Year A — Day of Pentecost

Commentary for June 12, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

[If the passage from Numbers is chosen for the First Reading, the passage from Acts is used as the Second Reading.]

Acts 2:1-21
We have mused and bemused over this story for years now; most of you have tried to preach it every which way you could possibly think of. I heartily commend the sermon below by my Brother Bubba, Dr. Chilton, for a fresh take on the activity of God the Spirit in the midst of the believers on this Pentecost Sunday.

It may not be necessary, but I like to point out the miracle of “spiritual hearing” in this text — not the generally-assumed miracle of “speaking in tongues” that is so often accentuated. Vv. 6 and 8 clearly indicate that, no matter where you were from or what language you spoke, if you were in the room that day you heard the gospel proclaimed in your native tongue (I have, at times, wondered if I’d been there, would Peter have begun his address with, “Now, ya’ll settle down…?”)

Numbers 11:24-30
We don’t often think of this way, but Moses and 70 of his friends got together for a little “pre-Pentecost” warmup in the wilderness here in Numbers. God “comes down” to speak with Moses, and the spirit is divided ( whether in tongues of fire or not, we are not told) so that a portion rests on each of the elders.

There were two guys who were lagging behind — Eldad and Medad (I just love those names!) — but they got a dose of the spirit, too! Similarly to the Pentecost experience, all of these gentlemen began to speak the words of God at the prompting of the Spirit.

Three things strike me: 

  1. God evidently feels pretty strongly about God’s people sharing God’s word
  2. The task belongs to all of God’s people, not just the Moses’ and Peters of the church
  3. If God has called you, sooner or later God is going to find you no matter where you are (in the tent or not!)

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
The psalm reminds us of the creative work of the Spirit, echoing the opening passages of Genesis. It was the ruach (“wind, breath, spirit”) of God present in the beginning that brought order to the creation. It is the same ruach that brings renewal to our lives — re-creation, if you will, over and over again!

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
The Holy Spirit brings many gifts into the lives of Christ’s followers; the first gift is the ability (or will or desire, depending on your theological perspective) to say, “Jesus is Lord.” 

After that — both occasionally and consistently — the Spirit gives other gifts of grace that are expressed in the lives of Christians. Some of these expressions are for the purpose of “work” that needs doing; others are for “service” that needs rendering. But some of the greatest gifts are those that simply demonstrate God’s “grace”– unexpected, unearned, just because.

John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39
We read this snippet from John 20 earlier in Eastertide; sometimes overlooked in that dramatic account that results in Thomas’ profession of faith is the “breathing” of Jesus on his disciples so that they can receive the Spirit.

Is this a separate manifestation from the day of Pentecost? Why are there no “tongues” evident here (the spoken kind or the fiery kind?) What is the purpose of Jesus’ breath on the 10 (remember that Judas and Thomas were absent this day.)

This could be seen as a preparatory movement toward the coming experience of Pentecost; Jesus could be preparing their minds and hearts for the “coming” of the Spirit. Or, this could just be a Johannine quirk or twist in the text. As students of the Synoptic gospels like to say, “Oh, well — that’s John for you!”

The close tie to forgiveness of sins is interesting; but, in the context of the rest of the story, I believe that it is the closeness of the Savior himself that is the real key. Jesus, though different than he was when they knew him before his death, is still with them. He is close enough that they can feel his breath. And with the coming of the Spirit, that’s just how close he will always be.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The earlier cut from John 7 connects with Jesus’ language to the woman at the well in chapter 4; the Spirit is the source for “rivers of living water” in the lives of believers.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

In the fall of 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast with a fury that did not peter out until it reached the NC mountains. I know, I was there.

I had a group of young pastors meeting at a  retreat center. It was their first week together. They were from all over the country.

It had been a good week, a getting to know you week, but on Thursday night, it became a very interesting week indeed. It had been raining all day and we knew a hurricane had hit the Gulf, but we were in the mountains, for God’s sake. We were safe.

After dinner, I went out and sat on the lodge porch and looked at the rain on the lake, trying to do some last minute program adjustment. Suddenly, I realized what was happening right in front of my eyes. I thought, “Look at that, little tornadoes, water sprites, dancing across the lake. And waves. Big waves. We don’t have waves on mountain lakes.”

Then it really hit. Trees bending toward the earth, electricity going out, roofs lifting up. Light pole breaking off 5 feet in the air, power lines dancing around on the ground.

And, in the midst of that, I had a stupid attack. Someone came into the kitchen and said there was a tree down across the road that was the only way in and out of the Retreat Center. For some reason, he and I decided it was vital to get that tree off the road, in the middle of the hurricane.

So we got a chain saw and loaded a couple of young pastors in my old Jeep Cherokee, (Herb from South Dakota and I think John from Kentucky, I don’t remember who else was along.) We drove down until we got to the place where the trees had fallen across the road and began to work.

The wind was blowing, the rain was falling, the trees were slick, we made some progress on one and moved up to the next one. And then; well it’s kind of confusing but I’ve never been so scared in all my life, before or since.

The wind started blowing in a particularly hard and swirling manner, and the trees around us began to twist and twirl in the air and to crack and moan and make noises both mournful and threatening and looking up into the twisting tree tops was a vertigo inducing experience; and suddenly I and all those with me knew ourselves to be in mortal danger and we ran to the seeming safety of the car.

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

And here’s my question. If the Holy Spirit is indeed like a “violent wind,” like an untamed hurricane or a sudden and destructive tornado, what makes us think we want it in our lives? 

We say we want it. In my mother’s Methodist Church they sing a song that goes, “Breathe on me Breath of God”

It’s a comforting image; like a baby sleeping on your chest, or a wife or husband curled up, dozing at your back, breathing a sweet gentle breath.

Or, remember this one?
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.

That one’s best if you sway and hold your arms up.
Spirit of the Living God, Fall afresh on me.

Or close your eyes:
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.

Or, how about this one:
There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place,
And I know that it’s the spirit of the LORD

You know that do you? I wish I could be so sure, then maybe I wouldn’t be so afraid.

For you see, the scripture says that is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God, and I think our scriptures show us this fearfulness very clearly. I don’t think the Spirit is all that sweet and gentle. Indeed I think the Spirit is a lot like my Mama.

Let me tell you what I mean by that. When I was a young teenager; Mama and Daddy went to work in the Cotton Mill to supplement the family income. Up until then we got by on just the tobacco crop. They still raised the tobacco, they just did it after work and on weekends, and expected a lot of help from their children.

They would leave for the mill around 6:30 AM. They would leave us a list of things to get done, some around the house, most in the fields. They got home around 3:30. We tried to figure out how long it would take to get the jobs on the list done, then we always waited until the last possible minute to start working.

One day, we had done nothing on the list. It was about 11:00 or 11:30 AM. We were drinking Kool-Aid and eating peanut butter on cracker sandwiches and watching the Dialing for Dollars movie on Channel 8 out of High Point when:

“. . .suddenly, from the kitchen door there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire room where we were sitting . . .

and the name of that wind was Mama and she was some kind of mad. She had gotten sick at work and came home early, and instead of finding her children busy about the business she had left them to do, she found them sitting around, doing nothing.

Mama roared into the den, the fly swatter she had grabbed off the hook by the kitchen stove in hand. She drove us out of that house, across the yard and up the hill, into the fields where we were supposed to be hoeing tobacco.

We danced into that field.  You know: Mama’s hand on the back of your neck, swatting at your legs and behind, while you stretch your feet and bottom as far away from her as you can get.

Yes, brothers and sisters, I believe the Spirit in Acts 2 is a whole lot more like my Mama on a bad day than any sweet, sweet spirit, any gentle breath of God, we might conjure up.

It was fifty days after Easter. And the disciples had done very little in that time but hang out with Jesus, spending some quality time with their Risen Lord. Then he left, really left, ascended into heaven left.

And before he went, he told them to get busy, he told them in Acts 1: 8, “you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.” And then he ascended. And after he went up, an angel came to them and said, in essence, “Quit standing around. Get busy.” (Vs.11)

But, they really hadn’t been doing anything yet. And as our story opens, they were all together in one place, probably drinking first century Kool-aid, i.e. watered down wine, and munching on fig and bread sandwiches, looking out at the crowded city streets, which are, after all, more entertaining than a TV movie.

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting .”

And, as the rest of the story tells us, that wind gave them a job, and the ability to do the job, and then it drove them out into the street so that they would get busy doing that job.

Which is why the Holy Spirit, the mighty and powerful wind of God, is more like an angry Mama than any sweet baby or gentle lover.

And, on this Pentecost Sunday, 2011, that Holy Spirit is after us. It is after us to get out into the world with the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

It is after us to get busy with what we have been called to do, it is after us to quit worrying about being together in one room and to start worrying about going out together to witness to those in need of God’s love.

It is after us to look around us and see who it is that we know or know about who needs to know about the love and grace and forgiveness of God in Christ.

It is after us to know that the reason that we know that someone needs to know about Jesus is that it is our job to tell them or show them that love.

It is after us, and the only question right now is this:

Are we going to go voluntarily, or is Mama Spirit gonna have to make us?

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Commentary for June 5, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Acts 1:6-14
So many things happening in this brief passage…so many possible directions for a sermon!

It was just two weeks ago that much of America (and at least portions of the rest of the world) was watching to see what would happen on the so-called date of “the Rapture” — an apocalyptic prediction by self-appointed prophet Edward Camping that just didn’t quite materialize.

A reminder of Jesus’ words here in vv. 6-7 could have provided a little balance to the harebrained mania that infected too many well-meaning people. 

The main point is never looking somewhere else for what it is we’re supposed to be doing as Christ’s followers — we have our “marching orders” already! To summarize the words of Jesus and the angels from Ascension Day:

  • The Holy Spirit will come
  • You’ll be witnesses
  • Don’t stand around cloud-gazing     (technically, practicing nephylococcygia)

There you have it!

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
Among the many “titles” given to God in the Psalms, here we have one apropos for the theme of the Ascension: “The One Who Rides Upon the Clouds.” 

All I can say about that is, “Cool!”

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
The fact that Jesus was coming again was a very present hope, evidently, for the early church. They were hanging on –sometimes by the skin of their teeth– trusting that trouble would last only for a little while and that Jesus would make it all go away when he came back.

We may think them naive, and we may well scoff at the “rapture nuts” like Mr. Camping (see post above) who are dead-set sure they know the day and hour. But, the undeniable testimony of scripture is that there is coming a day when God will, indeed, bring this age to a close and will make everything new. Some day, it will be “the day.” 

Peter gives his followers a couple of key admonitions about how to live in the meantime, however long that turns out to be. They’re good words for us —

  1. Humble yourselves under God’s hand; God will exalt you in due time
  2. Cast your anxious cares on God; God cares for you
  3. Discipline yourselves, stay alert; evil can (and will) pounce on you and drag you down before you even know what’s happening
  4. Resist…you do have a choice, you know!

I did a little “Googling” to see what was out there in terms of information on lions attacking their prey — there are certainly some pretty disturbing images if you want to check them out. However, I did find this brief video which illustrates very well that it IS possible to resist. In other words, even the lion doesn’t always win!

Lion and Prey video here

John 17:1-11
Oh, how long until we can live into the prayer that Jesus prayed for us as he prepared to leave the world? A good question for preacher and parishioners hearing the gospel this week: what will you do to move a little closer to being “one” with another person or group who understands God differently than you do?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Garrison Keillor once said, “The result of every Lutheran church fight is a new congregation named Peace.”  I thought that was funny until I became pastor at Friedens Lutheran in North Carolina.  Friedens means peace in German and when the church was founded in 1745 that’s the language the congregation spoke. 
There was another Lutheran church a few miles down Friedens Church road, also named Peace, and sure enough; it was the result of a church fight back in the 1890s.  These folks went Keillor one better and had a fight and ended up with two churches named Peace!
Jesus prays in John’s Gospel, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Luke, in Acts, writes that “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”
The scriptures call us to be united as the community of faith, yet we look around and see much disunity in the church.
Most of us agree that we desire unity in the church; we want “oneness.”  We regret the divisions and debates that drive us apart.  We do not want to be divided; yet all too often, we are.
Why?  Why can’t we get our act together?  What pushes us apart in spite of our desire to be together?
Scripture is clear on two points here:
1) Our disunity springs from our seeking to do things our own way, and . . .
2) The key to unity and oneness is seeking to do things God’s way.
Whenever the people of God lose focus on god, trouble begins; not as a punishment for sin, but as a natural result of spiritual creatures forgetting to take care of spiritual things.
It is therefore in our unity with God that we find our unity with one another.
The translators of the New Testament into English were trying to find a word for the new relationship to be found with God in Christ.
They hit upon the Middle English word atone which came from the two words
at one.
It seems a slight difference, doesn’t it?  But in such small things, large and important things reside.
For we have made atone a chore a task, a thing we  must do to make up for, to pay for, for to  right the wrong that we ourselves have done.
Which is not what at one means at all.  AT ONE means that we are at peace with God, so that we can be at peace with one another. 
And that at-one-ness is an act and gift of God; not an act or gift of us.
In the midst of the difficult prose of John’s Gospel, we find the message that Christ makes us one with God and with each other.
Our calling is to remember that we are one with God and with one another and to act toward each other in ways consistent and reflective of that oneness.
God has made peace with us and God has made peace between us.
Dr. Paul Tournier once observed, “There are two things we cannot do alone; One is to be married; the other is to be a Christian.”
We need the church in order to be Christian; no matter how inconvenient and uncomfortable it might be to get along with the other Christians.
Just remember; whatever troubles we are having with them, some of them are having the same troubles with us.
We need the church in order to be Christian; if for no other reason than that we cannot learn to love and be loved in isolation.
It is within the daily bump and grind of living and working together as the people of God that we find out what it means to be forgiven for our failures, praised for our efforts, appreciated for our virtues, prayed for in our sorrows, helped in the midst of our troubles and loved in spite of ourselves.
It is within a community of faith that we learn to be genuinely loving and praising and forgiving and helping toward others.
We need each other in order to practice and learn to be Christian.
My mother recently told me a story she had heard about the housing shortage during World War II.
A woman recalled that when she was about ten, she and her family were forced to live in two rooms as a friend’s house because there was nothing else available.
One morning at church a very nice lady said to her five year old sister, “You’re such a lovely family.  It’s too bad you don’t have a home.”
The little girl thought a minute then blurted out, “Oh we have a home.  We just don’t have a house to put it in.”
Jesus prayed that we would find a home with one another, a place where our at one ness with God becomes a strong at one ness with each other.
May this church be both a house and a home; a place where we are truly one people, one family of God, one community in Christ, one body living and working together in pursuit of one thing; prayerfully seeking to know and do the will of God.
Amen and amen.

Year A — The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Commentary for May 29, 2011
(Apologies to those who may have read a previous version of this post, containing the wrong scripture references for this Sunday. We inadvertently published the readings and commentary for Year B…but, hey, what’s a year or two among friends, right?)

Click here for today’s readings

Acts 17:22-31
The old saying goes: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” (not sure who actually said that first.)

Paul’s comment at the Aeropagus actually fits quite well in contemporary society — “I see you are religious in every way.” We religiously head to the gym, we religiously support our favorite teams, we religiously hang out at our favorite restaurants where many of us religiously order pretty much the same thing each time we’re there.

We have lots of religious items on the spiritual menu, as well. Some say that all religions and spiritual traditions lead to the same place. Not so sure the Apostle agrees with that. It is his contention that “God…has fixed a day on which [God] will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom [God] has appointed…by raising him from the dead.”

Psalm 66:8-20
It’s a good thing that God has not rejected our prayers, nor has God removed God’s everlasting love from our lives. Even when we get testy or whiny about the nets that ensnare us or the burdens laid on our backs.

The “fire and water” language in the psalm echoes the promise given through the prophet: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2, NIV)

1 Peter 3:13-22
When I read these verses as a teenager, I was intrigued by the King James language that exhorted us to “be instant, in season and out.” For some reason, I could never get the image of a Lipton Cup of Soup out of my head — ready, warmed up, and available at a moment’s notice.

How do I keep my faith ready, warmed up, and available for sharing at a moment’s notice? “Always be ready…” the NRSV proffers.

Another of the features of my evangelical upbringing was learning that I could be “certain” about the tenets of the faith — this was touted as the reason I could always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who might “need Jesus.”

I don’t suppose we ever got around to reading v.16 that much. Gentleness and reverence — especially for another person’s faith perspective — were not generally on the list of attributes of a faithful witness, as I was taught it.

Thank God for patience — on the part of God who gently lets us mature in our faith, and from the many friends and strangers (and parishioners) who have put up with my feeble attempts at explaining the hope I have within me because of Christ.

John 14:15-21
Love for Jesus translates into obedience to the things that Jesus has asked us to do. We do the same for those that we love in our earthly relationships, and rightly so. There are those persons that I love so much and so truly that, literally, I would do anything within my power to accomplish anything they asked me to do.

A preacher friend of mine was wont to use the line: “The answer is, ‘Yes, Lord;’ now, what’s the question?” I like that.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Are We Done?

the Lutheran church of the Holy Family in Highlands, NC worshipped in a house, in a two car garage which had been nicely fixed up as a Chapel.

There was a pulpit and an Altar and a piano and three rows of folding chairs. It was a tight space. Nong sat with his family in the back row; he was 4 years old had been adopted from Thailand. During the service, he usually sat in the floor and played with his dinosaurs.

And every Sunday, after Communion, when everyone stood up for the Post-Communion Blessing, in that brief of moment of silence before the Pastor speaks, Nong would loudly ask his mother, “Are we done?”

This “are we done?” question was on the minds of Jesus’ disciples in our Gospel lesson. This text is a part of Jesus’ long sermon/conversation in the Upper Room after the Last Supper. It starts right after Judas leaves to go to the temple to betray Jesus and continues for four chapters.

And, the bottom line is that the disciples are trying to figure out, “Are we done?” “Is it all over?” “What happens next?” “What about us?”

And Jesus is trying to give them a “Yes, but also No” answer, which they really don’t understand.

The “Yes” part of the answer is that he is indeed leaving, it is indeed over. Jesus tries to get them to understand what the next three days will be about: death, hell, resurrection, time spent with the disciples, then Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Frankly, it’s all just too weird and confusing and frightening, and they don’t really get it.

“Where are you going?” “No, we can’t come if we don’t know the way?” “”Why don’t you speak plainly?” they ask him. “What does he mean by that?” they ask each other. No, they really don’t get it. Why is he leaving, now, so soon? Is it really over? And Jesus’ answer is Yes . . . and No.

Yes, in that the way it’s been for the last few years is over. This close, intimate, personal relationship between me and all of you is over, Jesus says, and it can never be repeated. My time on earth is done.

But, no, in that the community of love we started together is not over. And will never be over. It has begun in us and will continue forever. Because, when I leave, I will send into your midst the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to hold you together and to lead you forward.

So, no, it isn’t over. We aren’t done. In reality, we’ve only just now gotten started.

And the mark of this ongoing Jesus Movement/Christ Community is love. Which is simple to say and hard to do.

GK Chesterfield said; In one place in the Bible, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors. In another place he tells us to love our enemies. This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.

Love is hard, particularly the sort of love Jesus is talking about here, AGAPE, self-giving, sacrificial love which seeks nothing for itself but instead seeks only to aid and help the other. Love is hard; especially when we are invited by Jesus to love people we don’t really like.

And of course, this is not the only place Jesus calls upon us to love each other in this way.

The text says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

And what are Jesus’ commandments? Well didn’t he say they were all about loving God and each other?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; and the second is like unto it – you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In another place he says: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Over in the 21st chapter of John, after his death and resurrection, Jesus has a dialog with Peter on the beach:

“Peter, do you love me? Feed my lambs.
Peter, do you love me, Tend my sheep.
Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

So it is clear that Jesus wants us to love one another. The problem is, loving each other is very hard business. Loving people you like is difficult enough; how can Jesus’ order us, command us to love even those we don’t like?

What are we to do? How do we begin to love others in the way Our Lord loved us? There are two hints to the how of this in our Gospel lesson.

The first is buried within verse 15, the first line of our text:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

It is a part of our basic human nature that we hear these words as law, as a rule, as a command to be obeyed, as a work to be achieved.

Our ears hear Jesus saying something he didn’t say. We hear:

‘If you want to prove to the world and to God that you love me, then you will have to show it by loving one another.”

That’s what we hear; but that’s not what Jesus said.

Jesus gave us a word of gospel, not law; a word of promise, not judgement.


If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

If you are a child of God, you will act like one.

If you are connected to the Christ, you will bear the Christian fruit of love.

Jesus’ point is that the capacity to love people is not something we develop or achieve; it is rather the gift of God received in our relationship of love with the Christ.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments,” is a gospel promise that being in relationship with the living Lord is a life-changing, transforming experience.

As Christ begins to live more and more within us, as we open our lives more and more to Christ’s leading, we find ourselves more and more able to treat others in a loving and respectful manner.

The loving relationship we have with Christ begins to spill over into loving relationships with those around us.

And, Jesus implies, though I am leaving, the love community we have created will continue to live and grow into the future.

The Second Key is found in verse 16:

“And I will ask the Father, and he will send you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth . . .”

This advocate, this counselor, this Spirit of Truth; is in us, with us at all times. The Holy Spirit is available to nurture us; to lead and guide us in loving others as Christ has loved us.

Jesus says, “Yes, we’re done with me being with you. But I will not leave you orphaned, alone, unloved and uncared for. No, you’re not done with the life of loving one another with the love of God. I will send the Spirit to carry you along the rest of the way.”

Jesus comes to us today to assure us that in the midst of life’s surprising twists and turns and comings and goings; he will never be done with loving us.

Our calling today is to respond to that promise and that love by loving one another.

And that is a calling with which we are never done.
Amen and amen

Year A — The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Commentary for May 22, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Acts 7:55-60
The contrast between Stephen — “the first Christian martyr” (if you don’t count Jesus)– and Saul is striking. Stephen is older, more experienced; Saul is a “young man.” Stephen is filled with the Spirit, while Saul is filled with rage and zeal for what he thought was right, like everyone else in the crowd that day. Stephen gets a straight-shot view through to heaven, where he can see Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Saul, of course, has yet to gain his spiritual eyes. He is blind to these details, even as he will become blind on the road to Damascus in just a little while.

Not to be missed are the visual and vocal cues connecting Stephen’s faith in God to that of Christ at his own execution. Stephen commits his spirit to Christ, as Christ had done in commending his spirit to God. Amazingly, Stephen prays– as did Jesus on the cross– a form of the “Father forgive them” prayer.

What kind of example do we have here from this outstanding deacon of the church, as well as from Christ himself? “Do not hold this sin against them,” Stephen prayed. We don’t usually want to let those who have sinned against us off that easily. Like the bumper sticker says, “I don’t get mad — I just get even!”

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
This psalm text has connections both to the experience of Stephen (see above) and of Christ. Verse 5 is a poignant prayer: “Into your hand I commit my spirit….” Notice that the rest of the verse indicates a future that can already be claimed as present: “…you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”

Perhaps a part of living with the kind of vivid faith exemplified by Stephen and Jesus is the realization that God’s promises for the future actually reach to our present reality. As the psalmist says, “My times [past, present, and future] are in your hand….” 

1 Peter 2:2-10
Babies are sweet, aren’t they? Bring a newborn baby into any room, and there will be “coos” and “aahs” issued from every direction. We just love to hold them, cuddle them, smell them, and generally “make do” over the little ones!

But babies are a mess, too; let them get hungry, or wet, or dirty and the object of our affections is no longer quite so appealing. We’re soon looking for the momma or the daddy in order to hand them off. Nobody likes dealing with an upset baby!

All the more reason to see Peter’s analogy as an apt description of the necessity of nurturing new Christians in the faith. It is an exciting prospect to receive young members of the faith into our churches, through confirmation or “profession of faith.” We love to “coo and aah” over such events, and everybody in the congregation feels a bit like proud parents. But, then the messy work of growing these young converts sets in.

We might well want to put them aside — perhaps give them to the pastor or the Christian Ed person — or, better yet, the “youth director” — until their spiritual maturity has been accomplished. But, Peter says, it takes the hard work of building one stone at a time in order to see God’s house raised to fullness. “Babes in Christ” don’t automatically turn into “royal priests” overnight or automatically.

It takes a church — the whole church — to raise a Christian in his or her faith. 

John 14:1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Easy for you to say, Jesus!

We have plenty of trouble all around us, everyday, don’t we? It’s pretty hard for us to see our way through, sometimes, when it seems the effluvia of life just keeps piling higher and higher. The disciples said as much on this day when Jesus sought to bestow on them a bit of the heavenly vision.

Jesus: “I am going to prepare a place for you…and you know the way to that place.”
Thomas: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?”
Philip: “Yeah, Jesus, just show us the Father, then we’ll be satisfied.”

Oh, those crazy disciples — always asking Jesus for a little more of this and a bit more of that. As if Jesus himself might not be able to handle it and ought to just go ahead and call God in!

Of course, as Christ’s followers, all we ultimately get is him — just Jesus. “I am the Way…” he replied to Thomas. “You walk with me and follow me, and you’re going to end up just where you need to go” — that kind of thing. No other roadmaps or directional signs.

I like the way that Eugene Peterson puts it in The Way of Jesus: “To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always derivative from Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. To follow Jesus means that we can’t separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it. To follow Jesus is as much, or maybe even more, about feet as it is about ears and eyes.” (p. 22).

So — let’s put some feet to it and keep following Jesus!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
My least favorite part of family road trips was when the boys got into the “Why?” question game.  It is the most irritating game on earth.  You’re not familiar with it?  It’s really simple and really funny.  Well, it’s really funny if you’re a seven or eight year old boy. 
All you do is ask your unsuspecting and distracted parent a simple question.  Then no matter what the parent says, you respond with “Why?”  “When are we stopping for lunch?”  “In about an hour.”  “Why?” “Because we’ll be in Morganton and can go to MacDonald’s” “Why?” “Because everybody can get something they like at McDonalds” “Why?”And so on. 
The game for the kids is to see how long it takes the parent to figure out what’s going on.  The game for the parent is see how long they can maintain their carefully arrived at philosophical position opposing corporal punishment.
As much as it used to irritate me on long road trips, I think “Why?” is the most important question we can ask ourselves. Didn’t someone say that the “unexamined life is not worth living?”
To go through life just doing what’s expected, what’s normal, what everyone in our community or job or country, has always done without bothering to ask the why questions is a sad and ultimately unfulfilling way to live..
Peter writes to the early Christians that they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  Okay that’s great, that’s wonderful, that’s exciting, that’s really Good News.
But here’s the question, “Why?”  Why were they chosen?  Why did God pick them, us, to be holy and royal and God’s own?  Why?  What have we done to deserve this?
Well nothing actually.  Nothing whatsoever. It’s all God.  It’s all grace. 
In his book, What’s so amazing about Grace, Phillip Yancy says that back in the 1950s a group of religion professors met in Oxford, England for a conference on comparative religions.
One day, as some of them sat around a table in the Commons room drinking tea grappling with the question, ‘Is there one belief unique to the Christian faith?’
C.S. Lewis wandered into the room
“What’s going on?” he asked.  Someone told him that his colleagues were discussing the question, “Is there one belief unique to Christianity?”
Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy; it’s grace.”
Anne Lamott, in Traveling Mercies, tells about how she found herself broke, drunk, bulimic, depressed, and addicted to drugs.  She said, “I could no longer imagine how God could love me.”  Desperate, she set an appointment with an Episcopal priest.  She told him, “I’m so messed up that I don’t think God can love me.”  The priest replied, “Gad has to love you.  That’s God’s job.”
Why were we chosen, royal, holy?  Because of the pure, unbridled, unadulterated, unmitigated, unreasoned love of God.  Why?  Because God has to love us; has to choose us.  That is God’s job; that is who God is.
And a voice from the backseat says, “Why?”  Not why as in, “Why has God loved us, chosen us, made us royal and holy? but why as in “Why has God called us together, what are we chosen for, what is our purpose, our reason for being?”
Peter tells us that God has chosen us “so that (we) may proclaim the mighty acts of (the one) who has called (us) out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.”
We are proclaimers, witnesses, testifiers, tellers of truth, speechifiers of the spirit, religious raconteurs.
Whether we stand in a pulpit or stand by our mailbox; whether we write out lesson plans for the classroom or shoot from the hip in the grocery aisle; whether we volunteer for a weeklong mission trip in Haiti or mow the neighbor’s grass and take out his garbage when he’s in the hospital; we are called to show to the world that God’s mighty acts of love have touched and changed our lives.
And in so doing, we will be the agents, no, the angels, through whom God touches and changes the lives of those around us.
A few years ago a tornado tore through Lafayette TN.  “The next day a group of men from a church in Nashville showed up with chain-saws and pickup trucks.  They spent the next three days cutting up fallen trees and hauling the debris away.  A newspaper reporter interviewed one of the men with the chainsaws. . . When the reporter asked (one of the blue-collar men) why he and his friends came to help, he said, “We want to be god with skin on.” (What’s the Least I can Believe and Call Myself a Christian Dr. Martin Thielen)
We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.
Why? Because the world is full of broken and lonely people who sit in darkness with broken and lonely lives and they need to be touched with the mighty acts of God. 
And we have been called to love them and touch them and care for them in the name of god.
Amen and amen.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
Bonus Sermon (Just for Fun)
By the Rev. Dr. John P. Fairless
(aka Bubba II)
John 14:1-14

It was Professor Harold Hill, in a hit Broadway musical, who came to the small town of River City, Iowa and famously stated, “Folks, we’ve got trouble, right here in River City…with a capital T that rhymes with P that stands for pool!”
The Music Man got’em all shook up, inciting mass concern among the parents of River City that their young boys were being seduced into a world of sin and vice by the new pool table in town. The answer was, of course for all those concerned to cough up enough cash in order to finance a town marching band – complete with horns, uniforms, and…of course… a leader!
The “Professor,” unfortunately, was nothing but a con man and planned to make off with the money in the middle of the night…if not for the fair charms of local librarian and piano teacher, Marian Paroo. Ah, the things we do for love!
It all worked out in the end for Robert Preston and Shirley Jones in the movie version – with 76 trombones to lead the big parade into happiness!
Harold Hill was right about one thing…
  1. Trouble — with a capital T— is part of our lives.
  • Jesus, speaking to his disciples, begins by saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”
  • We may think, “That’s easy for you to say, Jesus!”
  • We have all sorts of worries pressing on us – jobs, families, illnesses, relationships…
  • What does Jesus mean, we shouldn’t be “troubled?”
Of course, as is most often the case, Jesus was trying to get his disciples – and that means us – to see deeper than the surface of things. He called them to remember that ultimately, their faith was placed in God and that God had always proven faithful to them in the past.
Now, as the very presence of God in their midst, they could trust him, as well…in fact, they could trust him for their present as well as for their future.
Verses 2-4 have become one of the Bible’s most precious promises for God’s people; we draw much comfort from knowing that…
  1. Jesus has promised to be with us both now and forever.
    • Since we started telling this story of Jesus at the time of his birth, we have emphasized his character as “Emmanuel” – God with us.
    • There is no circumstance in our lives, no situation we ever find ourselves in, that God is not there.
    • Jesus himself said, “I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.”
    • The “end of the age” is the defining limit of this world – whether we approach that limit through death, or whether we are alive on the day that Jesus comes again to bring time on this earth to a close.
    • As long as this life lasts, Jesus is with us
    • But in this discussion, Jesus told the disciples, “But I’m not just with you now…I’m making plans with God to be with you forever. I am going to prepare a place for you…”
    • And what a place it will be!
    • I love the old gospel song, “I”ve Got a Mansion, Just Over the Hilltop”
…in that bright land where we’ll never grow old;
and some day yonder, we will never more wander
but walk the streets that are purest gold.”
Well, amen, Brother Ben! We could just stop and talk and rejoice and wonder about heaven for a little while this morning, couldn’t’ we? To tell you the truth, we don’t really know what heaven will be like…but from every description we have in the Bible, it is going to be BEYOND GREAT!
But bless those disciples and their little hearts…they didn’t quite get it on this day when Jesus tried to tell them all these things. They were a little confused…and they wanted a little more explanation and confirmation…
  1. We always want just a little more from Jesus, don’t we?
    • Thomas – remember, he’s the one who got “frozen in his faith” later, after the crucifixion and resurrection – Thomas is always very honest and forthright
    • He says, “But we don’t know the way Jesus! We don’t know this place you say you are going!”
    • And Philip, another disciple, chimes in: “Yeah…and besides, as much as we like you, Jesus, we really wish you would just show us God. If we could see HIM, then we’d know everything was going to be okay!”
    • These boys hadn’t learned much, had they? They’d already forgotten the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration – Jesus, Moses and Elijah having a little chat, Peter scurrying about to build three altars to worship all three men, and the thunderous voice of God saying, “This is my Son – worship HIM!”
    • Like the disciples, we all have to be reminded some times: all you get is Jesus.
    • Our faith is placed in Christ – and Christ alone.
    • We don’t get any other evidence, we don’t get any other option or choice.
    • We don’t get any other Savior – and we don’t need one!
    • I am the way…,” Jesus said to Thomas that day. “You believe in God…you can believe in me.”
That’s what it all boils down to for us, folks; belief – hope – trust– FAITH.
So, just how is it that we “believe” in Jesus and follow him to this wonderful place with God that he told us about?
The answer is right there in the passage…but especially in v. 12: “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these….”
  1. Here’s the truth: you live the Jesus life by walking in the Jesus way.
    • We are called to follow Jesus…that’s what it means to be a disciple.
    • If am going to follow a guide who has promised to take me somewhere, it means that I need to listen to what he says, walk the same way that he walks, and do the same things that he does.
    • It wouldn’t make much sense for me to pay a guide to take me to the best fishing hole or the top hunting ground and then to say, “Well, thanks for the advice, but I believe I”ll just try it my way!”
    • In the spiritual life – which really can’t be separated from our physical lives or our emotional lives or our intellectual lives – we are following Jesus. He is not only our Savior – he is our guide.
    • So…we listen to what he says…we walk the way that he walks…we do the things that he does.
    • And that’s how we end up where we need to go…with Jesus!
I like the way that Eugene Peterson puts it in The Way of Jesus:
“To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always [derived from] from Jesus…..
To follow Jesus means that we can’t separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it. To follow Jesus is as much, or maybe even more, about feet as it is about ears and eyes.” (p. 22).
I want to ask each of us to answer that basic question here today: am I living the life of Jesus by walking in the way of Jesus?
Am I living a life that is true?
Am I following the one whom I have professed as Savior and Lord?
If not…then what are you waiting for? Today is a good day to put some feet into trusting God and following Christ.

Year A — The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Commentary for May 15, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Acts 2:42-47
This Easter thing was really starting to take off by the end of Acts 2! The “church” (and there was still only one at this time) was devoted to some pretty amazing things: teaching, fellowship, communion and prayers. 

Ever long for “the good old days” when those were the things we focused on…instead of board meetings, ecclesiastical folderol, soothing the saints’ hurt feelings and such?

Though not particularly a proponent of the “recover the church of the 1st century” type of movements, I do think there is something to be said for asking ourselves: how did we get sidetracked from these things? And how could we get back some of our “devotion?”

It’d be nice to see a few added to our number (as opposed to the inverse of addition) for a change, don’t you think?

Psalm 23
Are you kidding? Me — comment on Psalm 23? 

It is pretty obvious why the Committee for Consultation on Common Texts pairs this “Shepherd Psalm” with the gospel reading from John 10, concerning the voice of the shepherd. The Lord is a faithful Shepherd, performing everything expected of a competent sheepherder…and then some!

All analogies are limited, and even this beautiful metaphor isn’t perfect. But, the words have proved meaningful for many thousands of years. This is one of those passages that you just read…then let it do its work.

1 Peter 2:19-25
Peter was no doubt mindful of the Isaiah 53 background of this text: “All we like sheep have gone astray…” (v.6) and “by his wounds we are healed…” (v. 5.)

Wounds were something that many of his listeners were evidently familiar with. He speaks to slaves who have been beaten by their masters, presumably unjustly. Peter draws a connection for them, reminding them that all of Christ’s wounds were undeserved.

It is perhaps difficult for today’s preacher to parallel the experience of being beaten as a slave for our congregants. Maybe we are accused unfairly from time to time in our experience; few, if any of us, will ever be beaten for “standing up for what is right.” 

Still, like the slaves of Peter’s times, if we deserve such accusation, that’s one thing. If we are innocent, God will have to take care of it. It may not seem like much comfort, but Jesus understands.

John 10:1-10
In today’s reading, Jesus presents himself as the gate of the sheep pen, the place where the sheep are kept safe and secure. It is not actually until verse 11 that he says, “I am the good shepherd.” But that’s probably close enough, since most of us are going to naturally use the shepherd metaphor for this sermon, anyway!

What we do learn about Jesus — whether gate or keeper or shepherd — is that he has come to do the opposite of the “thief,” who wants to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus has come to bring life, and to bring it “abundantly.”

What a cool word: perissos in Greek, which in this context means, “superior, extraordinary, surpassing, uncommon.” (Thayer/Smith Greek lexicon, online here) Again, whatever else may be said about the life Jesus came to share with us — and that we share in our Easter faith — it is way, way better than pretty much anything else we can imagine!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The Shepherd of the Sheep”

Will Rogers said that the only thing he knew about politics was what he read in the papers.

I find myself with an even greater handicap, the only thing I know about sheep and shepherds I read in a Bible commentary.

I know more about mules than I want to know. We had two when I was growing up and we used them in raising tobacco. I know a lot about cows. We had one that we milked by hand, and my uncle had a dairy next door. I even know a considerable amount about hogs having helped my wife’s father with his for several years.

But again, I don’t know anything about sheep and shepherds, except what I read in the commentaries.

Now here’s an interesting thing that occurred to me this week. Bible commentaries are written by biblical scholars, who learned what they know from an older generation of biblical scholars, who learned from an even older generation of biblical scholars, so . . .
I began to wonder how far back you have to go until you find a biblical scholar who actually, really, knew anything about sheep and shepherds.

These reflections led me to two very comforting conclusions:
1) most other preachers don’t know anything about sheep or shepherds either.
2) The point of the text isn’t about sheep and shepherds anyway.

Jesus is here establishing that he is more than just another religious leader, or rabbi, or priest or prophet; he is the messiah of God.

A few quick things from the Bible commentaries might be helpful to us here.

In the Hebrew Scriptures the people of Israel are often referred to as the “flock of God.” The kings and priests and prophets of Israel were given the responsibility for taking care of God’s flock.

And, as the historical parts of the Hebrew Scriptures tell us, they often failed at this task; there were many bad kings, lousy priests and false prophets. When Jesus compares himself to a shepherd, it’s not really a farm image; it’s more a religio/political one.

The important truth he is speaking is that whereas the previous leaders had been poor or incomplete or unfaithful leaders, or, to use the language of the text: “strangers” and “thieves and bandits,” Jesus lays claim to being “the shepherd of the sheep,” and “the gatekeeper,” and “the gate.”

In other words, Jesus is saying, “In the past, God gave the responsibility for the people of God over to the kings of the country and the priests of the temple and the prophets of Israel, but now God has given over that responsibility to me, Jesus of Nazareth.”

There are two important implications for us as we think about this text: One is that membership in the “God community” is a matter of hearing and responding to the voice and call of God in the world. The key verses here have to do with voices and listening.

In verses 3-5, Jesus says something like this, “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

We are Christians, the people of God, because God’s voice has gotten through the static of our hectic, noisy, modern lives. We are Christians because the “still, small voice,” of God has slipped in underneath the busyness of our existence and tugged at the apron strings of our hearts, getting our attention and moving our souls.

Christianity is not so much a matter of believing certain things as it is of hearing that voice and trusting it with your life. Jesus calls to us in the Scriptures, “Come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” he says. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” he promises. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” he pleads with us.

Over the years I have had some people speak some very kind words to me about my preaching, and I have no false modesty, I appreciate the praise.

But it is important that we all recognize that the voice we hear in preaching is not the preacher’s voice; it is the voice of the shepherd speaking through the preacher’s efforts and sometimes in spite of them.

It’s the same voice that speaks through the Scriptures and through the liturgy and through the hymnody and through the Choir Anthems.

It is the voice of deep crying out to deep, of Christ’s spirit seeking out our spirits and calling us to come into the presence of the lover of our souls.

I said there were two important implications. One is that Jesus’ voice calls to us. The second is that life in Christ is a good, rich and abundant life. I do not mean by this what is sometimes called the “prosperity Gospel,” what we in seminary called “blab it, grab it” theology. Prosperity Gospel advocates say that God wants you to be rich, wants you to be swimming in material blessings. They interpret “abundant life” in terms of houses and cars and jobs and bank accounts.

This is most assuredly NOT what Jesus meant by an “abundant life.” 

Jesus meant a life that is full of the will and way of God. Jesus meant a life that is directed toward loving deeds and peaceful goodness to our neighbors. Jesus meant a life in which our cup is running over with an awareness of the goodness of God so much so that it naturally spills out and spills over and intersects with every aspect of our lives. Jesus meant a life full of random acts of kindness toward those around us. Jesus, quite simply, meant a life full of God, which means a life full of love!

Today, the voice of the true shepherd calls to us across the years. Today, the gatekeeper comes and opens the way to the green pastures of God’s love. Today, the gate itself swings wide and beckons us to enter into the community of God’s faithful. Today, Jesus speaks to us in the language of the heart, and spreading wide his arms and his heart he says, I love you. Follow me!

Amen and Amen.