Year A — The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Nov. 2, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Joshua 3:7-17
Several “quick hitters” that I note in this passage:

  • Joshua had a pretty bad case of nerves about taking over for Moses; after all, who wants to bat clean-up after Babe Ruth? Who wants to coach football at Alabama after Bear Bryant? (I know I’m dating myself with these analogies…but, what the heck…it’s my blog!)
  • But, it was God who “exalted” him; we never will really succeed at pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. That’s just a misconception in popular American culture.
  • Speaking of bootstraps, have you ever noticed that the waters of the Jordan River — at flood stage, no less — did not part until the soles of the priests’ feet hit the waves? God is the original “just in time” delivery system!
  • I wonder how heavy that ark got while the whole nation of Israel took their time crossing the river?

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
Verse 2 is a great reminder: “let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” Don’t make God’s work in your lives a secret! It’s okay actually to talk about it. A pastor I met once referred to evangelism as “saying something good about God.” 

I like it.

Micah 3:5-12
Don’t lean on God to cover your own behind. God never owes it to any of us to clean up our mess. 

Psalm 43
There are certainly hope-challenged and soul-disquieting days that come our way. How powerful to pray for the light and truth of God — which is sometimes just knowing that you are not alone, and that God has not given (and will not give) up on you.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Those of us who had uplifting, encouraging parents received a true blessing from God. Not everyone is so fortunate. Whatever our draw in the parental lottery, we are encouraged by this passage to “live lives worthy of God.”

Matthew 23:1-12
I saw this week where Mike Judge, the creator of the infamous comic duo Bevis and Butthead, is working on an upcoming theatrical release of the boys’ new adventures. I can just hear Bevis snorting now, “Heh-heh-heh…you said ‘phylactery!’”

What is a phylactery, exactly? According to the omnipresent Wikipedia (which is actually pretty good on their Jewish minutiae): Phylactery is the English name forTefillin, a pair of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.

Anyhow, the Pharisees are ripped by Jesus basically for being all show (BIG phylacteries, those guys!) and no go when it comes to what counts in the kingdom of God. There really is no better way to say it than v. 12.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Tom Wright tells a funny story about a trip to the “camping store’ to buy all the right equipment for a two week hiking and camping trip.  The salesman was an expert on everything Wright needed; tents, maps, socks shoes, waterproof clothing, cooking utensils, water purifier, sleeping bag, and finally, the backpack. Wright paid for everything, put it all in the pack (again under the careful instruction of the salesman), then struggled to get the pack on his back.  After he finally got the whole kit up and headed for the door, he asked the salesman where he liked to go hiking and camping.  The man shrugged and said that he had a bad back and preferred going to the beach. (Matthew for Everyone, p.96)

What was it Jesus said, “. . . do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (verse 3)

Now, this is not an unfamiliar story.  With apologies to my sister and my nephew and to the teachers in this congregation, all of whom are fine teachers; we all know the old joke about how, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  It’s not really true about most teachers, but we laugh anyway.

And in many ways, this business of “do as I say, not as I do,” isn’t as bad as we make it out to be.  Lots of coaches of sports teams are much too old and out of shape to do the things they teach their players to do. My Daddy was able to coach my brother on the running of the farm long after he was no longer able to do the work himself.

But the hypocrisy Jesus is referring to here does matter; it matters a lot. This is not a matter of age and physical limitations; rather this is a matter of duplicity.  The problem with the “scribes and Pharisees,” is that in their teaching they imply that they are good examples of the principles they teach, when in fact they are anything but.

Like the salesman at the camping store, the scribes and Pharisees loaded the common people with heavy burdens, “backpacks” full of things they insisted the people needed for the spiritual journey through life. They had come up with 613 “commandments” and interpretations of those commandments, that, they said, must to be obeyed; and yet, they themselves, found loopholes, ways around, the very rules they made.

Not only that, Jesus said it was all for show, a false front to make themselves look good. Phylacteries were leather boxes with little bits of scripture in them that one wore tied across one’s forehead to obey the command to “keep God’s word ever before you.”  It is said that some were so large and ornate that they blocked the view of the person wearing it and they had to hold it aside to walk down the street. The “fringes” were tassels on the corner of prayer shawls and were traditionally small and discreet, whereas the people Jesus is talking about made them large and showy. It was religious “bling.”  And these same folks wanted to walk the equivalent of the religious red carpet and to sit in the big chair at the head of the table at all community banquets.  Jesus is taking on an important issue here: the love of place and preference among the servants of God.

We’re all smart enough to know that Jesus is not talking about all the scribes and Pharisees, just some.  And because this text was written by the church for the church; it’s not just about scribes and Pharisees then and there, it’s also about us, here and now.

Now, I have to tell you that as a person who wears a variety of colorful “prayer shawls” on Sundays and who gets to sit almost anywhere he pleases up front here, this is a difficult text to hear.  “Ouch,” is my initial reaction.  Is this me and folk like me that Jesus is talking about?  What was Jesus getting at in saying this and what was Matthew trying to say in telling about it years later?

This is about what Fred Craddock calls “the love of place and preference among the servants of God.” (Preaching through the Christian Year, p. 498)  It is not about attire; it’s about attitude.  It’s not about titles; it’s about a sense of entitlement.  It is not only about the ordained; it is also about any of the ordinary folk whom God choses for leadership who begin to think they must have been extraordinary for God to have chosen them.

This text is a call for all religious leaders to walk the talk, to do their humble best to live their lives in harmony with the things they ask of others.  There is an intriguing story about Gandhi that shows the standard we are all invited to follow.

A mother came to Gandhi and asked him to have a talk with her son, whom she said was addicted to sugar.  Gandhi thought for a minute and asked her to come back the next week.  When she did, he put her off for another week, and then another, and then another.  Finally she protested, “Why do you keep putting me off?”  Gandhi hung his head and said.  “I had no idea how hard it would be for me to give up sugar.”

“People who make themselves great will be humbled; and people who humble themselves will become great.” (N.T. Wright translation.)

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (October 26, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
What can you say about Moses? We don’t suppose that Moses actually wrote his own epitaph here in Deuteronomy, and the accolades are obvious and well-deserved: mighty deeds, terrifying displays of power, unequaled as a prophet and servant of God.

No wonder that, when Jesus meets two characters from Israel’s ancient past on the mountain of transfiguration, Moses is included (alongside Elijah — a fairly significant personage in his own right!) Moses is and should be famous for so many reasons.

But, his real claim to fame lies in v. 10, I believe; “Never has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” 

The vitality of our ministries — our very quality of living — is most likely quite proportional to the closeness with which we dwell in relationship with God. 

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Grasping eternity is not something that we are able to do easily, if at all. Eternity is a very long thing to try to imagine. Especially when you consider that eternity stretches to infinity in at least two directions (from our temporal perspectives, anyway) — eternity past and eternity future. 

Psalm 90:2 says, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” Before time was, God is; when time shall be no more, God still is. God never was; there is never a time when Godwill be. God simply is. And, of course, that goes for all of the time and times in-between. There is never a time or place that you or I will be that we cannot stop to pray, “Lord, I thank you that you are….”

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Here we have the setting for Jesus’ “second greatest commandment” — while loving God with heart, soul and strength, we are to work on loving neighbor as self. Out of all the great commandments given by God and upheld by centuries of religious tradition and teaching, it is these two that are singled out as the magnum opera of spiritual significance.

Like, pay attention, dude!

Psalm 1
Hebrew wisdom literature is known for its propensity for taking two things, sitting them side by side, and asking, in some form or the other, “so which of these do you think it is best to choose?” Psalm 1 is a classic example. 

There is the way of the righteous, characterized as a tree planted by an ever-flowing stream of water. (Consider what such a stream must have connoted to a people who lived most of their lives in the desert!)

The way of the wicked, however, is like so much dry wheat chaff — the by-product of the reaping process. When the grain is thrashed, the heavier kernels fall to the ground and are gathered. The chaff is the clinging, choking, worthless dust that comes off the shock. It just blows away and is good for — well, nothing really, except to be dust.

So, which of these do you think it is best to choose?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Ever known any well-meaning Christians who practice what I call, “evangelism by hook or crook?” Bringing people into the kingdom of God is held to be such an important value that an “all means necessary” approach becomes carte blanche to make promises, enticements, or offer rewards that may or may not have anything at all to do with the righteousness and grace of God.

(I once heard of a church that offered pony rides to children — but wanted them all to decide to “accept Jesus” first. I’m still trying to understand that linkage!)

We do not want to be homiletically guilty of any such manipulation or misrepresentation with our own claims concerning the gospel. It must have been something of an issue for first-century apostles and preachers, as well, since Paul goes to such great lengths to avoid doing so with the Thessalonian church.

We do what we do because of the love of God in us, and the love of God for the “dear children” of whom we have been given charge. 

Matthew 22:34-46
“Give me the bottom line.” 
“What’s the takeaway?”
“Let’s cut to the chase.”

All of these catch-phrases indicate the value our culture places on brief, direct communication. They may all be subtle stand-ins for the ever popular, “What’s in it for me?”

At any rate, Jesus gives us the “great bottom line” — there are two things that matter most in this life. Those are loving God and loving others (with the necessary corollary, loving yourself — I’m thinking that for some folks who will listen to us on Sunday, that third one is actually the toughest one to accomplish!)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

There has been a lot of talk recently about people who say they are “Spiritual, just not religious.”  That is, they have an interest in God and holiness and amorphous mystery on a personal, individual basis; but they are not at all interested in communities of people with similar interests because that would require them to take these other people and their opinions and problems seriously, and really, who has time for that? Put another way, they are happy to love the God whom they cannot see but they do not wish to get too involved with the neighbors whom they can see.

This is, unsurprisingly, not a new problem in the history of humankind.  We have always had a self-justifying desire to decide exactly who it is we are obliged by God to be nice to; and how nice, exactly, we have to be to get credit. In today’s Gospel lesson, we read the end of a long section in Matthew where the Pharisees and Sadducees conspire to trip Jesus up and get him in trouble with the Romans.

Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows; the Pharisees and Sadducees cooperating makes about as much sense as the Tea Party and the Re-elect Obama Committee working together; but these folks are determined to keep Jesus from upsetting their very settled and profitable way of life. In the few verses prior to our text the Sadducees had tried a silly question about the Resurrection which Jesus easily rebuffed and now the Pharisees take their turn with a poser about the commandments.

This is not a question about the Ten Commandments; they are talking about the ongoing Hebrew theological tradition that numbers the commandments in the hundreds, some say 613, and then argues about which is the most important or most pivotal commandment.  In response, Jesus does two things.  First he answers their question with a very serious theological opinion, siting Deuteronomy 6:5 and our lesson from Leviticus, 19:18, tying them together as the greatest commandment. Then he politely shuts them up with a riddle from Psalm 110.  “If the Messiah is David’s son (descendant), how can he also be David’s master?” is an unanswerable question, somewhat akin to “which came first, the chicken or the egg.” The crowd is delighted with Jesus’ wit, realizing he has just told the Pharisees, “Look, two can play at this game, and this time, I win.”

G.K. Chesterton once joked: Jesus commanded us to love both our neighbors and our enemies because they are generally the same folk – this is not at all easy. It is not simply a matter of being nice and getting along.  It is hard work.  It involves getting beyond our likes and dislikes, it involves hanging in with individuals and communities when the going gets tough, it involves self-sacrifice and devotion even  you’re not “getting anything out of,” the relationship.  It involves taking the neighbor seriously as a child of God who deserves our respect and care.  It involves being religious as well as spiritual.

This is why Jesus hangs loving God together with loving the neighbor.  Loving God can be easy.  God is away off there somewhere.  We can define God in such a way that God is not responsible for any of the pain of discomfort we experience in life.  That way, we don’t ever have to be angry with or resentful of God.

We can love God with an easy conscience because we don’t expect anything from God and God doesn’t expect anything from us and such a spiritual love will never intrude upon the very earthly, confusing messiness of our lives.

But if, as Jesus says, loving God and loving our neighborly enemies are tightly bound and inseparably linked co-commandments; then we are forced to deal with love in the real world of people who are imperfect and incomplete, people who are at times undeserving of our affection or unresponsive to it; people who are sometimes incapable of loving us back. And, we have to live out our love for God in a world of people who also sometimes care about us when we don’t really care to be cared about.  It is, as I said, a bit confusing and messy.

The people who say they are spiritual but not religious have spoken more truth than they realize.  “Spirit” is formless, wispy, barely there.  It is so indistinct and disembodied that one doesn’t really have to deal with it.  It is more feeling and impression than anything else. On the other hand, the root of “religious” is ligare which is also the French root of ligament.  You can’t get much more earthy than that.  Ligare mean to tie to or to tie back.  Ligaments connect muscle to the bone; religion ties us to God and one another.

Those who seek to be spiritual without being religious believe they can float free of the ties that bind, feel good about God and be confident that God feels good about them.    A willingness to be religious indicates an awareness that an amorphous, spiritual Godlikeness would not have plunged interferingly into the midst of our pain and suffering.  Rather, it took a God of compassion to, quite mysteriously and inexplicably, give up whatever it means to be divine and plunge headlong into the muck of our lives.

God in Christ took on ligaments and sinews and walked among us and suffered among us and died among us and with us and for us. God in Christ was raised from the dead and draws us together, ties us together, as the Body of Christ, held together by ligaments of love and sinews of service. And we, the tied together Body of Christ in the world, are called to the task loving God, most especially by loving our neighbors and enemies in God’s stead and in God’s name.

Amen and amen

Year A: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 19, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 33:12-23
There is a good bit of discussion in our society about what it means to “know God.” Evangelical Christians assert that not only is it possible to know God, but that through a “personal relationship” with Jesus you can know God’s exact, perfect, individualized will for your life!

Other stripes of Christians amongst us most likely have varying understandings of what it means to know God. Our diversity of opinions and freedom to pick theological nits is sometimes a boon to us; at other times, it is most definitely a bane. 

[Writing on Alternet.org, atheist author Adam Lee commented, "I'd love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches' wounds are largely self-inflicted."]

Moses speaks for us concerning our passionate desire to both see and know God; “if your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” Life is scary and the road — without faith — can be awfully rough and rocky.

And God, knowing that God’s own Divine Presence is likely to overwhelm us if we actually could get a good glimpse, responds with tenderness: “I’ll show myself to you, but not completely. I’ll cover you with my hand and you’ll get a sort of look in the rear-view mirror. But that will be enough — it will have to be enough.”

Mostly, I think this passage reminds me that God will be gracious when God desires to be gracious, and will show mercy on whom God desires to show mercy. I’m thinking that goes for the faithful among us — evangelical, mainline, orthodox, catholic — as well as for the “un”-faithful, as well. 

God believes in you, Mr. Lee.

Psalm 99
Need an encounter with the presence of God? Do what Moses did…head for a mountain somewhere! No wonder the ancients considered “the high places” to be the demesne of the gods. Has anybody ever counted how often the Bible references “mountains” or “hills” or “high places” with reference to the presence of God?

Isaiah 45:1-7
This passage is striking — at least to me — for the implication that God can “call” and “use” someone who absolutely does not know (or care?) who God is! 

I do not believe that we have anywhere in the Bible a profession of faith or moment of commitment from the life of Cyrus, the Persian king, with regard to the Holy One of Israel. And yet, Yahweh calls Cyrus his “anointed one” —meshiach in the Hebrew, christos in the Greek.

Well, wadda’ ya’ know? 

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
Some of my favorite “worship words” in this psalm:

  • Sing (lots of singing!)
  • Bless
  • Tell
  • Declare
  • Revere
  • Ascribe
  • Worship
  • Tremble
  • Rejoice
  • Roar
  • Exult
  • Oh, and sing again!

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Talk about a church with an actual GOOD reputation! How long has it been since you heard this kind of buzz concerning your congregation?

“…your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.”

Sounds like a good job description for the church, not to mention a great antidote to the kind of perfidy attested in Adam Lee’s quote [see above.]

Matthew 22:15-22
Tsk, tsk, tsk…when will the hapless Pharisees ever learn? You just don’t get the goods on Jesus with a trick question!
This jewel of a statement (“render unto Caesar, etc.”) makes allegiances to church and state pretty clear, n’est-ce pas?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I heard a story a few years ago about a man who grew up in a little country church in the Carolinas that was founded about the time of the American Revolution.
For most of its 200 plus years not much happened in either the church or the community; life went on pretty much the same year after year.
Then, in the 1980s, change happened and happened fast; Interstates and urban sprawl and Sun Belt migration. What had once been farmland was now covered with upscale subdivisions and shopping malls.
The church changed too, not without a struggle, but eventually the church moved into the 21st century.
One Monday morning the pastor was visited in his office by a man whose family had been charter members of the church way back when. He had grown up in the church then went away for an education and a career. A few years back he had sold off the family farm to a developer and no one had heard from him since.
He had returned to the community for his 40th high school reunion and had attended worship on Sunday. He was not happy.
He complained about all the changes that had taken place in the church since his youth, and he made it known that these changes were somehow an affront, an insult to him and all his ancestors and all the other people who had been a part of that church for all those years.
He ended his diatribe with these words, “Preacher, if God were alive today, he would be shocked, yes, shocked at the changes in this church.”
“If God were alive today.” “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”
If God is dead, we don’t have to render much do we?
Therein lies the real question of this text. Though we often use it as a launching pad for discussions of politics, or taxes, or the separation of church and state; these are not the core concern of this Bible story.
This text is about not letting the cares and obligations of the world divert us from our calling to serve God; about not living our lives as though God were dead, while confessing our faith with our lips.
In this text we have a group of people who spent a great deal of time worrying about things like politics and taxes and the separation of temple and empire and who thought of such fretting and worrying and arguing as somehow fulfilling their religious duty to God.
The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth had threatened the delicate political and religious and social dance which kept those on top on top and those underneath, well, underneath.
Those on top were resolved to protect their position and the status quo by tricking Jesus into saying something that would offend either the Roman rulers or the piety of the people.
Listen again to verses 15-17. If he says “no,” he is fomenting rebellion; if he says “yes,” he offends the common people who hate paying taxes, especially to an Emperor who claims to be a god.
As usual, Jesus was too smart for them. He uses the coin and its images as an object lesson. “Render unto Caesar . . . “So far, so good. But then, Jesus comes across with the real, deeper point; “Render unto God that which is God’s.”
The call of this text to those of us gathered here today is to not forget God in the midst of our busy-ness.
It especially calls us away from a practical atheism in which we confess faith with our lips but fail to live it out in our lives.
The latest statistics show that the United States is still one of the most “faith in God” confessing countries in the world. To the question is “Do you believe in God?” over 90% of us say “Yes.”
But it is hard to square that confession with other statistics. Besides the plummeting church membership and worship attendance numbers of almost all Protestant denominations; think about the culture we live in: do you see a lot of evidence that this is, in any recognizable form or fashion, a nation of Christians?
Record poverty rates, sky-rocketing prison populations, the sexualization of everything, the harsh, judgmental and unforgiving political rhetoric that fills the talk shows on the left and the right, the cruel laws aimed at immigrants, etc. etc. the list goes go on and on.
And just like the Pharisees, many of our leaders from the left and the right speak of these things and of their proposed possible solutions as if their ideas were sanctioned by God him or her self!
And into this the voice of Jesus calls us back from the brink of a serious mistake.
In the midst of rendering unto Caesar, of doing your civic duty to the best of your ability; do not confuse your politics with your religion, nor neglect your God in the midst of your public service. Do not forget to “render unto God that which is God’s.”
I am not much of a linguist, but I remember a little of Latin that helps me keep things straight. Ultima means last, like the last syllable on a word, or the last letter in an alphabet. Penultima means next to last, the letter or syllable just before the last.
In common language, the ultima became the most important thing, the final thing. And the penultima was the almost final thing, the second most important.
Whatever else is important in our life; our job, our family, our children, our politics, ours sports team, God has to be our ultima, the most important, everything else is in second place.
Remember; “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’,” and more importantly, “Render unto God that which is God’s.”
Amen and amen.

Year A: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 12, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 32:1-14
I used to relish picking arguments with a few of my more “fundamental” brethren (rarely are any of my “sistern” fundamental, for some reason) —  over the statement “God never changes.” Sputtering, they would assert vehemently that, if God could or should ever change in any manner, then surely the fate of the world as we know it would hang in the balance! Supposedly, the created order depends on God not being able to exercise an option available to each and every one of us weak mortals — the ability to change one’s mind.

Of course, I would then cite Exodus 32:14 (which — being part of “the word of God” — is unassailably inerrant and infallible.) There proceeded much gnashing of teeth, and of course, there was no real purpose served by any of it. (I did eventually reform my ways and give up on such exercises.)

All of this to say, just what are we to make of the idea that God sometimes needs input in order to make up God’s mind? I’m probably glad, if the truth were told, that God has not acted instantly upon every stupid decision I have made in my lifetime — I have had my share of “golden calf” moments. 

Doesn’t this have something to do with the concept of God’s grace?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Truer words have never been spoken than those in v.6 — we have sinned, as have all those who have come before us (and, presumably, will those who come after us.) And thus, we have a problem!

I am thankful for those who answer the call of Moses and “stand in the breach.” Parents, teachers, preachers, friends…all of these at one time or another are found in the role of intercessors on our behalf. Sometimes, their intercession comes in the form of a swift kick to the behind — for us, not for God. Anyway, thank God for the “breach-fillers!”

Isaiah 25:1-9
Later preachers and seers would echo Isaiah’s bold words from this passage. Paul found his image of “death is swallowed up in victory” here (see 1 Corinthians 15:54) and John’s Apocalypse brings the message that “God will wipe away the tears” from all eyes (see Revelation 21:4.)

I am a bit partial to the images of “rich, marrow-filled food” and “well-aged wines” as avatars of God’s graciousness. But, it is only fair to note that, sometimes, God’s work takes the form of fortified cities reduced to ruin — and the abode of “aliens” resigned to the midden heap. 

Those final words are the kind of things “that make you go, hmmmmm….” (Kudos to Arsenio Hall.)

Psalm 23
Okay, you know me well enough by now to know that I don’t really try to add to the commentary available for passages like Psalm 23. What else can I say?

I do love the image of the “darkest valley” — perhaps I hear strains of Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — to remind me that there is nowhere I will ever be, that God is not already there.

Philippians 4:1-9
Two godly church women in a squabble — who says the Bible isn’t true to 21st-century life? (A pastor’s life, anyway!)

Euodia and Syntyche were fomenting division in the church. (There is a nice play on words in the Greek here — their names mean “pleasant aroma” and “dwelling together” — and the fight they were having was distinctly odorous and unharmonious.) What is the antidote to such church-rending?

Rejoice in the Lord…let your gentleness be known…don’t worry; instead pray. Think on the kinds of things that are honorable, true, pure, just, et cetera. You’d be surprised how the peace of God can fill a space when we are willing to back down, chill out, and invite God in!

Matthew 22:1-14

Remember what I just said about the handiwork of God sometimes resulting in leveling the town? Well, here you go…here’s a parable for you!
The requirements for being “chosen” in the kingdom of God are beyond mysterious sometimes.Anybody remember the old commercial from American television in the 1970’s — “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature?”
Whatever else may be said, the invitation to come to the Lord is not to be taken lightly or trifled with. That’s about all I’ve got to say about that.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

As a Lutheran pastor serving an Episcopal parish, I sometimes found myself wearing the wrong liturgical clothes.  It’s nothing important, just little variations.  Like at an installation – Lutheran pastors would normally wear their alb and a stole the color of the season, red being reserved for the ordinations of pastors and consecrations of diaconal ministers and commissioning of associates in ministry.  Not so in the Episcopal Church.  If you’re just attending and not serving, you wear a black cassock and white surplice with red stole.  An irreverent Episcopal layperson of my acquaintance refers to the resulting processional as the “penguin parade.”  I fairly quickly caught on and thank goodness the Episcopalians were very understanding and didn’t throw me out.

The man in our gospel lesson was not so lucky.  This is one of the more peculiar and puzzling plot twists in all of Jesus’ parables. He was just standing on the street corner when someone comes by and says, “Hey, do you want to go to a party?”  He says, “Sure, why not?” and so he goes.  And before he can finish his salad, somebody comes by and says, “Arrest that man, he’s not wearing a tux.  Throw him out of here!”  It leaves us scratching our heads and wondering, “What was that all about?” Most of us end up muttering “I don’t get it, I really don’t get it.”  Well, let’s see if we can sort this out.

Three of our lessons today refer to celebratory meals: Isaiah 25:6 “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich foods.”  Psalm 23: 5 “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” And our Gospel lesson all about the wedding banquet the king was giving for his son.  Throughout the scriptures such meals are an image of the kingdom of heaven.

In Isaiah it is vision of what God is aiming at, what God’s plan and hope for all humanity is, where life is leading us. Did you hear, “for all peoples?”  In the next verse, Isaiah goes further and talks about God destroying death – not just for some, but for everyone “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, he will swallow up death forever.”

This hope of a safe place with God is reflected in the psalm’s use of “prepare a table before me.” While the psalmist is not likely to have thought of this in quite the same universal way that Isaiah did, the image, coupled with the next line about dwelling in the house of the Lord forever, is a reflection of the deep awareness of the Hebrew people that their life and death were all in the hands of God and that God’s love and provision were to be trusted.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us very clearly that this is a parable about the “kingdom of heaven.”

This is perhaps best understood as the community of those who have given themselves completely to following the will and way of God in the world.  To paraphrase Paul in Philippians; wherever you find folk who are pursuing, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable . . .” there you will find the kingdom of heaven. It is something God creates and that we human beings participate in at God’s invitation.  It is very clear in both Isaiah and Matthew that everyone is ultimately invited.

But, not everyone accepts the invitation.  This is the subject of the parable. It is an exploration of two basic facts; not everyone who is invited decides to come and, not everyone who comes is really ready to be there.

Jesus is telling this parable in Jerusalem and he is pointedly telling it to the chief priests and elders,  people who have turned down the invitation to the kingdom first issued by John the Baptist and then by Jesus.  Throughout the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has been saying what he started saying way back in chapter 4, verse 17, “From that time Jesus began to preach saying, ‘Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

But a lot of people didn’t want to repent, they didn’t want to turn around and go in a new direction, they didn’t want to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, they were very happy going about their business as they were.  They were much too busy with their financial and cultural and familial obligations to respond to an invitation to get involved in dangerous things like justice and mercy and caring for the poor and the suffering.

As the parable unfolds, the king responds to their snub with fury, and then he says, “Well, if the supposedly good people won’t come, let’s open the doors to everybody.”  Now, this is a message we in the modern world want to hear.  The kingdom of heaven is inclusive, everybody’s welcome.

But, actually there’s a catch, and it’s a catch most of us don’t like to think about.

My old friend Ellenita Zimmerman put it best I think, “It is true that God loves you just the way you are. It is also true that God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”  While the going out and gathering together everyone “good and bad,” and bringing them in to the banquet is a clear proclamation of the fact that God invites all to come; the expelling of the man who did not have a wedding robe is an equally clear expression of the fact that those who come to the party are expected to respond to the love of God by changing their lives.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, there is a world of hurting people around us in desperate need of a touch of the kingdom of heaven in their midst.  There are needs crying out from across the world and across the street.  Homelessness, poverty, hunger, war, environmental disaster, etc. etc.  We have been invited to carry the kingdom to these people, we have been called to go and get them and bring them into God’s banquet of love.  And the question is, what are you going to do?  How are you going to respond?

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 5, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Okay, how are you going to go wrong preaching the Decalogue? Actually, it’s quite a task. Our listeners have such a “been there, done that” attitude when it comes to the Ten Commandments.

Truth be told, maybe we do, too.

The thing is, for most of us, we may have been there — we’ve heard these statements all of our lives — but perhaps we haven’t quite done that — kept the commandments, wholly (holy) that is.

I love the anecdote from Henry Blackaby (Google the name if you’re not a Baptist or have never heard of the guy) — during the days of Dr. Blackaby’s pastorate, a gentleman came to him concerned with how to know the “will of God” for his life. The gentle pastor’s question, in return: “Well, God has given you Ten Commandments; how are you doing with those?”

Psalm 19
Well, while we’re on the Bible’s greatest hits, we might as well add Psalm 19!

I love these familiar verses because they always remind me that the glory of God is on display — all the time! Day to day, the handiwork of God may be heard everywhere — if you can stop and listen. Night to night, you can come to know God just by opening your eyes and seeing what’s around you.

The written word of the Lord is beautiful and powerful, as well; we do well to keep it around us by the by, just like the heavens.

My good friend and colleague, Bubba #1, never preaches a sermon (I don’t believe) without praying the prayer of v.14. Good idea.

Isaiah 5:1-7
The text begins with a song — a “love song,” no less! But it ends with a dirge of destruction. The Lord is both angry and sorrowful over the results of God’s “planting” in the vineyard of God’s people.

A sobering question in the midst of our worship: what does God expect of us? What has God built and planted in our lives that should be producing a vintage crop?

Psalm 80:7-15
“Restore us, O Lord….”

Indeed, the plaintive cry of the psalm is a poignant response when we consider that our growth has not always been what it should have been.

Pruning and “cutting back” are natural rhythms of the vineyard; sometimes, so too is uprooting and replanting.

Philippians 3:4b-14
Pardon me for another Baptist reference — any of ya’ll ever get a Sunday School pin?

Once upon a time, Baptists gave them out for “perfect attendance” in the Bible study program of the church. They were exciting mostly for the children, but adults were known to strive for them, as well. One gentleman I know of had 17 of them, all connected together and pinned to his chest like the “fruit salad” of a decorated military commander. Seventeen years of perfect attendance — now that’s some record!

Paul puts the Pharisaical equivalent of his Sunday School pins on display in this text; “if anybody has done a good job and ought to boast about it, it’s me!” No matter your denominational heritage, I’m sure there must be comparative activities. We think we’ve done a lot in the service of Christ!

Skubala, Paul calls such efforts. One of those wonderful biblical onomatopoeias that sounds like what it is. Rubbish. Garbage. Trash. (all polite translations) Dung. Doo-doo. Shit.

Well, you won’t really be able to use that last rendering in the pulpit, I don’t suppose. But you get the idea. Our best, which is definitely what we should strive to give the Lord, is still far, far short of God’s glory. If not for Christ, we’re all in deep skubala!

Matthew 21:33-46
I admit I’m a fan; when it’s football time on Saturday, I’m tuning in to College Gameday. Lee Corso has made his catchphrase famous: “Not so fast, my friend!” He pulls his sidekicks Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler up short when he thinks they’re wrong.

Jesus give the Pharisees a big, “Not so fast, my friends!” with this harsh story of the vineyard. They know he is upstaging them, and that they can’t go against the crowds to put an end to his difficult message. Guess they’ll just have to listen one more time and wait for a better moment to get at him.

I hope we’re not guilty of the same ploy when we hear the tougher side of the gospel. We’ll just bide our time, listen to one more sermon, and find a way to get out of the gospel’s demands later.

Not so fast, my friend!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The Southern Appalachian Mountains in the fall:  a great time and place to go out and participate in nature, even if your level of participation is simply to gaze at the mountains and rivers, the lakes and leaves from the comfort of your car.  As one drives the narrow, winding roads around “Hanging Dog” and “Squirrel Ridge” and “Vengeance Creek” communities, one occasionally comes upon an old farm house, perhaps with an out building or two.  The porch may be fallen in, the glass in the windows broken or missing, the tin roof of the barn mostly blown off; with a long, rusty piece of tin flapping up and down in the wind above rotting timbers.  Weeds grow tall in the yard, saplings have pushed their way through the decaying floor of the house and branches poke out of doors and windows.  It is a sad sight for someone like me who grew up in such a house.  One is left to wonder: what happened?  Did the parents die and the children move away, having no interest? Did they go bankrupt and the farm was taken over by people with no interest in the farm but only in the land?

The prophet Isaiah uses the image of a neglected farm, a neglected vineyard, in our first lesson today.  “The Beloved” is the LORD and the vineyard is Israel.  The LORD created Israel, plucked them up from Egypt and carried them to the Promised Land, where they were planted as a people.  The LORD established them there, set them up to flourish; the way a vintner clears the land and plants the vines and builds a watchtower and a hedge to protect it.  And the Owner, the Beloved, the LORD, left the vineyard in the care of the people.  But the people have not produced good fruits, they have not taken care of the vineyard, wild grapes are growing, and so the Owner, the Beloved, the LORD, says that he is removing his protection, tearing down the hedge, letting it go to ruin.

Why?  In the last verse Isaiah drops the analogy and speaks plainly “. . . he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:7)

Now it would be easy, too easy, for us to hear this text and start pointing the finger backwards.  “Those ancient Israelites!  They sure messed up, didn’t they!  They failed to be just, they failed to bear good fruit, they ran after other Gods, etc. etc. and look what happened to them.”  It would be easy but it would be wrong.  Church is not primarily a history lesson.  We read those words here today because they still apply not simply to those people way back then, but to us, us in this room, right here, right now.  What is the vineyard God has given us and what have we done with it? As the man says in the Wizard of OZ; that’s a horse of a different color, isn’t it?

The Vineyard the LORD, our Beloved, has given us is not the Promised Land but the Church of Christ.  And by that I don’t mean this building on Peachtree Street in Murphy, North Carolina, nor do I mean the Constitution and By-laws that make us an organization.  Those things aren’t the vineyard, they are watchtowers and hedgerows – there to protect the vineyard.  No, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word and Sacraments, the promise of forgiveness and healing, the washing away of our sins, the dying and rising with Christ, the transforming food for our journey – these are the vineyard, these are what we are called to take care of so that they may yield good fruit for our LORD.

Sometimes I think that rather than be about the business of tending to the vineyard, we modern Christians are more likely to be like the tenants in our Gospel lesson.  Instead of being grateful to God and responding to God’s grace with generosity – we find ourselves trying to keep everything for ourselves, afraid that we won’t have enough – whatever enough is.  WE don’t kill the messengers, but we find a way to fend them off.

But the one thing none of us can ultimately resist is the love of God shown to us in the death of Jesus Christ upon the Cross. When we finally realize that – Christ is there, there hanging in humiliation and death, dying because of a love too great to hate, dying because of a mercy so strong, that instead of punishing us for our rebellion and ingratitude, he showed us the way to live by giving up everything and being willing to die. When we finally see that, the scales fall from our eyes and we understand what it is we are called to do and be in the world.  We are the people who tend the vineyard, making sure that every person in the world feels the love of God in their life.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 28, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 17:1-7
Okay, maybe I’m prone to be a little too hard on the biblical characters sometimes. But, geez, Louise — didn’t God just save their lives (A -GAIN, as Forrest Gump would say) with the whole manna and quail thing. Now, they begin to worry about water to drink?

It’s the same routine as before. “We had PLENTY to drink in EGYPT!” Yeah, and you had taskmasters beating you on the back with whips, too…but who remembers that?

Our human capacity for complaint in the face of the mercy of God seems to be endless. We are all “Massah” — testers of God’s good graces. And we are certainly all “Meribah” — quarreling, whining complainers!

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Psalm 78 reminds and references the miracles we have been reading in Exodus, most notably the deliverance from the water at the Red Sea and the drawing tothe water in the wilderness. In both instances, God’s salvation was made known in the midst of God’s people.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
The prophet gives a “new” saying for God’s people, one that balances corporate sin and deliverance with individual responsibility for repentance.

Psalm 25:1-9
There is a fairly active debate, when it comes to forgiveness, about whether it is right to both forgive and forget. Certainly, the psalmist asks God to do just that! “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!” (v.7)

Philippians 2:1-13
The “Christ Hymn” is always spectacular, not only in its reach from the heights of heaven to the depths of the earth and back again, but for its simple profundity. “Jesus had these kinds of things in his mind — so should you.”

  • no claim to a privileged standing with God
  • never exploiting the grace and goodness of God
  • allowing self-pride to drain away in the face of greater need
  • humble willingness to do the will of God
  • allowing God to exalt in God’s perfect timing

It is, after all, God who works in us…and, perhaps despite us, much of the time!

Matthew 21:23-32
Jesus wins a game of one-upmanship against the temple officials. “You go first.” “No, you go first.” “No, you go ahead, then I’ll give you your answer.” “Okay, you win.”
Interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus never steps into a box of our own construction!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In commenting on our Gospel Lesson, retired Preaching Professor Fred Craddock says,

“The parable says that responses to God are of two kinds: that of the person who has said no but who repents and whose life says yes; and that of the person who says yes but whose life says no.” (Preaching Through the Christian Year A – p. 458)

In his book, “The Answer to Bad Religion is Not No Religion,” Methodist minister Martin Thielen says he recently saw a letter a neighboring pastor received from a family that had become inactive in the church. After listing a series of familiar reasons for their absence, (summer time at the lake, busy weekends with soccer and basketball and vacation trips at Christmas, etc,) they close their letter with these words, “But one of these days, don’t be surprised when you look up and see us out there in the congregation, because we just love you, and we just love our church.” (Thielen, p. 35) “We just love our church;” we just can’t be bothered with showing up and participating in any noticeable way.  That is a pretty clear example of saying yes while living no.

There are others, many others, of course. We’re all very, very capable of hypocrisy.  I’ve known ministers who preached tithing while not giving anything to the church themselves. Their excuse?

“Well, I’m seriously underpaid, so I’ll just consider the money they don’t pay me as my contribution,” Right. Saying yes while living no.

Growing up in the sixties, I had Sunday School teachers who taught me to sing “Red and yellow black and white, all are precious in His sight,” whom I heard standing in the church parking lot using the “n” word in a mean and hateful fashion.  Saying yes while living no.

Week after week we gather in church and in most denominations sometime in the service we will pray the Lord’s prayer and say, “Forgive us our sins while we forgive those who sin against us.” And yet we go on for years harboring resentments, nursing grudges, withholding grace and forgiveness and reconciliation from others while accepting it for ourselves from God.  Saying yes while living no.

More than once I have preached what I considered a very stirring sermon on feeding the hungry or caring for the homeless, only to find myself accosted that very day or the next by someone begging for my help.  And more often than I like to admit, I have passed them by or passed them on – too busy with my churchy business to be about my Lord’s business.  Only in retrospect did I gain enough self-awareness to be ashamed of saying yes while living no.

In the parable, it is the Chief Priests and Elders who are accused by Jesus of saying yes while living no.  As the story opens, they are trying to set a trap for Jesus.  They are hoping he will claim to be a God, or a king, something they can take to the Romans to get him out of the way. In response, Jesus first shows up their lack of integrity in his question about John the Baptist.

25 Where did John get his authority to baptize? Did he get it from heaven or from humans?” They argued among themselves, “If we say ‘from heaven,’ he’ll say to us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But we can’t say ‘from humans’ because we’re afraid of the crowd, since everyone thinks John was a prophet.” 27 Then they replied, “We don’t know.”   Matthew 21:25-27Common English Bible (CEB).

Jesus then tells the parable about the two brothers, each of whom was told to go to the vineyard and work.  One says no, but later changes his mind goes to work.  The other says yes, but never shows up at the vineyard. Then Jesus asked the Chief Priests and Elders: “Which of the two did the will of the father?”  They have to say, “The one who went to the field and worked.”

Now, Jesus drives his point home.  The tax collectors and prostitutes may have turned their backs on God at one point in their lives, but because they eventually repent and obey and serve God – they are way ahead of the Chief Priests and Elders, who have spent their lives professing their love for and obedience to God – but who have also never done any of the works of love and mercy which God asked them to perform.

Just like the tax collectors and prostitutes, all of us have had times when we have said no to God.  Times when we have resisted the burden of the cross, when we have made it clear that we prefer to go our own way rather than God’s way.  And just like the Chief Priests and Elders, we have also all said an easy yes to following God.  Perhaps we thought it would be easy, but then found out that walking the way of Christ was harder than we thought.  Or perhaps we really, really meant to, but got distracted and waylaid by the troubles and trials of life.  Either way, we all need help, we all need to find a way to say yes and live yes.

In our lesson from Philippians, Paul reminds us that we are not in this alone.  Here we read an early hymn of the church that describes for us how Christ laid aside all the trappings of a Royal Son and after saying yes, lived yes; lived yes all the way to the cross and beyond.

And we are invited to follow.  The risen Christ comes to us in the Word, the written word of the Bible and the preached, proclaimed word of the hymns and the sermon; calling us to follow Christ in a mission of serving God by serving the world.  Christ invites us to the table where we are fed, nourished, and transformed by Christ living in us.  In receiving Christ into ourselves we receive the strength to go into the world, saying yes and living yes, serving God, all our days.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 21, 2014)

Faithful Readers and Listeners…

It’s been a “rough patch” for us here at the Lectionary Lab. Bubba #2 has been recovering from some treatment for an ocular disorder, and just flat out couldn’t see for most of the week! Our apologies for the scant coverage for this week’s texts. We do hope to get back on the wagon for next week. Your prayers and positive thoughts appreciated!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Back in the winter, during a really cold streak we had in January, we had some serious plumbing problems at my house. A pipe burst in an outside wall (where it should not have been in the first place) and my booster pump froze up and then died. We were lucky enough to get a plumber out to help us the next day.

There we were, the plumber and I, shivering about in my backyard, getting wet in sub-freezing weather, trying to get my pump running, when he learns that I am a “preacher.” He talks a bit about the church he attends and how long he’s been going, when suddenly he stops working, stands there with a wrench in his hand and says, “Preacher can I ask you a question?” “Certainly, what is it?” He looked off in the distance and then he turned and squinted at me and said, “This here Hitler fellow; if before he died, he was to have told God he was sorry and all, would God forgive him? Would he get to go to heaven?”

I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even I knew this was a question the plumber had been carrying around for a very long time, and that it wasn’t really about Hitler – it was about something else. Cautiously I said, “Well, if he was repentant, and I would trust God to judge that, then the answer is yes, God would forgive him.” The plumber’s face turned red, he threw down the tool he was holding and he spat out loudly, “That’s not fair. That’s just not fair! It’s like them fellers that lives like hell their whole lives, then at the last minute they get sorry and get saved and then it’s all right. It’s just not fair, I tell you.”

“It’s just not fair” is the theme of the day. Both the book of Jonah and this parable of Jesus are told in the style of a humorous story or a joke. They go from basic believability to exaggeration and hyperbole in order to drive the point home. In both stories, the point is two-pronged: 1) God doesn’t measure divine grace as a reward for goodness, and 2) those of us who think we have been good enough to earn that grace resent and object to God’s love and generosity.

Jonah is told to go to Nineveh and preach, but he runs away instead. He is swallowed by the big fish and then regurgitated back on shore. When I was a kid, my Daddy would tell me that story and say, “Now boy, don’t worry about the fish, that’s not the point. Point is – if God wants you to do something you may as well do it. Running away won’t do you any good.” Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches and, much to his annoyance, the people repent and God relents and everybody’s happy. Well, everybody but Jonah.

Jonah said, “It’s not fair. I knew it. I knew you wouldn’t do it. You sent me over here to preach to these evil people in Nineveh. You had me tell them all about how you were going to destroy them because of their evil ways. But I just knew it. I knew you wouldn’t do it. I knew you would get all soft and generous and merciful and leave me looking like a fool. It’s not fair I tell you; it’s just not fair.”

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus starts out with a story that’s reasonable enough. The owner of the vineyard needed extra workers during the harvest. Most small towns in farming country have a corner where day laborers hang out, hoping to be hired. And throughout the day, he goes back and hires more, all very normal. The exaggerated and unbelievable part comes when it’s time to pay up.  Everybody gets paid the same, no matter when they were hired.

When the ones who worked all day found out that they were being paid the same as the people who only worked an hour, they were furious, they threw down their tools, they sulked, they mumbled amongst themselves. And do you know what they said? They said, “It’s not fair; it’s just not fair. We worked all day, and in the heat of the sun too, and they just worked a bit in the cool of the evening. And they get the same amount of money. It’s not fair, I tell you; it’s just not fair.”

It’s a hard lesson to learn – to not be jealous and resentful when it appears that others are faring better than we are for no good reason. All of us, at one time or another, wonder “Why him and not me?” “Why them and not us?” “What have they done that I haven’t done?” “What have they got that I don’t have.” “It’s not fair; it’s just not fair.”

And God’s answer to all that is, “You’re right. Life is not fair. I am not fair. I am God, not a mechanistic dispenser of divine favor in response to supposed human merit. I created the world. I created all the people. I love all the people, and I desire only what is the best for all the people I created. Therefore, I do what is best for them, not what another of my children thinks is fair.”

When I was a teenager, my brother and I worked on my uncle’s tobacco farm. Uncle LW made my brother his paymaster. Every Saturday noon, he figured up the hours, did the math and wrote the checks for Uncle LW to sign. One Saturday as we were walking home, my brother told me that “Joe” was paid more than we were. We were both angry about this. It wasn’t fair. Joe was nowhere near as good at harvesting tobacco as we were. My brother worked up his courage and after church and Sunday dinner at the grandparents, he broached the subject with Uncle LW. LW squinted at him and then tossed his cigarette butt into the yard and said, “Hello here, boy, I don’t pay him more ‘cause he deserves it. I pay him more ‘cause he needs it. Them little young’uns of his would starve to death if I didn’t pay him a little more.”

So it is with God and us – God’s grace does not come to us because we deserve it. It comes to us because we need it. God’s love for us is not meted out to us in miserly portions according to our good deeds and faithful actions. No, it is lavished upon us in a generous and loving way because we all so desperately need it so much.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 14, 2014)

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

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 14:19-31
It strikes me that one of our more popular current catch phrases is, “Don’t worry…I got your back!” Spoken by a true friend, those words mean an awful lot. Having someone there to help, support, and cover our more vulnerable moments can be a a real life-saver.

How much more awesome, then, to see that God literally had Israel’s back in this most treacherous moment of the Exodus. Just when it seemed that the promise of liberation might fail after all — with a thundering herd of horses, chariots, and angry Egyptians in hot pursuit — God calmly and confidently moved from the vanguard to the rear guard. 

Keep trusting, people of God…the LORD has got your back!

Psalm 114
I have had the fortunate occasion of some extended time off recently, and used a portion of that to get outdoors into God’s creation. There is nothing like the power and majesty of mountains, oceans, and the incredible blue of the sky on a clear day to restore my sanity and confidence in the sustaining presence of God.

The psalm celebrates God’s power — sometimes displayed dramatically in nature — by virtue of his mere (or, perhaps sheer) presence. What does it take to turn the sea back or to set a mountain skipping? Just God, showing up.

Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
In our contemporary context, the “Song if Miriam” might be seen as a little too festive or celebratory in the face of the tragedy that befell the Egyptians. In a war, for one side to triumph means that the other side has been obliterated, or pretty close to it (take Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples.)

Yet, for Israel, the triumph at the Red Sea is seen as an expression of God’s will, might, power and — ultimately — righteousness. We dare not read this text as “might makes right.” This is not, “My God is bigger than your God…” (which sort of logic I hear a lot of in today’s international and inter-religious dialogue/debate/demagoguery.) 

A celebratory prayer, or even hymn of praise, after a time of national deliverance is fitting; we are right to acknowledge the hand of God in our lives, even and especially when coming through a “trial by fire.” But, we do well to remember that God has many children, and that hearts are heavy on all sides of a conflict when precious lives are lost.

 Genesis 50:15-21
Joseph’s example is one we need when considering our response to those who have wronged us: “Am I in the place of God? You intended to do harm to me, but God intended it for good…so, have no fear.”

 Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Perhaps my favorite praise psalm, Psalm 103 has more good “tidbits” that I will ever be able to uncover and share in my lifetime. On this day, I think these stand out particularly:

  • The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (I really appreciate the “slow” part — not that God never gets angry, but rather, that anger is well-tempered by mercy, grace and love)
  • God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. (Hoo, boy, am I happy about this one — especially given some of the bonehead moves I have employed in my lifetime!)
  •  …as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. Just how far is the east from the west? (A little Kipling here might help!)

 Romans 14:1-12
The takeaway from Romans for today:

  1. Quarreling over opinions is a foolish thing to do.
  2. We will all stand accountable before God.

Here ends the lesson.

Matthew 18:21-35
Only in God’s timing could this gospel portion come up for us in America on yet another anniversary of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent events in Benghazi several years later. Forgiveness is a deep, national struggle for us when it comes to the events of that day.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We say it every Sunday.
Some of us say it every day in our personal prayers. We say it, but . . . are we really ready and willing for forgive others in equal measure to how much we have been forgiven by God?

Forgiveness, in the radical form taught by Jesus, is a startlingly foreign concept to the way most of us live our lives. When things got bad in Ferguson in the last few weeks, I pulled an old file out of the drawer and read clippings I had kept of racial incidents over the years. I read one the riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King Police Brutality trial? There was a story about a truck driver named Reginald Denny. There were pictures of him, lanky with long blonde hair, being pulled from his truck, then kicked and pummeled with bricks by rioters. A few weeks later, Mr. Denny met with his attackers, shook their hands and said that he forgave them. A reporter, commenting on this episode, said in his column, “Mr. Denny is reported to be suffering from brain damage.”

In a world that has raised retributive justice to the highest ideal of human relationships, brain damage becomes the only logical explanation for such a generous act of forgiveness. In a universe of meaning in which we have been taught to define ourselves as either perpetrators or victims; for a victim to forgive a perpetrator is so illogical that it must the result of impaired thinking.

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive, he probably felt pretty magnanimous in his suggestion of seven times. After all, the rabbis traditional answer was three. Peter, perhaps reflecting his growing understanding of Jesus generosity of spirt, doubled that and added one to make it a Holy Seven.
“See how holy I am, master?” he seems to say.

But Jesus raises the ante higher than anyone could have imagined, “Not seven, but seventy-seven times,” which isn’t meant to be taken literally, as we laboriously count off seventy-seven occasions. No, it means “as many times as it takes,”

Peter’s problem, our problem, is that we are calculating this sin and forgiveness equation on a human scale of values and possibilities while Jesus inserts God and God’s justice and God’s mercy into the deliberations.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” That’s the way I learned the Lord’s Prayer, many Sunday evenings ago in the little Presbyterian Church where we went to Evening Prayer when we visited my grandmother. Jesus is using this concept of sin as debt in his parable of the “unjust slave.” This slave owed 10,000 talents to his master. Many commentators say that one talent was worth more than 15 years wages of a day laborer. In modern terms, let’s say a day laborer makes $15,000 a year. That’s one talent is $225,000 and multiply that by 10,000 talents and that comes to, two and a quarter billion dollars. Wow.

And, because the slave asked the master to forgive him this humongous debt; the master did; the master had mercy, the master wiped out the debt.

Now, if a two and a quarter billion dollar debt being forgiven wasn’t hard enough to swallow, here comes the really unbelievable part of the parable. This slave left from there and threw a fellow slave into prison over a debt of a hundred denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage, so using our modern financial scale, we’re talking a few thousand dollars. What? That can’t be right!

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

This is a case where Jesus uses hyperbole, over the top exaggeration to make his point, which is simply this: in light of the tremendous debt we owe God, any debt anyone else owes us is practically nothing. When we consider the cost to God of forgiving our sins, the cost of our forgiving the sins of others is also nothing. It is in response to God’s gracious, loving act of forgiving us that we are able to forgive others.

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Like Peter, we prefer to think of ourselves as the ones who do the forgiving, and we like to give ourselves credit for being kind and merciful when we forgive. But Jesus’ parable, and his teaching on prayer, will not allow this. We pray first to be forgiven, and because we have been forgiven so much, we forgive other for the little things they have done to us.

Seen in this light, the forgiveness of others is as natural as breathing. It is not a sign of brain damage, but is rather the natural outpouring of a once broken heart that has now been healed. To forgive others is not the act of some great spiritual master, it is rather a humble servant’s joyous response to the unbelievable and immeasurable love of God in Christ.

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Amen.