Third Sunday in Lent for Year B (March 8, 2015)

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

Exodus gives us the Decalogue (aka, “Ten Commandments”) for today. It’s a familiar reading, if not one that is actually as well-observed as it is well-known. For use during this season of Lent, a good question might be, “How should I actually understand and put into practice the words given by God here?”

Great example here in Psalm 19 by the heavens, which “tell the glory of God” without ever uttering a word! In the days of my youth, the old saying was: remember, your life may be the best Bible some people will ever read. It was a bit corny, now that I think about it, but the point is well taken. Does my life in any way — and in what ways — “tell the glory of God?”

Corinthians reminds us that the “message of the cross” is not necessarily a logically-sound idea that will, in and of itself, impress the world around us. In fact, it sounds pretty crazy when you begin to think about it. Yet, there is a deep power that works when Jesus is proclaimed as the “crucified God.”

Good, observant Jews needed the items for Temple worship that are described here in John‘s gospel. In one way of looking at this story, the poor old livestock handlers and money changers were just providing ease of access so that God’s people could get their Temple tithes paid and offerings offered. But the whole scene had become something of an exercise in missing the point. The motions were there, but going through them had become disconnected from the very presence of God they were designed to invoke. Do we ever need a little stirring up in our own practices of prayer and worship?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I serve two churches: one Episcopal and one Lutheran.  Which means I go to a significant number of clergy gatherings.  I was at an Episcopal lunch recently when a priest who hadn’t met me before shook my hand and said, “Ah yes, Lutherans – all that Law and Gospel business.”  There are worse things to be known for, I suppose.  But, as further conversation with this really very nice man showed, there is also a great deal of misunderstanding about how the idea of “Law and Gospel,” actually works.

Some people think it means the difference between “commands and promises,” with a resulting idea that “commands are bad,” “promises are good.”   This doesn’t work.

Some people think it means Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) is Law and New Testament (Christian Scriptures) is Gospel.  While it must be admitted that this is rooted in some things Luther himself said, this really doesn’t work either.

The only way that really works – is the distinction based on how the particular word works in the life of the hearer.  “Understanding the Bible as the Word of God does not have to do so much with what a text is or with its relative position in the canon of scripture as with what it does to its hearers.” (Timothy Wingert, “Reading the Bible with Martin Luther” pp. 30 – 31)

For the early Reformers there were two basic uses of the law: the “civic” use and the “theological” use. The civic use has to do with “maintaining order and restraining evil.”  This is the world of the police and courts and judges. It comes out of God’s love for all humanity and proceeds from God’s desire that we be able to live our lives in peace and harmony.  The “theological” use is law as mirror, or law as penetrating light.  It is this use that reveals to us our sinfulness, so that we may be made aware that we have not measured up.  As Paul said in Romans 3:20 “by the law comes knowledge of sin.”

It is in relation to this second, theological use that one must be careful to distinguish law and gospel.  The law is that which terrifies and convicts; the gospel is that which comforts and relieves our terror.  The law shows us our sin, the gospel forgives it; the law brings death, the gospel brings us back to life.  One and the same scripture can do both, depending upon the hearer. The selfsame Word can both convict of sin and lead to faith.

Luther made a helpful distinction between Word as noun “a word that labels,” and the Word as verb, “an action word.”   God’s Word, both Law and Gospel is a verb, a word that acts.  The word of the law acts to convict and kill, the word of the gospel acts to make us new, to make us alive.

An off-hand remark over coffee while I was teaching a polity class at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta got me to thinking.  A student said, “Think about how the Israelites, as ex-slaves, heard the commandments.”  She went on to talk about how the former slaves of the Egyptians would no longer be compelled to do their masters’ bidding.

All too often, the Ten Commandments are seen as Law only, as being God’s gift of restraint upon our human tendency to sin (civic use), or as a measuring rod against which we are sure to come up short (theological use).  What if the Law, the Torah is not only “Law,” but also “Gospel?”  What if all those “thou shalt not’s” are really Good news, not only to the Children of Israel, but to us? What if “You shall not,” is a word of promise as well as a word of command?  Could “You shall not,” be both Law and Gospel?

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (therefore) you shall have no other gods before me.  You will not have to bow down before your master’s gods, you will be free to worship your own god.

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (therefore) you shall not murder,  you shall not be required to kill whomever the master says kill.

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (therefore) you shall not commit adultery, you will not be compelled to act like breed-stock, producing more slaves for the master.  Instead you will be free to marry and raise families.

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (therefore) you  shall not steal, no longer will you be pillage and loot under orders and against your own will.

This way of looking at the Ten Commandments liberates us from the danger of seeing them only as either a way to keep our sinful natures in line or to bring us to our knees so that we will accept our need for the Crucified Christ. This way of seeing and hearing turns what appears to be law into gospel for us and for our lives.

Andrew Wall, a church historian at the University of Edinburgh, says that “Church history has always been a battleground for two opposing tendencies . . . (God in Christ) accepts us as we are, on the ground of Christ’s work alone . . . . . (however) Not only does God in Christ take people as they are: (God) takes them to transform them into what (God) wants them to be.” (Walls, “The Missionary Movement in Christian Faith, p. 7-8)  Or, as my old missionary friend Ellenita Zimmerman often put it, “God loves us just the way we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way.”

The Law is a part of God loving us too much to let us stay the way we are; it is a part of God’s efforts to transform us into what God wants, and made us, to be.  The Law is Good News, for it reminds us that God is the God who leads us out from our slavery to sin and leads us forward into the Promised Land of new life in Christ.

Amen and amen.

Second Sunday in Lent for Year B (March 1, 2015)

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

Abram’s call from God continues in Genesis 17. It has been almost 25 years since Abram first heard the voice of God, asking him to “get up…and go to a land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) In the earlier encounter, God had promised to make Abram a father, the progenitor of “many nations.” Well, 25 years later — Abram is still childless and is nearly 100 years old. Talk about the biological clock ticking! There has been an instance or two along the way, in which Abram’s faith might have been said to “wobble,” if not to have faltered. But God continues to show up and swears to Abram that things are about to change. As a sign of this, Abram’s name is changed, as is that of his wife, Sarai. Just how long does it take for God’s promises to “come true” in our lives? Are there any times that your own faith has wobbled — even just a little?

Psalm 22 is a great statement of faith in God, even and especially in the midst of difficult times. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus quotes its first verse from the cross. As in the case of the promise to Abraham, this promise is made in the context of generations yet to come. For how long will God’s promises endure?

Paul writes in Romans 4 that the promise of God rests on one thing, and one thing alone: grace. We can never work hard enough (i.e., “keep the law”) to earn it; we cannot even leave the completion of God’s promise up to our own faith. Though both obedience and faith are important, it is ultimately God’s grace that “guarantees” (v. 16) the promise.

In Mark 8, Jesus’ message gets hard to hear on the part of the disciples. Peter may symbolize the reluctance we all feel when we first learn a difficult truth. “Say it isn’t so, Jesus! Tell me I didn’t sign up for this!” What Jesus actually promises here is the saving of our lives — both now and forever — by first being willing to “lose” them. Is that a bargain you are willing to make?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“. . . being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”  Roman 4:21.

I heard this story thirty years ago, in my first call in Rowan County, North Carolina. German Lutherans began settling there in the 1750s; it used to be said that southern Rowan County had “more Lutherans than people,” that is the Lutheran church membership rolls were larger than the population!   Back in the 1930s there was a major drought in Rowan County and the Lutheran congregations came together for a prayer meeting to pray for rain. It was held in Concordia Lutheran Church, out between China Grove and Mooresville. The stern old Lutheran “Herr Pastor” leading the service went into the pulpit and asked everyone to show their umbrellas. Nobody did, no one had brought one. “What!?” he exclaimed, “No umbrellas! Then you have no faith. Go home and come back tomorrow and bring your umbrellas; then we will pray for rain.”

Faith is difficult, isn’t it?  It’s difficult to have faith and it’s difficult to live faith.  Sometimes it’s very hard to put our trust in the promises of a God we cannot see, especially when we have lived long enough to see some of our own hopes and dreams fall apart and also to have seen many bad and ugly things happen in the world.  It’s hard to put all that aside and trust the promise that God loves us and wants us to be well.

Abram and Sari knew how hard it was to trust the promises of God – for years God had been saying you will be the father and mother of multitudes, of a great nation and here they are late in life, as Paul says, they are “as good as dead,” and they have no child, not one.  And yet God kept promising.   And in the midst of a lot of false steps and misunderstandings and ordinary human-ness; Abram and Sarai kept believing, kept trusting, kept having faith.

And God, in the words of Paul, “reckoned,” their faith, “as righteousness.”  To get the full flavor of what Paul is saying, we need to unpack these two words.  In my experience, reckon is seldom used in the United States except in the south, and here it has a meaning different from the one intended by the text.  The southern, slangy use implies guessing or supposing; “Think it’ll snow?” “I reckon it might.” Or it could mean to grudgingly accept; “Can I come by later today?”  “I reckon that’ll be all right.” The word is quite common in British English with a much more precise meaning; which is to calculate and then come to a conclusion.  The question, “How do you reckon?” includes not only one’s opinion but also what steps one took to arrive at that answer.   Righteousness is the translation of the Hebrew sedeq. It is not the abstract idea of justice or virtue, as in the “righteousness of our cause.”  Rather it is right standing and right behavior, within a community.

For Paul, it is the faith of Abram and Sarai that God uses to “reckon,” to calculate, to come to a conclusion about, their righteousness, their standing, their relationship with God.  Paul is particularly interested in pointing out that Abram and Sarai believed before the law was given, therefore there was no possibility of their obedience to the law being “reckoned” by God as having earned them righteousness.  For Paul, obedience follows faith, relationship creates righteousness.  Faith comes as a response to the fact that God has reached out to us just as God reached out to Abram and Sarai.

To mark this reaching out, this covenant-making, this love-promise, God changed Abram and Sarai names – calling them Abraham and Sarah. “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name…”  (Genesis 17:5, 15)

Names have power. And what we call each other and what we call God and what God calls us are powerful things. We have a tendency in the post-modern world to think that things like names and labels are mostly matters of indifference, or of perspective. We live in a world of shifting meanings, a world of “thinking by public opinion poll”, where “what’s hot and what’s not” is more important to many folks than “what’s true and what’s not”.

In such a world, it is important to inject some timeless reality. Abram and Sarai’s name changes were part of a one-time shift in their relationship to God and God’s relationship with them and, ultimately, with all the peoples of the world. This was not a thing done lightly, it was not done for more popularity or more propriety or more coolness or hotness or what-ever-ness. This name change signaled the beginning of a new covenant, a different relationship, a personal, first-name basis relationship with God, a first-name basis relationship which leads to a consideration of the second way in which faith is difficult.  It is difficult to have faith, to trust in God.  As our Gospel lesson shows us, it is equally difficult to live faith, to follow God in the way of Christ.  Twice in this short lesson what Bonhoeffer called the “Cost of Discipleship” is laid out for us:  “great suffering, rejection, death,” and “deny self, take up cross, and follow,” presumably to a similar death.  No wonder Peter rebuked Jesus.  This is not what he or anyone else thought they were signing up for.

It is difficult to find faith, to feel trust, to believe with heart, mind and soul.  It is also difficult to live faith, to put one’s life on the line for God.  Yes, it is difficult.  It is also essential to what it means to be a Christian.

When the opportunity came for Ray Romano to do the show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ he was making a decent living as a stand-up comedian in New York, but he was neither rich nor famous. On the day he packed to move to Hollywood to do the show, his brother pinned a note to some clothes in his suitcase. After the taping of the last episode, Ray came out and talked to the studio audience. He told them about his brother’s note and read it to them. It said, “For what will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  In the midst of tears he waved goodbye to the audience and said, “I’m going to work on my soul now.”

Faith is difficult. But it is not impossible, for nothing is impossible with God.  God has reached out to us just as God reached out to Abram and Sarai.  God has called us by name and claimed us, God has made covenant with us, and God has reckoned our weak and hesitant belief and trust as righteousness.  And knowing all there is to know about us, God has called us to the difficult but not impossible task of following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Amen and amen.

First Sunday in Lent for Year B (February 22, 2015)

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

In Genesis, God establishes a covenant with those who come through the Flood. It’s pretty much a one-way deal, as God promises to refrain from such stern judgment ever again. The “rainbow” in the sky — so often seen as a sign to us — is actually pictured as a sign for God, so that God may remember God’s own promise. Regardless of our actions, God says, “I will remember….”

Psalm 25 continues the theme of remembrance, this time with a twist. The prayer is, “Remember your mercy, O Lord…” — always a good thing! But notice that the prayer continues, “Do NOT remember the sins of my youth…!” Sometimes, we need to ask God to forget?

1 Peter gives us a great summary of the gospel in the opening verses of this passage. There’s a connection to the Noah story from Genesis, reminding us of the power (symbolic, or otherwise) of baptism. And, we get the quasi-ambiguous line about Christ “preaching to the spirits in prison.” I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but I note that it — like the other mighty acts of God listed throughout scripture — is a work of the Spirit. So, there you have it.

Mark gives us a quick review of passages we have already heard in recent weeks (Jesus’ baptism and John’s arrest) and adds the important “sandwich” story of Jesus in the wilderness. Again, a work of the Spirit, who drives Jesus to this lonely place. Mark’s account is the sparsest of the gospel accounts — we get no details of the “conversation” Jesus had with the devil. But, we do understand that Jesus is tempted, he survives, and God shows up when God is needed. Jesus is not alone (love the wild beasts hanging out, not to mention the angels.)

Neither are we.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My wife and I have been married for over forty years, and we met while we were still in high school. When you’ve been together that long, you have a lot of shared memories.  Well, actually not so much.  What you have is a lot of shared experience which you almost inevitably remember differently.  This situation provides a lot of, shall we say “opportunity for vigorous conversation,” which usually begins with, “I have no idea who you’re talking about.  You say we went to dinner with them in Nashville in the 1990s?” or “No, no, no; you’ve got that all wrong, it was in Hightower in 1979 – not China Grove in 1985.”  Trust me, sometimes this can go on half the night.

It’s a good thing then that we can be sure that God’s memory is better than ours; clearer, more precise, and, most importantly, more to be trusted. After all, God has promised that “When I see the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant.” (vs. 16) And what is that covenant? Again, God speaks, “. . . that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.”(vs. 11)

Now most people, especially those of us who were raised in church or synagogue, know the story of Noah and the flood and most of us think of God’s promise, at least fleetingly, when we see a rainbow.  But how many of us remember that the bow was intended as a sign to God, not to us?  How many of us remember that the bow is primarily intended to help God remember God’s promise, God’s covenant, to not destroy all flesh?  I know I didn’t.  Even though I have studied it many times, I remembered it differently.

This time, as I read the story of Noah and the flood, I kept thinking of something North Carolina novelist, English professor, and occasional scholar of the New Testament Reynolds Price said.

There is, he opined, one sentence beyond all else that people yearn to hear in all stories: “The Maker of all things loves and wants me.” (Price, p. 72)  Professor Liston Mills of Vanderbilt Divinity School often said a similar thing, “All theological questions boil down to one thing, ‘Can God be trusted?’ ”

The story of the flood is a story that tells us that God can indeed be trusted.  It is a meditation upon issues of human sin and divine wrath, of our fragile vulnerability in the face of the world’s unpredictable power and violence, and the possibility that God can repent, change God’s mind, and in the future remember a promise to be merciful.

The psalmist remembers God’s promise to remember and holds God to it.  Verse 6 and 7 use “remember” three times.  It is not by accident that the writer first calls upon God to “Remember your compassion and love.” Look to the rainbow, God.  Remember your promise.  Then the psalmist invites the Lord to “remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions.”  Finally, God is asked to remember the person, not the deeds but the person, in light of God’s own steadfast love and goodness.

Both the flood story and the Psalm reflect a consistent thread that runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures – the thread of God’s compassion and mercy and love outweighing God’s judgment and wrath and condemnation. And remembering is the key. Both God and us remembering God’s promises to us, God’s covenant of grace with us. Methodist bishop Will Willimon used to say that in preaching, “We do not so much need to be told as we need to be reminded.”

In 1 Peter, we are reminded of the basic facts about the Cross of Christ.  “Suffered for sins,” “once for all,” “brought us to God,” “resurrection of Jesus Christ,” “gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.”    In the midst of this familiar and almost creedal language is buried a reference to Noah and the flood.  Peculiar stuff about “proclamation to the spirits in prison,” and the flood waters being like our baptism.

While this bit is open to a lot of interpretation, it seems that Peter was in some way trying to say that God had not forgotten those who died in the flood, those who, “in former times did not obey.”  With Christ “descending into hell” to invite those languishing there to “repent and believe in the good news,” God closes the circle and indeed makes Christ a sign that God’s love is for all people and for all time.

After forty plus years together, my wife and I do have trouble remembering the same details of our life together, or remembering the same details the same way – but we always remember we love each other and want the best for each other.  So it is with God and us.  We sometimes remember the story of God’s love differently, we forget details others think are important, we harp on things nobody else cares about.  But underneath it all, we can be sure of one thing – “The Maker of all things loves and wants (us).”

“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is one the earth.”  Genesis 9:16

Price, Reynolds in “Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament” Alfred Corn (ed.)

New York: Viking Penguin, 1990, p. 72

Ash Wednesday (February 18, 2015)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I did not know what a creature of habit I had become until after my mother died last November.

It happens when I least expect it, a sudden urge to call her and chat a minute.  Then I took the time to think about when these urges came and realized there was a pattern, a pattern that started when I worked for Hinton Center and continued while I worked for the Lutheran Bishop’s office.  I spent most weekends on the road, consulting and preaching in churches all over the south. I usually left Hayesville early on Friday mornings and came home on Sunday afternoons.  And sometime on Friday morning I would call Mama as I drove down the Interstate and inevitably she would say, “Where are you going now?” And on Sunday I would ask her, “How were things at Hatcher’s Chapel this morning?  How was church?”  Now, every Friday morning and every Sunday afternoon I feel it before I think about it; sometimes I reach for the phone.  Time to call Mama.  Then I remember – she’s not there.

The questions Mama and I asked each other are important questions for all of us.  We need to ask them often, personally and as a community of faith.  “Where are we going?” and “How is church?”

One of the constant themes in our scripture lessons of the last few months has been the word “repent.”  John the Baptist called people to repent, Jesus announced his message as “the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news.”  We’ve even heard, in the story of Jonah, about God repenting of the evil he had intended.  To repent means to change one’s mind, to completely re-orient one’s life direction.  In order to repent in the true Biblical sense, one has to take a good look at one’s life in relationship to the life we feel God has called us to lead.  It is not an easy process and it is never really finished.  The regular “examen,” is a necessary part of a healthy spiritual life.  On an individual basis, a simple way to do it is to read over the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and ask yourself how you’re doing.   “Where am I?” and “Where am I going?” and, most importantly, “Where is God calling me to be and to go?”  Making the necessary life adjustments as a result of those questions is the true nature of repentance.

“How is church?” That is another important question that all of us need to ask on a regular basis.

Not in a critical manner, as in, “I wish they would do things differently,” but in a contemplative, communal way; “Where are we as a church?”  “Where are we going?” and, most importantly, “Where is God calling us to be and to go?” Church communities that go years without asking those questions often find themselves wandering around the desert in circles, stuck somewhere between leaving Egypt and arriving at the Promised Land.

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a time for us to think and pray about these questions of life and vocation.  We are invited to “return to the Lord,” to “rend our hearts and not our garments,” to be, in the words of 2 Corinthians, “reconciled” to God.  You have to stop before you turn.  If not, you’re apt to spin out of control.  Ash Wednesday is the time for us to stop.  Stop dead in our tracks.  Stop and breathe, stop and think about who we are and the direction our life has been taking.  It is time stop so that we can prepare to turn and start out in a new direction, returning to the Lord.  But first we stop.

Amen and amen.

Transfiguration Sunday (February 15, 2015)

Our apologies for being a bit “off our game” this week. It has just been one of those weeks! Here’s Bubba’s sermon, and we hope to get back in full swing next week with comments and the Lec Lab Live

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”

(2 Corinthians 4:5)

German Lutheran Theologian Helmut Thielicke told various versions of this story.  A young boy walking home from school every day during the first world war, going from a cold and empty house to a cold and empty school and back.  Every day, coming and going, the little boy passed a shop with a sign in the window.  The sign showed a lovely picture of a loaf of fresh baked bread, little wavy lines of warmth radiating from it.  The sign said, “Bread, 5 cents a loaf.

Every day, the boy fantasized about that loaf of bread. Finally, he quit dreaming and decided to do something. Though money was hard to come by he eventually came up with the 5 cents.  One day after school, he walked into the store, laid his 5 pennies on the counter and said, “One loaf please.”   The man behind the counter stared at him and said, “What did you say?” The boy repeated, “One loaf of bread please, like in the window.” and pointed at the sign. The man looked over at the sign and then looked at the boy and said, “Son, we don’t sell bread, we paint signs.” (Insight, 8/7/1988)

Has the church gone into the sign business?  What if we are hanging out signs that say to a hurting and desperate world that we have answers to their spiritual needs, but when they get inside they discover we have great signs, we just don’t have any bread?  If we’re not careful we will forget that we are in the “Jesus business;” not the “voluntary, like-minded, spiritually-oriented, people like us,” business.  Sometimes we can get so fixated on what we do and what we offer that we can forget the God we serve and what our God promises to the world through us.  We must not “proclaim ourselves.”  We must, instead, “proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as (slaves of others) for Jesus’ sake.

Our Gospel lesson shows how hard it is for people, both us now and the disciples then, to get a handle on what Jesus was about and what it means to follow Jesus.  This story of the Transfiguration comes almost exactly in the middle of Mark’s gospel, and it comes in the center of a three chapter section Mark.  This three chapter section (8:20-10:52) begins and ends with the healing of a blind person.  In between these healings Jesus talks to the disciples three times about his death (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34) and they never get it.  They remain blind.  This section contains that great story where Peter first calls Jesus the Messiah and then, almost immediately, tells him, “Oh no Lord, you don’t have to die, you don’t understand what a Messiah is.” To which Jesus replies, “Get behind me Satan.”  Just like us, the disciples resist the cross, they resist suffering, they resist service.  As Fred Craddock says, “After all, how can persons who have lived with the motto “When the messiah comes, there will be no misery” understand suffering and death as kingdom experiences?” (Preaching Through the Christian Year B, p. 127)

Today Mark shows us God demonstrating to the disciples, represented by Peter, James and John, who Jesus really is. All the mysterious pyrotechnics and the presence of long gone prophets and the voice from heaven are for Peter and James and John’s benefit, for our benefit really.  By this time Jesus is clear about who he is – the issue is our becoming clear about who we are. And they still don’t get it.  Peter says, “Wow, this is great.  Let’s stay here.”  Let’s be fair, let’s not be too hard on Peter– if we had a chance to hang out with Jesus and Moses and Elijah – we’d do whatever we could to make that moment stretch out as long as possible, wouldn’t we?  And yet, they still didn’t get it, not really.  They didn’t really get it until they experienced it. Until they saw Jesus die. Until they encountered the Risen Christ.  Until they saw him ascend into heaven.  Then the pieces began to fall into place.  Then they began to get a handle on the exciting and different and new thing God was and is doing in the world, in and through Jesus, in and through them, in and through us.

“For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord – and ourselves as (the world’s) slaves for Jesus’ sake.”  Philip Yancey has recently written about a refugee camp in Somalia staffed by the Christian organization World Concern. “Medically, the camp was hell on earth.  Dysentery, whooping cough, measles, diphtheria and tuberculosis were breaking out, their symptoms complicated by malnutrition.”  There were 60,000 refugees and only seven relief workers, yet in seven months they had managed to transform it from a boiling cauldron of discontent into an orderly, well-run community.  With a break for the worst of the heat in the afternoon, the seven toiled from seven in the morning until seven at night.  And when he visited, Yancey kept asking why?  Why do you do this?  Why suffer like this for people you don’t know when you could be making good money and a good life back home in America.?

Lois, a 21 year-old nursing school graduate said of her graduation day, “I remember the expressions on my friends’ faces when I said I would be doing relief work in a war-stricken Muslim country on the horn of Africa.  ‘That’s a really insane thing to do.” one girl said.” Lois then continued, “In some ways, I guess coming here does look like an insane thing to do.  Yet I have never felt more satisfied and fulfilled in my life. . . . .A spirit of hope now infects every person in this camp, all because donors in the West and relief workers here sacrificially gave of themselves.  I can’t verbalize the source of my hope here because the government forbids talking about the Christian faith.  But I can demonstrate by my presence and my spirit that there is hope. . . .I almost feel sorry for people who never have the chance to serve God like this.  I believe I am beginning to learn what Jesus meant when he said, ‘If you lose your life, you will find it.’” (YANCEY, “Vanishing Grace, pp.106-108)

When Thielicke used to tell the story about the sign that said, “Bread – 5 cents,” he always said “People can’t eat signs; they need bread.” Our calling is bring the bread of Christ to the world.  We are invited to serve the world in the name of Christ.  We have the opportunity to reach out to the world with the loving presence of God in Christ.

“For, we do not preach about ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord – and ourselves as (the world’s) slaves for Jesus’s sake.”

Amen and amen.

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (February 8, 2015)

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

I’ll admit I was a little behind the times this week when, on Monday morning after the Super Bowl, I had no idea who had won or lost the “big game.” Not that I was a completely uninterested party…I like football! I just got busy with other things and didn’t have time to watch the game or catch the news. What I discovered was that people everywhere were talking about the controversial ending and the perhaps-somewhat-unexpected triumph of the Patriots over the Seahawks — especially with a practically “sure thing” for Seattle from the one-yard line and four tries upcoming for the end zone. (I’ll spare you the reliving of the pain/gain scenario that ensued…)

Like the words from Isaiah, other fans looked at me with those “you mean you haven’t heard?” eyes…almost incredulous that I didn’t know the outcome — and have a strong opinion about it! When it comes to God’s playbook, it truly gets spectacular. There aren’t really any fumbles or interceptions (even if there is a sense of mystery about God’s timing, etc.) when God gets to work in the world. I love to imagine the “soaring with eagles’ wings” things; I appreciate those times when God’s strength allows us to “run and not be weary.” But, I am especially grateful for the days God is there to help me simply “walk and not faint.” Or fumble.

You don’t have to be a gifted or great singer to join the text of Psalm 147: “it is good to sing praises to our God.” Go ahead, lift up your voice and sing, or shout, or testify. God is gracious and does good things for God’s people!

If you don’t stand up for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Great country song hook — maybe a little questionable when it comes to appreciating the fine art of Christian life in community. Paul encourages the Corinthians to be willing to bend a little in order to accommodate the perspective of others, especially for the cause of Christ. When is a dose of humility a necessary component of the gospel?

As I have read and proclaimed the gospel from Mark in my congregation this Epiphany, we have thought a lot about the “everydayness” of Jesus’ ministry. He meets people where they are — fishing, collecting taxes, hanging out at home and around the town. I’m struck that part of the every day ministry of Jesus includes meeting people where they hurt, too. Simon’s momma-in-law is “stove up,” as we used to hear; she is laid up in the bed with a high fever. Jesus is concerned enough to meet her and minister to her. She is helped and healed by the compassion of Christ. Notably, after being released from her burden, she immediately begins to serve Jesus and his crew. Maybe, just maybe, a life lesson there for us. As my pastor used to proclaim from time to time: “Jesus didn’t save you to sit and soak — he called you to serve!”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Years ago a youth group gave me a T-shirt I wore so much I wore it out.  It read something like this:

“To be is to do.”  Socrates.
“To do is to be.” Plato.
“Do-be-do-be-do.”  Sinatra.

Our Gospel lesson for today shows Jesus moving back and forth between doing and being – healing Simon’s mother-in-law and the others who were brought to him, getting up early and going off alone to pray, to just BE with God.  In the midst of his prayer time, the disciples interrupt him with demands that he come and do what everyone wants him to do – more healing. Instead he insists on going to the next city to preach because, “that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1:38)

As with Jesus, so with us. For the church and as individual believers, it is sometimes difficult to find a balance in the doing and being departments.  We can get so busy with our ministries and programs and in keeping the organization running and in meeting the needs out there that we take no time for either God or ourselves.  And the usual end result of that is those who are doing too much get resentful of those whom they think are not doing enough.

On the other hand, there are those who are really good at “being with God,” but have a hard time figuring out ways to be involved with and care for God’s people. I count myself in this group.  I grew up on a farm.  My Daddy once told a neighbor, “Delmer works hard but you have to tell him what to do.  If you ask him to figure it out himself, he’ll just sit there and look at the work and think it to death.”  Some of us think our religion to death, contemplate the beauty of holiness or liturgy while ignoring the ugliness of sin and hunger and disease and homelessness and violence and, and, and . . .  going on all around us.

Those of us who do too much need help in finding time for self and God; those of us who do too little need a push, a prod, a kick in the pants, to get moving and let our faith be ACTIVE in love. We can get some guidance from a few incidents in our text.

1) We must deal with what is put before us.  When Jesus went to Simon’s house for dinner, he discovered his host’s mother-in-law was sick.  In a simple act of compassion, Jesus healed her. Jesus touched her and she got up and served. People heard about it and began to bring people who were sick or had demons to Jesus for healing.  And Jesus dealt with what was put before him – he did healings and exorcisms into the night.  You can’t always chose what it is you are to do, sometimes God choses for you.

2) While we do need to carve out time and space for ourselves and that personal time does include spirituality and prayer, that’s only part of what’s going on with Jesus getting up early and going off pray.  This episode is a continuation of the temptation, the forty days in the wilderness with Satan. (Mark 1:12-13) Mathew and Luke (Chapter 4 in each) make clear that Jesus temptations were the urge use his power and authority in ways that would attract fame and attention and popularity.  Jesus is feeling that temptation one more time.  People are astonished at his teaching, the whole city is coming to be healed or to see healing.  His fame is growing.  He goes to the mountain to search both with God and deep within himself.  “Who am I, really? What does it mean to be the Son of God? What am I doing?  What am I called to do?”  When the disciples find him, Jesus is once again clear on the answers to those questions.

3) Just like Jesus, we have to learn to say no when the demands upon get in the way of a God’s purpose.  The disciples came looking for Jesus because people had come to them looking for him.  They were excited, the people were excited.  Jesus of Nazareth was the “next new thing,” the latest in a long list of faith-healers and exorcist who had emerged in the multi-cultural Galilean region, which was a mix of Hebrews, Greeks, Romans and others.  Everybody wanted to see Jesus do his stuff, the time was ripe, the iron was hot.  And Jesus said no.  Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  Jesus “being” and “doing” had come together.  He knew who he was and what he was to do.

I’ve always loved this bit from the writer Anne Lamott:  “Again and again I tell God I need help, and God says, “Well isn’t that fabulous?  Because I need help too.  So – you go get that old woman over there some water, and I’ll figure out what we’re going to do about your stuff.” (“Traveling Mercies,” p.120)

So it is with us; we turn to God for help and God sends us out to help others.  Like Simon’s mother-in-law, we have receive a touch from Jesus, and in response we get up and begin to serve others.  Sometimes the touch we receive is charismatic. Some people have been sick and were prayed over and got healed. Sometimes the touch is emotional, a crises life or morals that lead one to give up and turn it all over to God, resulting in a conversion and a change of life.  But most often the touch is less dramatic than that.  Jesus touched us with water in our baptism, Jesus touched us with gentle persuasion in Sunday School, or caring relationships in Youth Group, or a hot meal and kind conversation in Campus Ministry, or week in and week out in our local congregations Jesus touches us in the sacrament of the table, giving his body and blood for us and to us.  However we have been touched by Jesus, the call is the same; the call to get up and serve.

Amen and amen.

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (February 1, 2015)

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

Deuteronomy reminds us that, while we may feel it is a dangerous thing to hear directly from God, we still maintain a responsibility for whomever it it is that we DO listen to. Are we hearing the right voices? When we hear, are we seeking to be obedient? And — for preachers and proclaimers — are we rightly saying what it is that God has given us to say? God’s word is great — speaking and hearing it bears great responsibility.

Psalm 111 gives us many “every day” reasons to praise and thank God. Making space for the reverence of God is a wise beginning for any life.

The Apostle Paul is often criticized for being “picky” in the directions he gives to the congregations that he writes. To be fair, especially here in this section of Corinthians, he is responding directly to questions that have been asked. At issue is meat sacrificed to idols — i.e., “false gods” that don’t really exist. Is it okay for a Christian, who doesn’t believe in such “false gods,” to go ahead and pick up some nice veal down at the discount idol-food store and take it home to the family? Paul says, in effect, “Yeah — you can do that and be clear as far as your own conscience is concerned — but just be aware that somebody else (like maybe your own children, or a good friend) might not have the same attitude about it. Don’t do anything that is going to damage them just because you can.”

The passage from Mark for today has the crowds also having to determine the truth/validity of the words they are hearing from Jesus; this man is speaking “new teaching.” It sounds amazing, but is it “true” for us? We can never give up asking this question. Again, both speaker and hearer bear some responsibility in delivering God’s message.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In today’s lesson from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by teaching in the Synagogue. His teaching was met by astonishment, “They were astounded,” is how Mark put it. Their surprise was not so much at what he taught, but at the authority with which he taught it. “For He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The scribes taught like translators, like interpreters. Instead of saying “This is what God says,” the scribes said, “This is what God means and this is how you should respond!”

Each of our lessons deals with issues of a community of faith trying to live faithfully in a world that is full of evil influences.  And to live faithfully, a community needs a leader, a “voice of authority,’ to help them navigate through a dangerous world.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is presented to us as Moses’ farewell sermon to the Israelites before they cross over Jordan into the “promised land.” It deals with two issues.

Firstly, since God is not allowing Moses to go into the promised land people are wondering, “Who will tell us about God when Moses is with us no more?” Moses shares with them the promise that God will provide a prophet. “Your God will raise up for you a prophet like me, from among your own people.”

Secondly, in words about not listening to false prophets, and about false prophets dying; the text calls the Israelites to separate themselves from the surrounding culture. These words seem very harsh to modern ears. It is important to note that the Israelites were going among the Canaanites who practiced child-sacrifice. The concern was about giving in to the spirit of the age.

I Corinthians warnings about “food offered to idols” is another cultural mystery for us in the 21st century. It seems to have nothing to do with us. But, we recognize that just as Christians in first century Corinth lived in a culture that had values very different from those of  Christianity, so do we. On a variety of issues we in the church stand at cross purposes with the world in which we live, And because, the only alternative to separating from the culture, like the Amish, is to live as participants in our culture, we look for a “word from the Lord, ” to help us steer a Christian course, as individuals and as a community.  Just as Paul attempts to steer a Christian course in an alien culture, we must look to scripture, tradition and the wisdom of the community to work together to find our way.

Our Gospel lesson from Mark draws these concerns about the world and about authoritative teaching together. We’ve already talked about how the people were astonished that Jesus taught with authority. The text goes on to show Jesus acting with authority to confront evil, even in the household of faith. (I am fascinated by the line, “there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” I’m just wondering; was he a first time visitor, or was he on the church council?)

Too often in the church, we identify the evil as out there and the good as in here. The great Russian novelist and ardent Orthodox Christian Alexander Solzhenitzen said something to the effect that, “the line between good and evil does not go between countries or empires or religions or political systems. The line between good and evil goes right down the middle of every human heart.”

Jesus comes to remove the unclean spirits from all of us, to attack that line that goes down the middle of our hearts. Like the man with the unclean spirit, we often wish the holy would leave us alone to live lives of selfishness, materialism and devotion to the pleasures of the flesh. But, as the demons in our story recognized; Jesus, the Living Word of God, has come to us on a mission of destruction, with an agenda of anarchy. The Word comes to tear down the walls of separation that keep us apart. The Word comes to break the chains that keep us in bondage to badness. The Word comes to wipe out the diseases of the soul that keep us from knowing God’s love and from loving one another. Yes, the Living Word which is the Christ comes to destroy, but he destroys in order to rebuild, reconstruct, recreate, remake us in the image of Christ.

Amen and amen.

Third Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (January 25, 2015)

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

Jonah gives the most direct revival sermon ever preached — it’s just one sentence long. And it worked! Lots to think about here, including the timing of God’s action in the world, God’s prerogative to change God’s mind, and our willingness (or lack therof) to go along with God. When God decides a thing, are we “free” to run in a different direction or to disagree with God if we wish?

In regard to Psalm 62, what is it that we really hold onto and where do we place our trust? Whether I am one of the “low estate” or the “high” and mighty — is it God (and God alone) that I trust and listen for?

Our idea of time, and particularly the timing of God, is awfully short-sighted. Paul’s words to the Corinthians sound long-ago and faraway to us; we might well be tempted to say that Paul got it wrong when he told those folks “the time is short.” But, was he? Has not the world, in the form that we know it, pretty much passed away since the days of our childhood? How much has the world changed since the time of Jesus and Paul? What does our faith in the “unchanging” God have to say in the midst of an “everchanging” world? Again, what do we “hold on to” for support and hope?

Mark reports Jesus saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom has come near.” The image is of a pregnant woman who is preparing to give birth — the time is HERE, people! When a child is coming, there is very little you can do to stop it. Just as there is very little that can be done to hurry it up, either. As the old saying goes, “Timing is everything.” In the things of God’s kingdom, nothing could be more true. God’s timing, though; not ours. How do we continue to wait and discern God’s timing in our own lives? What does it mean for us to “leave our nets” and follow Christ today?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The world was rocked a few weeks ago by the terrorist attacks in Paris.  We witnessed forty world leaders and throngs of ordinary people walking arm-in-arm to signal solidarity and protest against monstrous evil.  In the streets and on selfie twitters and on Facebook and any other way they could, people loudly proclaimed, “We are Charlie!”  Even the magazine Charlie Hebdo, did it with on the cover with their usual satirical twist, showing Muhammad holding the Charlie sign – under a headline that said “All is forgiven.”  There were marches across Europe and heightened tensions everywhere, softened only by the fact that one of the French policemen killed was a Muslim.

For most of the 21st Century, the west has lived in fear of Islamist fanaticism.  We have fought a long war, calling it a “War on Terror.”  In the last year of so our fear and distrust has become even more focused on the group known to many as ISIS, the Islamist State, a very scary army that is attempting to create a new country from parts of Iraq and Syria. Their basic technique is sheer brutality and intimidation.  They have been particularly rough on the Christians, many of whom trace their roots back almost two thousand years in the area.

Now suppose, in the midst of all this, a voice you were sure was the voice of God were to come to you and say to you, “Get up, go to ISIS, that great state and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  Would you not be likely to be like Jonah and take off in the opposite direction?  Jonah’s escape plan reminds me a little bit of that old Steve Martin/John Candy movie, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.”  I don’t care how, just get me far away from here.  Alas, there is no way to run from God.  As the saying is, “Wherever you go, there you are.”  And God is there with you.

Once Jonah learns that lesson and emerges from the belly of the beast, God comes to him a second time and says, “Okay, are you ready to go where I tell you?”  And Jonah goes, reluctantly, unhappily, unenthusiastically, but he goes. He goes to Nineveh and preaches judgment saying, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  Notice, there’s not a wisp of hope in that statement, not a hint of grace, not a whisper of forgiveness.  It is as harsh and cold and final as Jonah could make it.

Can you imagine going into the heart of ISIS country and standing on a street corner and shouting out that message?  I’m sure, you’re sure, we’re all sure, that such a preacher would either be shot or beheaded in a matter of minutes.

And yet this is what God asked Jonah to do and what Jonah, eventually, did.  And the radical surprise is that it worked.  The Ninevites repented, said they were sorry; and God repented, changed his mind about destroying them. Aah – what a Hallmark moment, everybody’s happy.  Well, not everybody.  Jonah’s not happy.  Jonah’s really angry actually.  Jonah is still thinking about all the people the Ninevites killed over the years, all the lives they destroyed, all the damage they did.  This can’t be right!  This can’t be the way this ends!  It’s not fair, it’s just not fair. And Jonah’s right – it’s not fair.  But it is the way God operates – a fact for which we should all be glad; very, very glad indeed.

Jonah is one of those stories in the Bible that is very, very true without being particularly factual.  It is like a Hollywood movie, “based on a true story.”  There was a man named Jonah, you can find him in 2 Kings 14:25.  One small mention, but he appears to have been a very nationalistic prophet, a real “God and Country,” sort of guy.  And the Assyrians had been a very powerful and feared nation headquartered in the city of Nineveh about a 100 years before our text was written.

The author took these slim facts to spin a story that aimed at getting the people of Israel to broaden their understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy.  If God can love and forgive the people of Nineveh, God can love and forgive anybody – including us.  If God can love and forgive the people of ISIS, God can love and forgive anybody – including us.  And if God can love and forgive anybody, so can we.

What if God is calling us?  What if God is calling us to do something we don’t want to do?  What if God is calling us to extend not only God’s mercy but our mercy, not only God’s love but our love, not only God’s forgiveness but our forgiveness, to people we don’t like, people we don’t believe deserve love and forgiveness and mercy?

Here we sit, minding our own business, mending our own nets, being nice and good to those who are nice and good to us, busy about the business creating a friendly, family church – when suddenly we hear this voice saying,  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.”

How shall we respond?  Will we repent?  Will we change our minds about what’s important and alter the direction of our lives to follow more closely God’s call?  Will we leave whatever boats and nets represent in our lives and follow after the one who calls us?  Will we go to “Nineveh” and preach God’s love?

Amen and amen.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (January 18, 2015)

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

In Samuel, we have the “call” story of the young boy who would become Israel’s priest, prophet, and prelude to a king. The visual and aural clues are important; the lamp of God is dimmed, as is the eyesight of the old priest, Eli. However, neither has gone out yet. Also, the young boy, Samuel, has trouble understanding the voice that keeps haunting him. The old priest is a bit muddled, as well, but finally figures out what’s going on (“the third time’s a charm?”) We may have our own spiritual perception dulled — for any number of reasons — but this episode reminds us that God doesn’t give up, doesn’t leave, and will always keep working until the message is received, one way or the other.

Psalm 139, of which we have a portion for today’s reading, speaks of the thorough ways in which God “knows” each of us. Sometimes, we say that a person “knows us better than we know ourselves.” Well, that most certainly may be true when thinking of God’s view of our innermost being. While at first, this might seem a frightening prospect, it is ultimately more “good news.” God’s intimate knowledge of us is the basis for the never-give-up presence of God with us. We can’t ever mess up enough to drive God away; we can be completely honest in our thoughts, feelings, and even our prayers to God. God already knows it all, anyway!

Paul writes to the Corinthians of the deep bond that is formed when our lives are united with Christ. Using some very tangible physical illustrations, he answers questions for new Christians about what is “allowed” and what is “beneficial.” Don’t get too sidetracked by the sex language; the larger issue is the stunning idea that we have all been “bought with a price” by the very life of Christ. We certainly don’t want to cheapen that relationship by committing to anyone or anything lesser.

John‘s gospel features another “call” story — this time illustrating that Jesus is often the one in search of us; notice that he “found” Philip. Not an accidental stumble-upon kind of finding, but a purposeful effort, most likely. Similarly, Philip mimics the action of Christ and “finds” his buddy, Nathanael. Philip’s friend is a classic skeptic — he’s pretty sure this stuff about Jesus being the Messiah is a load of hooey, but Philip nevertheless invites him to come and see. There is an awful lot of power in both the personal invitation to friends and acquaintances, and the individual experience of the Holy at work in the midst of the community.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the part of the world where I grew up, the southern Appalachian mountains, a minister is expected to have a “call story,” the more “Damascus Road” dramatic the better. When I started seminary I did not have such a story and was therefore a bit of a disappointment to many of my more pious neighbors and relatives.  So I made one up.  Instead of my usual lame, “Well, I’ve just always felt like it’s what God wants me to do,” I started saying, “I was in the tobacco field on a hot and humid day in late July.  There had been a thunderstorm in the early afternoon so I had red mud up to my knees and there was steam coming off the tobacco leaves. I was hot, wet, and muddy when I looked across the creek to the paved road and saw a Ford Fairlane drive by with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on.  The man inside was wearing a white shirt and a thin black tie.  He has patting the steering wheel and singing along to whatever music was on the radio.  I looked up at the sky and said to God, ‘Yes Lord.  I can do that. I will do that.  I will become a preacher.’ ”

I don’t think anyone ever believed me but they did quit asking.

In today’s Gospel lesson we have two overlapping call stories.  First we read that Jesus found Philip and said, “Follow me.”  Then we see that Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found him who Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.”  Now, occasionally when you find something you just stumble upon it by accident, but most of the time we use the word to indicate locating something you want after a considerable amount of searching.  Which indicates Jesus was looking for Philip, Philip was looking for Nathanael, and Philip and the others were looking for the Messiah.

I remember some years ago when a major American denomination had an evangelism campaign with the theme “I found it!”  Many people, myself included, stood outside that campaign and somewhat snidely and archly said, “Oh, we don’t find God, God finds us.”  Well from the evidence of this text, we were all half-right at least. When we find God it is because God has been looking for us all along.

But Nathanael’s response to Philip reminds us that the divine/human encounter is a very personal one – we cannot meet God by proxy, or by inheritance; it is always an individual and unique moment.  Nathanael scoffs at Philip’s discovery. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  What he means is something like this:  “This man is from the wrong part of the country, from the wrong social class, he has the wrong accent, he has no real education or training.  Seriously, why should I listen to him?”  Many people today question Christianity in much the same way, “Can anything good come out of the church?”  “It’s antiquated, behind the times, speaks the wrong language, it’s pre-scientific and irrational, it’s judgmental and full of hate, etc. etc.”

I’m sure Philip was tempted to argue with Nathaniel, was anxious to convince Nathanael of Jesus’ Messiahship – but he resisted the temptation and instead did exactly the right thing.  He invited him to “come and see,” for himself.  Somehow Philip realized that you do not argue someone into

a new religious understanding.  All one can do is help someone encounter Jesus.  The rest is up to the action of God in Christ.  Our calling is to be like Philip and invite others to “come and see” what God is doing in our lives and in our congregation, to “come and see” what a difference knowing Christ has made in our lives, individually and as a community, “come and see” how Christ could make a difference in their lives too.

Nathanael does come and see. Nathanael meets Jesus. Nathanael is convinced by his encounter that Jesus is the Christ.  Nathanael affirms his new-found faith, “You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!”  Nathanael was found by Jesus and found both God and his own true self in the process.

I actually do have a call story, we all do.  My call story is about being raised by believing parents who took me to church when I was two weeks old and never quit taking me.  My call story is about Mrs. Gammons teaching Junior High boys Sunday school and putting up with our antics and misbehavior and somehow leading us to love Jesus and each other.  My call story is about going to a little mountain Presbyterian Church for evening services and hearing the retired missionary pastor tell stories about God was changing lives in Africa and Asia and thanking that maybe God could change my life too.  My call story is about being invited by many different folks to “come and see” what God in Christ was doing, is doing, and will continue to do in many different people and places.

What’s your call story?  And who do you know that needs to know that God is looking for them?  Who do you know that needs a little nudge, who needs you to invite them, saying, “Come and see.”  You are Philip – who is your Nathanael?

Amen and amen.

Baptism of the Lord for Year B (January 11, 2015)

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

It’s all about the Voice here in Genesis. It is God’s voice that creates (or, brings forth) light — followed by all of the other elements of creation. Interesting, isn’t it, that with all of the hullabaloo raised by many voices about the opposition of science and religion that we have here near perfect agreement on the beginning moments of our world? Light is energy; nearly all cosmologists and physicists agree that the universe, as we know it, began in a burst of energy. I just really like it that my brain and my heart are able to come together here in a moment of saying, “God, you are so scientifically cool!”

Psalm 29 is one of the more “active” texts in the psalter. The word ascribe literally means “to write down” — if even in your thoughts — the nature of what you are trying to describe. It is encouragement to get specific when we talk about the reasons we worship God. The ensuing action phrases certainly contain a good deal of specificity.  “Lord, your voice thunders over the waters…it shakes the wilderness.” If you’ve ever experienced a thunderstorm outdoors– or even survived a tornado or a hurricane — you can sense the verve of this phrase, can’t you? How would you “ascribe” glory to God based on your own experience?

Acts 19 is an obvious companion text to today’s gospel reading. We see an example of the early church working out what it means to follow Jesus, particularly when it comes to the “profession of faith” that is baptism. Is this passage intended to give us a full scriptural formation of the doctrine of baptism? No. But it does illustrate for us the ongoing nature of our experience of living for Christ. If and when we are given a fuller understanding of living out our faith — well, perhaps it is best for us to press ahead, regardless of whatever past notions and preconceptions we may have had. It’s worth a thought.

Mark is the our “just the facts” gospel writer. His is the plainest and most straightforward of all the descriptions of the Jesus’ own baptism. He doesn’t offer a great deal of theological justification; he doesn’t give us any hint of the discussion between John and Jesus about who should baptize whom. It’s just Jesus, the water, and — again, as in Genesis — the voice of God. What are we to pay attention to here? Since we are claimed by God in baptism, just as Jesus was on this day, what does it mean for us to be the “children of God, the Beloved?” In what ways shall we live in order to be pleasing to God?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One of my Facebook friends posted an interesting New Year’s Resolution.  She said,

“Dear Facebook friends.  I have been spending too much time on social media so I will stop using Facebook on December 31, 2014 and resume next year on January 1, 2015. Thank you for understanding.”

The New Year has been a traditional time for making changes in our lives; for giving up old, bad habits or taking on new, good habits, or doing both at the same time – replacing a bad habit with a good one.  It is a secular “repentance ritual,” an attempt to change the direction of our lives through sheer willpower, and depending on the strength of our will, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) One of the questions in the early church was the question of the difference between “John’s baptism” and being “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Both the story in Acts and the story of Jesus’ own baptism were written to help us understand this.

Because all Christian life is rooted in repentance, all Christian life is rooted in baptism.  In the weekly confession contained in the liturgy, we remind ourselves of three things; we have failed to be the people we want to be, God forgives us our failures, God sends us out to try again.  So far so good.  This is tied to “John’s baptism,” of repentance and forgiveness because in the confession we remind ourselves that we were forgiven at the cross and in our baptism.

But there is a problem, or rather a limitation, in John’s baptism.  Luther put it very well in the Small Catechism, “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel . . .” As the Gospel lesson points out – even Jesus needed to receive the Holy Spirit, and after that time alone in the wilderness with the Devil, he spent the rest of his life surrounded by community, the disciples.

The early church quickly realized that spirit and community was necessary to the Christian life.  We cannot, as Luther said, do this by our own “reason and strength.”  The story from Acts, about Paul encountering the group in Ephesus who said that, “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”  (One of my teachers at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary claimed that there were Lutherans in Bible times.  When students protested that could not be so, he would smile and point to these people in Ephesus who had not heard of the Holy Spirit.)

Though some in the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions point to verse six to claim that speaking in tongues and prophesying are proof that one has been baptized and is saved, most Christians do not see those things as either necessary or as the most important signs that one has received the Holy Spirit.  As Paul points out in his discussion of the gifts of the spirit in 1 Corinthians 13:13 – “Faith, hope and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  This is not romantic love, or friendliness, this is charity – self-giving love of the other without any interest in either the other’s worthiness or what one will receive in return.

This is the greatest gift of the Spirit.  This is what “baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus,” gives.  I find verse seven, a little “throw-away line,”to be fascinating in this regard, “. . . altogether there were about twelve of them.” From the moment they were baptized, they lived in community, a community in which the Spirit led them in loving one another.

Now, when Jesus was baptized and the spirit came upon him, it not only gave him the gift of self-giving love, it also gave him a job, a ministry, a role to play in the world.  “You are my Son.”  Sometimes I hear that and envision a storefront sign in 19th century script “God and Son – Worlds Created and Redeemed.” In this moment Jesus was being commissioned to go forth in his Messiah/Savior role – to preach, teach, heal, confront, die for, and ultimately save the world.

In our baptism, we too are claimed by God and sent out into the world.  Many churches include in their baptismal formula something like these lines from the Lutheran tradition (LBW, p. 124) “(Name), child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  Then a lit candle is given to the newly baptized and these words are spoken, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Our Baptism, like that of Jesus, is a calling into ministry in the world.  We have been invited to make a New Year’s Resolution today.  We are invited to remember and live out our baptism, to follow Jesus where Jesus went, to the cross and beyond, to allow the Holy Spirit to fill us with self-giving love for God and others.  We are invited to remember that we too are Children of God, beloved by God, well-pleasing to God, and sent out by God – to show the world the love and kindness of God.