The Fourth Sunday of Easter for Year B (April 26, 2015)

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

(reprinted by permission from The Lectionary Lab Commentary: Stories and Sermons for Year B)

Acts 4:5-12
Cheeky answer, wasn’t it?

Peter is standing — along with his accomplice, John — before the very seat of power in Israel of the first century CE. This is you or I being brought before our particular judicatories (synod, conference, presbytery, deacon body, etc.) and questioned about our ministerial practice. The fact that these men were “all” members of the high-priestly family added a bit more gravitas (if any were needed.)

“By what power are you doing these things? Who, or what, gives you the right to act the way you have been acting?”

It’s not a question one wants to answer lightly. They knew that they could get in real trouble. You or I might very well find our livelihoods on the line if brought up for questioning on a similar matter. (What if your entire pension fund were riding on the words that came next out of your mouth, for instance?)

“None other than Jesus of Nazareth — the one you crucified. God raised him from the dead and his is the only name that has been given by which we may be saved.”

Pretty specific; pretty well-defined. Not afraid to be gently, if firmly, confrontational. It’s an all-or-nothing response, when you think about it. 

Are we, who may have much less on the line, just as willing to proclaim our conviction as to the truth of the gospel today?

Psalm 23
The classic Psalm 23 provides background for the qualities of the “good shepherd.” We do well to have this passage in mind when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”

As you re-read Psalm 23 — and do take the time to re-read it, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, read it, or even preached it —  what quality (or qualities) of the good shepherd stand out to you? How have you experienced the presence of the Lord as your shepherd?

1 John 3:16-24
True love does a lot more than wait; it gives, it hopes, it perseveres, it trusts, it supports…and a whole lot more (refresh your memory at 1 Corinthians 13.)

Mainly, as the Elder Apostle writes here, it acts. Love is a very active thing to feel and do. Not just the words, lofty as they may be (love poems are among the highest literary achievements in human history.) It’s all about what you do, baby!

Don’t just tell me that you love me — show me! You don’t have to live in Missouri to subscribe to that kind of wisdom!

John says that we have not gone far enough when we have simply believed  in Jesus…we must also love (in word and deed) one another.

John 10:11-18
If you’re just in it for the paycheck, you probably aren’t too interested in sacrificing yourself for anyone at the place where you work. That’s just not a “normal” way to think, is it?

But Jesus says that living life his way is sort of like a shepherd in the old days — most likely, the shepherd had a literal financial interest in the welfare of the sheep. He was owner or part-owner of the flock, so it was in his best interest to deliver them to market (or to the shearer) in the best possible condition. Healthier sheep equals higher dollars.

But more than that, the shepherd shared a bond with the sheep. He knew them each by name (his own pet names for them;) he knew how they acted, which were prone to act up or skip out, which were prone to mind and follow in the way they were led.

The sheep also knew which was their shepherd; they got used to his (or her) voice. Even when penned with other flocks and other shepherds, only the voice of “their” shepherd would rouse the sheep to follow. The shepherd was sworn to protect the sheep, and — evidently — would put himself at risk in order to fulfill his duty.   

So, Jesus says, I am a lot like that; I know you, you know me, we’re really in this thing together. I have given my life for my sheep. All of them. Even the ones you can’t see in this fold. 

Trust me on this.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My fourth grade teacher, Miz George, died a few weeks ago. (This was not Miss, for she was married, not MS. for though she was quite liberated, she wasn’t a modern feminist, not Mrs. – just good old-fashioned, general purpose, Southern Miz George.)  She was in her 90s.  Last time I saw her was at my Daddy’s funeral twelve years ago. She came with my second grade teacher, Miz Collins.  They taught the four oldest Chilton children at Redbank Elementary School in Claudville, VA, which is the reason none of us will ever end a sentence in a preposition or say “can,” when we mean “may.”

When I saw Miz Collins and Miz George at the funeral, I was reminded of how well they took care of us, their little flocks of illiterate sheep, of so many years ago.  They did more than teach us the rudiments of grammar and the building blocks of mathematics.  They also taught us to tuck in our shirts and to say “Yes Ma’am” and “No Sir,” and “Please” and “Thank you.”  They taught us to respect ourselves and to respect others.  They kept us safe, they lead us beside the still waters of knowledge; they created a space in which our minds could grow.  They were good shepherds.

That image of those tough, kind, independent, and bossy women as “good shepherds” was helpful to me in thinking about today’s Gospel Lesson, where Jesus says of himself, “I am the good shepherd.” For those of us without any direct experience of sheep and shepherds, this analogy falls a bit flat.  If we’re honest, we’re not exactly sure what being a shepherd actually entails, not would most of us be able to tell a good shepherd from a bad one without a lot of help from someone in the know.

It’s important to know that even Jesus is not directly referring to himself as a keeper of sheep; rather he is tapping into a long standing image used by the Hebrew people to refer to the kings, priests and prophets of Israel.  These people were seen as having been given responsibility by God to take care of the people, God’s flock.  And as many of them failed in this assignment, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with tales of bad kings and false prophets.

When Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd,” he is contrasting himself with all those previous leaders who had been poor and incomplete shepherds, no better than hired hands really.  By contrast, Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, the one truly ready to “lay down his life” for the good of the sheep. Of course, that is what Jesus eventually did upon the cross, and it was that act of laying down his life for the sheep, all God’s people; which are, after all, all people from every time and every place – that created the new community, the new flock, that we call the church.  In this new flock, we are all both shepherd and sheep – called of God to care for each other and for the world.

Most of us have seen the Hollywood movie, “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.”  The movie only told part of the story.  Behind the movie is another, more important story.  In his book, “Miracle on the River Kwai,” Ernest Gordon says that Scottish soldiers, forced by their captors to labor on a jungle railroad, had degenerated to a level of barbarity, of animalistic behavior toward each other in a struggle to survive.

One afternoon, a shovel was missing.  The officer in charge became enraged.  He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else.  When nobody in the squad budged, the officer took out his gun and threatened to kill them all, there, on the spot.  It was obvious the officer meant what he said.  Then, finally, one man stepped forward.  The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and proceeded to beat the man to death.

When it was over. The survivors picked up the bloody corpse and carried it with them to a second tool check.  This time – no shovel was missing.  There had been a miscount at the first tool check.

The dead man was innocent.  He had voluntarily died to spare the others.  What was it Jesus said, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep?”

That’s not the end of the story.  The fact that someone had died to save for them worked a profound change on the prisoners.  As one of them said, “we wanted to be worthy of the sacrifice.” Rather than compete with one other in order to live, the prisoners began to treat one another as brothers, looking out for each other and taking care of each other.

When the victorious allies swept in and liberated the prison camp, the Japanese guards were terrified.  They fully expected to die, to be executed on the spot.  Their former prisoners, not little more than skeletons, lined up in front of the guards and began to shout. “No more hate.  No more killing.  What we need now is forgiveness.” The Japanese guards are stunned, and broke down weeping.

(Source: Phillip Yancey “Rumors of Another World”)

Sacrificial death had transformative power.  The death of an anonymous prisoner transformed the POWs from isolated and competing individuals into a community who cared about and for one another.  The sheep became shepherds to one another.

This one man’s sacrificial death also transformed the way the prisoners saw their captors.  When the war was over, they chose to treat their oppressors as lost sheep – not as ravenous wolves.  They saw them as the “sheep not from this flock,” that Jesus spoke of and decided to forgive them and love them.

We are invited today to reflect upon the sacrificial death our good shepherd died for us. We have an opportunity to open ourselves up to the transforming power of the gift of new life, letting our lives be changed by the Risen Christ living in us and in this community.  We are called to continue the work of the good shepherd, caring for one another, loving each other, dying a little for each other, opening doors and tearing down barriers, bringing everyone into the sheepfold, into God’s beloved flock.

Amen and amen.

The Third Sunday of Easter for Year B (April 19, 2015)

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

Acts 3:12-19

Peter sure loved to preach! (Maybe he just liked talking and couldn’t resist a captive audience.) Peter is pretty clear, when the gathered crowd is stunned and amazed at the healing of a lame man, that neither he nor John did this on their own. He immediately gives praise and credit to God — notably, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” As his ultimate purpose is to point to Jesus, this is a significant effort to tie the life of Jesus to the ongoing work of God through Israel. Peter also works in the prophets, in addition to the patriarchs — you might say no sermonic stone is left unturned! Think for a moment of the ways your knowledge of  Jesus is tied to the actions and words of those who have come before you. Who are the “patriarchs” and “prophets” in your world?

Psalm 4

“You gave me room when I was in distress.” One of my favorite lines from the Psalms. Think of those times in your life when the “weight of the world” has been pressing down on you. Is there any gift more precious than “room to breathe?” God is the God who makes room!

1 John 3:1-7

John tells the Beloved Community of the church some important things about the ways we should “be” in the world — what we should “do” as children of God. (Listen to the Lectionary Lab Live podcast for Delmer’s crusty old joke about “Do-be-do-be-do!”)

Luke 24:36b-48

At some point, we who have heard and read the Easter story dozens (if not scores or hundreds) of times might be tempted to ask, “Geez, Louise! What does the man have to do to convince these disciples that he’s really alive and he’s really real?” After hearing from the disciples from Emmaus, Jesus shows up in the midst of the group and scares…well, the bejeezus…out of everybody! They think he’s a ghost. A few calming words and a piece of broiled fish soon prove that he is, indeed, a very real presence with them. It is, once again, Jesus’ opening of their minds to the words of scripture that finally brings understanding. He also gives them the command, “…you are witnesses of these things.” The idea is that they should tell others what they have seen and heard (that’s what a witness does, isn’t it?)

How important is our own willingness to gain understanding from the study of scripture? And, what will we do with what we know?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I served in the Atlanta area in the early 90s.  While I was there, a popular radio station went through a format change.  For many years a man named Ludlow Porch had a folksy, genial, call-in talk show that sort of reminded you of his name: as you listened you felt as if you were sitting on the front porch, sipping on a glass of sweet tea or lemonade, gossiping with your neighbors about this and that.

The station decided that although Ludlow was very popular with the older, native born southerners, Atlanta was changing and they needed a new style to attract newer, hipper, edgier listeners.  So they got rid of him and brought in a minor league “shock jock,” kind of like Howard Stern.  He was rude, crude and obnoxious.  His daily topics were things like “Should Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses be shot of sight for disturbing the peace?”  He hated the church, he hated preachers.  He suggested to children that they should steal money from the offering plate and that they should sue their parents for forcing them to attend church.  When I moved to Nashville, one of the things I did not miss about Atlanta was hearing about his on-air antics.

Imagine my surprise when a few years later I read in a religious journal this item.  “A radio station “shock jock” who made regular, hateful diatribes against Christians has professed belief in Christ. (The DJ) was converted after leaving the station in a contract dispute and taking a job as car salesman. In an address to a church convention . . . (he) said he was impressed by the quiet witness of a fellow salesman.” Hmm, “quiet witness.” Must have been a Lutheran, don’t you think?

In one way or another, all of our lessons remind us of our call to be “witnesses,” to tell to others what we have seen and heard of the mighty deeds of God acting in Christ.  In Acts we read, “. . . whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” (verse 15)  In First John, the writer gives his witness, carefully differentiating between what he doesn’t know; “what we will be has not been revealed” and what he does “What we do know is this, when he is revealed, we will be like him . . .”(verse 2) And in the Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds the disciples of why he came, ‘to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, (verse 46) what must be done, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in his name to all nations  ,” (verse 47) and what their roles is to be, “You are witnesses of these things.” (verse 48.)

Yes, they are witnesses and so are.  And it is okay that most of us are quiet witnesses, like the man who was instrumental in the conversion of the shock jock in Atlanta so many years ago.  About a month ago an old preacher died somewhat quietly in Blue Ridge, Georgia.  His name was Fred Craddock and he was well-known among preachers and a few other folks.  Years ago he wrote a book called “Overhearing the Gospel.” He wrote about how people respond best to indirect and gentle witness, things they can observe and hear and think about on their on time and in their own way.  This is what being quiet witness is about, telling the truth as you know it and nothing more.

Witnessing is the telling of personal experience, what we ourselves have seen and heard and felt. When one is a witness in a court of law, the lawyers and judges generally don’t care about your opinion about what you think might have been the motivation for what happened – no, they simply want to know what you know, what you saw, what you heard.  How many times on Law and Order have we heard a lawyer say, “I object, calls for a conclusion from the witness.”  In witnessing, we don’t have to draw conclusion or make arguments – all we must do is tell the truth as we know it.  In a Christian context, this is not just any personal experience, rather it is the story of our experience with the word of life, the Risen Christ. For us to be a witness requires simply that we be willing to tell the world about our encounters with the Living word of God.  It is up to others to draw their conclusions in God’s own good time.

It was in seminary that I became friends with an African-American preacher named Larry Blackwell.  We lived and had churches in the same small town about 35 miles from the school we both attended and we car-pooled in together most mornings.  It was he who taught me the traditional preacher’s refrain, “Can I get a witness?” used to invite response from the congregation.  That Jesus’ question to us today:

“Can I get a witness?

Can I get somebody to tell my story to the world?”

“Can I get a witness?

Can I get somebody to tell their neighbor about the love of God in Christ?”

“Can I get a witness?

Can I get somebody to live a life of joyful service, loving friend and enemy alike?”

“Can I get a witness?

Can I?”

Amen and amen.

The Second Sunday of Easter for Year B (April 12, 2015)

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

Acts 4:32-35

There have been any number of movements to have us “get back to the early church.” Even the early church was trying to “get back” to the way Jesus did things. Here, the most radical idea is that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.” Makes sense, since Jesus owned nothing and lost what little he had to the gambling soldiers at the cross. Working out from that point, the church discovered that — together — they owned just enough to take care of one another. Nobody was too rich, and nobody was too poor.

Not sure how well that flies in our contemporary culture — but, that’s what it says! How will these words challenge you (individually, and all together) in considering what it is that you “own?”

Psalm 133

This is a power-packed three verses! Dwelling together in unity has always been a challenge for God’s people. But when it works, it really cooks! The pouring of oil is a sign of “anointing” for a purpose — in this case, the setting aside of Aaron as high priest among the Hebrew people. Taken in the context of kindred dwelling together, we might well see an illustration of our common call — our anointing — to be bearers of the steadfast love of the Lord in a world filled with discord, disunity, and all around dysfunction!

The dew from Mt. Hermon becomes the source of the headwaters of the Jordan River, which then flows and waters the whole land of Israel. It literally is the source of life. So, apparently, is the sense of God’s dwelling among us — with us — and flowing through us into the lives of others. What does it mean to you to think about being called as a bearer of God’s love and life-giving blessing to others?

1 John 1:1-2:2

John brings it own down to the “getting real” level of life. The story of Jesus is not just a bunch of theological mumbo-jumbo; it’s all about the things we have felt, heard, seen, and experienced. When it’s time to “share your faith,” this passage is a great model! Don’t worry if you don’t know all the “right words.” You know what God has meant to you, and that’s the gospel truth that we have the privilege of passing on.

John 20:19-31

The story of developing faith among the disciples after Easter continues in this week’s gospel text. We saw last week that John, Peter, and Mary Magdalene all had different experiences at the empty tomb. They each had to make up their minds about what to believe, in their own way, space, and time. Now, we get Thomas — the “give me the facts” guy — who can’t quite believe just based on the experiences of others. He has got to know it for himself.

Thomas is not so much a doubter as he is a realist. He’s practical. He doesn’t rush into something that he can’t fully commit to. I kind of admire him, when I stop and think about it. But his “coming to faith” is, in the end, not so much a matter of adding up the facts as it is encountering Christ face-to-face. Are there any ways that we, who will never “see” Jesus like Thomas did, still have an opportunity to encounter Christ for ourselves?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When you hear the word “church,” what picture comes to your mind? Just close your eyes and think “church?”  What did you see? A large neo-gothic cathedral? A picture perfect white frame building with arched windows and a high steeple? Perhaps a sturdy brick building with a bell tower? Maybe something more modern; with soaring glass walls and sharp angles vaulting toward the sky? Maybe a community gathered around a Word and Sacrament, sitting in folding chairs in a room used for something else most of the time?  Perhaps a stage with people playing drums and guitars and people with closed eyes and upraised arms singing words of praise? What do you see when you hear the word church?

I’d almost be willing to bet none you saw fifteen or twenty scared and lonely people, huddled behind closed and locked doors, whispering among themselves, jumping out of their skins at every noise from the outside. Whatever our image of church is, it usually doesn’t include locked doors and frightened people.

Yet that is the picture John paints of the very first church. First Church, Jerusalem: gathered together on that first Sunday after Jesus’ death, huddled and hiding, trembling and terrified, lonely and loveless. They’re not much of a church; no organ, no pews, no pulpit, no stained glass windows, no joy, no praise, no word, no sacrament. Nothing but a room to meet in and memories to talk about.

“What was it he said at Supper the other night? Something about the bread being his body and the wine his blood? Peter, what did he mean by that?”  “Did you hear what Mary Magdalene and the other women said? They said they went to the tomb this morning and Jesus’ body was missing, the stone was rolled away and the body was missing. And Mary Magdalene said she saw the Lord?”
“Well, sure, did anybody check her breath to see what she’d been drinking? She saw Jesus alive this morning? Right!  And so on.

They talked, they fretted; they worried themselves sick about what it all meant and what the Roman soldiers or the Chief Priests might be up to. And maybe, just maybe, somebody in the room was praying, but it’s not likely.

Doesn’t sound like much of a church does it? Preaching professor Tom Long said they are a picture of the church at its worst, “scarred and scared, disheartened and defensive.” Long wonders what sort of advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members?

THE FRIENDLY CHURCH WHERE ALL ARE WELCOME?  Hardly. Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality.

THE CHURCH WITH A WARM HEART AND A BOLD MISSION? Forget it. This is the church of sweaty palms and shaky knees and a firmly bolted front door.

Here is a church that has almost nothing going for it, has practically no claim to being church except . . . . except that when they gathered, the Risen Christ pushed through the locked door and stood among them.

That is what turned that little group of scarred and scared people into the church, the Presence of the Risen Christ in the room. It wasn’t anything they did or didn’t do, it wasn’t anything they said or didn’t say. Church happens when the gathered community pays attention to the presence of the Risen Christ in the room.

And, when that presence is ignored, nothing of any consequence can or does happen. It was the disciples’ awareness of and attention to the presence of the Risen Christ that made the difference then; and it is our awareness of and attention to the Presence of the Risen Christ that makes the difference now.

Jesus comes to us today, Jesus comes to us showing us his love for us by showing us the wounds he has suffered on our behalf. Jesus comes to us offering us peace and the fiery breath of the Holy Spirit. Jesus comes to us, to tell us, I love you and I have great plans for you!

Are we paying attention?

Amen and amen.

The Resurrection of the Lord (Easter Sunday) for Year B (April 5, 2015)

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“No! Wait! He’s Up!”

When I was in elementary school one of my favorite programs was what my brother and I called “The Wrestling Show.”  Whenever it was on, we parked ourselves on the floor as close as possible to the television set to cheer on our heroes Johnny Weaver and George Becker as they battled the evil Rip Hawk and Swede Hansen.

This was real low-rent entertainment, nothing like the arena spectacles they show now.  There was just a wrestling ring in a room in the High Point NC TV studio, with a couple of rows of fans sitting in folding chairs on one side.  The announcer was Charlie Harville, who also did the local sports news and play-by-play at high school football games and the occasional supermarket ad.

When I got older I figured out that the matches were carefully scripted morality plays in which you could rely on the bad guys to be gleefully nasty and to always cheat and the good guys to be clean-cut and moral and admirable representatives of truth, justice and the American way; but when I was nine it was all very, very real and very, very exciting.

The script always went like this.  Things would start out even, then the good guys would start to get the upper hand, then the bad guys would start cheating, the good guys were being thrown around the ring like rag dolls, one of the bad guys would put the good guy’s head between the ropes, the other bad guy would get out of the ring and grab a chair and hit the good guy with it.  All the while the announcer would be saying things like, “Oh, my goodness!”  “This is bad!”  “I don’t see how Johnny will get out of this.”  Then one of the bad guys would pin the good guy on the floor and the referee would start counting the three count and the announcers would say, “He’s down, he’s out, this is over! There’s no way out of this! No! Wait! He’s up!” And the good guys would miraculously recover and win.

It may seem silly, but “No! Wait! He’s up!” is the first thing I think of every Easter morning.  Long after I (mostly) forgot about TV wrestling, I remembered Charlie Harville screaming into the microphone “No! Wait! He’s up!” and the startling and exuberant “terror and amazement” of feeling utter and complete sadness and despair transformed into unexpected joy and hope.

The two Marys came to the tomb expecting to find a dead body that had been unceremoniously shoved into the grave before dark on Friday.  They assumed Jesus was dead; no they “knew” Jesus was dead, they had seen him die, they had seen or heard about his trial and torture, they had followed at a distance while he carried his own cross through the city to the place of execution.  They knew about all that had happened, and Mary Magdalene had followed the burial detail and knew where he was laid.  They had no doubt that Jesus, their Lord and Messiah, was dead.

And with him, all their hopes and dreams for a new day had died also.  The bad guys had won. The Devil, the Romans, the religious status quo, those with a vested interest in things staying like they were, the list could goes on and on, down through the ages.  For the Marys and the disciples and crowds who shouted Hosanna last Sunday, it was over.  It was done.  Yes, the bad guys cheated. Yes, the bad guys were cruel and nasty and gleeful as they executed in their evil schemes.  And none of that mattered, for they had won.

Evil had won and good was not only down for the count, good had been completely counted out and dismissed for ever.  “Oh my goodness. It’s over, it’s hopeless; there’s no way out of this.”

And then the Marys came to the tomb.  Instead of having to find someone to roll back the stone, they found it already moved.  Can’t you see them looking at one another in surprise and not a little wariness, perhaps wondering what new indignity Jesus, even in death, had been made to suffer.

Tentatively, they enter the tomb and saw a young man, dressed in white, casually sitting there, apparently waiting for them.  “They were alarmed,” Mark says. What an understatement!  Any one of us would have been scared out of our wits.

And then the young man looked at them and said, “No! Wait! He’s up!”  Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but that’s what he meant.  He actually said, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised.”

Life gets pretty heavy sometimes, doesn’t it?  Personal issues begin to weigh us down.  Health concerns for ourselves or a loved one.  Death intrudes on all our lives from time to time and we can feel ourselves almost overwhelmed by grief.  Finances have been tough for many the last few years and you begin to wonder how many times you can rearrange your money to make it last, to get by. Like the wrestling announcer said, “Oh my Goodness. It’s over, it’s hopeless, there’s no way out of this.”  And the Gospel says to us, “No! Wait!  He’s Up!”

The state of the world can get alarming.  It really doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican (or neither), Fox News of MSNBC; there is plenty going wrong in the world for us to fret about.  We can all look at ISIS and Russia and the Ukraine and the rebels in Nigeria and continuing racial unrest in America and the impasse in Washington, and the environment, and, and, and . . .  and throw up our hands and echo Charlie Harville “It’s over, it’s hopeless; there’s no way out of this.” And the empty tomb says, “No!  Wait! He’s up!”

The message of Easter, the message of the Resurrection of Jesus, is that God never gives up in the battle between good and evil.  To those who say that power and violence is the way to live, God answers with the weakness and sacrifice of the cross – a call to live as a servant people humbly caring for others in imitation of Christ.  And when the world apparently wins, when evil has the upper hand and beats us down, which it inevitably will– the Gospel calls us to look not only to the cross but to the empty tomb, to remember that on the other side of our cross there is the Christ.  With “No! Wait! He’s Up!” in our hearts, we can live each day free of fear as we go out among the dangers of this world to love and serve our Lord by loving and serving our Lord’s beloved children.

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear . . All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Acts 10:39b, 43

Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen indeed!

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

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

1) For Maundy Thursday:

 “Fill up your life with love”

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

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

 

2) For Good Friday: A “Holy Exchange”

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

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

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

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

 

3) Holy Week: Remembering the Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texts for Liturgy of the Palms

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

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

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

Texts for Liturgy of the Passion

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let the same mind be in you

that was in Christ Jesus, who,

though he was in the form of God,

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

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death

— even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name that is above every name,

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

 in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.”

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.