The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 6, 2015)

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

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

We’re on a roll by this point in the book of Proverbs — it is interesting to me that the Hebrew canon’s list of “one liners,” nearly 3,500 years in the making by now, is so relevant to our short attention spans. God’s wisdom has always been pretty contrary to our own. For example, most people would be hard pressed to choose a good name over a pile of gold. In our view of things, gold wins pretty much every time!

Psalm 125

I’ve always loved heading for the mountains. There’s something so solid and serene about them, whether the softly rolling Smoky Mountains of my beloved Tennessee, the verdant Catskills in upstate New York, or the towering Rockies in Colorado. It really hit me when I read v.2 this time around — “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore.” Yeah. That. That’s why I like the mountains, and why I’m thankful for the ever-surrounding presence of God.

Isaiah 35:4-7a

How comfortable are we with the “terrible God?” Being strong and casting out fear are generally desirable characteristics of the faith-filled life. But at what cost? The results given by Isaiah sound so worth it — blind eyes opened, deaf ears unstopped, Bambi and his friends leaping about with joy (and a resonant Disney soundtrack?)

But must it be the terrible God, coming with vengeance, who delivers these startling accomplishments? It’s a rough world, and sometimes the ways of God may seem a bit rough. Pay attention to today’s gospel text and Dr. Chilton’s sermon below for further insight.

Psalm 146

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” We feel the painful truth of that line quite often, don’t we? The “princes” of modern-day life are our politicians and government officials. In America, only about 15% of the population approves of the job done by our politicians, so we don’t have much trouble following the psalmist’s advice. Trusting — actually relying on and depending on — God is another matter, however!

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17

It’s true — what goes around eventually comes around! James reminds us that decency and mutual respect should be characteristic of the Christ life. I am particularly moved, given the current climate of our culture, by v.13 — “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” I would like to add, “Every time.”

Mark 7:24-37

I’m not sure that we think much of how our gentle Jesus, meek and mild, got tired and irritable, too. A reminder, I guess, that he was “only human.” (Well, not “only” human, but you know what I mean!) His treatment of the Syrophoenician woman is shocking by our standards, perhaps; but faith is faith, and she’s got it. And she gets what her heart desires.

The poor deaf man gets his ears popped and his tongue spat upon — what kind of weird healing ritual is this? Doesn’t matter, I don’t suppose; when God works, God works. And which of us can contest the ways that God chooses to work?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

(The bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have called upon the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to join in observing September 6 as “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” This sermon is offered in response to that request.)

(Jesus) said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Mark 7:27-28

For over fifty years, Atticus Finch, the lawyer/father in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has occupied a position of “secular saint” in American culture.  He is shown to us, both in the book and in Gregory Peck’s screen portrayal, as a man of rare courage, great moral integrity, and most of all, as a man untainted by the systemic racism of his community.

Then Harper Lee published, “Go Set a Watchman,” a different book written before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but set in a time 20 years later.  She has the same characters, but they are different than they were.  In particular, the sainted Atticus is different.  He is no longer so perfect and so pure.  This later Atticus is still an educated and somewhat enlightened man for his time and place, but he is also a bigot and a racist who participates in organizations designed to keep Black people in their place.  The reaction to this new Atticus was a combination of disbelief and dismay.  This is not the man who so sat on the jail porch, unarmed, facing down the Klan to defend Jim Robinson, nor is it the man who so ably defended him in court.  We do not recognize this new/old Atticus Finch.

Most of us have the same reaction to the Jesus we see in this story from Mark’s Gospel.  We do not recognize this careless bigot as the same man who eats with “tax collectors and sinners,” who healed the Roman Centurion’s daughter, who consistently reaches out to the despised, the ignored, and the left-behind.  “Who is this?” we wonder, “Who is this man who not only rejects the woman’s plea for healing, but who crudely insults her in the process? This is a Jesus we do not know.”

Over the years, Biblical scholars and preachers have tried to mitigate the distress we feel when we are confronted by this different and somewhat unlikeable Jesus.  Some have made much of the fact that in the Greek the word used for dogs could be translated puppies or household pets, but that really doesn’t help much.  Jews did not see dogs as pets, they were seen as wild scavengers, more like our attitude toward coyotes or wolves, and the word was used by Jews to refer to heretics and false teachers.  And even if he did mean puppies, it’s still an insult. Others have pointed out that Jesus doesn’t say the dogs won’t eat, just that the children get to eat first. I don’t think this helps very much. Any way you look at what Jesus said to the woman, he insulted her.

Now others say things like, “Jesus is being intentionally provocative, seeking to draw out a response of persistent faith from the woman.  He wants her to claim what is rightfully hers . . . While Jesus “loses” the debate, he is delighted to do so, since his purpose is to provoke even greater faith.”

(Mark L. Strauss, “Mark” Volume 2 in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p.313)   I really doubt this notion, mainly because there is nothing to base it on other than our desire for Jesus to always look good. Just like we resist a racist Atticus Finch, we push back against the notion of a Jesus who was somehow less than the perfect person we believe him to be.

What would happen if we were to take the text just as it appears upon the page, without trying to read into it or read behind it or read between its lines?  In that case we are confronted with the possibility that Jesus genuinely had his mind changed by his encounter with the Gentile woman.  We see Jesus coming into this debate with an attitude of Jews first.  We see him as being, like most Galileans, somewhat contemptuous of a person from Tyre.  It was an ancient dislike based on ethnicity, on race and racial conflict. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, Tyre and Israel were long time “bitter enemies.”  Jesus perhaps thinks himself generous in even mentioning the possibility that Phoenicians will be fed at all.

What the woman does here is fascinating.  Instead of bristling at the insult, she turns it in her favor.  She picks up on Jesus’ reference to children and paints a different picture, one any of us with dogs as household pets will instantly recognize.  She says, “True enough, but the dogs don’t have to wait to eat until later.  They just sit under the table and pick up what the children spill.”  And I might add, what the children slip to the dogs because they love the dog or because they don’t want to eat liver.  Jesus hears her and changes his mind about her request and heals her daughter.  I also think he changes his mind about the nature of his mission; about the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the new Kingdom of God.

Think about this for a minute.  In Mark’s story about Jesus, this is his first recorded encounter with someone who is not Jewish, someone who is not a member of his own race and own religion. Jesus grew up in a multi-cultural context, with Greeks and Romans and others all around, but then as now, ethnic groups tend to spend most of their time together, especially in matters of religion and politics. So, this is, perhaps, the first time Jesus has had to articulate his understanding of his mission as the Messiah to someone who did not share his ethnic and cultural background.  And he stumbles and says some things that maybe should not have been said.  And the woman made him think.  Indeed, it appears she made him change his mind, which resulted in his changing his actions.  In a very important sense, Jesus “got converted” by his encounter with the bold, truth-telling, Syrophoenician woman.

This has been a year of heightened race awareness in the United States.  From Ferguson and “Black Lives Matter,” to Baltimore, to a traffic stop in Texas, to the horrific events at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, to pick-up trucks driving our streets with rebel flags flying off the back – we have been confronted with an issue most of us would rather not think about or talk about.  But we must.  We must not only talk about it; we must act, we must do something about it.

We thought we were past it, we thought we were like the Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But the events of the last year have told us a different story, have held a mirror up to our lives and let us know that we are, as a people, more like the Atticus in “Go Set a Watchman;” most of us tone-deaf to the realities of life in America for minority persons.

Today, we are called to be like Christ in his conversation with the Gentile woman. We are called to listen to the voices of those who will tell us the truth about themselves, the truth about what it’s like to be a person of color in this country.  We are called to listen, and then we are called take action, first changing those things about ourselves that can change and should be changed.  Then we are called to speak out without fear, calling our nation to listen to the voices of those amongst us who have been ignored and silenced too long.

Amen and amen.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (August 16, 2015)

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

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

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
All good things must come to an end.

So with the life of the great king of Israel, David. Honestly, we have seen David at both his best and his worst over these past few weeks of readings. A great reminder that the people of the Bible’s stories are just like us — imperfect, unholy, obedient, faithful, willing and willful. God loves us and uses us for God’s own good purposes, just the same.

Young Solomon now ascends the throne, and begins his reign well, according to the text: “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David….” So far, so good. But, we do get a little hint of trouble to come with the rest of that verse: “…only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.”

Solomon will follow God, and be blessed greatly by God — as the rest of today’s passage clearly indicates. But, he will always have a bit of a weak spot for other ways, other women (lots of them,) and other gods.

As we have learned repeatedly: nobody’s perfect.

Psalm 111
A nice text for worship, we are immediately assured of the virtue of seeking God with our “whole hearts.” Not half-hearted, mind you — God wants and deserves it all!

In an additional nod to the accession of Solomon to the throne, we have v. 10 which echoes the famous words of Proverbs 9:10 — “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” 

Whole heart, healthy respect. These are two of the prerequisites for entering the worship of the God of heaven and earth.

Proverbs 9:1-6
Wisdom is personified in Proverbs, a wise woman who provides counterpoint to the fleeting pleasures of youthful desire embodied in the “adulterous woman.” While it may be a difficult choice to make in the throes of ardent, hormone-induced passion — the mature choice is life and insight, not momentary satisfaction.

Psalm 34:9-14
One of the most poignant questions ever asked of me was by a young college student who had just returned from a short-term mission experience in Africa. Regarding this psalm, she queried me: “Pastor, I don’t understand. I met some of the most passionate believers in Christ I have ever encountered, but they are starving to death! Why does this psalm say, ‘Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing?’”

I’m still puzzling that one out.

She went on to say that the people she had left behind were not the ones who were complaining; it was those who had come from cultures of plenty and more. We decided that maybe a part of her experience was a call to wake up to the wealth with which she was blessed, and to turn that toward sharing with those whose lack was a daily part of their lives. 

Could it be that the “good” that is needed in the life of another faithful brother or sister in the Lord, is currently residing in my own pocket or bank account or other reservoir of the overflowing blessings of God.

Or, as a member of my current congregation said to me recently, “When my cup’s overflowing, I believe I need to let it run into somebody else’s saucer.” 

Ephesians 5:15-20
“Be careful how you live.”

That’s not a statement of fear or restriction, but a call to careful examination. Keep a lookout on your life; walk around it, kick the tires, be sure things are in balance.

Getting drunk? Not your best move for a real purpose in life. Walking around singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs 24/7? Well, maybe that’s not exactly what the apostle is talking about, either!

Give thanks to God at all times…have an attitude of gratitude, as the old saying goes. Not everything that happens to me is going to elicit a “hip, hip, hooray” kind of reaction — but I can be aware and open and observant to what is happening around me. And, I can remember to thank God in my abundance and to ask for God’s help when I encounter need.

John 6:51-58    
See Dr. Chilton’s explication below.

(I can’t really add anything to it…and if you can’t say nothing nice, don’t say nothing at all!)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Over twenty years ago I served a church in the suburbs of Atlanta.  That year our bishop held a series of Chrism Masses.  This is a tradition dating back to the early church. The clergy gather with their bishop during Holy Week and renew their ordination vows and receive an anointing with oil from the bishop.

In order to get there at the appointed 6:00 am, I got up at 4:30 in the suburbs. Forty or fifty Lutheran clergy gathered in the early morning darkness to drink coffee and put on our albs and stoles in the small, cold and somewhat dark chapel.  We processed into the cathedral style church in single file, singing Veni, Creator Spiritus.

We sat in the chancel, in longs rows of dark wooden pews, facing each other across the aisle, the huge sanctuary to our right unlit and dark and foreboding, the altar to our left brightly lit by ceiling lights and dozens of candles.

The bishop preached, and we prayed, and we promised to be good pastors, and we took communion and the bishop and the assistants laid hands on us and anointed us with oil and prayed for our ministry, and it was haunting and mysterious and really, really, cool. After the worship, we returned to the chapel and took off our vestments and hung them in our carrying bags and laid them across the backs of pews. Then we all went down the hall for breakfast.

This was no ordinary minister’s breakfast – eating Krispy Kreme donuts on Thrivent napkins and coffee served in styrofoam cups while sitting on cold metal chairs in the Fellowship Hall or ancient donated couches in the Youth Room.

NO, We ate in the well-appointed Dining Room with thick plush carpet and an antique walnut and gold trim buffet table covered with platters overflowing with sausage balls and egg quiche and cheese grits and fresh fruit and bran muffins; and we ate off real china and drank out of real coffee cups while seated around wooden tables covered with linen table cloths.  We were all decked out in our best dark suits and black shirts and bright white collars and gold or silver crosses.  We sat and ate and looked out at the awakening city through the plate glass windows which ran wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling along one side of the room.

After eating my fill and talking myself empty, I decided it was time to leave and I made my good-byes and headed out.  Somewhere in the bowels of the building, I took a wrong turn and instead of going out the back into the parking lot, I went out the side onto a parallel street.  As I stumbled out into the early morning chill, I realized it was raining, and I was lost, and I was being stared at by 100 pairs of eyes.

All along the narrow strip of grass that separated the sidewalk from the outside wall of the nave, homeless people were huddled on newspapers or were leaning against the building, waiting for the food kitchen in the church to open at 9:00 AM.  As I looked at them looking at me, I felt both embarrassed and vulnerable and started walking as fast as I could down the street; unfortunately in the opposite direction from my car.

I arrived at the corner and realized I had gone in the wrong direction, I needed to go back, and I turned around and, for a brief moment, I was confronted by the Cross.  As I turned, I realized I could at one and the same time see into that huge plate glass window and also down the side street.

Through the window I saw the spiritual leaders of Georgia Lutheranism: warm, dry, well clad, well fed, laughing and talking and having a good time. Without turning my head, I also saw the homeless of Atlanta: cold, wet, in shabby clothes, depressed and silent and miserable. And the question came to my mind: If Jesus were standing on this corner, to which breakfast would he go?

At the time I thought the answer to that question was easy, that it was a clear cut “either/or.”  For some reason the idea that it could be “both/and” never occurred to me.  At the time (and long into the future) it was a personal parable, a moment in which I confronted my own failure to live up to the ideals of self-giving love which I so frequently and fervently preached.  And it was, and is, a good parable and a good reminder of our call to take up our cross and to serve the “least of these.”

But, there is more than that going on here because there is more than that to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In the old days my answer would have been that Jesus would be in the street with the homeless people.  Now my answer is that Jesus would be in both places at once – drawing the people to himself and to each other…

In our gospel lesson, Jesus says, “I am the living bread from heaven that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Verse 51) When Jesus says that he is the living bread from heaven, he is also saying that other things are not.  Not the things rich people have, not the things ordinary people have, not the things poor people don’t have and so desperately want.  While providing food for the hungry and clothing for the naked are important things; they are not the only things or even the most important things.

What Jesus gave to us, to all of us, to the world, was his flesh, his very self. To use an outdated image of God; Jesus did not look down from above and see our need and then lean over the balcony of heaven and hand down to us care packages of divine wisdom and holy  food and drink.  No, Jesus came himself.

Just so, God in Christ did not and does not send divine help to us by some sort of holy UPS truck, or beam it into our midst by use of a Star Trek Transporter.  The gift God gives us is God’s very self, in the person of Jesus, in the sacrament of the table and the community of the church – for we too are the “body of Christ,” called to be “living bread from heaven.”  The gift we are called to give to the world in Jesus’ name is not our stuff, not our extra cash or excess provisions.  NO!  The gospel invites us to give ourselves, our flesh if you will, for the sake of the world and for the life of the other.

Will you?  Will you take Jesus at his word and receive his life into your life?  And will you accept the invitation to follow in Christ’s footsteps, giving of yourself for the life of the world?

Amen and amen.

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (August 9, 2015)

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

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

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Our children, no matter how rebellious or “unloving” toward us, are always still our children.

There are very few words in scripture more pathetic (as in, filled with pathos) than David’s declaration of his grief over the death of Absalom. David would gladly have traded his life for his son’s, wayward child that he was.

The fulfillment of Nathan’s prophecy aside, what parent among us cannot identify with the pain in David’s heart? After sitting with the inconsolable grief for a few moments, which of us cannot be moved by imagining the same pain within the heart of God toward each of God’s wayward children across the earth?

Psalm 130
A plaintive and elegant song for the times we, too, must “cry from the depths” of life’s dark places.

1 Kings 19:4-8
There are those places that we, both as preachers and people of God, are sometimes called to go that just feel far too wearying to endure on our own. Laying down and waiting to die sounds like a pretty preferable alternative on some days.

But, on those days, God is still there. May the “bread of heaven” that sometimes appears in the strangest ways and places fill us and strengthen us for the journey.

Psalm 34:1-8
At all times.

That’s the key phrase in this psalm text — at least, it’s a key phrase. Blessing God is fairly easy when the good times are rolling by like a parade (though, admittedly, we often forget to bless God as our first instinct.)

When the bad times roll in like a fog, our first instinct may be to offer a prayer more along the lines of “help me, God!”

I’m with Anne Lamott, who quoted a wise friend (in Traveling Mercies, still one of my favorites of her work) as saying, “The two best prayers I know are ‘Help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
More practical applications of the grace of God for everyday living from Ephesians. This is good stuff. I like that all of it comes out of the phrase, “be imitators of God… live in love, as Christ loved” in 5:1-2. A pretty good set of companion ideas when paired with Psalm 34:1 (see above.)

John 6:35, 41-51
More than one wag has commented on this series of gospel readings, “When will Jesus ever stop talking about bread?”

We all love images of freshly-baked loaves, still warm from the oven, served up delightfully for us on platters with plenty of butter or cream cheese. Now that’s some “bread of heaven” we can get into!

As Jesus’ images turn toward eating his flesh, we find that the number of takers begins to dwindle pretty sharply. More than one Christian, when faced with the complexity and difficulty of living out the Christ lifestyle, has bemoaned, “This is not what I signed up for!”

Well….    

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Many years ago, when I was a young pastor, I was teaching a Catechism Class on a Sunday afternoon. A few minutes after we started, a young man came in, toting his four-year-old sister on his hip. “Mama has to go to the hospital to see Grandma. Says I got to keep Annie.” “Which means I ‘got to’ keep Annie,” I thought to myself as I heard his mother pull out of the church parking lot.

We were studying Holy Communion. I got Annie set up in the corner with a coloring book, then I began to go over the lesson with my three students.

Question – What two things make a Sacrament?
Answer – An Earthly Element and a Divine Command.

Q – What are the two Sacraments we observe? A – Baptism and Communion.

Q – What is the Earthly Element in Baptism? A -Water.

Q – What is the Earthly Element in Communion? A -Bread and Wine.

Q – What are the Bread and Wine? A – The Body and Blood of Jesus.

Q – So, when we eat the bread, what are we eating? A – The Body of Christ.

Q – And when we drink the wine, what are we drinking? A – The Blood of Jesus.

At this point I heard a noise in the corner, and turned to see Annie staring at us, wide-eyed. She loudly proclaimed “YEECH!” Then she threw up.

Most of us are so accustomed to hearing liturgical language about the bread and wine being the Body and Blood of Christ, that we no longer really hear the crude, primal, visceral nature of such language.  At least not the way Annie heard it; not the way Jesus’ audience heard it when he said to them: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6: 51)

How are we to understand this? What are we to make of such language? What is John trying to tell us with in chapter 6, filled as it is with “bread” stories? We’ve got the feeding of the 5000, the many references to the wilderness experience and God’s provision of manna from heaven and Jesus’ claims to be the true Bread from Heaven and then, this crude, cannibalistic reference to eating Jesus himself. It’s all a bit much for our modern, antiseptic sensibilities. It sounds too much like snake-handling and poison-drinking and being slain in the spirit and all those overly enthusiastic things some remote Christians are rumored to engage in. We prefer our religion neat and clean and appropriately done and appropriately metaphorical if you please.

And, so did many of the people to whom John was writing when he composed this Gospel. They were not only offended at his language about eating Jesus; they were offended by the very idea that Jesus was really human. They preferred to think that he was some sort of ghost who only appeared in human form, but was really all spirit. There was an idea about that the body was bad and the spirit was good and that true religion consisted of being really spiritual and escaping the body. So many who became Christian with this idea decided that Jesus, being the ultimate “spiritual person,” wasn’t really human, wasn’t really real, I guess.

John’s emphasis on Jesus’ fleshiness is meant to counteract this notion. The Greek word used here, “sarx,” denotes meat, flesh; whereas the other Greek word, “soma,” just means body. John is making it clear that Jesus was a real, live, human being who ate and slept and went to the bathroom. This was important then, and it’s important now. If Jesus just appeared or seemed to be human, then his death was not a real death, his suffering was not real suffering and his resurrection was just a show, a trick, an illusion.

For the economy of salvation to really work, it is necessary that Jesus be a real human being who lived and taught and suffered and died and went to the place of the dead and was brought back to life by the power of God. Otherwise, it’s just a nice story and it really doesn’t affect anything, doesn’t communicate anything to us about God’s love and our life.

In his book “Written in Blood” Robert Coleman tells the story of a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. For various reasons, the boy was the only donor whose blood could save his sister. The doctor asked, “Would you give your blood to Mary?” The little boy’s lower lip began to tremble, then he took a deep breath and said, “Yes, for my sister.”

After the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, the little boy began to look very worried, then he crossed himself, then he looked at the doctor and said, “When do I die?” Suddenly, the doctor realized that the little boy had thought that to give his blood to his sister meant he had to die, and miracle of miracles, he was willing to do that for his sister.

The gospel is – Jesus did that for us. That’s what John wants us to contemplate. It’s not a metaphor, not a parable, not a mythological construct about dying and rising gods. John is clear about that and wants his readers to be clear also. Which is why we have the language about eating Jesus’ flesh. The word rendered as “eat” in our text is perhaps better translated as “gnaw” or “chew.” Again, John wants to drive home the point of the “real world” nature of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.

As we come to the table this morning, we are to be mindful of Jesus’ presence in our midst. It was a real presence then and it is a real presence now.  The Gospel is that Jesus really, truly came down from heaven to live among us as the fleshly love of God. The Gospel is that Jesus really, truly died upon the cross, giving up his flesh and spilling his blood, to save us from our sins. The Gospel is that God almighty really, truly raised him from the dead, brought him out of the grave to a new and eternal life. The Gospel is that God almighty really, truly has just such a future in store for each and every one of us.

And the Gospel is that when we come to the table, we really, truly take a bite out of that future.
We really, truly drink deeply of that promise. We really, truly receive into ourselves a love that will never, ever let us go – in this world or in the next.

Amen and amen.

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (August 2, 2015)

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

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a
Two phrases from this poignant story resonate with me: “You are the man” and “I have sinned.” Boil it all down, and you have all one really needs to know about the gravity of sin and its resolution.

David is outraged and moved by the story of the defenseless lamb. Alas, it is always much easier for us to see sin in the lives of someone else; our own shortfalls are arguably “not so bad.” But, Nathan’s accusation is straight up and to the point. “You know you did it, David.”

When confronted with our sin, we can aver, justify, minimize, shift the blame or use any number of other strategies to avoid owning up. In the end, not a one of them will avail our need for cleansing and righteousness. There is only one way through to forgiveness — confession. “I did it; I was wrong.” 

The cost for sin is great; confession does not take that away. But it does make restoration possible — it opens the door for hope from despair.

Psalm 51:1-12
The textual notes tell us that this is written by David after he has been confronted by Nathan about his sin with Bathsheba. The language speaks for itself; the depth of agony, sorrow, and penitence are as palpable here as any place in the scripture.

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
“Huh?”

Can you imagine that response to a miracle? The Israelites have been dreaming of bread and “fleshpots” back in Egypt, and Moses tells them God will send them food the next morning. “Just look for it when you open your tentflap and step out.”

So, they do — and they may have been a little underwhelmed at first. “What’s that?” Kind of like children confronted with a plate of spinach or stewed carrots, perhaps. 

We aren’t always immediately thrilled with God’s answers to our prayers, are we? Sometimes, it takes some time to get acclimated and to catch up with the wisdom of what God is doing. Manna may not have been a four-course meal, but it sure did get them through some tough times in the wilderness!

God tends to come through in the clutch, even if it’s not the way we would have done it ourselves.

Psalm 78:23-29
The psalm text calls God’s manna from heaven, “the bread of angels.” Probably a little poetic license here — we don’t literally know if this is what angels eat for breakfast every morning.

But it is the symbol of abundance and provision. Good enough for angels, good enough for you and me!

Ephesians 4:1-16
The Apostle reminds us that we are definitely all very different parts of the same body. No two of us perform exactly the same functions (or see “eye to eye” on all things, necessarily!) But, we all definitely need each other in order to perform most effectively.

Besides, there is a powerful argument presented here for finding unity in the midst of our considerable diversity: we all share one hope, one calling, one one Lord, one faith, one baptism (even if I use more water than you do!) — there is one God who looks parentally upon each of us.

We are a family, after all, and though we may fuss and fight like one — in the end, we are here to stick up for one another, as well.

John 6:24-35    
People are always hungry.

Things were no different for Jesus; after a couple of “feeding the five thousand” episodes, there are those who find themselves standing in line, coming back for more. He is hard-pressed to keep up with the demand, as he evidently did not come into the world “to save the people from their hunger.”

He tries really hard to point them to the bread of heaven — not exactly the same thing as the manna they had all heard about (see above) — and promises that their spiritual hunger and thirst will definitely be satisfied if they believe in him.

“Fine, but we’re still hungry here, Jesus. What are you going to do about that?”

As we will see in next week’s lesson, Jesus will tell them that eating his flesh is the answer– but he doesn’t get many takers.

Ministry sure is hard.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I am a total and complete “land-lubber.” I get sea-sick standing on the pier at Myrtle Beach.  Therefore, it will not surprise you to learn that I know absolutely nothing about lobsters, except what I read in Wikipedia and in this illustration I clipped from an unspecified “Christian magazine” and put in a file about twenty years ago.  So, I am dependent upon those two slightly wobbly sources for the accuracy of this idea.

“From time to time lobsters have to leave their shells in order to grow.  They need the shell to protect them from being torn apart; yet when they grow the old shell must be abandoned.  If they did not abandon it, the old shell would soon become their prison – and finally their casket. The tricky part is the brief period of time between when the old shell is abandoned and the new one formed.  During that terrible, vulnerable period, the transition must be scary to the lobster.  Currents cartwheel them from coral to kelp.  Hungry schools of fish are ready to make them a part of the food chain.  For a while at least, that old shell must look pretty good.” Brent Mitchell.

“The brief period of time between when the old shell is discarded and the new one is formed” – that’s where we find the congregation of the Israelites today. They too had left behind an old shell – years, generations really, of slavery in Egypt.  It was not a good life, but it was life.  It was bad and hard, but at least it was a place where they understood the rules, they knew what to expect.  It may not have been a land flowing with milk and honey but at least there was water to drink and food to eat and a roof over their heads.  True they were slaves – but then again, it was steady work.

Here in the desert, in the wilderness – nothing was certain.  Everything was wide open: they had no jobs, no crops, no storehouses, no overseers, and no certainty about where the next meal would come from.  No wonder they were grouchy and complaining.  Truth be told, in their shoes, we would be too.

In this state of exposure and uncertainty and anxiety about the future – the past began to look pretty good.  Throughout the biblical stories of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness a constant theme is played out, over and over and over again.  The congregation of Israelites complains about their condition and blame Moses and God for getting them into this mess.  And they also look back upon their time in Egypt as the “good old days,” reciting fuzzy memories of their years of suffering and servitude.

“The tricky part  . . .  is the brief period of time between when the old shell is discarded and when the new one is formed.”  That was true for the Israelites and it is true for us.  American Christianity is in that time between shells; we are walking through the desert without the security and safety of the old ways of doing things.  Sometimes it feels like we are being forced to reinvent ourselves on an almost weekly basis and in the midst of being blown about by the winds of change we are tempted to look back on the way things used to be and to think how much easier it would be if things never changed.  We can find ourselves wishing for more stability, for more security, for “now” to go back to being like “then”.

Until I was thirteen my family lived in a little four room house on a farm we shared with my grandparents.  Four little rooms and an attic for two parents and five children.  A well in the yard for water, and an outhouse in the woods for, well, you know.  Within a year both my grandparents died and my aunt who had lived with them married and moved down the road to her husband’s farm and my family occupied my grandparent’s house.  It was a large rambling two story farmhouse with lots of rooms, big porches on the front and back, and best of all – indoor plumbing.

Our family had some difficulty adjusting to our new home.  I don’t want to be indelicate here, but when the men in the family got up in the morning, they headed outside before they remembered they had a bathroom.  More interestingly, we found ourselves living in the same amount of space we had used in the old, smaller house.  It took us a while to spread out and take advantage of all that unrestricted room.

The congregation of the Israelites complained about food and God gave them food.  In chapter 17 they complained about water and God gave them water.  As time goes on they complained about other things.  Sometimes God got angry, sometimes God didn’t; but God always responded to their need and provided for them  Because God knew that lack of food, water, and other things wasn’t what was really bothering the Israelites.  It was all that freedom, all that uncharted future in front of them.

So it is with us.  We too face an uncertain and uncharted future.  We too are often guilty of succumbing to the fatal allure of the familiar.  We too look at the way the world is changing and we become frightened.  We too look to the past for assurance: We cling to the old hymns and the old liturgies as if we can only pray and God can only hear in those words, in those ways.  We go down the hall of the church and point at pictures of pastors and confirmations of the past and think, “It was so much better when things were like that.” And maybe it was, but the fact is, it will never be that way again and we must be the church in the world as it is – not as we wish it were.

And the story of the manna is our assurance that God is with us in our wilderness, God is leading us through this time of uncertainty and growth, God is providing what we need, not necessarily what we want, but certainly what we need.

The writer of Exodus refers to the manna as a test.  Sometimes we forget that testing is an educational tool, a tool to help us discover those places where we need to learn more and grow more.  God is not trying to trip the Israelites up, not trying to see if they measure up to being the “Chosen people” – God already knows that they don’t and that such measuring up is beside the point.  God is using this test to teach them the lesson that faith is not about what we know and not about what we are capable of doing.  Faith is about trusting God in those times when we are without even the vestige of a shell of outward protection; when we are bereft of anything except our sheer and utter dependence upon the goodness of God.  To go out to pick up manna and to take only enough for one day is to trust that God will provide again the next day, and the next day after that, and yes, the next day after that.

Pray with me please:  “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 317.  Collect after the Litany)

Amen and amen.

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (July 26, 2015)

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

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

2 Samuel 11:1-15
Boy, oh, boy! What can we say about King David and his wandering eyes?
There are any number of approaches possible for preaching this text; certainly, “be sure your sins will find you out” is a tried and true message. The futility of trying to “hide from God” (a la the story of the Fall in the garden of Eden) might be another. Seeing if you can find somebody else to take the fall for you (“go on down to your house, Uriah, and ‘wash your feet’ –[wink, wink]”) is another fool’s errand.
 
I am struck by the depth of the desperation that ensued as David sought any remedy other than honest confession for his sin. Those in the recovery community learn — at a price, to be sure — that every offense is only made right by an act of atonement. Responsibility must be accepted and amends must be made.
You can’t send Joab to do your dirty work for you.
Psalm 14
I recently re-watched Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien (all three movies — it was a holiday!) When I read this psalm, I get a visual image of the “all-seeing eye” of Sauron flashing in my mind. 
(Of course, you can Google it and find an image — or you can just go here.)
I’m not certain that this is what the psalmist had in mind with his line, “The Lord looks down from heaven…” — but there is something to be said for the pervasiveness and thoroughness of God’s vision when it comes to considering the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.
 
2 Kings 4:42-44
The Hebrew Bible version of loaves and fishes: loaves of barley and fresh ears of corn (well, at least of grain — what else other than corn comes in ears?)
At any rate, Elisha’s miracle — based on a word from the Lord — foreshadows the trust that Christ would call forth from his disciples on the hillside. Little is enough — and more than enough! — when God is in the mix.
Psalm 145:10-18
This is one of the most encouraging psalm texts in scripture — and that’s saying a lot! Both God’s words and actions are intended for good (v.13.) God is near to “all who call” on God. Truly.
Ephesians 3:14-21
Love, strength, grace, glory, riches — Ephesians is filled with these “power” phrases, available as Christ dwells in the hearts of believers. Indeed, in the fullness of God’s good intention — its height, depth, and breadth — there is very little that God cannot accomplish. Certainly, more than we can imagine (if not always exactly what we have imagined!)
John 6:1-21    
No rest for the weary — and, on this occasion, no food, either.
John’s telling has Jesus slyly testing the disciples. They are excellent foils for his plans to illustrate what faith in God looks and acts like. Jesus works with very little (compare the relative bounty in Elisha’s story, above) but leads the disciples to see that God provides not just enough — but much more than they ever could have imagined (see Ephesians, above.)
For the disciples, it’s personal. When the lesson has ended, they each have their own basket to carry away — a reminder of God’s sufficiency in the time of need.
The second episode, with Jesus walking on water in the midst of a storm (and transporting not only the disciples, but their boat, to safety with Mr. Scott-like efficiency) illustrates even further how little we need fear when God is the strength of our lives.
It’s tough in the midst of our own storms — admittedly. But let the words of Christ dwell richly in us: “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the far west of North Carolina where I live, you will often see a sign in front of a church or Masonic Lodge or VFW building announcing a “Poor Man’s Dinner” fundraising event. (Except the Catholics; the Catholics have “Friday Night Fish Fry”, for which I am eternally grateful.)  A “Poor Man’s Dinner” consists of pinto beans and cornbread, with sweet iced tea and appropriate deserts.  This is a nod to the area’s past when most of the people were very poor and pinto beans and cornbread got many families through the winter.

In our gospel lesson for today, Andrew brings forward a young man who “has five barley loaves and two fish.”  Barley loaves and fish was a poor man’s dinner.  The middle classes, the wealthy, the Greek merchants and the Roman occupiers all ate wheat bread – the poor ate bread made from barley.

I have often wondered about how Andrew stumbled upon the young man with the loaves and fishes.  Did the boy shyly tug at his elbow and say, “It isn’t much but the Teacher can have it.”?  Did he sit off in a corner with his lunch under his cloak, occasionally sneaking a bite before he was spotted by Andrew, who then said, “Aha, you need to share that.”?  Or was it something in between?  How was that the boy decided to share?

Surely the boy had to wonder about what difference his little bit of food, his “Poor Man’s Dinner,” would make.  He had to think, “There are so many and I have so little.  All that will happen is I will have to go hungry along with everyone else.  Better to keep what’s mine and let the other people take care of themselves.”   Someone shared a cartoon on Facebook this week.  It showed four people in a rowboat.  The two people at one end were furiously bailing water out of the boat as it began to sink.  The two people at the other end sat back comfortably and smiled as one said to the other, “Sure am glad the hole is not in our end of the boat.”

Sometimes we’re all like that.  When things look dicey, we decide that the hole isn’t in our end of the boat, therefore it’s not our problem.  We look to take care of our own people and our own stuff; we secure what matters most to us and certainly don’t want to waste what little we have on the needs of someone else.  Besides, it’s easy to think, “What difference will it make?  I have only enough for me and mine.” I read an article recently about what are called “Preppers.” It’s a more urban and urbane version of survivalists.  These are people who believe that we are facing a major economic crises and social upheaval in the near future.  They are storing several months’ worth of food in their homes, creating emergency plans to get out of the cities into an isolated hideaway, and arming themselves to fend off the masses of unprepared people who will want to get at their stuff. (“The Week,” July 17, 2015)

In contrast to this attitude of scarcity and self-protection, our scripture lessons call us to have enough faith in God to share what we have, trusting God to provide whatever else is needed.  In Second Kings, the man from Baal-shalishah showed the offering, the first fruits, to Elisha.  He is a bit embarrassed – it is not much, just twenty Barley loaves and some other fresh grain, a poor man’s dinner indeed. But Elisha doesn’t bat an eye. “Give it to the people.” he says.  “What? How can I?” the man sputters. Elisha’s servant chimes in, “It’s not enough to feed all these people.”  And Elisha assures them both, “The Lord has promised, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’ ”

As we saw in the gospel lesson, the boy hands over his five barley loaves and two fish to Jesus.  And somehow, someway, God provides.  There is plenty, more than enough for everyone. Jesus makes a rich feast out of a poor man’s dinner.

We often think we don’t have much to offer either God or the world, either personally or as a congregation. We see ourselves as poor, or small, or weak, or otherwise inadequate.  And nothing could be further from the truth.  The Biblical story is a story of a God who takes our little and turns it into a lot.  We often try to hang on to what we have because we don’t really trust God’s promise that if we turn everything over to him we will be all right, really we will.  Deep down, most of us don’t believe that God will take what we grudgingly, almost reluctantly hand over and turn it into more than we ever imagined possible.

But the gospel is – God in Christ has done and will do just that.  God doesn’t really want our treasure, God wants our trust.  God doesn’t really want our finances, God wants our faith.  God doesn’t really want our things, God wants us.  God wants us to let go of everything else and to truly believe that we can rely on the fact that the divine and holy love that made the universe also made us and that this immense love, a love “that surpasses knowledge,” (Ephesians 3:19) will provide for us and will use us to provide for others.

May we let go of our endless need for self-protection and self-reliance.  May we turn loose of our desperate desire to control our own lives and manage our own future.  May we look upon the love of God in Christ and relax, and open our hands, and release into God’s care all those things we have been so desperately holding on to because we are afraid of not having enough.  May we give to God our “barley loaves and fish,” our “pinto beans and cornbread,” our “poor man’s dinners,” so that God can transform them and us into a rich blessing for the world.

Amen and amen.

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (July 19, 2015)

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

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

2 Samuel 7:1-14a

Not every idea that we have for ministry or for “God’s glory” is necessarily a good idea — at least for the moment. There is something significant about waiting and working on God’s timetable.David’s motivation for the temple project was most likely very sincere. But, God urged David to wait on that project. God just wanted David to do what God had set before him: be the king, lead the people.

Unfortunately, David — like so many of us — had a very short attention span when it came to listening deeply and waiting patiently for the will of God. We tire of the plain old day-to-day tasks of ministry and long for something more exciting, something grander.
Soon, David will “find” an object for his attention and energy — in the form of Bathsheba, another man’s wife. We stray from the path God sets for us at great peril, my friends.

Psalm 89:20-37

What an incredible word of God’s faithfulness to us, in spite of our actual and potential unfaithfulness!
God plans in advance to remain faithful to God’s own covenant promises. We may (and certainly do) stray from God’s commandments, and that always has a cost (vv. 31-32.) But, God does not give up on us (vv. 33-34) — God determines to continue the work of building our lives and making God’s righteousness known throughout the earth.

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Not every leader among the people of God is a good and faithful leader. This fact is sad, but true. There are “flocks” that have been hurt by unfaithful shepherds — just as there are faithful shepherds that have been injured by their flocks — but that’s another story.
Wherever there has been hurt in the lives of God’s people, God is present to bring healing and restoration. (v. 3) God is the God who makes it right. (v.6)

Psalm 23

God is the restorer of our souls — when we are physically depleted, God guides us to the place of rest (green pastures.) When we are spiritually and emotionally drained, God allows us to drink deeply from the  still waters of God’s own compassion.

Ephesians 2:11-22

This passage forms part of Paul’s clear vision for God’s work in building all the people of the earth into a “new humanity.” Begun in the covenant promises given to Israel, that work is now moving toward completion through the life of Jesus Christ.
There is one Spirit, Paul says, that grants us all access to the Father. As the Spirit completes the work of fashioning our lives into a temple, we look forward to the time when God will dwell with God’s people — all of them, without division or hostility. (v. 14)
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Compassion costs.
The apostles return from their mission work excited, but a bit exhausted, as well. They have seen and felt the power of God made manifest through their lives. Many, many others have been “blessed” by God as a result of their faithful ministry. Jesus tells them that they have earned a respite — a little rest.
But, alas, there is very little rest for the weary in ministry, it seems. There is almost nowhere that Jesus and the guys can go that there are not needy people waiting on them, hoping for a touch of the Christ.
Where will the crowds gather in our lives — hoping to be touched by Christ through us? Careful, it’s costly!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Evening Shade” was a show that starred Burt Reynolds as a small town football coach in Arkansas. One night the coach’s two small children were leaning out the upstairs window, looking at the stars.
They began to chat. The boy says: “I’m glad I’ve got you guys. It sure would be lonely without you.” His sister replies, “Remember Sunday School.” The boy looks at her and asks: “Remember Sunday School? What do you mean by that? Oh, yeah. You mean how God is always here so we’re never alone.” She nods and says, “Yeah, that’s what I mean.” and her brother looks back at the sky and sighs, “Well, I know that’s right, but sometimes I just need somebody with some skin on them.”

I think most of us know how he feels. The world can be a difficult and dangerous and lonely place. And as comforting as it is to believe in a God in Heaven who loves us and cares about us and has a plan for our lives; sometimes you just need somebody to talk to who will talk back. That’s why people flocked to Jesus. Sure there were those who had heard about his miracles and just wanted to see a good show. And there were those who were there just because everybody else was there.

It’s like the Friday night high school football in the small-town south. When my son was in the band I used to sit in the stands and listen to women talk about church and teen-agers talk about who’s dating whom.  One night the Methodist preacher told me to sit with him. He said, “This is the section for the football fans. The other people are just here because everybody else in town is here.”

So there were the thrill seekers and the crowd seekers, but there were also the God seekers, those who had heard about Jesus; had heard about his words and his actions and had come to catch a glimpse of the Holy. Jesus and the apostles had been really busy and really needed a break. So Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” They were going on retreat, on vacation, on holiday. But it was not to be. By the time they got where they were going, a crowd had gathered. Jesus looked at them and weighed his own and his companions’ weariness against something he saw in the faces turned up at him, something in the crowd’s eyes.  What was it that swayed Jesus to give up the plan to rest? I think he looked at them and saw their hunger.  Not a hunger for food, but a hunger for companionship, a hunger for community, a hunger for love, a hunger for God.

Verse 34 says, “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Compassion literally means “to feel with.” Jesus felt compassion for them because he had felt what they were feeling.  After his baptism, the Spirit drove him into the Wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. There he learned what it feels like to be abandoned, deserted, alone in the universe.  He also learned what one does and does not need in a time like that.

There in the wilderness, Jesus realized that fixing every human hurt was not to be his mission. People didn’t need a Superman jumping to their rescue. People needed to know that God was in the world with them, not off in heaven above and beyond them. People needed to know that God cared, and that God wanted them to care, and to act with caring as well.  So, there in the desert, Jesus came to a momentous decision; he would purposely withhold his power, restrain himself.  Throughout his ministry opportunities for healings came to Jesus, but he didn’t go looking for them. Every time he worked a miracle it happened because of those three little words – “he had compassion.”
That he had compassion is the most important thing we can say about Jesus, and about God. We live in the midst of a world in which people are afraid of their own shadows, a world where if they believe in God at all, they believe God to be either remote and uncaring, or cruel and vindictive. In such a world, we in the church have been called to witness to the fact that he had compassion.

The world in which we live is depressed and sad and frightened and on edge about the future. And into this bog of sadness and sorrow, we the church are called to imitate our Lord and find ways to break into the cycle of fear and violence with words and acts of hope and assurance, words and acts of compassion and healing. Now, that is a mighty tall order isn’t it? What can one church do? What can one Christian do?  In the face of all this hurt and pain, who are we to think we can make a difference?

Those must have been the sorts of questions a little Albanian nun asked herself over fifty years ago when she found herself in Calcutta, one of the worst and most hopeless places in the world. And what she decided to do was to do what Jesus did in our story, she had compassion on the ones right in front of her. She dealt with the need she was given and did what she could. She began to pick up the dying beggars off the streets of Calcutta and to give them a decent place to die. That was it. She washed their wounds and their bottoms, she cleaned their sheets and their latrines. She fed them, and bathed them and turned them on their pallets when no one else would touch them. She had compassion, one dying person at a time. We are called to have compassion, to preach compassion, to teach compassion, to live compassion. We are called to break whatever rules and taboos and cultural barriers necessary to let the world know God is not harsh, God is not out to get them, God is not punishing them for their sins. God is love. God is steadfast, everlasting, never-ending love.
God is reaching out into the midst of our fear of death with an offer of life, of life eternal.

“He had compassion.” Jesus had compassion then, and God has compassion now. Open up your hearts and let God love you.  Open up your arms and show God’s love to the world.

AMEN AND AMEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, be careful little mouth what you say!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mark 5:21-43 
Oh, the power of touch!

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

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


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


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


The power of a touch.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

Speaking of storms…

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.