, came into our normal public conversation.  The best I can do is the romantic comedy “10,” starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek.  I’m sure the scale was popular in some places before that, but it has been universal ever since.

And when we hear the end of today’s gospel lesson, with Jesus telling us to, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” most of us think “morality.”  And then we measure ourselves on a score of one to ten with ten being perfection and think, “No way I’m a ten.  I’m a six or seven at best, especially if I have to measure it the way Jesus does here in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Because Jesus sure has ramped up the goodness requirement, hasn’t he?  All this “you have heard it said but I say to you,” has put being good almost out of reach.  Last week he told us it was no longer good enough not to kill or beat up people who make you angry; now you can’t even get mad at them.

Well, today he has taken that even further and says that you can’t take revenge on people who do you wrong.  As I read this, you’re supposed to let people just walk all over you.  Turn the other cheek, give them your coat and cloak, so the second mile.  Give to just anybody who begs, with no regard for their need or their honesty or what they intend to do with the money.  Seriously?

Well, it will come as no surprise to you that we 21st century Christians are not the first people to wonder is Jesus was serious about this level of moral perfection.  Over the years a number of proposals have been put forth as to what Jesus “really” meant here.

One idea is that he intended to propose an impossible ethic. This is usually tied to the thinking of Saint Paul about how we cannot please God through obeying the “law,” and must be saved only through grace.  According to this theory, Jesus wanted us to try and fail to achieve this level of perfection so that we would recognize our inability to be good on our own and turn to the grace shown to us in the Christ.

Another idea is that the pursuit of perfection pushes us to do our best.  Something along the lines of Robert Browning’s line “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  Pushing for perfection, so it is thought, keeps us from settling for “good enough,” keeps us pushing ourselves to the limits of our abilities.

Others point to the way the Hebrew Scriptures frequently refer to both Abraham and Noah as “perfect,” and we know they were not.  Genesis is pretty blunt in exposing their various moral failures.  Their perfection was a perfection of obedience it is said.  Abraham believed God’s promise of a son through all those years of Sarah’s barrenness and even after the child was born, obeyed God in taking him to the mountain to sacrifice him.  Noah believed God about the flood and obeyed God in building the ark while others laughed and jeered. Their perfection was a perfection of obedience.

The best answer comes directly from the scripture itself, from the word itself.  The Greek word here translated as “perfect” is telios.  Its definition is “end” as in the phrase “as a means to an end.”  It refers to the ultimate and final purpose of a thing or a person.  Being “perfect” is being about the purpose for which God created you.  To be “perfect” is to be completely focused on one’s role in God’s kingdom.

This last line of the Gospel lesson about being perfect is related to the second line of our First Lesson about being “Holy as the Lord your God is holy.”  The Hebrew word here is kadash and it connotes being separated out.  It is the root of the practice of kosher, keeping the holy things separate from the profane or ordinary things.  Though “separateness” can degenerate into an unhealthy and unholy judgmental-ism, at root it is about recognizing the holiness of the ordinary, including your own ordinary life – and treating that ordinary life with extraordinary care.

Both Leviticus’ promise of holiness and Matthew’s call for perfection are rooted in grace; they are anchored deep in our relationship with God and are lived out in our relationships with each other.  Over and over in Leviticus, God says, “I am your God.”  You will do this because “I am your God.”  Not “If you do this, I will be your God.” But, “because I am your God, you will do this.”  The text says “You shall be holy.”  That’s a promise, not a threat.  That’s grace, not demand.  And it results in kind and gracious treatment of others in the real world of food and money and relationships.

In the Gospel lesson, in verse 45 – we read “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  Our treatment of others, at a level that seems so demanding as to be impossible, is simply a mirror image, a reflection of how God has treated us.  For, if the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous, surely we are honest and humble to admit that the category of the unrighteous often includes most of us.  It’s the same idea as when the Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of others.”  This text calls us to treat others the way God has treated us.

If you listened carefully to the readings today, you noticed that in Leviticus we are told to love our neighbors.  You will have also noticed that in the Gospel we are enjoined to love our enemies.  GK Chesterton observed that we are asked to love both our enemies and our neighbors because, generally speaking, they are the same people.

Indeed they are.  And God calls us to love them and treat them all like 10s on any scale we can devise.  Because all of us are 10s in God’s eyes and in God’s love.

Amen and amen.