The Reign of Christ for Year B

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

2 Samuel 23:1-7
David speaks the words to which we all, as preachers, aspire every time we stand and deliver: “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.” N‘est–ce pas?

This word outlines the character of the righteous ruler: one who rules justly, in the fear of God. This ruler brings light and life to the land.

In true Hebrew literary form, there follows a contrasting vision of the godless: thorns that prick and tear, worth nothing but to be piled together and burned.

Let us pray for righteous rulers!

Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18)
The psalmist remembers David’s passion for the worship of God, for a place to serve as God’s dwelling place. Rooted in that same passion and commitment, the psalm prays for God’s blessing on the “sons of David” that will follow as God’s righteous rulers over God’s people in Zion.

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Daniel’s apocalyptic vision is of God, the Ancient One, on the exalted throne of heaven. God is joined by “one like a human being” who is given the authority to rule over all peoples, nations, and languages on earth.

This imagery is picked up by John, in the opening chapters of Revelation, and reworked brilliantly into the theme of God’s great power and authority over even sin and death — made known to all of creation in the Lamb of God (and a slaughtered lamb, at that.)

The power and might of the Ancient One, the King of heaven, the ruler of an eternal dominion — in the end will lay claim to the throne through nothing other than sacrifice and love.

Psalm 93
It is the LORD who is robed with majesty, who has acted in strength to establish the world.

While the image of floodwaters roaring through our neighborhoods is not a particularly comfortable one (just ask those affected by the recent Superstorm Sandy, the Christmas tsunami of 2004, or the still-memorable Hurricane Katrina in 2006) — there is no denying the power and awe of the metaphor.

Revelation 1:4b-8
Jesus rules the kings of the earth, by virtue of his rule over death itself (a power that conquers even the most venerable kings — cf. King Tut, King Nebuchadnezzar, King Henry VIII, and so on.)

One of the connections with the Daniel passage (see above) appears here as Jesus Christ is envisioned “coming with clouds.”

Not insignificant is the appointment of Christ’s followers as “kings and priests” in his name. What import does this have for the church’s ministry on this Sunday of Christ, the King?

John 18:33-37
Pilate senses that something is up with this Jesus fellow. He seems to be more than the local rulers have cracked him up to be. Pilate’s questions are probing, intense.

“Are you the King of the Jews? What have you done? Tell me, are you a king?”

Those are questions that we are still answering to this day, I think. What does it mean for me to offer my allegiance to a king whose kingdom, by his own admission, is “not of this world?”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My father was a very smart man.  Well, he was very smart about most things; some things, not so much.  Like fashion and modern music and movie stars and what a teen-ager would think matters. And since he had at least one teenager in the house from 1964 until 1978 – and most of that time he had two or three, well, this blind spot caused him no end of grief.  But, as I said, he was a very smart man.

And the way he got so smart was by asking questions. Up until his death at the age of 80, he never stopped asking questions about things that interested him.  This was a habit that irritated my very active mother and frightened his children.  Sometimes Mama told him he thought too much and we children just tried to avoid one of his Socratic “teachable moments” at the dinner table. There we would be, happily digging into our usual meat and potatoes when he would say, “Delmer, have you ever wondered why a car leans over to the side when you go around a curve too fast.”  Well, no, I hadn’t.  I was 8 years old.  Centrifugal force as a scientific concept had not intruded into my peaceful and playtime filled existence, until now.  From this opening he went around the table, questioning and teaching his five little Chiltons. For him, it was fun, for us, it was agony.  It was also very formative of our characters.  We are all question askers to this day, which is a good thing.  Questions are important.

The Gospel reading is full of questions.  It is only five verses long.  In English, only a hundred and forty-seven words.  Yet there are five questions in those five verses.  Sixty-one of those one hundred and forty-seven verses are tied up in those questions; the rest in the answers.  And the text leaves us with more questions – which only we can answer.

The setting is the trial of Jesus, the characters are Pilate and Jesus, the question is the nature of kingship.  This really is a question about power and its use and abuse.  It is striking to note that the person in this story who should be confident and full of power, Pilate, is the one who is hesitant and almost comical in his desperate maneuverings while the one who should be anxious and afraid, Jesus, is the person who is cool, calm, and collected.

Pilate is trying to figure out what level of security risk Jesus represents.  Is this just a little squabble amongst these annoying Hebrews; or is there a terrorist cell lurking behind this mild-mannered rabbi?  Is he the head of a group which might erupt into a fighting unit, leading a rebellion against the power and prestige of Rome; or is he just another wingnut, spouting off about some eccentric political and spiritual philosophy?  What’s the true level of danger here?

Pilate is worried about the power that comes from force; that results from having more soldiers and spears and battering rams than the other guy.  In modern terms, Pilate is worried about the kind of power that comes from the barrel of a gun.  When Jesus says “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over,” he is trying to tell Pilate “That’s not the kind of power I have, nor is it the kind of power I want or need.”

But Pilate can’t hear him.  Trying to talk to Pilate about Jesus’ type of power is like talking to an eight year old farm boy about centrifugal force.  Went right by him.  Pilate responds to this with, “Okay, so you are a king, or, you’re not a king? What?’

Jesus tries again. “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  And as we know from the fact that Jesus was crucified, Pilate still didn’t get it.  He never saw Jesus as a threat, but, politics won out. He thinks, “It makes the Hebrew leaders happy for him to be dead so, I’ll make that happen.  But just in case there is a terrorist group ready to pounce, I’ll make sure the Hebrew leaders get the blame.”

Pilate never did understand what sort of king Jesus claimed to be.  The question for us today is this – do we?  What sort of king is Christ for us?  We don’t have kings in the modern world, not really?  A few ceremonial heads of state, flitting about the world and getting their pictures in the papers – but no one with any substance or real power or authority.  So what does it mean for us to call Christ our King?

Jonathan Sacks was once the head rabbi of Great Britain.  He says that the world was caught off-guard by the rise of ISIS, the Islamic state, because the world believes that secularism will eventually prevail over religion.  He says that science, technology, free market economics, even liberal democracy have failed to recognize that humans are meaning-seeking creatures who ask basic questions of identity: Who am I?  Why am I here?  How should I live?” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2)

The young people of ISIS have found an answer to those questions.  It is a horrific answer, a violent and short-sighted answer, but it is an answer – forged in a world which offered them nothing else but meaning free progress.

The world forgot that underneath our façade of seeking power and possessions, most people really are trying to find out two basic things: what is the nature of life and where do I fit in.  In religious terms these questions are:  “What is God like?” and “What is godlike?”  Christ is our king because in Christ, God has answered both our questions.

What is God like? God is like Jesus.  God is like Jesus loving, healing, and teaching.  God is like Jesus suffering.  God is like Jesus dying on the cross for us.  God is like Jesus being raised again.

What is godlike? How should we live because of what God is like?  We should live like Jesus.  We are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, to go where Jesus went, to do what Jesus did, to become, as the people of God knit together across time and geography, the Body of Christ; loving, healing, teaching, suffering, dying and being raised again.

And that love of God in Christ is a force that will not only cause the powers of the world to teeter over as they careen through life; it is a force that will throw the powers of the world off the tracks, so that all God’s people can stand together and sing with the Psalmist “The Lord is King.” (Ps. 93:1)

Alleluia and amen.

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (November 15, 2015)

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

Reprinted with permission from The Lectionary Lab Commentary: Stories and Sermons for Year B

1 Samuel 1:4-20
Some of the most effective praying that is done may be with “wordless prayers,” such as that of Hannah. Nothing audible, no profundity of phrasing. Just straight up “pouring out my soul before the Lord.” (v.15)

1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah’s response to God’s goodness in answering her prayer (see above) functions as the psalm text for those using these readings. She certainly does as well as anything David or any other psalmist ever wrote!

One of my favorite questions to ask when the scripture is laid out before me — during those moments when I am simply seeking to let the text speak — is, “What do I learn about God from this text?”

  • There is no Holy One like the LORD
  • God is a God of knowledge
  • God weighs God’s every action
  • God holds the power of both death and life
  • God is in the midst of both poverty and wealth
  • God may be found at the ash heaps of life, as well as in the seats of power
  • God guards the feet of those who are faithful; God’s adversaries will be shattered (ouch!)

Daniel 12:1-3
An apocalyptic portion from Daniel; in chapter 11, he has told us that the vision speaks of “the time of the end.” We have one of the Bible’s four mentions of Michael, the archangel of God (there is a second in Daniel,  as well as others in Jude and Revelation.) Michael is one of seven angels of this rank according to some Jewish and Orthodox Christian sources (a pretty decent article from Wikipedia here.)

Whatever one’s views of end times and angelology might be, we certainly have a text of hope and comfort in the midst of great anguish here. Daniel’s vision has a formative influence on the eschatology of the early church, which knew its share of suffering, persecution, and anguish.

Psalm 16
Another passage with the theme of God’s protection. Notice that faith in God affects the whole person — physically, mentally/emotionally, and spiritually: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.” (v. 9)

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
The preacher of Hebrews places his assurance and hope squarely on the success of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. Jesus has opened a “new and living way” for us to approach God — and we may now do so boldly and with great confidence.

With our eternal destiny secured, the preacher would have us turn to love and good deeds — “provoking” one another in these endeavors. What a different take on our usual impression of the word “provoke!”

Instead of provoking one another with political jabs, insults, taunts, and mocking — can you imagine what public discourse would be like if we substituted encouragement to love and good deeds, instead?

“Yeah, well your mother was so nice, she used to bake cookies for the whole neighborhood!”

“Aw, that’s nothing — yo’ momma was so generous, she used to give us all a quarter for picking up the sticks on Old Man Johnson’s yard!”

“Yeah, well if you don’t stop it, I’m gonna have to go over and help your little brother with his homework.”

“You better watch out; if you do that — I’ll be forced to fix your sister’s bike!

Mark 13:1-8
The prognosticators of doom and gloom are quick to arise whenever there is a major tragedy. In recent memory, there have been all sorts of predictions and pronouncements of the judgment of God attached to everything from the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001 — to Hurricane Katrina in 2006 — and the recent Superstorm Sandy that affected millions on the East Coast of the U.S.

Worldwide, wars and famine and struggles for justice drag on day after day, year after year. Many people are prone to ask the question, “Is this the end of the world?”

Well, I admit that one does have to wonder — just as the disciples in Jesus time wondered. We are there when Peter, James, John, and Andrew (notice the addition of Andy to the usual inner circle of the Big Three) pop the question to Jesus : “When will this be, and what will be the sign?”

I do like Jesus’ response, though it isn’t designed to answer the question directly: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and will say, ‘blah, blah, blah, blah….’”

Provides a nice filter for the talking heads and non-stop purveyors of agony that fill the airwaves. They don’t know any more than you or I; whatever is going on around us, it’s all like birth pangs. Expectant parents all have to learn the same lesson: the baby will come when the baby is ready to come.

So it is with the final chapter of the coming kingdom of God….

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

At various times in the history of the church, dire circumstances have been interpreted as a punishment from God and a sign that Angry Jesus is about to put in an appearance, accompanied by the Archangel Michael.

May 19, 1780 was a strange day all across New England.  An “eerie, smoky pall” covered much of the region.  “The gloom was apparently quite stark, as birds returned to their roosts early, thinking it was night. Forest fires in Canada likely produced the darkness, but many in New England interpreted it as a sign from God.” (Kidd and Hankins, “Baptists in America.” Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 53)

Not only did many interpret it as a sign from God, they interpreted it as a bad sign, a sign that God was angry, that God was not only coming soon, God was coming full of judgement and anger.  Many of the churches in New England, especially the more evangelical Baptists and Congregationalists, experienced a major uptick in both attendance and conversions and people fled the wrath to come and hurried to “get right with God.”

One of the standard numbers sung by the Gospel Quartets who appeared at homecomings, revivals and such in the evangelical churches of my youth was “Jesus is Coming Soon.”  It had a strange mixture of upbeat tempo and beatdown lyrics in four part harmony:

“Jesus is coming soon;

Morning, or night, or noon;

Many will meet their doom,

Trumpets will sound,

trumpets will surely sound!”

As someone said to me recently, “I’m not sure what Episcopalians mean when they say ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead,’ but I’m pretty sure they don’t mean THAT.” Well, if we don’t mean that, what do we mean?  What are we to make of these lessons we read today?  While it may be easy to slide by Daniel without paying much attention, ignoring Jesus is a bit more difficult, we have to give him a careful listen.

The first time we read through or listen to these texts, we are likely to hear violence and judgement and discord.  We will recoil from words like anguish and shame and contempt in Daniel.  We will pull away from images of disagreement and discord, of natural disasters like earthquakes and the wanton human destruction of war in the gospel.  We especially dislike thinking about them as something necessary, something God is doing in the world.

But this is one of those times when the message of hope is a still, small, voice straining to be heard in the midst of a lot of bombastic noise. The real message here is that, as inevitable as those things are in a fallen world, God is in the midst of them, and us, with another message and another work going on.  God’s hand, God’s word, is working “in, with, and under,” the harsh realities of the world to bring us the message and the reality of our deliverance.

Look at Daniel.  Michael arises, there is a time of anguish but – listen: “at that time your people shall be delivered,” and “those who sleep in the dust shall awake.”  The Psalm contains two of my favorite lines in the Bible, lines I want carved into my gravestone; “My body also shall rest in hope, for you will not abandon me to the grave.” (Psalm 16:9b-10a) Hebrews rehearses the story of Christ as both our Great High Priest and the ultimate sacrifice and then says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (10:23) And finally, in the midst of talking about all the bad things that will happen, Jesus says, “do not be alarmed,” (vs.7) and reminds us that these are “birth pangs,” (vs. 8) which means God is in the midst of all of this, bringing something new into the world.

The message today is one of hope and promise in the midst of doom and gloom.  Which fits the way our lives tend to work out. We live each day in the already but not yet hope of God’s new kingdom of love and grace.  Though we know about God’s love in Christ, though we have felt that love, both in the world and in the church – we also spend a lot of time in the midst of confusing difficulty and occasional despair – both in the world and in the church. These scriptures call us back to a fundamental trust in and reliance upon God as the cornerstone of our life and our life together – they remind us over and over that “the one who has promised is faithful.”

I have a Baptist minister friend who went to Vanderbilt Divinity School.  He often reminds me that one of his professors there, Liston Mills, frequently said that every religious or theological question really boils down to just one, “Can God be trusted?”

In the midst of trials and tribulations, distress and destruction, can God be trusted to still care about us?

When we have failed to be good, failed to be the people God wants us to be, failed to be the people we know we should be; can God be trusted to forgive us and love us still?

When we come to the end of our days, when we close our eyes in death, can God be trusted to be there when we open them again in that undiscovered country? Will we go to sleep in death and wake up in Christ?  Can the promises of God be trusted?

The message today is yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  The one who has promised is faithful, we need not be alarmed.

Amen and amen.

The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (November 8, 2015)

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

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Naomi and Ruth, two women in desperate straits, were not unfamiliar with anxiety about where their next meal might be coming from. In the world of their day, women “without a man” just weren’t accounted for much. Some people say the more things change, the more they say the same.

Boaz plays the role of “kinsman-redeemer” — one who brings hope from a hopeless situation. It’s a great story, gender bias issues aside. Ultimately, it is the Lord who provides. Don’t forget that we are also given a glimpse into the “greater story” of the gospel here, as the offspring of Ruth and Boaz will lead to the line of David, King of Israel and, ultimately, to the story of Jesus.

Psalm 127

Psalm 127 perfectly complements the story of Ruth and Boaz; again, it is the Lord who is building this house. We all need God in charge of our construction projects!

1 Kings 17:8-16

Another widow, more hunger; we may be seeing a theme developing in the texts for this day! God provides by means of the prophet, but only after the widow of Zarephath is challenged to release her hold on the only source of sustenance she possesses — her last “dab” of meal and oil.

What can God do with the little that we have, when we are willing to let it go?

Psalm 146

Hey, who do you trust? The prince? The president? The congress? Your bank account (whether meager or much?)

The psalm calls us to trust in the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth (and the sea and all that is in them and a few other cool things in creation.) God looks after the lowly — here, the hungry and the oppressed, the widows and the orphans. One assumes that God is perfectly willing to look after the high and mighty, as well — it’s just that when you have more, it may be a little harder to “let God and let God.”

Hebrews 9:24-28

Two trips for Jesus are mentioned here in Hebrews — once, Jesus came to deal with sin — and did so quite effectively, we might add! For his second time on earth, Jesus will complete the salvation of those who are eagerly waiting for him. We are being saved, my friends!

Mark 12:38-44

And finally, here in the gospel, more widows!

There are few people meaner than those who would “devour” a widow’s house — i.e., who would take legal advantage of someone who has no standing with regard to property rights. What is our response to the oppressed and disenfranchised of our day? Who are the widows in need of protecting?

In the end, it is once again the least who often become greatest in the kingdom of heaven. A widow — literally penniless after giving her offering at the temple — is lifted up by Jesus as a worthy example of surrender. When you give God everything you have, you discover that God gives you everything you need!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

As I sit down to write this sermon on Oct. 28, 2015, USATODAY has on the front page what it calls “GOP Power Rankings,” accompanied by a picture of candidate Ben Carson and the headline “Carson now on top.” A millionaire taking over the lead from a billionaire. Over in Section B there is a long story about “Wealthy CEOS.”  It says that the largest 100 CEO retirement packages have about $4.9 billion dollars in them, equal to the combined retirement funds of 41% of the American people.

This picture of wealth and power is in sharp contrast to the two widows we read about this morning.  The widow of Zarephath is down to her last bit of food, intending to feed it to her son before preparing to die.  Jesus says the widow in the Temple “gave all that she had,” “two small copper coins.”  In modern terms – enough for a cup of coffee and some fries, maybe a small burger at a fast food restaurant.  Just enough to get by.

Most of us have heard stewardship sermons about the widow’s mite.  These sermons lifted her up as an example of true giving.  We’ve been told that it’s not the size of the gift that matters, it’s what’s in the giver’s heart that counts.  “Have you given your all?” we’re asked.  “Have you done everything you could?  Did you give until it hurt your pocketbook, or just until it didn’t tweak your conscience anymore?”  And then we’re told to look at the widow, giving all she can, all she has, because she cares that much.

Well, those sermons are somewhat effective with some people, and there even some truth in them.  But they do not truly get to the heart of the text, not to the core of the story we have before us. In this story, the emotion that matters is not one’s devotion to the cause, but one’s ability to trust completely in God and God’s future.  Jesus does not belittle large gifts as being unworthy – he simply points out that the big givers gave out of their abundance while the widow gave out of her poverty.  They still had plenty left to depend on – like the 100 CEOs depend on their plush retirement accounts.  The widow had put in all she has, everything, and Jesus applauds her because her action shows what faith really is – it is placing our faith and our future completely in the hands of God.

This is what the widow of Zarephath did. After she told Elijah how little she had, he told her to give it to him anyway, promising that God would provide for her and her son throughout the drought, that they would have meal and oil and water with which to make bread as long as they needed it.  And she believed the promise of the prophet, she entrusted her future to a God who was not even her own God, to the prophet of a people who were not even her own people. With absolutely nothing else to fall back on, she risked all, trusting in the word and love of God.

My Mother died a year ago; she lived the last eleven years of her life as a widow, and a relatively poor one at that – she got by on less money than many people waste in a year.  And yet she was a generous person.  I used to call her once or twice a week.  One time I called and she was out and I left a message.  She called back and said, “Sorry I wasn’t here when you called.  I was out taking food to the old people in the church.”  I said, “Mama, you’re 83.  Who are the “old people”?  She said, “Well Owie for one, she’s a hundred and four.”  I ceded her point.  Then she added, “I also had to take some soup to that Jones girl and her baby.  They’ve been coming to church.  She don’t have hardly nothing.”

I knew who Mama was talking about.  She had more than Mama, and by some people’s standards was not at all worthy of my mother’s efforts – but none of that mattered to Mama.  When I said, “Mama, you really can’t afford to be giving food away to people,” she said, “Well, somebody has to.  And people give me food and money.  What kind of person would I be if I didn’t pass it on?  Son, you know what Jesus said about “the least of these.”  The Bible don’t set no age limit on that, does it?” “No Mama, it doesn’t.”

Pastor Tim Smith recently became the bishop of the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  He tells a story about something that happened while he was a parish pastor.  “These widows . . . . remind me of a dear African woman in our parish.   . . . Whenever I would visit, she would shuffle over to the drawer and produce an envelope full of one-dollar bills to send back to the church as her tithe.  When once I suggested that she might keep a portion for her own needs, she sternly chastised me, “Pastor! You know this is the Lord’s money.  The first fruits always go to Christ’s church!” . . . .I took her out to get a gourmet burger, but when it came, she ate the fries and an order of hot peppers, but had the burger boxed up for a treat she could savor at home that evening.  On the way out of the restaurant, a homeless man on the curb called to her, “Mama, pray for me!”  She laid hands on him, prayed, and asked him when he last ate. “Yesterday morning, Mama.” Without hesitation, she gave him her precious burger. When she died, she left a large percentage of her meager estate to the church. . . . As Mother Teresa often said, “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” (Sundays and Seasons, PREACHING, Year B, 2015, p. 282)

“You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”  Recently the state of Georgia executed Kelly Gissander.  She was guilty of plotting with her then boyfriend to kill her husband.  During her stay in prison, Kelly turned her life around, not only becoming a Christian but also studying theology through a program of the Atlanta Theological Seminaries. She said of her crime and her past, “I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil, but I have learned that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”  (Christian Century, Oct. 18, 2015, p. 19)

Though many people, including the pope ask for clemency for her, it was denied and she was killed by lethal injection.  In its report of this story, the Christian Century quoted Tara Tragesser, who works at the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center in Chattanooga: “She found transformation, she bloomed in a place where there is no sunshine, no love, no nurture – no one except the very real God in whom she placed all her trust.” (CT, 10/28/2015, p. 19)

The Psalmist reminds us, we should not “put our trust in rulers, in mortals in whom there is no help.”  We cannot rely upon presidential candidates or political parties or bank accounts or retirement plans or anything else but God.

The voice of God comes to us through the voices of these women today: “The first fruits always go to Christ’s Church.”  “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”

“I have learned that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”  “She found transformation in a place where there is no sunshine, no love, no nurture – no one except the very real God in who she placed all her trust.”

The very real God invites us this day to let go of everything else and place our trust in completely in the love and grace of God, revealed to us in Jesus, the Christ.  AMEN AND AMEN.

All Saints Day (November 1, 2015)

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

With All Saints Day falling on Sunday this year, we are fully embracing that here on the Lab. The Lectionary Lab Live podcast for this week features commentary on all the texts for the day, and Dr. Chilton’s sermon is spot on for the day. Blessings to all who preach, read, and consider the Word for this day!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He said, “Where have you laid him?”  They said to him, “LORD, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.”  John 11:33-35

When I was a kid going to Sunday School in the Baptist Church you answered the roll with a “memory verse.”  The line rendered here “Jesus began to weep,” was only two words in the King James Version, “Jesus wept.”  It was a popular memory verse in the Junior Boys Department until the teacher banned it from further usage.  For a very long time that verse meant very little to me except as a pleasant memory of boyhood cutesiness.

But not so as I move into my sixties.  More and more people that I have known and loved most of my life have died in recent years; my mother and my close friend John in the last year alone.  And like Jesus, I have wept.  Unlike Jesus, I did not have the power to bring my loved ones back to life.

All Saints Day is an oxymoronic celebration of sorrow and joy, of loss and anticipation, of the remembrance of things past and the hope of things to come. On this day we remember not only the great and celebrated saints of the church, we also remember the not so great and seldom celebrated saints who fill our personal lives.  Most of all, this is a day on which we smile through our tears, trusting in God’s promise that all our yesterdays are just a prelude to a glorious and never-ending tomorrow.

The gospel story of the raising of Lazarus is part of a larger and very important story which takes up the whole of Chapter 11 in John and actually carries over into Chapter 12.  It goes like this.

Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, about whom we have heard much before.  Lazarus is a good friend of Jesus – he is described to Jesus as “he whom you love.” Lazarus is very sick and his sisters send word to Jesus to come and help him. But Jesus doesn’t go.  He says something about this illness not being one that leads to death and that it will glorify God, and then he sits around for two days and does nothing.

Then suddenly he gets up and says, “Let’s go to Judea.”  His disciples are startled and not just by his sudden movements.  They remind him that there are people looking to kill him (and them) in Judea, and that this might not be a really smart move.  Jesus again says something enigmatic, this time about daylight and darkness and those with the light not stumbling.  Then he says, besides we’re going to find Lazarus and wake him up.  The disciples, as usual, don’t get it and say, “Well if he’s asleep he’ll be fine.”  Jesus then speaks plainly, “Lazarus is dead, so let’s go.”  Then the one who is later called the doubter makes a great act of faith, or at least of courage.  Thomas says, “Okay, let’s go with him, so we can die with him.”  He still doesn’t get what Jesus’ is doing, but he’s with Jesus anyway.  Kind of how I feel, most days.

So Jesus goes to Bethany and meets people who tell him that Lazarus is dead and that he’s been in the tomb four days, and Martha finds Jesus and takes out her grief on him, blaming Jesus that her brother has died, blaming Jesus for not coming right away.  And when Jesus starts talking about resurrection, she blows him off, saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know about resurrection in the last days, yada, yada, yada.  My brother’s dead NOW!” And Jesus says, “I’m talking about now, right now. Those who believe in me will live.  Do you believe,” And she says, “I believe.”

So then, Martha goes and gets her sister Mary, who also comes to see Jesus.  And now we come to the part of the story we read today.  Mary is weeping, her friends are weeping, and Jesus becomes “greatly disturbed,” and for the first time begins to weep, begins to show the first signs of grief over the loss of his friend, the friend “whom he loved.”

Why now?  Why did Jesus not cry before this?  What has “greatly disturbed” him?  The Greek verb translated “disturbed” here has to do with emotions and implies anger.  Could it be that Jesus is weeping with anger at the power that death has over our lives?  I think so.  I think John wants us to see the great compassion Jesus has for the suffering and pain and loss people go through; compassion which in this case shows itself as anger and tears.

Jesus goes to the tomb, still angry, still disturbed.  He decides to act and to act dramatically.  As we listen to the story, we have to remember that for the people John wrote this book for, the events of Jesus own death and resurrection are already well known.  They will know about and think about that first Easter morning when they hear Jesus say, “Take away the stone.”  They will know about and think about Jesus bound corpse as they hear Jesus command, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

As the story moves on, this act of compassion by Jesus, this raising from death a man who had already begun to stink, was an act that had major repercussions – for Jesus and for us. As soon as Lazarus walked out of the tomb, the plot to put Jesus in a tomb was hatched and set in motion.  Lazarus coming out of the tomb sealed Jesus’ fate – Lazarus coming out of the tomb meant that Jesus would be going in.

The message today is one of remembrance and hope.  We are called upon today to remember all the saints who have gone before us – both those who were great and shining examples of Christian character and virtue and those who were known only to a few and whose greatest virtue may have been only that they clung tenaciously to the promise of God in Christ to love them no matter what.

Like so many through the years we look back with fondness and forward with desire and anticipation.  We are invited to trust that God in Christ will do for us what Jesus did for Lazarus; that in the last days on God’s most holy mountain, we will file into a great banquet of people from all times and all places and that “death will have been swallowed up forever” as Isaiah says, that God will, in the words of Revelation, “wipe away every tear, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

On this All Saints Day, we are invited to put ourselves in the place of Mary and Martha, and trust that a weeping and compassionate God can and will make all things new, for us and for all creation.

Amen and amen.

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

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

(Encore version, reprinted with permission from The Lectionary Lab Commentary for Year B)

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
What is the best we can hope for out of life? Job’s epitaph is, “And Job died, old and full of days.”

Beyond numerical substance, the context indicates that Job’s days (yom, in Hebrew) were full — full of joy, full of sorrow, full of exhilaration, full of frustration.

We often describe someone who is undergoing a particularly trying time — and somehow managing to find grace and peace in the midst of it — as having “the patience of Job.” Certainly, that patience was hard-earned in Job’s instance.

There is something to be said for simply never giving up; I am reminded of Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and prominent psychotherapist who became a proponent of Kierkegaard’s “will to meaning.”

Beyond the simple will to live, there is the ultimate human urge for life to have meaning. (A nice, ultra-brief review of Frankl’s classic text, Man’s Search for Meaning, may be found here.)

Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)
Why should I bless the Lord at all times?

Psalm 34 acknowledges that “many are the afflictions of the righteous.” There’s no sense in pretending that life is all A-OK, peachy keen, no problemo, etc.,  just because one has placed one’s trust in God. Life is difficult, as M. Scott Peck (among others) has reminded us.

The kicker comes with the other half of the psalm’s message: “…the LORD delivers them from them all.” Most especially, v.4 gives the operative phrase, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is over-quoted, but he defined the paucity of fear’s power over us when addressing a distraught nation in 1933: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
In the presence of the LORD, our fears may be named, our reason restored, our terror replaced with calm assurance.
THAT is why I bless the Lord at all times!
Jeremiah 31:7-9
The path of return to the Lord — to the safety and sanity of God’s refuge — is quite often through weeping and consolations. But God is the God who, like a father, walks alongside his children and leads them so that they will not stumble.
Psalm 126
Weeping to laughter, tears to joy. God sure does good work!
Hebrews 7:23-28
I remember the conversation with an older (in those days, as a young “preacher boy,” older was probably anyone over 40 from my perspective) church member who wryly commented, “I appreciate all you’re doing, but remember: preachers come and go. Some of us have to stay here all our lives.”The writer of Hebrews reminds us that God has always had to have a steady supply of priests and preachers in order to minister among God’s people — for one very simple reason: preachers come and go. Or, at least, they eventually die.

But, Jesus is not like any mere human priest. He is the Great High Priest, and he will never die again. His priesthood, his ministry, is forever. It has been given to him by God, and he is now and ever will be doing what priests do — interceding on our behalf.

Mark 10:46-52

Blind Bart. What a great character!

Several points come to mind when I read this story:

  • Don’t let other people discourage you or shout you down when you know what it is that you need
  • Never give up — keep praying — in fact, don’t be afraid to shout at the Lord!
  • When Jesus invites you to come, jump at the chance
  • When Jesus asks you what you need, tell him (no need for hem-hawing, eh?)
  • Faith is awfully strong

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” – Mark 10:52

On one level, the story of blind Bartimaeus is very simple and straightforward. Bartimaeus has heard of Jesus. There has been much talk in his village of the new rabbi’s preaching and teaching and especially his healing. Based on what Bartimaeus has heard, he has come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the “Son of David.” When he hears that Jesus has come to his town, Bart makes sure he is in a position to meet him.

As Jesus comes near, Bart makes his presence known, shouting out his belief that Jesus is the Chosen One, and asking for mercy. The usual group of “protocol police” try to get the unruly beggar to hush – but he simply will not be quiet. Bart continues to shout. Jesus hears him and tells the people to let him through. When Bartimaeus comes, Jesus commends his faith and heals him.

It’s a simple story, one that follows a pattern we have seen so many times in the stories of Jesus. Except for the fact that Mark gives the blind beggar a name, and that the name is a Hebrew-Greek combination (bar-Timaeus, or “son of Timaeus”), there is nothing very unusual or noteworthy about this story.

Well, nothing except a life that is changed forever. I’m not talking about Bartimaeus being healed of blindness, though that is, in and of itself, quite spectacular. No, I’m talking about a person finding something to give his life to. I’m talking about a person who begins to see, not only physically, but also spiritually. I’m talking about a person who has found a cause to which he can give his life. For, not only did “blind Bartimaeus” become “seeing Bartimaeus,” but inert and stationary Bartimaeus became active and purposeful Bartimaeus, following Jesus “on the way,” the way of the cross.

Realizing that there are no real throw-away lines in the Gospel stories, knowing that everything was included by the evangelist to make a theological point, to have a spiritual impact – we must listen carefully to verse 50: “So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”

“Throwing off his cloak” – what might that mean? Remember how frequently in the Bible clothing represents one’s life, one’s character or one’s spirituality. Not just Paul’s “helmet of salvation” and “breastplate of righteousness” but references to “unshrunk cloth on an old cloak” and or arriving at the feast wearing the wrong wedding garments. “Throwing off his cloak” is an image of the radical repentance that leads to new life in Christ. Throwing off one’s old life, shedding an old skin, leaving safety behind, realizing that there is something greater and more important than our own simple survival, all that is tied up in those few words, “throwing off his cloak.”

Then there is “sprang up.” Mark’s Gospel begins not with a Christmas story but with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. By verse 10 we have Jesus coming up out of the water. Baptism by immersion is an image of being buried with Christ and rising with Christ – coming up out of the water as one will come up out of the grave. “Dying and rising with Christ” is Mark’s primary image of the Christian life. Over and over we hear Jesus tell the disciples, “the Son of Man will suffer and die and rise again” and “any who will come after me must take up a cross and follow.” It is in that light that we must listen carefully to the words in verse 50 – “Throwing off his cloak he sprang up and came to Jesus.” Blind Bartimaeus not only regained his sight, he found his life, his way, his meaning, his purpose, to which he could give himself – mind, body and soul.

The Rev. Michael Curry was recently elected the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. He is the first African American to hold that office. He tells this story about a childhood conversation with his father, a Baptist minister:

“When my siblings and I were little children, my father sat us down one evening to talk. We knew something was up. My father and other clergy had led some local efforts for civil rights. That night, Daddy told us he might have to go to jail the next day because he was going to be a part of a protest. Then he told us something I still remember: “You must always be willing to give yourself for a higher cause. Our lives are part of something greater than ourselves.” (“Crazy Christians,” p. 14)

Too often we, like Bartimaeus, are both blind and faithful, sick unto death and yearning for life, full of hope and dread in almost equal measure. We are indeed “saint and sinner at the same time,” and yet, there is hope, real hope, true hope. For there is Christ.

And though there may be many things that hold us back, Jesus hears our hearts and invites us to come. We are invited to throw off the cloak of our old lives, our old fears, our old regrets, our old hesitations and limitations. We are invited to spring up, lifting both our hands and our hearts to God. We are invited to give our lives to something more, something higher, something greater than mere survival. We are invited to take up our cross and join Bartimaeus and millions of others in following Jesus on the way – on the way of love and compassion and self-sacrifice, the way of serving our neighbor and our world.

Amen and amen.

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (October 18, 2015)

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

Job 38:1-7, (34-41)

How often are our prayers — and/or our statements and complaints about God — composed mainly of “words without knowledge?” A little heavenly perspective is a powerful thing.

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c

“O, Worship the King” is just one of my all-time favs when it comes to hymnody. This psalm text works so well in leading us into worship! I am always struck, not only by the majesty of this language, but by its precision, as well. God creates all of the earth, setting it upon what must surely be a massive foundation — but then takes the time to fit a garment with the deep (the oceans.) They are measured to the nth degree: “You set a boundary that they may not pass….” (v.9)

Isaiah 53:4-12

We do well to remember that this is a significant portion out of the “Servant Song” cycle in Isaiah. It’s ultimate purpose is to describe the nature of the one who would serve God with his/her life. It is a total commitment, as evidenced by these somber words. Later, the church would look to Isaiah’s prophecy and see these same characteristics fulfilled in the life of Jesus. That’s why they subsequently proclaimed him as “The Christ.”

Psalm 91:9-16

The never-failing presence of God with us is a powerful thing. Lions, adders, serpents, evil, scourge, and even flying rocks — no problem! God will lift up God’s servant in the time of trouble.

Hebrews 5:1-10

Even the Son of Man — an apocalyptic title applied to Jesus, bearing great Hebrew scripture significance — learned obedience through suffering. Why, then, should it be different for Jesus’ church?

Mark 10:35-45

In our Lectionary Lab Live podcast for today, Bubba quotes the inimitable Fred Craddock on this passage: “The church in the time of Mark had not accepted the cross as a necessary component of Messiahship; nor had they accepted it as an integral part of discipleship.”

It’s a hard lesson for us to learn.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The story is, Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist and mathematician, had a dog that he loved very much. Wherever Newton went, the dog went with him. One time he had worked for months and months on a theory about the nature of the universe, working late into the night by candlelight, his worktable covered with papers, which were in turn covered with formulas and theorems and conclusions. Late one night, Newton got up from the table to leave the room and the dog jumped up and bumped the table, turning over the candle, which set Newton’s papers on fire. Newton returned to the room to find years of work gone up in flames. He put out the fire, then sat on the floor and wept. The dog nuzzled up to him and licked his face and Newton hugged his dog and said, “You will never, ever know what you have done.” (Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods, p. 36)
The story is, when Eve took the fruit from the tree and when Adam took the fruit from Eve; things fell apart. And God looked at Adam and Eve with great sadness and said, “You will never ever know what you have done.”

The story is, what began in Adam and Eve keeps showing up in the Bible. Time and time again, God’s people play out a personal little Garden of Eden in which they discover their all too common capacity for doing things that tear God’s creation apart. And God kept on weeping and shaking his head and telling the people, “You have no idea what you have done.”

The story is, no matter how hard Jesus tried to explain that to follow him meant following the way of the cross somebody didn’t get it.  Somebody’s personal little Garden of Eden came into play and they began to look after only themselves and their needs and interests and pleasures and desires.  This time it is the sons of Zebedee, who totally missed the message of servanthood and instead sought to establish themselves in positions of power and privilege.  And God in Christ shook his head sadly, saying, “You have no idea what you are doing, do you?”
Back when I was young and knew everything and had not had either the time or inventiveness to really mess things up in life, I was really rough on James and John.  In those days I didn’t worry too much about the sinfulness of humanity in general and my own sinfulness in particular. But I’m older now and I don’t even like to think about the ways that I have been less than I meant or hoped to be.

I have not just failed to do good, I have on occasion done bad; and knew I was doing bad when I did it, and I did it anyway. And I don’t know why. And I have no excuse other than the fact that I am human and that is what humans do sometimes. I don’t blame any one or any thing else; not my mama or my daddy or my environment or anything else. It was just me and my life and an occasional fit of general “sorry-ness.” And I’m sorry. And I’m sure that I have no idea how badly I have disappointed God and harmed others.  I don’t even know what I have done.
Just like Adam and Eve, and James and John, and millions of others, I have a deep, deep need for a voice from outside myself who will neither condone nor condemn; but will rather love and me and amend my life. And we meet that voice, that God, in Jesus, in the one “in the days of his flesh . . .  offered up supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission . . .he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7-9)
My daddy’s sister, Aunt Mildred, never, ever really threw anything away. When her nieces’ and nephews complained to her about this, she would say, “You just never know when you might need it.”  Our protests that you had to be able to find “it” in order to use “it” when you needed “it,” fell on deaf ears. She was confident that she knew where all her “its” were. And I think she did. I would ask her about a bill or a letter or a magazine and she would say something like, “It’s in the back bedroom, in the left hand corner of the closet, third shoebox from the bottom, in a plastic bag.” And she’d be right.
God is, I think, a bit like Aunt Mildred; if not southern then at least eccentric. God shares her passion for saving everything and her awareness of everything she had saved. God doesn’t do the expected and normal thing and condemn useless and unholy trash to Gehenna, the fiery garbage heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. Instead, where others may see worthlessness, God sees something worth saving, something worth hanging on to, something worth taking a risk for, something worth making a great effort for, something worth dying for. And God knows where all that saved stuff is. God cares about that which God has saved. And it is God’s will that it all be saved, because God made it all, and God loves it all, no matter what it has done.
The Gospel is that it is because of our great need and God’s great sorrow and anguish over our great need that Christ came into the world. The words in our text from Isaiah were written many years before Christ.  They were written about the Suffering Servant of God. After the suffering and death of Christ, the early Christians remembered these words from the Hebrew Scriptures and realized how perfectly they described what Jesus had suffered and what God had done through Jesus, for them and for the whole world.   “. . . he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruise we are healed.” (Isiah 53:5)
The question of whether or not God loves us and cares about us has been answered once and for all by Christ upon the cross. A more important question is this; are we being obedient to our call to take up our cross and follow? The Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville was for a long time the home of the Grand Ole Opry. It was originally a church, built as a preaching place for a famous evangelist named Sam Jones. The story is that Jones was holding what the holiness folks called a  “quitting meeting,” during which people confessed their sins and swore off drinking, and smoking and cussing and running around with people they weren’t married to and such like misbehavior. The meeting had reached an emotional high point when Jones called on one ultra-righteous woman in the congregation and asked her what she was going to quit. She said, “I ain’t been doing nothing, and I’m going to quit that too.”
God calls upon us today to “quit doing nothing,” in response to the Gospel. God calls upon us to stop seeking greatness and to start seeking to serve. We are called to give ourselves for others as Jesus gave himself for us. We are called to care about the hurts and pains of others as Jesus cared about our hurts and pains. We are called to live lives of obedience to Jesus’ call to us to take up a cross and follow him into the world with hope in our hearts, with acts of love in our hands and with words of grace and promise on our lips.

Amen and amen.

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (October 11, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

I love Job’s honesty: “Today, my complaint is bitter….”

It’s like that some days. What else can you say? It really doesn’t do anybody — neither you nor God — any good to pretend, when the skubala has done hit the fan, that things don’t smell! That’s no basis for an honest and open relationship, which is what God desires. Go ahead — tell God what you feel. God already knows it, anyhow!

Psalm 22:1-15

The psalmist certainly gets what Job is saying; he has a bit of a complaint to lodge, himself. Not only do some of our days stink, they become really difficult to bear. It feels — sometimes — like God has left us alone!

But has God abandoned us? Jesus, of course, lays into this psalm on the cross — most likely too weak to speak all of its words, but also just as likely holding on to the psalm’s eventual words of hope. Real praise often comes in the midst of lament.

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Amos, the farmer-prophet, wastes few words. Today is a good day to seek the Lord — pretty much everyday is. But, be assured, if you don’t really want to seek the Lord and follow God’s way, you open yourself up to the consequences when God does decide to “break out” against what is evil in the world.

Taking bribes and pushing the needy aside in the gate and all such as that — those are not things that make God happy (just in case you were wondering!) Get on the side of good; get out of the way of what is evil. And, should you ever be momentarily confused and find yourself on the wrong side of said gate, remember that you can always turn back!

Psalm 90:12-17

Verse 12 is a great prayer. “Lord, I know I’ve only got so many days — though I might tend to waste too many of them on foolish and fleeting pursuits. Would you please help me get a grip before they all fly away and I’m left with a pile of empty promises and a bucket full of broken dreams?”

Hebrews 4:12-16

Sharp, I tell you! God’s word is a precision instrument when it comes to exposing the “thoughts and intentions” of our hearts.

Jesus, the Living Word, knows all about our trials and temptations. Basically, he has been there and done that. So don’t go trying to tell him how hard it all is, and why you shouldn’t be held accountable for your weak moments. Instead, admit it when you need some help, and look for mercy and grace. They tend to hang around where Jesus is involved.

Mark 10:17-31

When you stop and think about it, the man’s question at the opening of this passage is misguided from the first moment. There’s not really anything you can do to inherit a fortune. It’s much more about who you are in relationship to the one granting the fortune!

Jesus knows the gentleman has tried awfully hard, and Jesus can see that he’s real, real close to the whole kingdom of God thing. But, like most of us, there is something that’s holding him back. Maybe just one little thing that, if we were asked by Jesus to give it up, we might well go away sad, too.

Oh, shoot…now this passage is going to “quit preaching” and is going to “go to meddling” in all our lives!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My grandfather Reid Chilton was treasurer of the Baptist church in our neighborhood from the late 30s into the mid-50s.  He used to tell this story about the perils of raising money.  As to whether it’s true or not – all I can say is – it’s true that he told it to me.

“There was this one time, back in the depression, that we was having trouble getting up the preacher’s salary.  The deacons decided that a free-will offering wasn’t going to work, ‘cause as brother Arvid said, “They mighty free with their will, just not with their cash.”  So, they decided I should go and visit people and ask for a donation.  So I did.  It was rough work.  People really didn’t have much cash money available and they really didn’t like me asking for it.  One time I was talking to this fella, we’ll call him Brother Bill, and he said he would love to give but he just didn’t have no money.  I said, “Brother Bill, if’n you had a mule would you sell that mule and give half of what you got to the church?” “He looked at me and said, “Why of course, Brother Reid.  I would do it in a heartbeat.”  So I says; “That’s good, that’s good, Brother Bill.  Let me ask you another question.  If’n you had a sheep, would you sell that sheep and give half to the church?” “Brother Reid, I am a little hurt that you would ask me that.  You know my heart, you know I would, if’n I had a sheep.”  And then I says, “Bear with me Brother Bill, just one more question.  If’n you had a hog, would you sell that hog and give half to the church?”  At that Brother Bill’s face got red and he stomped his foot and said, “Now see here Brother Reid, that ain’t no fair question.  You knows I got a hog.”

“When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Mark 10:22

Two of today’s scripture lessons push us to think about and me to talk about a subject that most people really don’t like to discuss; money.  At least they don’t like to discuss why some people have a lot of it and other people have so little of it.  And they especially don’t like to discuss the idea that their money is getting in the way of their relationship with God and that perhaps they should give some of it to the poor. Yet we have all of this in Amos’ preaching and in Jesus’ conversation with the man who had many possessions.

The lesson from Amos is pretty straightforward and is much more overtly political than then the Mark story.  Amos was a prophet during the time that the country had split into two kingdoms; Judah in the south and Israel in the north.  He was not a trained preacher, he was a herdsman from the southern kingdom, yet God called him to preach to the leaders and the people of the Northern Kingdom.  And he did.  He especially called them out on their treatment of the poor; “You trample on the poor,” vs. 11 and “You afflict the righteous . . . and push aside the needy in the gate.” vs. 12. Amos thunders out judgement against those in power, “. . . he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire.” and “devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.” vs. 6

And as usual, the powerful didn’t like being told they were misusing their power and the King sent the High Priest to send Amos away, to deport him, he was an illegal after all, an immigrant who didn’t belong there; he was taking work away from legitimate prophets and teachers, ones who would not be so rude about the people in power, who had earned their place in the Northern Kingdom.

No, people don’t like to be told that there can be a problem with having wealth.  In the Gospel lesson, a man comes to Jesus and asks a serious religious question.  Unlike many conversations Jesus has along the way, he is not facing a secret antagonist, posing a trick question for political gain. This is a serious question from a serious and devout believer.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Notice, Jesus didn’t say, “Accept me as your personal savior.” or “Repent of your sins and be baptized and join my community, and while you’re at it – sign up for a small group and here are your offering envelopes.”  No, not so much. What Jesus actually did was to first remind the man, and us, that life is a gift from God, it is not something any of us earns or can put ourselves in the position to inherit. It’s all of God.  He then started talking out of their shared Judaic tradition of the commandments.  The one’s he asks about are interesting.  He did not ask the man what he believed about God; he asked him how he treated his neighbor. “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal,” etc. He also throws in one that isn’t in the Ten Commandments, You shall not defraud.”  I wonder if Jesus knew something about the man’s business dealings that we’re not privy to.  Anyway, the man profess to have kept them all “since his youth,” which means, “Since I’ve been old enough to know better,” as we say in the south.

Then, in a remarkably succinct line, Mark paints a picture of tough love, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing. . .”  That is true Gospel love, to look at the other, to see exactly who they are, both their virtues and their faults and to tell them the truth about what they need to change about themselves.  Jesus looked at the young man and immediately recognized that the man possessions were getting in the way of spiritual life.  Taking care of his stuff was interfering with taking care of his soul and taking care of his neighbors, which are very often the same thing.

We, as Americans, as Christians in a developed country, all stand in one degree or another under the judgement of these texts.  Compared to billions and billions of people in this world, we all have “many possessions.” I know it doesn’t feel like it, but that is because we compare ourselves to the super rich, instead of comparing ourselves to the billion people in this world who still live without electricity.  We do have many possessions and Jesus is speaking to us today as much as he is talking to the man in the story.  As people with the privilege to vote, to speak our minds, to call our congressmen and complain, we are the powerful to whom Amos preaches today, calling upon us to change policies and procedures that oppress the needy and trample the poor.

And here’s the good word.  We don’t know what the man did.  Mark says he, “went away grieving because he had many possession,” but he could have just needed some time to decide what to do. We don’t know about him, he may have decided to follow Jesus’ advice.  What we do know is that the possibility of change is offered to us, we have options. Amos begins and ends with a grace note.  Verse 6: “Seek the Lord and live, or.”  “Or” he said.  There’s an option to change.  Verse 15 “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord                     . . . will be gracious.”  “It may be.”  Amos says.  The story’s not over.  God is not finished with us. What will we do?

Amen and amen.

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 4, 2015)

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

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

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Sorry — I just could not resist this re-print from the last time we had this passage!

“There once was a man down in Uz,
who lived a good life, just because.
He never cursed God, though his wife sure did prod;
A just man, he, if ever there was!”

Psalm 26

How are we — human beings all too prone to wander from the path — to stay on the right way? It all depends on where we place our eyes. With God’s steadfast love fully filling our vision, it seems we are much more likely to live lives worthy of our calling.

Genesis 2:18-24

Awesome text, the basis for lots of discussion (at least in the USA) these days surrounding the idea of a “biblical marriage.” Not gonna wade into that one — and I wouldn’t advise any preacher to try to proclaim a theology of same in just one sermon!

The most captivating thought to me is that of the complementarity of the human beings in this passage. The word for “helper” here is actually a compound (and somewhat complex) construction in Hebrew. A “helper,” yes — but one who is both “in front of” (as in eyeball to eyeball, intimate) but also “opposite of” (as in toe to toe, opposing.) The two are definitely stronger together than either is apart and alone.

Psalm 8

What a vivid picture — considering the heavens, the moon, and the stars in order to comprehend something of God. Take a look at the video clip below, taken from NASA’s footage of the Andromeda Galaxy earlier this year. This gives me a sense of the wonder of the universe, and definitely hones in on the question, “What are we human beings that you even notice us, God?”

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

God never stops working!

The revelation of God’s plan of grace in the world began long ago, and has come in stages — according to the writer of Hebrews. Of course, God’s ultimate revelation of self has come in the form of Jesus, who is far superior to angels, sacrifices, priests, and all else. And yet, this One who is the heir of all things and the pioneer of our very salvation, has been perfected through suffering.

We seek to follow Jesus. Which sometimes will hurt.

Mark 10:2-16

Jesus rarely wants to diddle in trivial matters — not that divorce or other life-issues are trivial. He just doesn’t want to get too hung up in judging folks who have had to deal with difficult situations in their lives. “God knows it’s hard, guys; that’s why God has given you some space in these things.”

We are the ones who just can’t seem to let it go.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

If you’ve ever been through Chattanooga, TN, you know that Lookout Mountain looms over the city. Most mornings, as the sun comes up, a ring of fog hangs about halfway up the cliffs above the Tennessee River, with the sun shining brightly on the mountaintop above and the city below. On Nov. 24, 1863 one of the most interesting battles of the Civil War took place on that mountain. The Confederates had artillery on top of the mountain, preventing the Union from using the river for supply shipments and troop movements. The Federals were determined to silence those cannon. The fighting centered in the foggy area. Between the fog and the peculiar terrain and the general confusion of war, things were a mess. The story is told that a Confederate General happened upon a severely wounded private and ordered him to “get to the rear,” out of harm’s way. The private saluted and replied “Yes Sir.” A bit later, the general happened upon the private again, “Son, I thought I told you to get to the rear!” The private drew himself up, saluted, and said, “Begging the General’s pardon Sir, I been trying, but this here battle ain’t got no rear!”

We all know how he feels. Since 9/11, 14 years ago, it seems like there has been a continuous worsening of the state of the world and the human condition. War, terrorism, the economy, nasty politics, disease, basic human values ignored, a coarsening of our culture, families falling apart; we could go on and on about how bad things are.  Surely this is not what God intended for the world and for the children of God, the people of the world.. What went wrong? And what can we do about it? What must we, the followers and disciples of Jesus, do in response to a world that is dangerous and out of control? How did we get in this mess?

First lesson is one of the creation stories in Genesis. It is a charming little vignette about God trying to find a fit companion for Adam. It’s kind of funny as God acts like a shoe salesman trying to fit a finicky customer. God brings out animals big and small, sleek and furry, ferocious and tame, clean and nasty, everything in the store.  And Adam looks at them and says, “Well, it’s nice, it’s interesting, but, it’s, it’s . . .  it’s a raccoon. It’s just not what I’m looking for.” And God brings out another and Adam says, “Well, its , its, its BIG, very BIG, and shiny; very, very SHINY. It’s an, uh, an uh, Hippopotamus. But it’s just not for me.” And so it goes through all the animals, and still nothing seems to work. So God decides to do a custom job, just for Adam, to his particular specifications.

It’s a good story. And it’s an important story, for it reminds us of a couple of things. It reminds us that we, all of us, are God’s special and beloved creations. It also reminds us that we are all, male and female, equal partners in life, that the point of marriage is companionship and shared life journeys. That is God’s intention. Now, fast forward several thousand years to the time of Jesus and the story told in our Gospel lesson. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into saying something that would get him into trouble with the King. King Herod had married his brother’s ex-wife. Worse than that, he had forced his brother into divorcing her so he could marry her. Worse than that, he had killed John the Baptist for preaching about it.  So they asked Jesus, in front of the crowds, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus turned it back on them, “What did Moses say?” “Well Moses allowed a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce.” And Jesus replied with what are the key words for us this morning. Verse 6, “Because of your hardness of heart.”  Another way to put it would; because of your inability to live in accordance with God’s plans and intentions.

At the time of Jesus, many men used the divorce laws as a way to escape familial responsibility. Without a husband, women were often in quite dire straits, and many men tossed aside wives for quite trivial reasons. The law said you could divorce your wife if you found anything “unseemly” in her. Most Rabbis interpreted that in terms of sexual immorality, but some said it could be anything the husband didn’t like, such as burning his dinner. For Jesus, tightening up the attitude toward divorce was a matter of justice for woman, and a call to taking God’s intentions for married life seriously. When Jesus says “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,” this is holding men accountable for their behavior in a very provocative way, for adultery was not a minor accusation and it carried with it the death penalty.

Now I know that Jesus’ strict words here are painful to persons who have been through divorce, and are difficult for many to hear. I have two siblings who are divorced and two who married divorced persons, so I am not insensitive to this. It is important to note that Jesus was very forgiving of divorced persons. I think particularly of the woman at the well, who had had many husbands and was living outside of marriage with another man. Jesus was not condemnatory toward her, but rather was pastoral and kind. It is not Jesus’ intent to condemn those who have suffered through a difficult marriage and decided to end it before causing more pain to themselves or others. His intent is to recall people to the purpose of committed relationships, which is the completion of our created humanity in companionship and partnership. His intent is to call us away from relationships which are hurtful and abusive and unequal.

God created human committed companionship as a good thing, but human hardness of heart turned good thing into a bent and ruptured and incomplete thing. In many other ways, humanity has taken the good things God made messed them up. That is the basic human story. Psalm 8 says that God made us little lower than the angels, and that he gave us mastery over the world. How have we done, taking care of things? Not very well, I’m afraid. And it is getting frighteningly worse, and as we are constantly reminded, that this here battle ain’t got no rear. There’s no place to hide. We must stand forth and be a part of the solution. If not, we must count ourselves as part of the problem.
What are we to do? How can we become a part of the solution? What is our calling today?

In Hebrews, the writer traces a scenario in which we are reminded that Jesus gave up privilege and power with God to come to earth as one of us, to suffer with us, and to show us what true humanity was intended to be. Jesus was God in our midst, in our presence, in our bodies and circumstances, God on our level, God with the same temptations and problems and hurts and wants and needs as any of us, and he suffered loss and rejection and fear just like we do. And he managed to stay the course of love and forgiveness to the end.

And we are called to do the same. We are called to raise our heads above the fog and confusion of daily life and look to the bright Sun of God’s love burning above us.  We are called to lift our hearts above our fear and to step forward with love and forgiveness for those who frighten us. In the end, it is the only way.

Amen and amen.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 27, 2015)

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

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

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Some might label this text, “What Goes Around Comes Around!” Certainly, the vengeance angle on the bent-for-evil Haman is interesting and in need of some unpacking. But, another angle suggests itself to me. Just what are we, as the Lord’s followers, to expect in terms of the world’s attitude toward us? Esther’s plea could be insightful: “For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”

Psalm 124

“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side…”

Indeed! Why would we, as people of faith, ever want to depend on lesser means for our salvation and deliverance? Oh, but sadly, often we do.

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

It would be easy to discount the “nay sayers” in this passage, right off the bat. After all, they are identified as “the rabble among” the children of Israel.

“Hey, that’s not me! I’m not rabble — I don’t have any rousing to do!” Oh, really? Are you and I so sure that we can’t be counted among this number in our complaining to others — and to the Lord?

Be sure to check out this week’s edition of The Lectionary Lab Live for a pretty extensive discussion of this awesome text.

Psalm 19:7-14

Excellent description of the numerous ways that God’s word is of benefit to us. My personal favorite is in finding the “hidden ways” that I have been less than faithful to God. (v. 12) That convicting power and purpose of the word is so very needed.

James 5:13-20

Short version of the sermon: prayer works! There is much else to dig into here, especially the power of confession between members of a community that care deeply and are unconditionally committed to one another. When we know we need help, and when we are open to those who can help us clear away the infection in our own spirits, a pathway to God’s healing is opened.

Mark 9:38-50

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”

We have lots of trouble with that sometimes; we want others not only to be for us, we often want them to be like us. But that’s not what Jesus says here…so, maybe we have some adjusting of our attitudes to work on?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the spring of 1980 Mount Saint Helens erupted.  In the early spring of that year the volcanic mountain in Washington State had been showing all the signs.  One expert had even gone on record as saying the chances of an eruption were 100% – it was certain to happen.  While others weren’t that sure, they were sure enough to warn everyone anywhere on or around the mountain to get off and stay off, to get away and stay away.

And almost everybody listened.  Except Harry Randall Truman.  Truman lived at the south end of Spirit Lake at the foot of the mountain.  His house was in the most probable path of the flow of lava. If he stayed in his house he was certainly going to die.  Government officials sternly warned him to leave, friends told him staying was suicidal, family members cried and begged; all to no avail.

When Mount Saint Helens erupted,the lava flowed right over the house with him in it.  Harry Randall Truman died because he could not let go of his home. (Thom Rainer – “Autopsy of a Deceased Church, p.21)

“I your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot cause you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,”  (Mark 9:43-47) If your house, or car, or land, or boat, or , or, or; you fill in the blank, causes you to stumble, cut it out; for it is better to enter God’s presence without it than to lose out on eternal life because of it.

Today’s Gospel lesson is one that no one, well, almost no one takes literally.  Seriously, if anyone took it literally and were totally and completely honest in that literalness, the world would be full of one-eyed people on crutches eating with their left hand.  No, this is a text which must be taken seriously, but not at all literally.

When Jesus uses hyperbole and exaggeration it is like verbal highlighting; he really wants people to listen and think about what he is saying. We are in the midst of what is sometimes referred to as the “Markan pivot.” This is a turn in Mark’s story where he turns from showing Jesus as building up a following while preaching around in the north to showing us Jesus explaining to his followers the very serious consequences of following after him.  This is both a “pivot,” a “turn” in how the story is told and a pivot in the story itself as Jesus turns south and heads toward Jerusalem and the cross.

In the last few weeks we have considered Gospel lessons in which Jesus repeatedly reminds his disciples that just as he himself will face rejection, suffering and death – so will they. To be a part of the kingdom, they must deny themselves, take up their cross of suffering for others, and follow in Christ’s footsteps – wherever those footsteps might lead.  And the disciples have consistently failed to get it – as do we.

In part we all fail to get it because this is just difficult to get one’s mind around mentally, rationally, intellectually – but it’s more than that – for them and for us.  We also shy away from it spiritually.  We resist it emotionally. We push it away because it calls for sacrifices we are not always willing to make.  Like Harry Randall Truman, unwilling to walk away from his house in the face of certain death; we are often unwilling to part with those parts of our lives that are keeping us away from the fullness of life with God.

One of the reasons Jesus makes a list here; hand, foot, eye, etc. is that everybody’s different.  That which is of value to one means nothing to another.  The point is not the thing itself; the point is whether or not that thing becomes more important to you than God.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther commented on the First Commandment “you shall have no other gods,” by saying that the thing that we value and serve above all others is truly our God. That thing may be a good thing, an important thing; but if it is more important to us that God in Christ – then it is an idol and needs to be cut out of our lives for the sake of our souls. It could family, it could be a political or social cause, it could be the church; it could be, for clergy, one’s career in the church.  It doesn’t matter if it is an objective good in itself – if it gets in the way of our relationship with God in Christ it must be removed.

Well, like Jesus, I have been exaggerating a little bit. These things do no not so much need to be cut out as put in their appropriate place.  Family and church and career and social causes are all good and glorious things, but the issue is whether or not they bring us closer to God or drive us away from God.  If they are driving us away from God something needs to change, to be realigned in our lives.

It’s about our saltiness.  Jesus’ concluding image is an interesting one: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it.” (Mark 9:50)  Salt preserves, salt gives flavor, salt gives live.  The salt of the Christian life is drawn from one’s relationship with God in Christ.  If something is getting in the way of that relationship, if something is causing us to “stumble.” in our walk along the Christian way; we will begin to lose that which makes us God’s people in the world, we will stop being the beacon of hope and love and holy fire that God made and intends us to be.

What is it that is getting in your way?  What is more important to you than following Jesus? What is causing you to trip and stagger, to stumble and occasionally fall?

What is getting in our way as a community of faith, as an assembly of those both called together around word and sacrament and sent out into the world to do the good works God has prepared for us to do?  What is causing us to lose our saltiness?  And do we have the will and the courage to cut it out, to put it in its place? Or will we, like Harry Randall Truman, sit in our house, stubbornly unwilling to give up some “thing” in exchange for everything?

Amen and amen.