Year A: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 7, 2014)

The Bubbas are Back!

We’re awfully glad to get back on track with a brand new edition of The Lectionary Lab Live podcast this week. We’ve missed all y’all!

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 12:1-14
New beginnings. We all need them at some time in our lives, don’t we? This may be the biggest “new beginning” in the Bible, short of the death and resurrection of Christ.

After many of years of faithfulness, followed by many years of suffering, oppression and prayers, the children of Israel are about to be delivered from their misery by means of the tenth (and most “awe-ful”) plague — the death of the first-born children in Egypt.

God gives detailed instructions through Moses for salvation from the plague. A sacrificial lamb, the shedding of blood, a common meal, preparations to depart into a new (if somewhat unknown) life. All of these are themes that will echo in the Christian telling of the Jesus story.

Why is blood required? Why must life be ended in order for life to be gained? Are there “innocent” lives involved here…children, mothers, families who had nothing to do with the stiff resistance of Pharoah?

All of these questions speak to the horrific consequences of sin — unfortunately, sin always leads to death. And even more tragically, we may be affected by sin that is committed by us or someone else, completely unbeknownst to us. Talk about a bummer!

What, then, is the takeaway from this Passover passage? 

God takes sin very seriously; God provides a way of salvation; that way is dreadfully costly; ultimately, it is God who not only provides the way, but pays the price, as well.

Psalm 149

It is pretty difficult for us to relate to a service of worship and praise in which we celebrate God’s vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people who are our enemies. (Well, maybe it’s not that difficult for some within the Christian community, but it is for me!)

I’m still struggling with what to do with a line like v.6: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands…”

Perhaps the best I can do at the moment is to acknowledge my discomfort, and recall the words of the Apostle from last week’s lesson, “…give place unto wrath: for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

Ezekiel 33:7-11
This passage offers some balance to the language of the psalm. That God does not take any delight in the loss of human life — even of those who are “wicked” — is an important element of the divine character. We do well to remember that.

Psalm 119:33-40
Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola cursed the secular Medici society of Florence, Italy during his day (late 15th century) — leading his followers to a frenzied “Bonfire of the Vanities” in which they burned collections of art, literature and cosmetics on Mardi Gras, 1497. (What a dude! Read more about Fr. Savonarola here.)

Author Tom Wolfe used the phrase to great advantage with his 1987 novel (and subsequent movie adaptation) about life in New York City during the decade of the 1980’s. The book illustrated Wolfe’s theme (taken from Ecclesiastes — “all is vanity” — according to some sources) that no one really has any control over their own life, regardless of wealth, wisdom or success.

(Read the book, or catch Tom Hanks in one of his most underwhelming roles in the movie…a nice suggested companion book is Ragen, Brian Abel (2002), Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, ISBN 0313313830)

Psalm 119 is right on the mark again!

Romans 13:8-14
Paul gets us right where we need to be got, especially after all these heavy lessons about killing the first-born and owning up to our vanities.

You don’t really owe ANYTHING to ANYBODY…except to love them. That’s the real point of what God has been trying to say all along. Period.

Matthew 18:15-20
We are sometimes afraid of this bit of relational wisdom from Jesus. We oughtn’t be; this is not a process to try when somebody in the church has been bad and we want to get rid of them. It’s a powerful injunction to give the respect due to each other — and to try to work things out face to face when we’ve hit a bump in the highway of human frailty.

The thing is, it’s absolutely amazing how often v.15 does the trick!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the 60s and 70s, “Merv Griffin” was a popular syndicated talk show.  One time Merv had a body  builder on as the guest.  The interview went something like this:

Merv said, “Why do you develop those particular muscles?”  The body builder looked puzzled, then stepped forward and flexed a series of well-defined muscles from chest to calf.  The audience applauded.

Again Merv asked, “What do you use all those muscles for?”  After an awkward moment, the muscular specimen flexed, and biceps and triceps sprouted to impressive proportions.

Merv persisted, “But what do you use those muscles for?”  The body-builder was bewildered.  He didn’t have an answer other than to display his well-developed frame.  (Larson, p. 237)

What is Christianity for?  Why do you read the Bible? And go to worship services? And make time for prayer? And bother with reading devotional books and going to Sunday school classes?  Why? What’s the point?  As Merv said, “Why do you develop those particular muscles?

Well, according to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, our lessons and exercises in generosity of spirit and compassion and forgiveness and speaking the truth in love and the imitation of Christ in taking risks in pursuit of reconciliation have a very serious point.  Without them, we are reduced to two options in dealing with others: fight or flight.  Put another way; when we are in conflict with another person in our lives, unless we know how to make peace, we have only two other options; suffering in silence or open warfare.

Now, the words we have in this Gospel lesson are unlikely to have come from Jesus’ mouth in exactly the form we have them, though I have no doubt that the gist of what is here comes from Jesus.  For one thing, it is presented as advice to the church and there was no church until after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  For another, the instruction follows an administrative pattern, a step by step procedure, more common in a settled institution than in a wandering community with very flexible boundaries such Jesus and his followers

What is more likely is that Jesus talked to the disciples and others about how people within a faith community should act toward one another and in the 30 to 40 years of oral tradition between the time of Jesus and the writing of Matthew the word “church” became a part of the story; because, after all, it was within the “church” that the believers first remembered and then employed the lessons Jesus had taught them about sin and reconciliation.

And what are those lessons?  Well, the most important one is this: When you have a problem with someone else, deal with the problem and the person instead of talking about it with everyone else you know.  All too often when, in the words of the text, “someone sins against us,” instead of talking to them about it, we tell our friends, and then we tell his or her friends, and then we tell some anonymous people of facebook, and maybe we talk to the minister, or in my case, the bishop, and we say, “Well, I just have a prayer concern Billy Joe, bless her or her heart, that I need to share with you.”  Right.

Rule of thumb – most sentences that start with the words, “Bless their heart . . .” should stop right there because there is seldom any blessing going on; there is simply thinly disguised gossip and condemnation.

Jesus calls us to hold our tongue and take the risk of talking privately with the other person about that which is bothering us. We should take the word “sin,” seriously here.  This is not a formula for dealing with every situation in which you get your feelings hurt a little bit.  This is about serious breaches of relationship.  And Jesus call upon us to make and attempt to fix the problem privately if at all possible. If that doesn’t work, then there is then an escalating scale of talking with the person with2 or 3 witnesses (think mediators), then, when all else fails, the entire faith community.

This idea seems very strange to us because we live in an adversarial culture in which the goal in the middle of any conflict is to win; be it a family argument, a political contest, a church decision, or a law suit. All too often, too little thought is given to the disruption of community these contests create; the nasty gashes that are cut in the fabric of human life by intense conflicts.

With Jesus, the goal in dealing with disagreements is different.  For Christ, the point is the healing of the relationship.  Undergirding everything in our Gospel reading is this key sentence, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”  Regaining the other is the point.  Not winning, not showing them up, not justice, not victory.  Regaining the other, restoring the relationship. We are called to maintain our relationship with each other and with God, and if that relationship is broken, we are encouraged to do all within our power to restore it.

Is this not what God did for us in Christ? We sin against God.  God has a case against us. But instead of pressing the case, God comes to us.  That is what the incarnation is all about.  God comes to us, comes “for us and for our salvation” as the creed says. God comes to us personally, individually, and in the inner workings of our soul, privately.  And at the cross, God in Christ laid aside every vestige of power and right, and reached out his arms to embrace us.  And we are called to do the same for each other – this is what taking up our cross means. We are called to reach out to one another with the same love that  Christ showed for us upon the cross.

So, we have been building up the body of Christ for some time now. For a couple of thousand years,  Christians have gathered, exercising not only our souls but also our bodies by employing Episcopal aerobics: “Sit, stand kneel, sit stand kneel, come to the table, go back to your seat.” We have gathered to pray, to listen to God’s word read and preached, to sing hymns and pass the peace and receive the sacrament and all to what end?  Why have we developed these particular muscles?

We have strengthened these spiritual muscles so that in our real lives, our lives out there, our lives away from the signs and symbols of our faith, our lives in the midst of business and traffic and shopping and family and community; we will be able to live out Paul’s words to us in Romans – “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (August 24, 2014) and The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (August 31, 2014)

Our apologies here at the Lectionary Lab; we slipped in getting our summer assignments done and missed this post in time for those may have actually been preaching. Excusze-nous!

We’ll be getting back on track and back in form just as soon as possible. So that you’ll know we didn’t completely let down our defenses, here are Dr. Chilton’s contributions for last Sunday and this Sunday. Dr. Fairless has been recovering from a little medical treatment, and will return with fresh commentary next week.

Also, The Lectionary Lab Live podcast will be on the air again for the first Sunday in September…so stay tuned!

Pentecost 11                                                Proper 16: August 24, 2014

Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

About a hundred years ago, over in east Tennessee, a Church of Christ congregation was given a piece of property upon which to build a church.  When the elders went to see a lawyer about drawing up a deed, they were able to persuade him to list the owner as “The Lord God Almighty.”  This was fine until a few years ago when the congregation decided to sell the building and lands and relocate to a larger site in order to have a wider witness for Christ.  Then the legal system went to work.

Because the property was listed as being owned by one “Lord God Almighty” and not “The Carter County Church of Christ,” they had to get a deed before they could sell it.  And to get a deed, they had to show that the previous owner did not exist or could not be found.  So the county sheriff was issued a warrant to locate Lord God Almighty.  He went over to the coffee shop on the square across from the courthouse, had his coffee and read the paper and then came back and signed the papers attesting that Lord God Almighty could not be found.

Whilst he was having his coffee and crumb-cake, the sheriff happened to mention this little legal maneuver to the editor of the local paper, the next day the headline read “Lord God Almighty not to be found in Carter County, Tennessee.”  I’m pretty sure that’s not the sort of “wider witness” the church had in mind.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus says to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”(Matthew 16:18)  Though we know him as Peter, the man to whom Jesus was speaking’s real name was Simon, Simon bar Jonah – which means Simon son of Jonah.  In today’s story, Jesus has changed Simon’s name as a symbol of an important change that is beginning to take place in Simon, a change our lesson from Romans calls “being transformed” (Romans 12:2)

Names and name changes are important in the bible.  Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, and later, Saul becomes Paul.  All these name changes mark personal transformations, show that the old has passed away and the new is being born. Jesus calls Simon by a new name to signal to Simon that a change is taking place, but it is not a change that takes place quickly, or suddenly, or all at once. It is a gradual transformation.  At the time it was almost a joke.  Peter means “Rocky.”  Who in the Bible is less rock solid and steady than Simon?  His changes of emotion and action are almost comically rash and totally unpredictable.  And yet, Jesus calls him Peter, the Rock.

And eventually, he becomes a rock, a rock of faith and devotion.  It is a name that he lives into gradually and slowly, but after a while, he becomes the person Jesus saw him to be many years before.

When God calls us “Church,” it is not a name we have earned by any extraordinary saintliness.  In the same manner that he called the perpetually iffy Simon a rock, Jesus sees us becoming a holy people, names us that even though we’re not there yet.

When Jesus called Simon bar Jonah a new name, it was the beginning of the church.  This was a signal that God was doing a new thing.  God was taking people who were willing to risk everything on faith and using those people to create, to build a new community, a community of love, a kingdom of heaven.

God has called us church, and God is using us to build the church in this place and this time.  Funny thing is, when God builds a church, God does not use materials and methods which would pass inspection in the real world.  Anne Lamott, in her book “Traveling Mercies” says –

“I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience.  But when I grew up, I found that life handed you rusty, bent tools – friendship, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said, “Do the best you can with these.  They’ll have to do.”  Mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.”

As Lamott says, God hands us strange tools with which to build a life and a church, but it is God who is building the church, not us.  We are merely workers and tools.  We are being built up each day into the holy people God has already declared us to be. Just as Jesus called Simon bar Jonah by the name of Peter long before Simon became a rock of faith; God has called us church and is continually leading us forward in becoming what Gad has already declared us to be.

And job today is to take the tools God has given us, tools like the friendship and prayer and conscience and honesty that Lamott mentioned, and tools like serving and teaching and giving and encouraging and leading and caring that Paul lists in Romans.  We are to take those tools and build a community wherein the Lord God Almighty can surely be found.

It is our calling to live up to ur name of Christian church, it is our calling to make this place a place where everyone is welcome and everyone can find compassion and forgiveness and community and faith, and joy and peace and hope and most of all love.

We hold the keys, God has placed them in our shaky hands, God has named us church, God has put us in community and has called upon us to open the doors of the kingdom of heaven and bring the world inside.  God has called upon us to make sure the Lord God Almighty can be found in this place.

 

Pentecost 12                                      Proper 17, August 31, 2014

Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

I heard a story recently about a five year old boy and his Grandfather.  Carmen was a notoriously picky eater.  Grandpa’s dinnertime rule was that you don’t have to eat everything on your plate, but you do have to taste it.

On this occasion, Grandpa dished up a full plate of everything for all the kids.  Looking at his food Carmen asked, “Grandpa, would it be okay if I asked God to help me eat my dinner tonight?”  Gramps smiled at this and said “Sure, go ahead.”  Carmen bowed his head and said a silent prayer and then he divided up the food on his plate into two piles: a large pile of food he didn’t like and a small pile of food he did like.  Then, he ate the small pile and asked to be excused from the table. Grandpa eyed the plate and said, “What about the rest of the food on your plate? You haven’t tasted it.”  Carmen said, “That’s okay.  That’s God’s part.”

Sometimes I wonder, “Is that the way I divide things up with God?”  Do I indulge myself in the parts of Christianity that I like; and push off to the edges the parts I don’t like, assuming God will take care of that stuff? Does my idea of working with God mainly consist of picking and choosing among the pleasant and enjoyable aspects of being a person of faith; all the while leaving the messy, grunt work for God?  Those are the questions that lurk underneath our Gospel Lesson.

Today’s gospel follows directly on the heels of last week’s story about Simon proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God; and Jesus responding by renaming Simon – calling him Peter, the rock.

This week, Jesus lays out for the disciples what it really means for him to be the Messiah, the Son of God.  It means rejection, abuse, suffering, and death.  Peter is not ready to hear this.  He takes Jesus aside, and the text says, “rebuked him.”  That’s very strong language.  He didn’t just disagree, he didn’t just have questions; he called Jesus out, he told him he was wrong, he said, “God forbid it Lord, this must never happen to you.”

And Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

In what amounts to one conversation, Peter and Jesus have gone from praising one another; “You are the Messiah.”  “You are the Rock;” to rebuking and condemning one another.

Peter goes from being told he is directly inspired by God, to being told he has his mind on human, not holy things.  Instead of being praised as the rock upon which the church will be built, he is called a stumbling block, an obstacle to the Son of God.

Why?  Because Peter was not ready to hear the difficult truth that is part of the Good News, he was not ready to think about the downside of the building up of the kingdom of heaven.

Peter is ready to do the part he likes; preaching, teaching, healing, receiving the appreciation of the masses.  He is not ready to do the part he doesn’t like; the rejection, the fear, the abuse, the sheer terror and loneliness, death. Even though he was willing to profess that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the Living God, he is not ready to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow wherever that messiah might lead him.

Retired Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz tells a story of a conversation he had with the team Chaplain Walt Wiley.  Smoltz said, “What prevents me from living life the way I want to until I’m in my mid-40s and then settling down and living for Christ?”  Chaplain Wiley replied, “Nothing, except for one thing.  You don’t control your next breath.  But you can take that chance if you want to.”

Christ calls us to commitment now, not next week, not next year, or after the kids are grown, of when I retire, or whenever it’s more convenient.  Christ calls us to commitment now, today, this minute. And the thing that stops us is the same thing that stopped Peter that day long ago; it’s the same thing that stopped Carmen from eating all his veggies, the same thing that tempted John Smoltz away from the gospel.  We are addicted to our own enjoyment and pleasure and are unwilling to give it up, either for the sake of Christ or for the benefit of others.

The Gospel this day calls us to turn our backs on the tempting allure of the pursuit of happiness and to place our lives and our fortunes at the service of the pursuit of holiness.  Jesus has laid before us a simple and clear choice in his words to Peter.  No, I don’t mean the famous triad of deny self, take up cross, and follow. They are merely commentary on the really important thing Jesus said earlier.

“Get behind me Satan!”  Jesus didn’t say, “Get out of my way.”  He didn’t say, “Stop bothering me.”  He didn’t say, “You’re evil and I cast you into the outer darkness.”  No, Jesus said to Satan the same thing he says to all of us, “Get behind me.”

There’s only one right place in this world to be, and that’s behind Jesus.

There’s only one truly satisfying place in this world to be, and that’s behind Jesus.

There’s only one completely fulfilling place in this world to be, and that’s behind Jesus.

Everyone, including Satan, is invited to fall in line.  We are called upon to get behind Jesus as he leads us into the world to spread the kingdom of heaven, the unfailing and inescapable love of God. It is not an easy calling, it is not always pleasant, it often seems unrewarding and unreasonable, but it is where Christ has called us to be.  Will we get behind Jesus and follow him into the midst of the world’s suffering peoples; abandoning our lives into the grip of God’s love?

Amen and amen.

 

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 17, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 45:1-15
It’s an ongoing theological dilemma, of sorts; just how much “blame” or “credit” should we assign to God for the stuff that happens in our lives?

 In a strictly predestinarian manner of speaking, there are some who say that “everything that happens is for a purpose — it’s the will of God.” This leads to some pretty twisty interpretations of God and God’s will in the case of, say, a baby born addicted to crack thanks to her mother’s poor choices.

On the other hand, there are some who say that “God gives us free choice and has nothing to do with the consequences we bring on ourselves.” This makes God the ultimate absentee landlord, with very little influence over the created order.

Joseph certainly makes an intriguing case for some level of involvement by God in the affairs of his life; he maintains that God was at work in the long-ago choice by his brothers to rid themselves of the pesky, arrogant dreamer by selling him into slavery. “God sent me before you to preserve life.” Not only his own life, we might add, nor simply the lives of his family members…but the lives of countless thousands (or perhaps millions) by his influence over Pharaoh and the affairs of Egyptian government.

So, exactly where does the providence of God lie in the affairs of humanity — those who are people of faith and those who are not?

Psalm 133
This psalm supports the theme of “family reunion” in the Genesis reading; “how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.” The two main images are of profusion and abundance — it’s a BIG blessing when barriers to relationship are removed and unity is restored.

The image of anointing with so much oil that it would run all the way down the beard and flow onto Aaron’s robe is something like a baptism. This is no mere dabbling of sweetly-scented oil. It is poured out and flowing! 

Similarly, the “dew of Hermon” was supposedly legendary for its ability to water the earth. Mt. Hermon is the highest point in eastern Palestine; according to Henry Maundrell, Anglican clergyman and Oxford academic who wrote a series of travel diaries in the 18th century, “with this dew, even in dry weather, our tents were as wet as if it had rained all night.” (Read more about Rev. Maundrell here)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Just who, exactly, is welcome in God’s family? According to the prophet, the list includes “foreigners…outcasts of Israel…and all peoples” (goyim, Gentiles.) A thought worth remembering as many of our churches continue to struggle with who is welcome. And who is not.

Psalm 67
The repeated chorus, “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you,” is not only a beautiful piece of worship liturgy, it is a fitting reinforcement of the theme that God’s work in the world is for all the people of the world — not just God’s chosen people.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
We’re all in the same boat, so to speak: “For God has imprisoned us all in disobedience so that God may be merciful to all.” 

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
Boy, oh, boy…talk about who’s in and who’s out! After discussing the original case of “trash talking” with his disciples, Jesus apparently demeans a double-outsider — a WOMAN from SIDONIA. She is the wrong gender to receive the respectful attention of the rabbi, and she is definitely from the wrong side of the tracks. Who exactly did she think she was that Jesus should grant her request?

She was a lot like us, actually.  Certainly, she was a “hard case.” Perhaps it was she who needed conversion on this day…or, perhaps, it was the crowd watching and listening that needed to be converted from their prejudice and tiny belief system. Whichever the case, by the end of the story we all come to understand that what God is up to in redeeming the world is always bigger, broader and deeper than we can imagine.

Imagine that!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A minister friend of mine grew up in a small town in Georgia.  His grandfather lived nearby and owned a chicken farm.  In the mid-1960s, industry started moving into the area and the small farms were turned into subdivisions.  The American Can Company built a factory nearby and soon a lot of people from the Midwest were transferred down to Georgia to run the factory.  Suddenly, for the first time, my friend had a lot of neighbors from Wisconsin.

They were not entirely like the people my friend and his family were used to.  For example, they called a “cookout” a barbecue and they drank beer right outside in their yards in front of God and everybody.  They walked up and down the road for exercise.  And, they talked funny.

One day one of the new couples came to grandpa’s barn to buy eggs, just like almost everybody else in town.  But this couple walked over instead of driving and they exchanged only a few brief words of pleasantry instead of chatting for half an hour like locals would have. As they walked away hand-in-hand with their eggs, Grandpa looked after them and then shook his head and said to his grandson, “They’re nice enough folks, I guess, but they’re not our kind of people.”

Have you ever heard birds the Peterson Field Guide calls a “confusing” warblers because some of them are so similar that only the size of the white stripe above their tiny eyes differentiates one species from another? Yet, they are completely different species.

We humans, on the other hand, are all the same species.  African, Asian, European, Native American – Short, tall, thin, heavy, blue-eyes or brown, black hair or blond, dark skin or pink or something in between, we all possess almost identical genetic material.  None of it matters – we are all the same kind of people.

And we are alike in ways that have little to do with our DNA.  The people of China, or Somalia, or Haiti or Iraq of North Korea of New York or North Carolina all love our families, all are concerned with the price of food and the cost of housing, we all ponder the meaning of life and the future of our children.  Yes, we are all very much alike and yet we so often live in fear of each other, keeping ourselves separate from others, not just others from across the world – but others from across town or across the street.

Not too long ago I read a piece in the “sound off” section of a southern newspaper identifying their state as a “red” state and advising that people moving from Minnesota or Wisconsin of one of the other “blue” states should just keep their mouths shut.  Meanwhile I heard a radio talk show program in New England where callers were talking about the people in the “red” states should just stay away from the area.  And so it goes.

And as the world becomes more and more fragmented, the church finds itself more and more divided between Protestants and Catholics and the orthodox, between liberals and conservatives, between those who ordain women and gays and those who don’t, those who baptize babies and those who don’t, those who have THE TRUTH, and those who apparently don’t, etc. etc. Currently there are 20,000 different Christian denominations in the world.  And all of this not only saddens God’s heart, it is also, quite literally, against the will and plan of God for the world.

In Isaiah 56: 7 we read – “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Our Romans text is a bit of Paul’s complex reasoning about how the Jewish people have not been rejected by God.  In the midst of it, he says, “. . . that (God) might have mercy on all.”

In our gospel lesson, Jesus finds himself on the receiving end of instruction about the wideness of God’s mercy. After Jesus makes remarks about being sent only to the children of Israel, dismissively topping it off with a proverb about how it’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs, the foreign woman turns the insult around and gently reminds him that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs from the children’s table.  All three texts are a proclamation of the radical inclusiveness of the kingdom of heaven. Inclusivity is not a minor theme in the scriptures; it is at the heart of the story of God’s love for all God’s people.

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann once wrote, “The nearer we come to Christ, the nearer we come together.” In a world anxiously searching for peace, in a world where people desperately need to learn how to trust and help each other; God is still calling the church to be an example of what God wants the world to be – a community where all people are our kind of people.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (August 10, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
“And they took Joseph to Egypt….”

As the children of Israel read and heard the tagline to this story told for generation after generation, they could look at one another with a knowing smile and nod of the head. The commonly spoken wisdom would have been something like,  “Don’t worry about Joseph, God has a plan for him in Egypt!”

Joseph, of course, gets more press than any of the other patriarchs in Genesis; he has “star power” and is put in place just in time for God to accomplish the salvation of Jacob-now-called-Israel and his extended family. But, it’s a rough ride along the way!

Like ancient Israel, we know that God has a plan for Joseph. Do we trust that God has a plan for us, as well?

Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Psalm 105 affirms the events of the Joseph saga and offers a theology of providence concerning God’s presence in the midst of Joseph’s difficulties. God’s presence in and purpose for Joseph’s life ultimately are for the benefit of all God’s people. We may face our own “feet hurt with fetters” and “necks bound with iron,” but God’s testing brings blessing when we “seek God’s presence continually.”

1 Kings 19:9-18
Earth, Wind, and Fire. 

Quite a spectacular show that Elijah experiences after his little sulk in the cave. How many of us, preachers and pastors, have felt something akin to Elijah’s emotions after a “great victory” like the one at Mt. Carmel –only to come crashing down to the reality that not everybody is lining up to tell us we’re the greatest servant God has ever sent?

Elijah felt alone — and we serve in a lonely profession sometimes — but the truth was, he wasn’t alone. God was present most stunningly in the sound of sheer silence. Oh, and then there were the other 7,000 servants God had preserved for God’s self in Israel.

You and I may not be called to a cave to understand, but we are never, ever alone. Now move on along.

Psalm 85:8-13
A guest comment from The Rev. Dr. Ruth Hamilton, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor and good friend, with gratitude from the Bubbas:

This afternoon I was looking over the texts for August 7, and encountered one of my favorite medieval motifs:  the four daughters of God.  You will find them in Psalm 85:10-11.  The old translation was “Mercy and Truth have met each other; Justice and Peace have kissed.”  The NRSV doesn’t do it justice.  It is a charming picture.

This motif appears in countless medieval works of art and literature (music, too, if I remember correctly).  It is a scene of reconciliation because the four daughters of God had quarreled after the fall about the fate of humankind.  Truth and Justice demanded punishment.  Mercy and Peace advocated forgiveness.  Through Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross on our behalf, everyone is satisfied.  The strife is ended, all is forgiven.  So they meet and embrace, and God’s household is at one.

It is an image of harmony that always makes me smile.  And I am intrigued with the idea that God has daughters in addition to all those sons.”

Romans 10:5-15
Sometimes, there’s just not much else to be said about a passage of scripture. I feel that way about this section of Romans. Beautiful, just beautiful. Preachers — and we are all called to be preacher, “tellers, of the gospel — your feet are beautiful!

Matthew 14:22-33
Even Jesus needed to pray — and, notably, sometimes he prayed all night! I am always reminded that I impoverish my prayer time at my peril when I read this line from the gospel. It is usually the other Dr. Bubba that quotes Martin Luther, but I like these words (feel free to provide a more accurate translation, if you can):

“If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Many years ago I stood in the hallway outside a college admissions office, sweating uncomfortably in my Sunday Suit and twisting the postcard with the time and place of my appointment in my hands. I pushed the door open slowly and looked around. I saw a man sitting at his desk, seemingly absorbed in his paperwork. I eased into the room, looking for a place to sit when suddenly he looked up and barked at me, “What are you doing here?” Startled, I stammered out that I was looking for the Admissions office. He said, “This is it. What are you doing here?” Again I attempted to answer. “I’m Delmer Chilton and I have an appointment.” He grunted and said, “I know that, but what are you doing here?”

Know that expression, “Look like a deer in the headlights?” That was me. I was completely bumfuzzled. Finally I shrugged my shoulders threw up my hands and said, “I don’t understand the question. You’ve got to help me out here?’ Again the man grunted and said, “What are you doing here? Not here in this room but here in this life? Why do you want to go to college? What is your calling, your purpose, your passion? What ARE YOU doing here?” I don’t know how good that man was at recruiting students; but he sure was good at asking the important questions.

Did you notice that his question was the same question that God asked Elijah on the mountain, “What are you doing here?” At one level it’s a question about why Elijah is hiding in a cave far from where he’s supposed to be. At another level it’s a question about Elijah’s calling in life. Without going too deeply into the history, Elijah had been called by God to oppose Ahab and Jezebel, the rulers of Israel. Ahab, under the influence of his wife had reintroduced Baal worship and many of the people were adopting it. There was a big confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal that involved the sacrifice of a bull and the calling down of fire from heaven. It’s a real interesting story. It’s in I Kings 18:20-40. You should read it some time. Anyway, The four hundred priests of Baal failed and Elijah succeeded in calling down fire from heaven and the 400 Baal priests were killed, but instead of proving anything to Jezebel and she got mad and decided to have Elijah killed. And here’s the interesting thing. Elijah had just successfully called down fire from heaven and now he turns tail and runs. After that gigantic demonstration of God’s power, at the first sign of trouble he gives up.

And God comes and finds him in the cave and asks him, “What are you doing here?” “Why did you run away?” Elijah’s answer says it all, because his answer is not about God, it’s all about him, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with a sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Elijah’s fatal flaw at this moment is that he believes that he is the one who has done good things for God; when in reality it is God who has done good things for the world through Elijah.

This moves to the second meaning of the question, the meaning my College Admissions Officer was getting at. What is your calling, your purpose in life? Elijah had forgotten that his calling was to serve God and to allow God to work in and through him for the benefit of Israel and ultimately the world.
Moving for a moment to our Gospel story of Jesus walking on the water; we discover that Peter had a similar problem. When he looked at the storm that surrounded him, he forgot that it was God who was holding him up. He began to think, “I can’t do this, I can’t walk on water,” and then he began to sink.

Now, let’s be clear here. We’re not talking about some form of “positive thinking” of “look deep within yourself and believe!” pseudo-psycho-babble. No, this is about remembering that we don’t do great things for God. God does great things for us, and God does great things through us for the salvation of the world.

Remember when the little WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets were all the rage? I used to joke about needing a WWPD bracelet; “What Would Peter Do?”  Now there’s a standard I can live up to. But I was sort of serious about that. The trouble with WWJD is we are not Jesus, so we can’t do what Jesus would do. That is precisely the point of these stories; we are dependent upon God, and God is trustworthy.

Jesus could walk on water, Peter couldn’t except with God’s help. Elijah didn’t make God send fire from heaven, God sent Elijah to call for the fire. Way too often we in the church think it’s our job to do great things for God. We want to build big buildings, attract huge crowds, be a “significant” and “important” congregation in our community and Synod.

None of this is bad unless we think that we do those things on our own, as a service to God. We don’t. It is not our calling to be successful, as the world defines success. Rather it is our calling to be faithful, as God defines faith. It is our calling as the church to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments, to serve the world in the name of the one who came and served us.

It is our calling to be proclaimers, in words and deeds of the glorious Good News of the love and Grace of God. How are they to hear without someone to tell them? (Romans 10: 14) Our proclamation may result in size and significance in the eyes of the world, and it may not. But that is not the issue. The issue is remembering that to say “Jesus is LORD,” is also to say “And I am not.”

The issue is remembering the words of Martin Luther in the Small Catechism, “Not by my own reason and strength can I believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him,” and I would add “or serve him.” The issue is remembering what we’re doing here. The issue is remembering that our calling is to be a means of grace in the world, a place and a people through whom God will love and serve the world.

Amen and Amen.

A Word About the Lectionary Lab Live

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

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

John and Delmer

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

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob has finally arrived — he is Israel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any takers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to verse 31-33:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.