Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Mystery of Holy Week

What we might call “odds and ends” for your consideration as you prepare for Holy Week.
(from the files of the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton)

1) For Maundy Thursday:

 “Fill up your life with love”

On March 20, 2000, PEOPLE magazine ran a story about Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Center, Texas. One day the pastor’s wife was praying and asking God “Why is my life so empty?”  Soon thereafter she and her husband began taking the state classes to be foster parents, and soon the idea spread throughout the church. Bennett Chapel is a tiny church, made up of working class people making a living as loggers or down at the chicken plant or at the hardwood flooring company.  They didn’t have much to start with. But they decided to use what they had to make a difference in the lives of hurt, abused and unwanted children.  As of the year 2000, 17 families in the church had become foster parents to 43 children in just two years.

As I think about that story, I am always struck by two things:  1) These were just ordinary people, with ordinary incomes and ordinary lives who basically did not need another child around to feed and clothe and worry about. Yet, in response to the tug of God’s will, they laid aside their own wants and needs for the sake of another. 2) A quote from the Social worker: They don’t view themselves as a blessing for the child. They view the child as their blessing.”


2) For Good Friday: A “Holy Exchange”

French writer Henri Barbusse wrote a novelistic memoir of his experiences in WWI called “Under Fire.” He wrote of one day when the regiment had attacked the German lines and were driven back under a barrage of heavy gunfire.

Collapsing into the momentary safety of a muddy trench, the narrator found himself up to his knees in mud, pressed against the trench wall while German machine guns laid down heavy fire just inches above his head.

He looked to his left and saw a man horribly wounded, his face disfigured, obviously dying. The wounded man reached over and grabbed a companion by his side and pulled him close to his face and began to speak, really to shout loudly, loud enough for Barbusse to hear. The wounded man said, “Dominic, you have been a good friend to me.  You probably don’t know that I know that you are a criminal, that you joined the army to escape the police. I do not know what you did.  I do not care; like I said, you have been a good friend to me.  When the war is over the police will arrest you and send you to jail to pay for your crimes.  They know where you are – they are just waiting to see if you make it out alive. Now is your chance.  Give me your identification, your wallet and your papers.  I will give you mine.  When I die, your crimes will die with me.  You will have a new name and a new life.” And so, with tears running down his face, Dominic exchanged identities with his friend and then held his friend in his arms as he died. He left that ditch a new man with a new life.

Luther called what happened on the cross a “holy exchange.”  There Christ traded his holiness for our sin, there our sin died with Jesus and a new life, an eternal life was born in us.


3) Holy Week: Remembering the Mystery

Several years ago, an American, a Lutheran, was vacationing in a small fishing village in Denmark. On Sunday, he attended services in the ancient village church, which dated back almost a thousand years. He went early so as to see everything. Though he did not understand the language, the service was understandable to him in its outline and its actions. The flow of the service, the standing and kneeling, etc, were consistent with his church back home. Except for one thing. At the beginning of the service, everyone who came in stopped halfway down the aisle and turning to the right, bowed in the direction of the blank wall. Everybody, no exceptions. When the choir and the pastor came in, they too stopped and bowed to the blank wall. After the service, the visitor stood outside and talked to a few folks who knew English and eventually he asked them about the practice of bowing to the blank wall. And they all said, “We don’t know, we’ve always done that.’’ he asked the pastor, who said, “I don’t know. They were doing that when I came and I saw no reason to stop them.” The pastor did promise to find out and write the visitor.

A few months later he received a letter from the Danish pastor. When the church was built, around the year 1150 AD, there had been a mural of the Madonna and Child painted on that spot on the wall. At the time of the Reformation, when the Danish church went from Catholic to Lutheran, the mural had been painted over and the people were instructed to stop bowing to the Wall. HAH! Good Luck on that one Pastor! The people had ignored a long line of Ministers telling them to stop bowing to the wall, until the clergy had given up, and eventually the people and the pastors all bowed to wall and all forgot why.

Could it be that we modern Christians are a lot like the good people of the Danish village. The image of the Real Jesus has been obscured by time and cultural shifts and preacherly reinterpretation. Over the years we’ve been told Jesus is this, Jesus is that, Jesus is the other thing, until the Real Jesus is hard to see and impossible to know. And yet we still come, we still worship, we still bow in front of that which we only barely comprehend. That is a miracle of faith. Sometimes we’re not sure who this Jesus really is, but there is something about his life and teaching and witness and death and promise of life again that keeps drawing us back to the wall of worship, back to the place where we bow and pray and hope and look hard to see God in our lives.

That’s what Holy Week is all about. It is a time to look for Jesus. To look for Jesus in the Scriptures, to look for Jesus in the events of the last week of his life, to look and see what he was all about. It is a time to look for Jesus in Prayer. To meditate upon his call to follow him, to pray with him His Upper room Prayer for love and unity among all God’s people. It is a time to look for Jesus in worship, to join the community on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, to receive again His command that we love one another, to witness once again his death upon the cross.

Most of all, Holy Week is a time for us to look for Jesus in our lives. To see the Real Jesus, Luther said, we must look to the Cross. For there, Jesus died for us. There Jesus revealed what God is really like. There we discover the God who suffers and dies for a sinful but beloved humanity. There on the Cross, Christ calls us to follow. Calls us to take up our cross and serve and suffer for the world,
calls us to trust God’s love now and forever.

Palm/Passion Sunday for Year B (March 29, 2015)

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

Texts for Liturgy of the Palms

Psalm 118 has as its basis, “the steadfast love of the Lord.” All of our festal praise — branches and all — is rooted in the love of God.

Mark‘s gospel account is, as usual, brief and to-the-point: Jesus wants (and needs) a donkey to ride on, so he sends two disciples to find one. No other rationale given than, “The Lord needs it.” Jesus rides in, people spread their cloaks and assorted branches, as if welcoming a dignitary. The shouts of “Hosanna” are a delicious addition, as the root word is a form of Jesus’ name — yasha — help us, save us! Then, Jesus arrives at the Temple, looks around (calm before the storm?), and heads back out for the night. Soon, it will be time for some real business!

John‘s account (optional reading) is actually even briefer, but adds the rich detail that the great crowd, “heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.” Do you remember how you first heard of Jesus in your own life? What has been your response to that news ever since?

Texts for Liturgy of the Passion

We cannot help, perhaps, reading Isaiah‘s words “Christianly.” With many others across the centuries, we have seen Christ as the ultimate Suffering Servant in this passage. But for any servant of God — at any time — the message is true: “The Lord God helps me….” Christ lives this; so must we.

Psalm 31 is a psalm both of lament and of trust (which often go together in the psalter!) Acknowledging both grief and sorrow, the psalmist also prays, “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.'” Do we find a place for trusting God in the midst of grief and sorrow?

Philippians 2:5-11 simply stands alone and on its own for the beauty, simplicity, and power of the heart of the gospel message. We may well read it and weep at the wonder of this “mind of Christ.” How do we let this mind “be in us?”

The long Passion reading from Mark 14-15 moves us, as well, to tears of a different sort. Obedience, suffering, deception, betrayal, indifference, abandonment, grace, faith (from a centurion!), and tender care for a lifeless body. It’s all here. It is the deepest sort of pathos. This is God — dying with us, dying for us.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The Rev. Denny Camp is a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In the late 1960s he graduated from Cummings High School in Burlington, NC. It was an old building built in the early 1900s; a long, brick, two-story building with staircases at each end of a central hall. Some long ago principal had organized the class changing chaos by decreeing that the East End staircase was UP and the West End staircase was DOWN. This rule was strictly enforced, going the wrong way on a staircase was a serious offence!

One day Denny found himself at the bottom of the DOWN staircase a few minutes before classes changed. His next class was in a room directly over his head. To properly, appropriately, legitimately go upstairs, he would need to walk all the way to the other end of the corridor, go up the UP staircase, and then walk all the way back to his class room. This would probably have been good exercise for him, but he was a 15 year old boy; exercise was not on his mind, the easiest way to do what he wanted to do was.

Denny glanced at his watch, looked around and saw no teachers, and headed up the DOWN staircase. When he was about halfway up, he first felt, then saw, then heard a presence above him. He glanced up the second floor landing and saw the Football Coach and Assistant Principal for Discipline glaring down at him. “CAMP! Get up here!” the coach yelled.

At just that exact moment, the bell rang and a sea of teenage humanity started flowing down the DOWN staircase. Denny couldn’t make any headway – he was stuck. The Coach kept glaring down at him and shouting, “CAMP, GET UP HERE!”  But he couldn’t move. He couldn’t go up, he couldn’t buck the tide. He couldn’t go down, the coach was calling him up. He was stuck, stuck going up the DOWN staircase.

Sometimes our lives feel like that, like a constant struggle to push against the tide, Henry David Thoreau said it best in the 1830s, “Most men (people) lead lives of quiet desperation.” We start out with great hopes and grand plans; our way is clear and the sailing looks easy. Then suddenly – we look around and we’re stuck. Nothing is working out the way we thought it would. Marriage is complicated, jobs are uncertain, the economy is shaky, the world itself is a place full of danger and trouble and here we stand: unable to go forward, unwilling to back down.

It is when one finds oneself stuck, immobile on the staircase of life, that one must re-evaluate the very meaning of life, redefine one’s goals, recalculate what “going up” means,.  As our text from Philippians shows us, sometimes the first step in going up is to go down.  As you read this, imagine it being sung as a hymn, for that is what it is.

“Let the same mind be in you

that was in Christ Jesus, who,

though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death

— even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

 in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.”

The cross of Christ invites to embark on a journey up the DOWN staircase, swimming against the tide of the world’s values of self-interest and personal privilege. When people greeted Jesus by shouting “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” it is doubtful that many of them understood that in this new kingdom the meaning of life would be found in the cross. We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus, and when we do our life’s agenda becomes discipleship and service.

In the cross, our struggle in life are transformed from an effort to succeed into a journey of obedience to the Gospel; and going up the DOWN staircase is transformed from an image of frustration and failure to a model of spiritual pilgrimage and the pursuit of God’s peace with justice.

The people flowing down the stairs become a picture of the material and cultural forces that hinder us in our efforts to follow the way of Christ. And though it’s difficult (at least for some of us) to imagine God as a red-faced football coach, we can at least envision a Higher Power beckoning to us from above, encouraging us, calling us to “go up higher.”

The Christian life is the way of the cross.  It is a struggle, a struggle to live a life of love and service to God and neighbor in a world which constantly pushes us in the opposite direction. And the good news is: we are not in this battle alone.  God sent Jesus to be our guide, to show us the way, to go before us and, if necessary, to carry us, up the DOWN staircase.

Amen and amen.

Fifth Sunday in Lent for Year B (March 22, 2015)

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

I rediscovered the word pathetic this week; it was while I was reading an account of the ways we sometimes make Christian faith so inaccessible to our children. The writer evoked such strong passion and I was moved by her genuine sorrow. That’s the way I read Jeremiah. God is pathetic here — moved with deep pathos over the broken relationship with Israel and Judah. Like a spouse who has been jilted, God’s heart hurts — yet, God is determined to try again — and again — and again. God seems always to be about the new day, the new opportunity for faithfulness. Thank God!

Psalm 51 assures us that God is in the joy-restoring business! Of course, it helps if we have opened up shop for honesty and confession. There’s a reason those in twelve-step traditions say that the first step (“admitted that we had a problem”) is the hardest!

The key phrase in Psalm 119 (repeated many, many times): whole heart. How much commitment of life does God desire from us? Just all of it.

When it comes to Hebrews, don’t get too infatuated with Melchizedek; though he obviously is an interesting and important character (at least for the preacher of the Hebrews sermon,) this passage is all about Jesus. Pay attention particularly to the phrase, “learned obedience through what he suffered.” As Calvin stated, Christ has redeemed us by the whole course of his obedience. Every thought, prayer, and action of Jesus was for us — and has accomplished the salvation of the world. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia, 1960), Book II, Chapter 16, pp. 507-512)

John gives us the interesting arrival of the Greeks who are looking for Jesus. Outsiders. Showing up during the high festival of the Passover. Doesn’t make sense. Yet, Jesus says in response, “The hour has come….” He appears to understand that the table is set and what he is about to do will draw “all people” to the work of God. I can’t help but ask myself: so, who are the Greeks in my world? Where are the unlikely candidates for the grace of God? And what am I doing to bring them to Jesus?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God; and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:34

I have never been any good at things like playing a sport beyond the middle school level, or singing, or playing a musical instrument. Part of it is a lack of natural talent. But that’s just part of it.

My biggest problem has been an unwillingness to practice, to go over and over the basic, rudimentary motions of any particular activity enough to get good at it. There were a couple of exceptions. I could shoot a fairly consistent 10 foot jump-shot in basketball and I became a pretty good contact hitter in baseball. But I was not a good player. I wouldn’t work at it. The same thing with music. I had no natural talent or ear, but I could have learned to be an adequate singer, but I wouldn’t put in the dull, repetitious, monotonous time necessary. Same thing for the guitar I bought and the piano lessons I signed up for.

It was only when my sons came along that I really learned what it took to be good at something.  The oldest played trumpet and French horn in band.  We had a small house.  There was nowhere but his bedroom for him to practice and there was nowhere in the house one could go and not hear him. The same thing, over and over and over.  But he stuck with it and became pretty good.

The youngest was in love with basketball.  He developed his own practice routine, outlined on a chart on his bedroom wall; fifty lay-ups from this side, fifty from the other side, a hundred free throws, a hundred jump shots, etc. etc.  There was a concrete patio directly outside the den door. We put up a goal there – it was maybe 20 feet from both the television and the kitchen sink.  His dribbling and shooting and jumping reverberated through the house.

Sometimes they were both practicing at the same time; scales coming down the hall from the bedroom; thump, thump, thump from the backyard; for hours on end.  And the last thing I was going to do was complain.  I put in my earplugs and went back to working on my sermon.

I have been thinking about how it is that covenants get written on people’s hearts and it seems to me that developing a right relationship with God and neighbor; learning to live life by Jesus’ “Great Commandments” – you know – to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself; well, this seems to be a lot like learning to play the trumpet or to shoot a basketball; it’s a matter of staying with the basics until they become a part of who you are.

One of the goals in sport is to make the regular activities such second nature that you quit thinking and just do it. To do that takes practice. This is why we talk about “practicing our religion.” Could it be that covenants get written on our hearts as we practice the “unnatural acts” of unselfish and unconditional love toward others until they become second nature; that is, become written on our hearts?

Now, before anyone accuses me of “works righteousness;” let me be clear: I’m not talking about becoming good enough for God, or of earning one’s salvation.  I’m talking about exercising and using the free gift of God’s love that has become ours through Christ.

As it says in Hebrews, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (5:8-9)

I’m not exactly sure what “learning obedience” and “having been made perfect” mean here, but I’m sure it involves Jesus knowing that he was the Messiah and that being the Messiah meant denying self and living for others and suffering and dying on the cross.  And though Jesus had some “natural talent” for this as the Son of God; it was not easy and he had to practice and he had to learn how to be this person.   Beginning with resisting the temptations to power and influence in the wilderness and culminating in the garden when he prayed, “not my will but thine be done,” he had to practice being who he was called to be.

We are called to follow Christ.  “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:26) “Where I am” includes doing for others, and suffering in service of others; and though that may have come naturally to Jesus – it does not come naturally to most of us.

But we can learn it.  We can hear the voice that tells us that we too are children of God, that we too are beloved and a part of God’s plan to love and care for the world.  We can learn and practice the love of God until we are like a musician who knows a song so well that she lifts her eye from the page and plays the score written on her heart; a song of love and service that begins now and continues forever.

Amen and amen.

Fourth Sunday in Lent for Year B (March 15, 2015)

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It’s “short and sweet” on the Lab for this week; Bubba #2 is pretty much out of pocket, so we’re going with Delmer’s sermon and a “Special Edition” of the Lectionary Lab Live podcast in which Dr. Chilton actually preaches the sermon for you!

See you’uns next week back in our familiar roles and format.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I like the word oxymoron. It means expressing two contradictory things at the same time.  The word itself is an oxymoron – being made up of two Greek words meaning “sharp” and “dull.” Oxymoron = sharp-dull. Some of my favorite examples are: bittersweet, original copy, jumbo shrimp, and a true Southernism; pretty ugly. I have often thought that having a firm handle on the concept of an oxymoron is vital to understanding the Christian faith. Is God oxymoronic? Does God express truths that are mutually contradictory?

As we read the Bible, we can find evidence for two quite different, pictures of God. In the first – God is harsh, judgmental, strict; a god of law and punishment, of revenge and retribution, a god who keeps a careful tally of our sins and metes out appropriate penalties. In the second – God is gentle, loving, forgiving, and indulgent; a god who loves us with a prodigal, spendthrift love.

Everyone has a mental picture of God, a picture shaped in part by the Biblical stories we heard as a child. As we grow older, we begin to realize the contradictory, the oxymoronic nature of these stories and pictures. Noah’s Ark is a good example.  Lovely scenes of a ship and cute animals saved from a flood.  But wait a minute, God sent a flood to kill everybody and everything not on the boat?  Wait a minute! And so, we begin to wonder; which is it? what is God really like?

Is God like the strait-lazed, self-righteous commandant of a military academy; all rules and regulations and carefully calculated systems of demerits? Or is God like your favorite Grandmother; all warm hugs and twinkly eyes, fresh-baked sugar cookies and a sympathetic ear?

Our lesson from Ephesians says in verse three that “we were by nature, children of wrath,” calling up the image of the judgmental God who condemns us all to hell.  Then comes this line, verse four; “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us” This is the sweet, loving God.

Our Gospel lesson contains everybody’s favorite memory verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only beloved Son” Even Lutherans can say it by heart! It’s a message of love and forgiveness.  But it also implies judgment and wrath: Those who do not believe will perish.  A few verses on it talks about condemnation and people loving darkness and being evil.

The puzzle, the contradiction, the oxymoron, remains, weaving in and out of every story, sometimes every sentence of the Bible.  Look at the strange story from Numbers about Moses and the bronze serpent and notice how the “pictures”, the “images” of God alternate throughout:

1 – The People are in the wilderness, having been liberated from slavery in Egypt. PICTURE: God the Loving

2 – The Children of Israel complain and get impatient and start whining. (vs.4-5) God gets angry and sends fiery serpents that bite and kill (vs. 6).  PICTURE: God the Vengeful

3 – The people repent and ask for forgiveness (vs. 7) and God shows them mercy, provides a way of salvation, The bronze serpent of a pole: PICTURE: God the Loving

In our Gospel lesson, this strange story of Moses and the bronze serpent is lifted up as a picture, an image, of what Jesus the Christ is for us: Jesus – the Fiery Serpent of God !  Jesus comes, first of all, as the judgment and wrath of God, pointing out and condemning the world’s sinfulness. Jesus, far from being meek and mild, was often quite angry about sin, was often judgmental and harsh towards people he met. Just remember last week’s Gospel lesson about driving the money-changers out of the temple. Jesus was many things, but meek and mild were not two of them.

But, Christ is not only our judgment, Christ is also our salvation. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. . .” The Son of man must be lifted up. The Son of Man must be crucified! The Son of man must die so that we may live! What a puzzle, what a contradiction, what an oxymoron, what a mystery!

The Cross of Christ contains both God’s judgment on our sin, and God’s salvation from our sin.
Yet, God is not an oxymoron; God is amazingly consistent. For God’s anger at our sin is the direct result of the love God has for us, his beloved children, caught in the web of the world’s sin. Sin pulls us down, sin cuts us off from God and from each other, and worst of all, cuts us off from our true selves. God’s hatred for sin is so great that God was willing to do anything to save us from it.

The greatest, most paradoxical, most oxymoronic image of our faith is Christ upon the Cross. There, on the cross, the judgment of God and the love of God are revealed.  As the Scripture says, “He who knew no sin, became sin for us all . . .” in our place and on our behalf.  Christ upon the cross is the mysterious, oxymoronic truth which holds the story of God’s judgment and God’s love together.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up!”
“That everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither are we.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York: Viking Penguin, 1990, p. 72

Ash Wednesday (February 18, 2015)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

Transfiguration Sunday (February 15, 2015)

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

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

(2 Corinthians 4:5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.