The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (July 12, 2015)

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

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
The reading, as assigned, feels a little disorienting, in that there is a three-month break in the action between verse 5 and verse 12. The quizzical and tragic incident involving Uzzah — who was probably just doing what he thought was best — is omitted, as is the aforementioned 90-day hiatus of the ark in the house of Obed-edom, as David was “afraid of the Lord.”

But, once it became clear that the ark was a source of blessing and not of curse (as long as you kept your hands off of it,) David proceeds with the processional. And, I mean, proceed he does! 

The former shepherd boy does the Holy City Hoedown, as it were, and his wife — Michal, Saul’s daughter — is ashamed of him. (Maybe she was still ticked off that David had won her in the Goliath contest…who knows?)

Whatever the source of her bitterness, it didn’t serve her well; she remains barren for the rest of her life, a symbol in Israel of the withdrawal of God’s blessing. (But you don’t get that part of the story in today’s reading, either — look to v. 23)

Worth noting: the blessing by David of God’s people took a very tangible form. He distributed food to every household. Might be a good reminder for us of just how the blessing of God is intended for every one of God’s people, everywhere.

Psalm 24
A fitting psalm for the processional. Lift the gates, open the doors; the celebration is for the LORD, who is strong and mighty. As we learned from David’s earlier encounter with Goliath, “the battle is the Lord’s.” 

Amos 7:7-15
To whom are we ultimately accountable for our lives? Against whom are we measured? Ever and always, it is God’s measurement (judgment) that counts. God’s will is the rule of life.

Psalm 85:8-13
When we are quiet long enough to hear God speak, what we will often hear is God’s message of peace. Love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace — these are “the good” that God desires to give.

Ephesians 1:3-14
We are, indeed, blessed with a number of “spiritual blessings” in Christ:

  • we are chosen before the foundation of the world (God works way ahead of the curve!)
  • we were destined to be adopted into God’s family
  • grace is freely bestowed on us, as are redemption and forgiveness
  • we have an inheritance (who wouldn’t like to get one of those?)
  • we have heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and we live for Christ’s glory
  • we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit — a “down payment” of sorts on the life we will live forever with God

Mark 6:14-29
Some days, it just doesn’t pay to be a preacher!

John has famously and steadfastly proclaimed the message from God: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” For Herod, that repentance involved not marrying his brother’s wife — but, he just couldn’t help himself!

While Herod is uncomfortable with John, he also respects him and is intrigued by him. But, with his blood all riled up after watching his niece/daughter dancing after dinner, Herod pretty much traps himself into killing a man he really wanted to protect.

Rather than let his pride suffer (not to mention the hell he would have to pay for refusing his wife,) Herod lops off John’s head and serves it up on a platter.

Oh, be careful little mouth what you say!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Recently I made a quick stop at a convenience store and parked at an awkward angle. When I came back to the car, a woman driving a UPS truck was pulling in behind me and asked, “Are you going forward or backing up?”  I quickly figured out her problem – if I was pulling forward, it was safe for her to park behind me; if I was backing up, she needed to park somewhere else. Being a preacher I took her question far beyond its original, pragmatic meaning. “Am I,” I thought, “going forward or backing up in my life?” For the rest of the day I applied the question to myself and to my relationships and to my family and to my church. Am I going forward or backing up? Am I making progress or am I losing ground? Is my church making progress or backing up?

In our gospel lesson, King Herod has a dilemma about what to do with John the Baptist. He has more than a political decision to make here; the text reveals that he was struggling with a deep spiritual question, a question he only barely perceives or acknowledges, but one which was more important than any other question he would ever face. What would he do about John’s call to repentance and the coming Kingdom of God? Would he go forward or would he back up?

As the story begins, Herod has begun to hear about the preaching and teaching and healing of Jesus. People are speculating as to who Jesus is. Herod leaps to a farfetched conclusion, one based on his own guilt and fear: he decides Jesus is John the Baptist, whom he beheaded, now reincarnated to haunt him.  Herod had an affair with his brother’s wife Herodias.  Herod and Herodias then divorced their respective spouses and got married. John was not hesitant in telling the king that he was a sinner bound for hell.  Herodias was furious that a popular preacher was calling her an adulterer in public, so she pressured Herod to shut him up. Now, Herod could have killed John right away, but, but . . . something stopped him – fear and perplexity and the minute stirrings of the soul. “. . .for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.” (verse 20)

Herod was perplexed. He was confused. He couldn’t decide whether to go forward or back up. He knew what politics and self-protection dictated; and he was a consummate politician; and yet something kept him from doing the politically right thing. Something deep inside, be it religion or superstition, kept him from doing away with John. So he kept him in prison, locked away, kept John from interfering with his daily life, and yet, and yet, he liked to listen to him.

Is that perhaps the way some of us live our spiritual lives? Most days, in most ways, we follow the customs of our time, the dictates of the so-called real world, making decisions based on pragmatic necessity; keeping our religiosity locked away in a convenient spiritual prison, where we can listen to it when we have time and when it won’t cause us any trouble. That’s what happens when we try to live our lives by two contradictory and competing standards. Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti tells of taking voice lessons while also attending teachers college. At graduation, he said to his father, “What shall I do, be a singer or a teacher?” His father said, “Luciano, if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.”

Amos used the symbol of the plumb line, a simple builder’s tool, a string with a weight at the end. Hold it to the top of the wall and it hangs straight down, showing you if your wall is built correctly.
Amos says that God’s word and God’s way are to be our plumb lines, that by which we measure our lives to see if we are straight and true. Herod’s problem is that he has too many plumb lines working. One is John’s preaching, a plumb line that judge’s Herod’s life and finds it wanting. Another is Herod’s wife, who is pressuring him to follow her will. Another is public opinion, another is the will of his political friends and another is the will of his political enemies. No wonder Herod is perplexed, his plumb lines are getting tangled, calling him in different directions. Herod can’t decide what to do, so he tries to get away with doing nothing.

Herod’s hand is forced when the plumb lines come together and he can no longer delay. There is a party, he drinks too much, then he makes a rash promise. His wife seizes her moment and demands the death of John; and there Herod sits, again perplexed and bothered. Will he do the right thing? Or will he cave in to the pressures of prestige and pride? In his struggle to sit between two chairs, Herod falls. In his choice between going forward into God’s Kingdom or falling back into his old ways, Herod chooses badly and calls for the head of John the Baptist. He has picked the wrong plumb line by which to measure his life.

In “the Robe,” a novel about early Christianity, Lloyd C. Douglas tells the story of what happened to Jesus’ robe, the one the soldiers gambled for at the foot of the cross. In the novel, it continually changes hands, and its owners are faced with a choice about how to respond to the story of the Robe, the story of the crucified Jewish peasant. One who responds is a Roman soldier named Marcellus. He hears the gospel story, he receives Christ into his life, he becomes a Christian. He writes his lover, Diana, back in Rome, telling her the story of the Robe, the story of Jesus. She writes back, “It’s a lovely story, we don’t have to do anything about it do we?

Diana, like King Herod before her, has hit upon the dilemma of hearing the Gospel. It is a beautiful, frightening, perplexing story, one people like to listen to. And if you listen carefully, you will realize that it is calling you to change, to become different. And most of us don’t want to. Like Diana, we cry out, “We don’t have to do anything about it, do we?”

Well, yes we do. We cannot sit on two chairs, for we will surely fall between them. We cannot live our lives by a variety of standards, we cannot measure ourselves by contradictory plumb lines, for they will surely get tangled, and our house of faith will fall. We cannot sit still in the parking lot of life; we must go forward or back up. We cannot keep God and Christ locked away in a private prison of our own devising, bringing them out to look at and listen to at our convenience. We must decide, we must do something about the story of Jesus.

Our calling today is to measure our lives by the plumb line of God’s love. That plumb line was established on the cross, where Jesus gave his life, his all, for us. Our calling is to conform our lives to his, to love with his love, to forgive with his grace, to move with Christ into the fulfillment of the Kingdom. So, I ask you, as I ask myself, “Are you going forward, or are you backing up?

Amen and amen.

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (July 5, 2015)

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

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-1
There’s something to be said for biding your time. Well, for biding God’s time, I suppose.

David has waited patiently while the drama that was Saul’s life played out. He has known for some time that he was the “anointed” of the Lord — chosen by God and sealed by the prophet/judge/priest Samuel. It would have been easy for him to have “got the big head,” as my grandma used to say.

But, he did what was set before him — no more, no less. In God’s time, it came to pass. And, it was good (well, for the most part.) Forty years of rule were built out of patient days, weeks, and months of quiet service. 

One never knows just exactly what one is being prepared for when God’s call to service comes.

Psalm 48
The psalm provides fitting accompaniment to the first lesson’s closing line: “David became greater…for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.”

It is God’s greatness that is to be praised.

Ezekiel 2:1-5
‘Zekiel got the call of the Lord…the same one that many of us as preachers get. 

“You go tell them what I tell you to tell them,” says God, “no matter whether they listen or not.” That’s not always an easy commission to fulfill. But they cannot say that there was no one to give them the words of the Lord!

Psalm 123
Servants and handmaids never had much hope for grace, unless it came from the master or mistress of the house that they served. God’s mercy is much keener than that of an earthly master; it is the perfect antidote for contempt.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
“Thank you, Lord; could you heap a few more weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities onto my life?”

I doubt that any of us are lining up to pray that prayer. I also doubt that Paul wrote this portion of the letter to glorify his suffering. The incomparable goodness of Christ that strengthens us in the midst of difficulty is one of the more quizzical components of discipleship — something that is awfully hard to explain to those who have never experienced it.

In what ways have you experienced the grace of God in times of weakness? Has it been sufficient for you? How?

Mark 6:1-13
Sometimes, we are just bound and determined NOT to believe our eyes.

It strikes me that the residents of Jesus’ hometown were perfectly willing to admit that when he spoke, his words reflected wisdom. They had no doubt that he was able to perform deeds of power with his own hands (and evidently sans smoke and mirrors.)

Yet, they still decided to “take offense” at him — because, after all, he was JUST the carpenter’s son. He really had “got too big for his britches” (which is somewhat akin to gettin’ the big head — see above.)

I have never quite figured out how one cuts off one’s nose to spite one’s face — sounds like a painful proposition — but the folks in Nazareth evidently had it perfected to an art. Sadly, even Jesus Christ himself couldn’t be a successful pastor in his own hometown. Some folks are just too hard-headed to help!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I live in a very small place, a county of less than 10,000 people with one town with fewer than 500.  A few years ago I was working at a United Methodist Retreat Center here and received the opportunity to write some short devotional pieces to be printed on the back of United Methodist church bulletins.  It didn’t pay much but I enjoyed doing it and my mama was a Methodist and it made her proud, so it was a good deal all around.

In the two years of the series I only saw a printed bulletin once and that’s sort of a funny story.  I occasionally heard from people around the country about the devotions.  Friends were in Sunday worship were surprised to find my name on the back of their church bulletin.  I got emails from New York and Massachusetts and Montana and Oregon and California; even one from Alaska.  One summer night my college age son had a friend over who was also home from college.  I stuck my head in my son’s room to say hello and the friend said, “Hey Rev. Chilton, (he was a very polite young man) I saw your devotion on the back of our Methodist church bulletin this morning.  I thought you might like to see it. Good meditation.”  As I looked at the bulletin in my hands he said something that made me laugh and made me wonder.  “Yeah, Rev. Chilton, I sat down in church during the prelude and looked at the bulletin and saw your name and said to the people around me, ‘Hey, that’s Rev. Chilton from the Retreat Center.  That’s Joe’s dad,’ and all the people around me said, ‘Oh no; that couldn’t be him.  We know him.  It must be someone else. They’d never print something from somebody from around here.’ And excuse me Rev. Chilton but I said, “Exactly how many ministers named DELMER Chilton do you think there are in the world?’ But they still said it couldn’t be you because they knew you.”

It can’t be him because we know him. “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (Mark 6:3-4)  There is something about familiarity that breeds contempt.

Jesus experienced this when he returned home to preach.  At first his friends and neighbors were impressed; “astounded,” the text says.  Partly this was because they had not expected such things from him.  “Mary’s son” was a bit of an insult, a crude jibe at his parentage.  It should have been “Jesus, son of Joseph,” but they knew the story of Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus birth, at least the part about her being pregnant before the wedding and they questioned who the real Daddy was.  And so they called him “Mary’s son.”  Nothing much was expected of him, he was just a carpenter, a manual laborer, and brother to men and women they all knew.  And here he is, spouting out “wisdom” and performing miracles.  Who does he think he is?  And unspoken and implied is the suspicion that something underhanded and evil is going on. “Where did he get this wisdom?” And so wonder turned to something else, something evil, “They took offense at him.” (Verse 3)

Jesus’ basic humanity shows as he is hurt and confused by their rejection. “He was amazed at their unbelief.” (Verse 6) Jesus did not anticipate this and he did not understand it.  He’s probably thinking, “I’m one of you.  I grew up here.  Why are you so surprised that I’m smart?  Why do you see doing good things in the name of God as bad? Why are you rejecting me?”

But Jesus does not let their offence and rejection stop him from his calling and ministry.  He shook his head and moment and turned in a new direction, teaching in other villages.  He also called the twelve to him and sent them out to do the same.  Instead of allowing opposition and failure to bring an end to his ministry, Jesus used it to turn in a new direction and expand that ministry six fold.  And his instructions to his disciples are both a call to simplicity and a lesson in trusting God above all else.  Simplicity in taking nothing with you and in not skipping about from place to place, looking for a better deal.  If you are concerned about the financial or material return on your message, you might be tempted to temper that message in a way calculated to ruffle the least number of feathers.

But if you are willing to be satisfied with whatever you get, trusting God that it will be enough, then you can preach and teach and live out the truth in freedom.

This is not just a word for pastors and preachers; this is a word for the church, the congregation. We too have been called and sent by God in Christ.  We too have been sent out with authority over unclean spirits.  I’m not sure what that meant 2000 years ago but right now, in the United States of America, the unclean spirit that is choking the life out of us is Racism.  And we are called to speak and act in ways that challenge the racism in us and around us.  And there are many in our communities who will first be astounded that we said it, and then they will be offended.  But if we carry on, and we will; trusting God, and we will; we will be amazed at the ways God will work through us to cast out demons and heal sick spirits.

Amen and amen.

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (June 28, 2015)

Hey, Sports Fans…sorry that we’re late and a little short this week. It’s just been ONE OF THOSE WEEKS!

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

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
One might assume that David had plenty of reasons to exult over the death of Saul. The mad king had taunted him, hunted him, and perhaps would gladly have spilled David’s blood had he had the chance. Yet, David’s grief at Saul’s passing is evident in this song of lament.

Saul’s tormented reign brought with it much to be sad about, no doubt; yet, there is no life that is completely devoid of goodness or accomplishment. David reminds Israel of the days when Saul “clothed [them] with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on [their] apparel.”

The depth of David’s grief is reserved for his friend and Saul’s son, Jonathan. War is costly, and its price is illustrated far too vividly here. No wonder David would later write the poignant line, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem….” (Psalm 122:6)

Psalm 130
If God were determined to “keep score” of our iniquities forever, there would, indeed, be none of us who could stand before God’s righteous presence. But, the good news of the psalm text is that God does forgive — and in the great power of forgiveness there is redemption. This is a message that is badly needed still in our world today.

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24
God’s good intent in creation was — and is — for good.

Lamentations 3:22-33
No wonder the oft-used saying has such power: everything looks better by the light of a new day. Jeremiah tells us why — “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never end; they are new every morning.”

Take a minute to stop, look, listen, and feel all around you the ways that God’s mercies are reborn with the new day.

Psalm 30
There is hardly a more soul-healing verse in all of scripture than v.5: “God’s anger is but for a moment, but God’s favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Yet another reason to hope for the next new day.

2 Corinthians 8:7-15 
A great passage on the balance that comes in our giving out of our resources to meet the needs of another’s lack. This is far more than a text for the annual stewardship emphasis; it is a look into one of the core competencies of Christian discipleship. We give because Christ gave; we share out of what we have, not out of what we don’t have.

In God’s miraculous plan of economy, nobody has too much and nobody has too little. (I have to wonder, would this really be too difficult for our elected officials to understand?)


Mark 5:21-43 
Oh, the power of touch!

This wrapped-about twin healing has always fascinated me — Mark mentions (parenthetically) that Jairus’ daughter was twelve, and the woman in the crowd had been bleeding for twelve years. I have wondered if they both began their journey toward Jesus on the same day twelve years earlier? (Sorry if that’s a bit of a theological red herring, but I can’t help thinking of stuff like that!)

At any rate, the request for Jesus to come and “lay hands” on the little girl is interrupted by a woman who wants to “just touch” — not Jesus — but the edge of his clothes. Just a brush, an “I-hope-he-won’t-notice-but-I’m-going-to-give-it-a-go-anyway” act of faith.


One might argue that Jairus is bold and that the woman is a bit cowardly, or at the very least embarrassed. Maybe there is no great risk on the part of either of them since they have nothing to lose. 


What’s really cool, to my way of thinking, is that it doesn’t matter to Jesus: he takes whatever faith we are able to place in him and makes it work. 


The power of a touch.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A number of years ago I served as the stewardship consultant for a friend’s congregation, including being the “guest preacher” on Commitment Sunday.  The lectionary text for that Sunday was the story of the woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  In consultation with the pastor I told him that I would find it difficult to preach on this text without offering the opportunity for people to come forward for anointing with oil and the laying on of hands for healing.  Though he was worried about the timing involved in adding the liturgy for healing to an already full agenda of two services with communion and the bringing forward of commitment cards, he agreed with my plan. Things went well on Commitment Sunday.  Not only did the congregation increase their pledges by a good percentage, we were pleased and a little bit surprised to see almost everyone in the congregation come forward for the laying on of hands.

 

A few weeks later I received a call from the pastor.  He said, “Have I got a story to tell you.” He went to visit a man who has been visiting worship for the last few weeks.  He lives in a boarding house just down the street.  After a few minutes of pleasantries, he told the pastor that Commitment Sunday was the first time he visited the church. He had just gotten out of rehab and had committed himself to going to church.  He said, “I had never been to a Lutheran church before, but it was close and I had no car so I walked over.  I went to the 8:00 service and decided to do whatever everybody else did, so when people went up for healing, I went too.  And later I went up for communion.  I even filled out one of those Commitment cards.  I said I’d give as much as I could when I could.  After service I went to coffee hour and an adult Bible class and then somebody invited me to come to the congregational dinner after second service, so I sat in the library and read until the dinner.  Long story short – it was almost 3:00 pm when I got back to my room.  When I walked in I saw my ashtray overflowing with butts and ashes and thought ‘Gee, I haven’t had a cigarette since before church.’ so I lit one up.  And it tasted terrible.  I spit it out. And then I realized what had happened, why I didn’t like cigarettes anymore.  When you prayed for my healing, you asked me what I wanted to be healed of and I said ‘My addictions.’  Pastor, I didn’t mean smoking.  I like smoking!”

 

When you ask for healing, you can never be sure what the result will be.  Jairus came to Jesus asking for help for his daughter.  He thought Jesus would hurry along to heal her, especially after Jairus told him she was near death.  But no.  Jesus dawdled along, stopping to talk to an old woman in the crowd, delaying so much that the little girl died.  And the old woman Jesus talked to? She didn’t really want to bother him, she really was a little bit afraid of him, but she did gather enough courage to reach out and touch him, hoping that would be enough to cure her.

 

Jairus wanted Jesus to hurry, the old woman didn’t want Jesus to stop, the man at church wanted to be healed of his addictions – except the ones he wanted to keep.  None of them got exactly what they wanted, and all of them were healed in ways they never imagined.

 

Most of us in the church are looking for something from Jesus. There are as many different desires as there are people.  Spiritual peace or spiritual growth, forgiveness and relief from guilt, peace of mind and soul, physical or emotional healing, a sense of direction, a calling, a place to belong, a cause to follow; the list could go on and on.  And our Scripture lessons hints to us that asking Jesus for something is a bit dangerous.  While you are apt to get what you need, you are also likely to get something you may not have wanted.

 

An encounter with Christ will change you, whether you want to be changed or not.  That is the risk we take coming to church and praying for God to be involved in our lives.  We cannot control how God will go about answering our prayers.

 

God might allow the thing we love the most to die before restoring it to life, pushing our trust and devotion to the very limit.  God may force our faith into the open, calling us out in public, giving us no choice but to affirm our commitments in front of others, no matter how uncomfortable and afraid that might make us feel.  God could heal us more completely and thoroughly than we want, removing from our lives bad habits and negative attitudes we would prefer to keep.

 

There’s an old saying “Watch out what you pray for, you might get it.”  Well, here’s a new saying, “Watch out what who you pray to; you might get something you never thought possible!”

 

Amen and amen.

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (June 21, 2015)

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

1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49
Who doesn’t love a good “David and Goliath” story?
 
Here we have David, the prototypical underdog — a skinny, knock-kneed, snot-nosed teenager filled with ambition and foolish enough not to know any better — against the prohibitive favorite in the fight, Goliath — the mighty, battle-hardened, swaggering bully who never met an Israelite body he didn’t want to separate from its head.
 
If we want to help our parishioners feel some of the tension that was present on this day, we need only understand that the word “Philistine” with which we are so familiar from childhood Bible stories is the same word that passed through the Latin language via the Roman Empire and became transferred as “Palestinian.” This battle account could be today’s headlines in a “holy land” war story.
 
Of course, one of the prerogatives of coming out as the winner in a war is the chance to write the history books — so this one turns out A-OK for Israel and their God.  
 
How did the ancient people of Yahweh hear this story? With much favor, as well as fervor, no doubt! The young boy-who-would-become-king rejects not only the curses of the enemy, but the artificial aid of his own ruler and countrymen. In this account, David needs absolutely nothing other than his faith in God and his trusty sling. (A curious question — why did he select five stones, if God was going to aid him with the first shot?)
 
In short order, the score is Yahweh 1, Pagan Gods 0. What else can you say?
Psalm 9:9-20
Given the background of David’s victory against Goliath, I have often wondered if v.20 might not be translated: “Put the fear in them, O Lord; let the nations know that they are only human.”
1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 18:10-16
We get a glimpse of the paranoid Saul — a sad departure from the days when he was the champion of Israel. After the departure of the Spirit from his life, he is left only with jealousy and rage. The figure of Jonathan, his son, is the most redemptive aspect of Saul’s life that remains. Through Jonathan’s friendship with David, the “soul” of Saul’s reign is joined with the “soul” of all that David would come to represent in Israel.
Psalm 133
Verse 1 is in stark contrast to the tone of rivalry, bitter jealousy, and rage in the earlier readings. In comparison, unity is indeed refreshing  and renewing. (Mt. Hermon is the highest point in Israel — the water that runs down from its “dews” and snows feeds the Jordan River, which in turn feeds the Sea of Galilee and most of the rest of the land.)
Job 38:1-11
The Creator God revealed in Job, who is powerful enough to lay a foundation for our earth and to cause the oceans to cease their crashing at our shorelines, is certainly powerful enough to sustain and protect us, eh?
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
After the storm-tossed passages of our lives, it truly is a blessing sometimes to enjoy the quiet of a desired haven. God is good when the storms are raging, but seems even better when they have passed.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Paul understands a thing or two about storms and being tossed (not to mention the occasional beating and prison term.) So, when he urges us to take care of today’s business today, it’s a pretty important idea. You never know where the storm will blow you tomorrow!
Mark 4:35-41     

Speaking of storms…

It is so easy to berate the disciples in this story for panicking over the waves. I’ve seen the type of boats that were used on the Sea of Galilee during Jesus’ time (not that different from the boats that are still used today) and, let me tell you, I would be a little nervous, too! The sides aren’t more than 12-18 inches above the waterline. They were getting swamped!

I am also amazed that Jesus manages to sleep through the storm; I think we’re supposed to take our cue from that and learn something about the essence of faith. Relax, God’s gonna take care of you…or something along those lines.

That is certainly true, whether we hit the panic button or not. God is going to take care of us. Notice that Jesus’ “rebuke” to the disciples is much more gentle than that he gives to the wind and the waves. In hindsight (which, they say, is always 20/20,) I’m sure the disciples could see it all playing out much more clearly. God’s provision and care depend, not on our faith nor on our confidence, but on God’s faithfulness.

So, if you get a little scared next time your boat starts filling up — it’s okay. Try to have at least a little faith

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I had my first real theology lesson when I was about twelve or thirteen I was working in the tobacco field with my father; he was plowing, I was hoeing.  It was an unusual day in that we were out there by ourselves; usually there were several of my brothers and sisters and Mama and maybe Aunt Mildred but not today.  Today, it was just us.  I had my head down, concentrating on not hitting a young tobacco plant with my hoe when I realized the tractor was no longer running and Daddy was yelling for me to run to him.  He pointed into the distance and then beckoned me with a wave.  I looked out across the valley and saw sharp lightning and a wall of rain and hail coming our way.  Then I heard the thunder and felt the wind and saw it stir the trees in the woods around the edges of the field.  I ran to Daddy and together we ran to the nearest tobacco barn.

We were probably safe, but I didn’t feel safe.  I felt exposed, sitting just inside the door of a fifty year old log barn with a tin roof and a dirt floor.  The wind howled and the hail pounded the roof and the thunder roared and the lightning lit up the sky.  Daddy sat on an old box, his long legs crossed and wrapped around each other as he took an unfiltered cigarette out of the pack and fumbled for a dry match.  I shivered, from fear or wet or maybe a bit of both and asked him, “Aren’t you afraid?” (Full disclosure – I probably said, “Ain’t you scared?”) And he blew a stream of smoke and looked me in the eye and said, “Yes, I am.  But I’m not in charge, he is.”(Pointing up with his index finger.) “Comes a point in life, son, where you just have to decide if you trust God or not.  I trust him, so I’ll sit here ‘til this is over and then deal with what’s next.”  “But, but,” I said, “Sometimes it doesn’t work out for the best.  People get hurt or die.” and Daddy said, “I didn’t say I understood the Lord, son, I just said I trusted him.”

Our lessons for today are about trusting God in the midst of things we really don’t understand.  The book of Job is a treatise on the question of undeserved suffering.  The answer given is not really an answer.  It is a response, or better yet, a rejoinder.  The author’s point is often said to be, “God is the creator and we are not; who are we to question God?”  What if the point is something else?  What if the point is that God cannot answer us because the truth is beyond our understanding?  Perhaps the underlying truth of how the world works is something we will never, ever really figure out.  And so, like my Daddy, we have to figure out if we can trust God without completely understanding what God is up to in the world.

Paul talks about this kind of faith in our lesson from Second Corinthians.  He talks about enduring “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.” (6:4-5) His point is that underneath all this “bad stuff,” God is working to bring about our salvation.

And in the familiar story from Mark, we find Jesus asleep in the boat in the midst of a storm.  The disciples are afraid and are also a little bit upset with Jesus for not being afraid, for taking a nap when he should be doing something for crying out loud. “Don’t you care about us?  Don’t you love us?  You can save us and you’re doing nothing!”  Jesus wakes up, tells the wind to calm down and then tells the disciples to calm down.  He says to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  Or, in the common tongue, “C’mon – don’t you trust me?”

All our texts call upon us to trust God in the midst of life’s difficulties.  This is not an easy thing to do because life is dangerous and unpredictable and God’s involvement is often hard to see and appreciate.  We often find ourselves like the disciples in the boat, or a little boy in an old barn, trying to decide if we really, really do trust God.  And the witness of the church, from the first disciples down through the ages to an old farmer in a tobacco barn is that, even though we will seldom understand exactly God is doing, God can indeed be trusted, now and for eternity.

Amen and amen.

The Third Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (June 14, 2015)

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

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13
“Well, there’s my youngest boy — but I doubt you’re looking for him. He’s just a shepherd.”

You can almost hear the overtones in Jesse’s voice as he dialogues with the great prophet, Samuel, can’t you? Saul — the tall, handsome, strike-fear-in-the-hearts-of-our-enemies king of Israel is on his way out. The search is on for his replacement.

Like any good call committee, Samuel and the people he represents are pretty sure THEY know what they want. What God wants may be something else entirely.

We most likely want to be very careful in our discerning of “God’s will” in our lives — the Eliabs in our lives do look awfully good sometimes. If we can, though, it’s always best to hold out until God says to us, “Now there you go; that’s what I really had in mind.”


Psalm 20
Verse 6 seems to center this selection in its relationship to the first reading. God always helps God’s “anointed.” When God is in the midst of our choices and the direction of our lives, there is help (regardless of the number of chariots and horses we may have — or not have — at our disposal!)

Ezekiel 17:22-24
What a great image: God is the one who is tall enough to break off a sprig from the topmost branch of a “lofty cedar.” Having recently returned from some vacation time among the redwoods of California, I imagine just how impossibly high the top of one of those great trees looks to be from my location down on the ground. 

God’s reach is impressive, indeed!


Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
Whenever I read this text, I hear the strains of Eugene Butler’s excellent choral setting, “It Is a Good Thing to Give Thanks Unto the Lord.”  (see a sheet music sample here, if you’re interested)

God’s presence with us is not on the clock; steadfast love in the morning, faithfulness by night — all set to the music of the lute, the harp, and the lyre. What a deal!

2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17
Several great theological “one-liners” in this passage:

  • “we walk by faith, not by sight” — very apropos when considered with the first reading
  • “away from the body, at home with the Lord” — a concept that brings much comfort, eh?
  • “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” — says it all, really

 Mark 4:26-34
The kingdom of God — its spread, its flourishing, its end results — is so far beyond our control or even our imaginings that it’s hard to describe. But, as usual, Jesus’ parables do a pretty good job.

Our work matters; what we do as laborers in God’s field is important. But, ultimately, if you want to see just exactly how much it all depends on you or me, consider that God works whether we are awake or asleep. Our efforts are mustard-seed-sized in the totality of the kingdom; they could be blown away by the slightest puff of wind.

And, yet, God chooses to bless them and grow them — at times — beyond our wildest expectations.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

There’s a favorite story in my family about my grandfather Reid Chilton, who was just absolutely crazy about playing baseball. When he was a teen-ager, he lived with and worked for his uncle, a holiness preacher who didn’t hold with the foolishness of ball playing. One day Uncle Arrington knew that Reid was scheduled to play in a baseball game, so he put him to working sowing peas in the cornfield.  (For the non-gardeners: this was a common practice years ago, pea vines didn’t harm the corn and grew up wrapped around the stalk.)  Uncle Arrington said, “Finish sowing those peas and you can go.”

Reid was devastated, he knew he didn’t have time to plant that whole bucket of peas and ride his mule over to Dry Pond for the ball game. As he worked and fretted, he came upon a burned out stump in the middle of the field. He looked around, saw no one was looking, dumped that whole bucket of peas in the stump and covered them with dirt. He ran out of the field, showed the good reverend his empty bucket and rode off to play ball. Things were fine until several weeks later when Uncle Arrington was cultivating the field and came upon a stump over-flowing with pea vines! Grandpa always finished that story by looking wistfully into the distance and muttering, “Who knew peas would grow in an old stump?”

“. . . the seed would sprout  and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” (Mark 2:27-28)  “

There is a difficult lesson here for those of us in the church who have a hard time letting go and letting the work of God take its natural, God-given course. Jesus says to us that we are to plant the seed and let God worry about the growth. Jesus says we are not responsible for making the church grow. Jesus says we are not responsible for making sure everybody “gets saved.” Jesus says we are not responsible for making the Kingdom of God a smashing success. Our job, our responsibility, our calling, is to plant the seed and reap the harvest. God is responsible for the growth.

Faith is often defined as trust, and in this case, faith is trusting that the things we do for God will turn out all right, in God’s way, in God’s time. Faith is keeping on with the work of the Gospel and trusting that in God’s own time the crop will grow, even if we never live to see it. Faith is, in part, letting go of our control over the results.

We live in a world in which people afraid of losing control; or more correctly, of letting someone or something else control their fate. We have been taught that in order to succeed one must have a goal – after all, as Yogi Berra said, if you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up somewhere else. We have been taught that in order to succeed one must have a plan – a well-defined outcome and a strategy for achieving it.  In the church, we create five year plans and mission strategies.  Minister’s magazine are filled with analysis of what we must “do” to reverse the decline in membership or to increase giving or to have the best Christian Education program in town.

Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom of God; the work of grace and mercy and compassion and peace with justice in the world; works with a totally different outline. These parables remind us that we are called to do the work; indeed we are called to do the work to the best of our ability; but they also remind us that the ultimate purpose and outcome of this work is not in our hands but in God’s. Which is, I assure you, a reality that is both frustrating and reassuring. It is frustrating for those of us who don’t like to wait, who like to be in charge and in control of our own fate and destiny, who like to see progress being made, who like to be able to measure and calibrate and control. But it is also reassuring and liberating to know that, in God’s eyes, success is not judged by the size of the harvest but by the faithfulness in sowing seeds.

In our churches, we are planting seeds in God’s field, cedar sprigs on mountain tops. What they will be has not yet been revealed, but of one thing we can be assured, God has not finished the work God began in us.

We are like that stump in the cornfield just before the eruption of growth; the seeds have been planted, the ground has been cultivated, the fertilizer has been put in. We have done and continue to do our work. Our calling today is to keep doing our work and to trust God to work in and through us to grow the Kingdom.

Amen and amen.

The Second Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (June 7, 2015)

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Give a look and a listen to our new “Lectionary Lessons” feature — designed for the Christian Ed/Bible Study hour. There’s a teaching video on Youtube and a downloadable lesson sheet focusing on today’s scripture texts. Let us know what you think!

https://youtu.be/DgbMeTT9Erc

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

1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)
Mel Brooks made the catch-line famous, in his 1981 film, History of the World, Part I: “It’s good to be the king!” 

(Get an idea with this 4-minute excerpt from the film, set to Mel’s own “hip hop” song lyric. Probably should be rated PG-13, or so…)

For Brooks fans, the line becomes something of a leitmotif in his other films, including Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Spaceballs, and The Producers — not that that has anything to do with anything — except that I am reminded of it when God, through Samuel, tries to tell the Israelites that gaining a king to rule over them might not be all they think it is cracked up to be!

“It’s going to cost you!” is something of a biblical leitmotif where sin is concerned, yet over and over again, we humans are willing to enter the bargain anyway.  The Israelites (who play our part in this drama) use the argument familiar to every teenager who has ever been confronted by a parent over dubious behavioral choices: “Well, everybody’s doing it!”

What’s a prophet — or a God — to say?

Psalm 138
This God — the LORD of Israel — is greater than all gods; this God is the true King above all kings.

Noticeably, the LORD, as the high King, is very close to those who recognize their own lowliness; but remains “far away” from those whose self-attitude is haughty. Those who seek the help of the LORD when they are in trouble will find it; those who maintain an “I got this” state-of-mind are not so likely to find themselves aided by God’s strong “right hand.”

Genesis 3:8-15
Ah, speaking of the “fruit” of our own choices!

I have long been intrigued by the fact that God never said a word to these first humans before they exhibited their first sign of guilt; they “heard” God walking in the garden and they “hid” themselves in the trees.

Apparently, not only does the guilty dog bark first, he/she also tucks tail and hides at the first sound of accountability coming!

Psalm 130
Does God keep score?

The psalmist asks a question (v.3) that still resonates. How in the world could I ever answer for every single time I “sinned?” (i.e., broke a rule, crossed a boundary, told a lie, hurt another person, etc.)

There is something powerful to consider here about just how forgiveness works. If I can never even the score of my wrongdoing, then sooner or later I would just give up trying — and sin would progress to its inevitable conclusion: hurt, destruction, and death.

But, if there is a way to “wipe the slate clean” and get a fresh start — starting over seems like a genuine option. After a time, I know the deep need of my life for cleansing and renewal; I feel it “in my bones.”

Honest confrontation of my shortcomings and confession of my sin are the prerequisites of right living and right relationship — with God and others. Like waiting through a long, dark night for a glimmer of hope and sunshine, passing through the anguish of repentance brings redemption to my soul.

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
How thankful have I been for grace lately?

V. 15 says that “grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving….” Just makes me wonder how thankful I have been for the incredible grace given to me. Have I stopped the flow of God’s grace through my life in any way by ingratitude? 

Mark 3:20-35   
“That boy done lost his mind!”

There was a certain young man in my hometown of whom that statement was made regularly when I was growing up. Theories varied as to exactly why Ray Skinner (not his real name, by the way) was crazy — or if he even was really mentally unbalanced — but none of us “kids” were ever brave enough to actually talk to him and find out. He was sort of our local Boo Radley, I suppose.

The setting for today’s gospel reading is a very Boo Radley-like experience Jesus has with his own family — those who should have been best-positioned to know him. Jesus is, of course, talking about his “kingdom,” which was his favorite subject. He really believed that God had sent him to establish a kingdom that was sort of, kind of on this earth — but wasn’t really, exactly like the other kingdoms of the earth.

Yeah, that was some crazy-sounding stuff right there! No wonder his momma and them came to try to talk him into coming home with them.

Just how crazy are the demands of the kingdom of God for those who would claim to follow Christ today? Are we “brothers and sisters” of our Lord Jesus?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I left home —  the farm in the foothills of North Carolina — when I was 18,  to go to college. Though I still speak with a decided southern accent, I do not sound like the folks in and around Mt. Airy, NC anymore. Years of higher education in the Research Triangle area of NC and serving transplanted mid-westerners in Lutheran congregations in Atlanta and Nashville have taken the edge off enough that when I go home to Mt. Airy I get, not the “you ain’t from around here” look, but the “you went off and got different” look — which is almost as bad.
When Jesus goes home in today’s Gospel lesson, he gets the “you went off and got different” look from his community and his family. They knew who he was, he was Mary’s boy, he was James’ brother. But then again, he wasn’t; something was different, something was wrong, he had changed.
A woman slips into the living quarters back of the carpenter shop, “Mary, I saw your boy. Yeah, Jesus the one that went off to be a preacher. Boy, he sure talks funny, like them city folks he’s been hanging around with. And, well, it ain’t just the way he talks, it’s what he says. That boy of your’n’ has sure got some funny ideas. People are talking like he’s nuts or something. You better do something about it.”
So Mary gathers up the family and sets out to find her boy. There are two motivations working in their effort to stop Jesus. One is the fact that Mary and James and the rest still live in Nazareth and what Jesus does reflects on them. Family honor and business are on the line. The second, and I suspect more powerful, motivation is love. They love Jesus. They didn’t understand him, but they loved him.They were wrong to try to stop him, but they were wrong for the right reason. They loved Jesus as a son and brother and they wanted him to be happy, they wanted him to be successful, they wanted him to fit in, they wanted him to be safe, they wanted him to come home; if not home to Nazareth at least home to traditional values.
When they found Jesus they discovered that things were worse than they thought. Not only was Jesus talking funny and doing weird things; he was also openly defying the public officials, engaging in public argument with the temple scribes. This was serious business indeed.
The scribes were accusing Jesus of being a Satanist, of being in league with the devil. Can you imagine the fear that struck at Mary’s heart when she heard it said that her sweet, precious, first-born son was not only odd but that he was also evil? And Jesus only made it worse by arguing with the scribes, by making them look like fools.
Mary had to act and act quickly. She sends in one of the boys with a message for Jesus to come out and go home. And Jesus, unbelievably, rejects his mother and his mother’s pleas.
Jesus turns his back on his family. He looks around the crowd and says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mothers and my sisters and my brothers; those who do the will of God!”
In that moment, Jesus redefined for all time the meaning of family. It was shocking then and it is shocking to many of us now.
For the people of Jesus time and place, family was not an important thing; it was everything. Who you were, what you did, who you married, your entire relationship to society and to God were defined by your family.
Jesus was not just Jesus who used to be a carpenter in Nazareth and was now a Rabbi. No, Jesus as Jesus, Son of Joseph, of the house and lineage of David, a descendant of Abraham. Without those family connections, Jesus was nobody, at least not anybody who had to be recognized or dealt with; he was permanently “not from around here.” He had done “gone off and got different.”
You have heard it said that “Blood is thicker than water,” but in that moment Jesus declared that “the waters of baptism are thicker than the blood of family.”
Now, this did not mean that Jesus no longer loved “his Mama and them,” as we say back in Mt. Airy. It did mean that Jesus declared a rearrangement in the order of his relationships; and by so doing, rearranged the order of our relationships too.
I am still son and brother and husband and father and pastor and neighbor and friend to many and probably am considered a jerk by more people than I would like to know about.
But all those relational definitions are secondary to one over-arching and defining relationship; I am a child of God and younger brother of Jesus Christ, who is my Lord and Savior. That relationship takes priority over all others and makes sense of all others. As long as I remember that Christ is first in my life, everything else falls in line.
For more than 600 years the Hapsburgs ruled much of Europe. In 1916 Emperor Franz-Josef I of Austria died. A procession of dignitaries and elegantly dressed royal mourners escorted the coffin which was draped in black and gold silk. A military band played somber funeral music as the torch-lit procession made its way down winding narrow stairs into the catacombs beneath the Capuchin Monastery in Vienna
At the bottom of the stairs were great iron doors leading to the Hapsburg family crypt. Behind the door was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Vienna.
The Commanding officer rapped on the door and cried out. “Open!”
The Archbishop replied, “Who goes there?”
“We bear the remains of his Imperial and Apostolic Majesty, Franz-Josef I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Defender of the Faith, Prince of Bohemia-Moravia, Grand-Duke of Lombardy . . . .” And so it went, through the entire list of his 37 titles.
“We know him not, “ the Cardinal said, “Who goes there?”
The officer spoke again, using the informal title, “We bear the remains of Emperor Franz-Josef I of the Hapsburg line.”
“We know him not,” the cardinal said again. “Who goes there?”
This time the officer replied, “We bear the body of Franz-Josef, our brother, a sinner like all of us.” At that the doors swung open and Franz-Josef was welcomed home.
Whoever else you may be, whatever other relationships you may have, there is one title and one relationship that can never be taken away from you; you are always a child of God, born out of the waters of baptism and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.
Though that means that wherever you go on earth, you will be considered and bit odd and “not from around here” because you have “done gone off and got different;” it also means that you are always welcome and at home in the family and kingdom of God.
Amen and amen.

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

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

Isaiah 6:1-8
I don’t know that any of us will ever be able to capture or imagine the awe and terror of Isaiah’s vision of a visit to the throne of the Lord. The hem of God’s robe fills the temple; now that’s a big robe!

Seraphim are there, hovering and shouting (though we often think of angels “singing,” the text never really says that they sing.)

The house is shaking and there’s smoke everywhere — much more dramatic than our sanctuaries on most Sundays, I’d say. 

The cumulative effect is that Isaiah comes quite undone. “Woe is me,” is the best hymn of praise that he can squawk out. Something about truly seeing God as holy reminds us deeply and painfully that we are not.

And, yet — the call of God comes: “Who will go for us?” Since there’s nobody else present, Isaiah steps us with one of his most famous lines: “Here am I (gulp); send me.”

The old evangelist used to say, “When it comes to the call of God, it’s not your ability God is interested in. It’s your availability!” I kind of like that, even if it makes me nervous!

Psalm 29
The psalm text offers accompaniment and counterpoint to Isaiah’s grand vision of God.The emphasis is on the commanding, calling “voice of the LORD.”

This voice is not for the faint of heart, yet it is a source of both strength and peace.

Romans 8:12-17
Our readings in Romans 8 continue, opening doors to yet more aspects of the limitless, ever-present Spirit of God. 

  •  The Spirit leads and guides
  • The Spirit “puts to death” our fleshly inclinations
  • The Spirit does not lead us to fear
  • The Spirit allows us to cry out to God, as a young child to a loving, trustworthy father
  • The Spirit assures us that we are, indeed, children of God

John 3:1-17  
We have encountered portions of this reading already through the church year; there is much of note in this third chapter of John’s gospel. On Trinity Sunday, however, perhaps the center of the text is found in v. 8:

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

One of the most difficult illusions for we human beings to give up is that of control over our lives. Experience teaches us that there are really very few things that are within our capacity to control.

Certainly, we do not control the Spirit of God — anymore than we can control the wind. (As I write these words, we are entering the “hurricane season” in Florida with a tropical storm just off the coast. If you’ve ever survived a hurricane or similar natural disaster, you realize just how little control you have!)

That image helps me connect to Isaiah’s experience in our first reading. His experience of God was somewhat out of control, to the point of being terrifying. Much like the roaring of hurricane-force winds and the sound of trees splitting or being ripped up by their roots.

May we not forget the power we are dealing with when we blithely mention the presence of the Spirit, pronouncing the Spirit’s blessings on the lives of those to whom we preach and with whom we minister.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

I would often remember who they were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Amen.

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

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

Acts 2:1-21

We have mused and bemused over this story for years now; most of you have tried to preach it every which way you could possibly think of. It may not be necessary, but I like to point out the miracle of “spiritual hearing” in this text — not the generally-assumed miracle of “speaking in tongues” that is so often accentuated. Vv. 6 and 8 clearly indicate that, no matter where you were from or what language you spoke, if you were in the room that day you heard the gospel proclaimed in your native tongue.

(I have, at times, wondered if I’d been there, would Peter have begun his address with, “Now, ya’ll settle down…?”)

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

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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

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

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

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

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

The psalm reminds us of the creative work of the Spirit, echoing the opening passages of Genesis. It was the ruach (“wind, breath, spirit”) of God present in the beginning that brought order to the creation. It is the same ruach that brings renewal to our lives — re-creation, if you will, over and over again!

Romans 8:22-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

Special Edition: The Ascension of Our Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Delmer