Year A –The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14)

Commentary for August 7, 2001
Click here for today’s readings

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
“And they took Joseph to Egypt….”

As the children of Israel read and heard the tagline to this story told for generation after generation, they could look at one another with a knowing smile and nod of the head. The commonly spoken wisdom would have been something like,  “Don’t worry about Joseph, God has a plan for him in Egypt!”

Joseph, of course, gets more press than any of the other patriarchs in Genesis; he has “star power” and is put in place just in time for God to accomplish the salvation of Jacob-now-called-Israel and his extended family. But, it’s a rough ride along the way!

Like ancient Israel, we know that God has a plan for Joseph. Do we trust that God has a plan for us, as well?

Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Psalm 105 affirms the events of the Joseph saga and offers a theology of providence concerning God’s presence in the midst of Joseph’s difficulties. God’s presence in and purpose for Joseph’s life ultimately are for the benefit of all God’s people. We may face our own “feet hurt with fetters” and “necks bound with iron,” but God’s testing brings blessing when we “seek God’s presence continually.”

1 Kings 19:9-18
Earth, Wind, and Fire. 

Quite a spectacular show that Elijah experiences after his little sulk in the cave. How many of us, preachers and pastors, have felt something akin to Elijah’s emotions after a “great victory” like the one at Mt. Carmel –only to come crashing down to the reality that not everybody is lining up to tell us we’re the greatest servant God has ever sent?

Elijah felt alone — and we serve in a lonely profession sometimes — but the truth was, he wasn’t alone. God was present most stunningly in the sound of sheer silence. Oh, and then there were the other 7,000 servants God had preserved for God’s self in Israel.

You and I may not be called to a cave to understand, but we are never, ever alone. Now move on along.

Psalm 85:8-13
A guest comment from The Rev. Dr. Ruth Hamilton, Assistant to the Secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with gratitude from the Bubbas:

This afternoon I was looking over the texts for August 7, and encountered one of my favorite medieval motifs:  the four daughters of God.  You will find them in Psalm 85:10-11.  The old translation was “Mercy and Truth have met each other; Justice and Peace have kissed.”  The NRSV doesn’t do it justice.  It is a charming picture.

This motif appears in countless medieval works of art and literature (music, too, if I remember correctly).  It is a scene of reconciliation because the four daughters of God had quarreled after the fall about the fate of humankind.  Truth and Justice demanded punishment.  Mercy and Peace advocated forgiveness.  Through Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross on our behalf, everyone is satisfied.  The strife is ended, all is forgiven.  So they meet and embrace, and God’s household is at one.

It is an image of harmony that always makes me smile.  And I am intrigued with the idea that God has daughters in addition to all those sons.”

Romans 10:5-15
Sometimes, there’s just not much else to be said about a passage of scripture. I feel that way about this section of Romans. Beautiful, just beautiful. Preachers, your feet are beautiful!

Matthew 14:22-33
Even Jesus needed to pray — and, notably, sometimes he prayed all night! I am always reminded that I impoverish my prayer time at my peril when I read this line from the gospel. It is usually the other Dr. Bubba that quotes Martin Luther, but I like these words (feel free to provide a more accurate translation, if you can):

“If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Almost 40 years ago I stood in the hallway outside a College Admissions office, sweating uncomfortably in my Sunday Suit and twisting the postcard with the time and place of my appointment in my hands.

I pushed the door open slowly and looked around. I saw a man sitting at his desk, seemingly absorbed in his paperwork. I eased into the room, looking for a place to sit when suddenly he looked up and barked at me, “What are you doing here?”

Startled, I stammered out that I was looking for the Admissions office. He said, “This is it. What are you doing here?”

Again I attempted to answer. “I’m Delmer Chilton and I have an appointment.”

He grunted and said, “I know that, but what are you doing here?”

Know that expression, “Look like a deer in the headlights?” That was me. I was completely bumfuzzled. (My grandma used to say that. I really like that word; bumfuzzled.)

Finally I shrugged my shoulders threw up my hands and said, “I don’t understand the question. You’ve got to help me out here?’

Again the man grunted and said, “What are you doing here? Not here in this room but here in this life? Why do you want to go to college? What is your calling, your purpose, your passion? What are you doing here?”

I don’t know how good that man was at recruiting students; but he sure was good at asking important questions.

Did you notice that his question was the same question that God asked Elijah on the mountain, “What are you doing here?”

At one level it’s a question about why Elijah is hiding in a cave far from where he’s supposed to be. At another level it’s a question about Elijah’s calling in life.

Elijah had been called by God to oppose Ahab and Jezebel, the rulers of Israel.  The king and queen had reintroduced Baal worship and many of the people were adopting it.

There was a big confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal that involved the sacrifice of a bull and the calling down of fire from heaven. It’s a real interesting story. It’s in I Kings 18:20-40. You should read it some time.

Anyway, The 400 priests of Baal failed and Elijah succeeded in calling down fire from heaven and the 400 Baal priests were killed, but instead of proving anything to Jezebel and she got mad and decided to have Elijah killed.

And here’s the interesting thing. Elijah had just successfully called down fire from heaven and now he turns tail and runs. After that gigantic demonstration of God’s power, at the first sign of trouble he gives up.

And God comes and finds him in the cave and asks him, “What are you doing here?” “Why did you run away?” Elijah’s answer says it all, because his answer is not about God, it’s all about Elijah. 

“I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with a sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Elijah’s fatal flaw at this moment is that he believes that he is the one who has done good things for God; when in reality it is God who has done good things for the world through Elijah. (Repeat)

This moves to the second meaning of the question, the meaning my College Admissions Officer was getting at. What is your calling, your purpose in life?

Elijah had forgotten that his calling was to serve God and to allow God to work in and through him for the benefit of Israel and ultimately the world.

Moving for a moment to our Gospel story of Jesus walking on the water; we discover that Peter had a similar problem. When he looked at the problems around him, the storm, he forgot that it was God who was holding him up. He began to think, “I can’t do this, I can’t walk on water,” and then began to sink.

Now, let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about some form of “positive thinking,” of “look deep within yourself and believe!” pseudo-psycho-babble.

What I’m talking about is remembering that we don’t do great things for God. God does great things for us, and God does great things through us for the salvation of the world.

Remember when the little WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets were all the rage? I used to joke about needing a WWPD bracelet; “What Would Peter Do?”  Now there’s a standard I can live up to.

But I was sort of serious about that. The trouble with WWJD is that we are not Jesus, so we can’t do what Jesus would do. That is precisely the point of these stories; we are dependent upon God, and God is trustworthy.

Jesus could walk on water, Peter couldn’t except with God’s help. Elijah didn’t make God send fire from heaven, God sent Elijah to call for the fire.

Way too often we in the church think it’s our job to do great things for God. We want to build big buildings, attract huge crowds, be a “significant” and “important” congregation in our community and denomination.

None of which is bad except if we think that we do those things on our own, as a service to God. We don’t. It is not our calling to be successful, as the world defines success. Rather it is our calling to be faithful, as God defines faith.

It is our calling as the church to Proclaim the Word and Administer the Sacraments, to serve the world in the name of the one who came and served us.

It is our calling to be proclaimers, in words and deeds, of the glorious Good News of the love and Grace of God. How are they to hear without someone to tell them? (Romans 10: 14)

That may result in size and significance in the eyes of the world, and it may not. But that is not the issue.

The issue is to remember that  to say “Jesus is LORD,” is also to say “And I am not.”

The issue is to remember the words of Martin Luther in the Small Catechism, “Not by my own reason and strength can I believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him,” and I would add “or serve him.”

The issue is to remember what we’re doing here.

The issue is to remember that our calling is to be a means of grace in the world, a place and a people through whom God can love and serve the world.

Amen and Amen.

Year A — The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13)

Commentary for July 31, 2011

Click here for today’s texts

Genesis 32:22-31
Every time we approach this text, we are tempted to focus on the question, “So who is ‘the man’ that Jacob wrestles with?” It is certainly intriguing — and the most common approach is that Jacob is wrestling, or struggling, with God.

To be honest, the ancient text is not that clear; that this is a heavenly, or other-worldly, being is fairly clear from the context. The opponent is merely called ‘iys in Hebrew — “man, person, someone, whoever.” Even when Jacob names his opponent as divine, it is elohiym — “mighty one, great one, judge.” This word is certainly used to refer to God in other texts, but can basically be any supernatural being (as the spirit of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28:13, or angels in Psalm 8:5.)

Perhaps the more important focus is on the fact that Jacob is wrestling. In this story, we have summarized his lifelong struggle with God, others and even with himself. He has been extraordinarily persistent in obtaining his goals, and he has survived often by the wit of his mind rather than the sweat of his brow (as was previously pointed out.)

Now, on the eve of his great reckoning with the brother who has sworn to kill him, Jacob again persists in battling what should be a superior being (one who is not, however, above triumphing with a “low blow” as in v.25.) 

It is Jacob’s submission to the greater power of God that matters here. The trickster, the joker, the one who has struggled his way to the top — now holds on for dear life and says, “I will not move on without the blessing of God.” He has come as far as he can in his own strength. 

And, thus — a new name. (See, Harry Potter hasn’t got a thing on the Bible!) The change of name signifies a change of heart, of commitment. No longer the Leg Puller, he is now The One Who Struggled — and Overcame

Jacob has finally arrived — he is Israel.

Psalm 17:1-7, 15
The psalm offers connection to the first lesson with the phrase, “if you visit me by night.” We are examined by God through the testing of our own lives. Sometimes, it is sleepless nights that offer insight or, at the least, deep examination of what matters most to us. May we wake to the satisfaction of God’s likeness in the world around us.

Isaiah 55:1-5
Thirsty, but there’s no water; hungry, but no money for food. What a vivid description of the way we come to God, seeking to be filled…to be saved! 

We are filled with God’s goodness, which is better than bread. Sating the senses lasts for a time, but life in the steadfast love of God — well, now you’re talking about a very long time, indeed!

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
There is no more personal nor important idea than v.18: “The Lord is near to all who call on him…in truth.” In a time when doctrinal issues divide God’s people all too easily, one of the simplest remedies is to remember that, finally, all any of us have to hope for is that God will hear us when we call. God is the final arbiter of truth, much as we might like to stake our title to that claim.

Romans 9:1-5
Paul clearly affirms the work of God through the nation of Israel. They have produced a mighty list of spiritual blessings: the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs and — last but not least — the Messiah!

It is stunning to stop and read that list and think of all that we would NOT have without God’s patient working through God’s people, Israel. No wonder Paul says that his feelings for his Jewish brothers and sisters was an “unceasing” passion.

Matthew 14:13-21
Again, the bulk of the attention in this story goes to the sensational — Jesus’ feeding of more than 5,000 people. The miracle deserves close examination and its implications are, indeed, many and applicable for our lives (you will enjoy Dr. Chilton’s treatment, below.)

But do not pass too quickly by the opening phrase of the text: “When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there….” Jesus took a blow to the heart when he learned of the grisly demise of his elder cousin, John the Baptizer. 

I once heard Dr. Henry Blackaby say, “There is a great cost to those you love in order for you to be obedient to the will of God.” I can’t help but wonder if something like that didn’t wash over Jesus that day. Certainly, John was accountable for his own life and made his own decisions. Yet, how many people would be called to give their lives for this “call of God” on his own life?

There is always a cost to follow Christ. Sometimes, that cost drives us to withdraw for a moment, to count again just exactly what that cost is to ourselves and others. Hopefully –and by the grace of God — we find a way to emerge once more committed to following “the steps of Jesus where’er they go.” (Words: Ma­ry B. Slade, in The Am­a­ranth, by At­ti­cus G. Hay­good and Rig­don M. Mc­In­tosh, Nash­ville, Ten­nes­see: 1871).

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The first line of our Gospel lesson is when Jesus heard this. “This” is the execution by beheading of his cousin John, John the Baptist, by the evil King Herod.

The shock of bad news stays with us a long time, doesn’t it. I’m sure there are people here old enough to remember where they were when they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Two bits of bad news stick in my memory as clearly as if they happened yesterday; the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the events of 9/11.

When Jesus heard this, when Jesus learned that John was dead, I’m sure his heart sank and his eyes swelled up with tears and his stomach hurt and all he wanted was some time and space to think and pray and be alone with his friends. There’s nothing in the Bible to back it up, but I’ve always enjoyed imagining Jesus and John playing together as boys, at family reunions and such.

After all they were practically the same age; surely they saw each other at Grandma’s house and maybe hung out together as teenagers; maybe fishing and swimming with the gang. Like I said; there’s nothing in the Bible to back it up, but it’s at least likely, don’t you think?

Of course, as adults they went their separate ways. Apparently Jesus stayed near home, working in the carpenter shop while John “got religion” and went of in the desert to study at the Essene Bible College.

Now when John started making a name for himself preaching and baptizing down at the Jordan River, Jesus heard about and decided to go see what Cousin John was up to. And when he got there he was baptized by John and his life changed forever. Jesus came up out of that water, and the Holy Spirit spoke to him and his ministry began.

When Jesus heard this, he was deeply, deeply hurt. He needed time, time to be alone, time to pray, time to gather himself, time to grieve and time to cry. So, he got in a boat and headed out across the water to a deserted, lonely place. But, for Jesus, there was no getting away.

There was no opportunity for grief, no time to pray. The people followed him, ran around the lake to meet him. When Jesus got out of the boat, there they were, thousands of them, waiting for him.

Now, if Jesus had sent them away, asked them to leave him alone; well, that would have been understandable, wouldn’t it? But that’s not what he did. Jesus looked at them, and the Bible says, he had compassion for them. Maybe he looked at their faces, stared deep into their eyes and saw there the same sadness and loneliness and yearning for healing that he felt deep within his own soul. That’s what the word compassion means, to “suffer with” another person.

So Jesus sat down with them and had a healing service. He cured the sick though out the long afternoon. The dinner hour came and went and finally the disciples got hungry. They went to Jesus and said, in essence, “Uh, look Jesus, why don’t we call a break. It’s getting late and these people need to teat. If we stop now, they’ll have enough time to walk back to town before the stores close.”

Apparently the long afternoon had restored Jesus’ spirits. He started teasing the disciples. “Hey guys, who don’t you feed them yourselves?” Jesus was probably grinning while the disciples protested, “But Lord, all we’ve got is five loaves and two fish!” 

Could it be that the disciples were saying, “ All we’ve got is what we brought for our own supper. We’ve only got enough to take care of our own needs. We care about these people and their hunger; but, hey, we’ve got to take care of ourselves first, don’t we?

Jesus smiled and said, “Bring me what you’ve got.” Then he had everyone sit down and he said the blessing and he started breaking the food into pieces and had the disciples give it out to the people. And it was enough. Actually, it was more than enough; they had more left over than they had when they started. Then and only then did Jesus dismiss the crowd, send the disciples away in the boat and slip away into the mountains to pray.

And he had compassion. In the middle of the world’s trials and tribulations, pains and sorrows, mis-steps and mis-deeds, dis-appointments and despair; these four words, and he had compassion , reveal to us the heart and soul of the Gospel.

The assurance that God knows and God cares, the promise that God understands and God heals is the one thing that can keep us going when all else fails. Jesus’ response to John’s death and the crowd’s need is a gentle whisper across the centuries that the God of our salvation IS a very present help in time of trouble.

Jesus knew through personal experience, the pain of loss, the emptiness of the death of a loved one.

Jesus felt the shock and hurt of betrayal and misunderstanding. Jesus experienced first hand the utter loneliness of feeling abandoned by God. Jesus knew the confusion when you do your best, but your best doesn’t seem to be good enough. Jesus compassion for us is rooted in his own experience of the troubles we face in life.

The Incarnation, the belief that Jesus was God in the flesh, is NOT important because it is a miracle that proves that Jesus is God’s Son. It is important because it teaches us that God is not distant and removed from us; but is here in the midst of life with us, not judging and critical but caring and compassionate. Jesus’ acts of compassion, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, teach us how to be the body of Christ in the world. What Jesus began then he continues in us today.

All too often we are like the disciples. We recognize the needs of others, we shake our heads and fret over their troubles; perhaps we even offer them suggestions as to how they can fix themselves.

But when it comes to going beyond that, well we say, “We’ve only got enough here to take care of ourselves.”

The important thing about the feeding of the 5000 is not the miracle of Jesus turning those five loaves and those two fish into a meal for the multitude. The important thing is that this story calls us to raise our eyes above our own needs and above the limits of our own resources so that we can see the needs of the world around us and the power of a compassionate God who will take what we freely give and turn it into enough and more.

We are called to be a community of compassion; a place and a people who show the world that God is alive and God is love. Amen and amen.

Year A — The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12)

Commentary for July 24, 2011

Click here for today’s texts

Genesis 29:15-28
Ah, the trickster is tricked! We’ve been following Jacob’s progress with some interest, as he is destined to carry the covenant promise from the LORD for Israel. He came from the womb “pulling his brother’s leg” and has made his way through most of his life by the wit of his mind, rather than the sweat of his brow.

Now, he meets his first match — his elder uncle (and prospective father-in-law,) Laban. Great evidence here to be careful about making lifetime commitments when in the heat of love, or perhaps any other strong emotion! Jacob is duped into giving up seven years of “hard labor” in order to marry his true love’s sister. After he learns of the fateful switch, he is more than a bit miffed (yeah, how do you think Esau felt that day you “bought” his birthright for the soup, huh?)

He soon concludes a bargain to add another seven years of labor and get what he wanted the first time…and learns a life lesson about “do unto others” in the process. We’re not done with Jacob yet; he has one more “match” that he must endure, with an even greater opponent than Laban. Just how far his wits will carry him remains to be seen.

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
This psalm reminds us that God is still at work, even when the details of our daily lives seem to offer an interruption. God’s promise to Abraham endured his own faltering detours; Isaac, though a man of few words and unfortunately tricked into derailing the covenant blessing to the wrong son, is still part of God’s plan. And, even the trickster Jacob is ultimately used to impart God’s blessing to a nation and to the world. Good stuff, here!

Psalm 128
What greater blessing can there be in life than to be able to see one’s children’s children? Though this is not required for a faithful and fruitful life (as not all follow the path of bearing and rearing children,) it is a notable blessing, nonetheless. 
1 Kings 3:5-12
I am of the age that I remember my children watching a TV show on the Nickelodeon network when it was new to cable television. The network still serves an audience of children, but also reaches many adults with its “Nick at Nite” and “TV Land” programs, offering reruns of popular shows from years past (long past, in some instances!)

One of the favorite shows in the early days of Nick was “What Would You Do?” Host Marc Summers polled audience members about their prognostication of probable outcomes to pre-set scenarios showed on videotape. There were also various and sundry weird, gross, and outrageous stunts performed by cast members and audience members. It was all in good clean fun, right?

The point of my rambling is that when I read the choice laid before Solomon, I can’t help but wonder, “What would I do in the same situation?” If I was asked by God to choose the one thing that I wanted to receive from the Almighty, I wonder if I would respond as did the ancient king, or would my choice be more like that of Jim Carrey when granted omnipotence by Morgan Freeman? (catch a clip of Bruce Almighty here)

Maybe the stakes aren’t as high for us as they were for Solomon or Bruce…but what do we do with our everyday requests before God?

Psalm 119:129-136
The continuous reading of Psalm 119 has highlighted numerous characteristics of God’s words to us. I like verse 130, with its images of light and understanding. 

My colleague (Bubba #1) tells the story of the time when, as a young seminarian, he supplied for a rural parish, bringing forth his best exegetical effort for the dozen or so people gathered to hear him. After the service, the matriarch of the church placed her seal of approval upon his effort by acknowledging, “I like your preaching; you’re just like us — simple!”

Romans 8:26-39
I don’t know what else to say, other than that on some days, I really need to trust the words of the apostle here. I rely on that Spirit who prays when I “do not know how to pray” and when I find my own sighing to be “too deep for words.”

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Everybody has some kind of idea about heaven, even if they don’t believe in it or they call it by some other name. Jesus talked a good bit about the kingdom of heaven, though his words weren’t nearly as eschatological as ours tend to be. He seemed to be fixed a little more on the “here and now” than on the great “bye and bye.” I suppose it’s actually some of both though, isn’t it?

At any rate, we have five (or six) rapid-fire analogies to ponder in our consideration of Jesus’ view of heaven. A seed, some yeast, a field, a pearl and a net full of fish. All very earthy (except the net and the fish, I guess.) They suggest immediacy, purpose, worth, effort, variety — what else? What do Jesus’ words concerning “heaven” mean to you?

As usual, Dr. Chilton ponders and challenges in the related sermon, below.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Jesus has talked a great deal about farming in our recent Gospel lessons..
My friend Mark is a city boy through and through. He called me the last time these lessons came up and told me he simply COULD NOT deal with any more Bible stories about farming. I advised him to preach on Paul.

Understanding what Jesus is getting at in all these short parables about the Kingdom of heaven is not easy, even for an old farm boy like me. I get the farming side, but like the disciples, I don’t always get the spiritual side.

It’s important to remember that Jesus in not talking about farming, and he’s not talking about Heaven with a capital H, the beautiful city with streets of Gold where we go when we die, the eternal destiny of our souls.

Jesus is talking about the divine activity of God in the world NOW, in the midst of our ordinary earthbound existence. He is talking about the hidden holiness lurking about in the mundane monotony of our daily lives.

In this Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of heaven is, at one and the same time, a very present reality in the world and also very difficult to discern and locate in the world.

In particular we are reminded the Kingdom of heaven is not something we create; it is rather a treasure that God has already created and given to us and that when we find it (or more correctly) when it finds us, we are called to give ourselves to it completely.

Our lesson today consists of six analogies starting with the phrase “THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE.” And, these six analogies come in three sets of two that are similar to each other. This is called parallelism and is typical of Hebrew thought and poetry.

The first set is the mustard seed becoming a large tree and the yeast acting on flour and water to make bread.

The second set is the treasure found in a field and a pearl of great value found in a shop.

The third set is the net of every kind of fish and a homeowner showing off his stuff.

Let’s look first at the Mustard Seed and the Yeast. They are about how the work of God is often slow and subtle; not fast and flashy.

They also teach us that, unless you know the whole story, you won’t even notice what God is doing. And, this is most important; often times the one who plants the seed is not around to see it grow.
Brian McLaren, in his book A Generous Orthodoxy, tells a true story about a turtle:

“Some people I know once found a snapping turtle crossing a road in New Jersey. Snapping turtles are normally ugly . . . This turtle was even uglier than most: it was grossly deformed due to a plastic bottle cap, a ring about an inch-and-a-half in diameter that it had accidentally acquired as a hatchling. . . The ring had fit around its midsection like a belt back then, but now, nearly a foot long, weighing 9 pounds, the animal was corseted by the ring so that it looked like a figure 8.

My friends realized that if they left the turtle in its current state, it would die. . . So they snipped the ring, and . . .nothing happened. Nothing.

EXCEPT ONE THING. At that moment the turtle had a future. It was rescued. It was saved. It would take years for the animal to grow into normal proportions, maybe decades.” (p.98)

Here’s the Kingdom Point: anyone finding that turtle in the future would not be able to tell that a good thing was at work in it, that it was moving from deformity to wholeness, from pain to health, from death to life. All they would be able to see is an ugly guitar-shaped turtle.

So it is with the Kingdom of heaven. Its work in the world is often hidden from our eyes, but Jesus assures us that the Kingdom IS here and it IS working, like a seed beneath the soil or yeast in bread dough.

The second set is the treasure found in the field and the pearl of great value. The point here is not so much the surprise of finding the valuable items, but the whole-hearted response of the farmhand and the pearl merchant to their good fortune.

The farmhand stumbled upon his treasure, the pearl merchant searched long and hard for his, but both gave up everything to possess the prize.

Some people go through life never giving God a second thought and then suddenly, they find themselves overwhelmed by the presence of God in their lives.

Others spend years diligently searching, praying, thinking about the meaning of life and eternity, unable to feel God fully; and then they find it, or rather It finds them.

Either way, the important thing is that both the farmer and the merchant give away everything they have in response to the new treasure in their lives.

The famous Ryman Auditorium was the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry. It began as a church, built around 1900 as a preaching place for the then famous evangelist Sam Jones.

The story is told that Jones was holding a month long revival there once, and it turned into what the Methodists used to call a “quittin’ meeting;” during which people confessed their sins and swore off things like drinking and smoking and running around and the like.

Jones called upon one ultra-pious lady in the congregation and asked her what she was going to quit. She said; “I ain’t been doing nothing and I’m going to quit that too!”

These two parables, about a treasure in the field and a pearl of great price, are a call to us to “quit doing nothin’” in response to the great treasure of the Gospel, the Kingdom of heaven. We are called to give up all else in order to have this beautiful thing as a part of our lives.

The third set of parables, the fish in the net and the homeowner showing off the old and the new, remind us of the radical inclusivity of the Kingdom of heaven. People of every kind and every time are a part of God’s Kingdom.

Will Willimon, in his book Pastor, tells this personal story:

Early in my ministry . . . a couple sat in the hospital room waiting. . .The Doctor appeared shortly after I arrived and said to the new parents, “You have a new baby boy. But there are some problems. Your child has been born with Down Syndrome. Your baby also has a minor and correctable respiratory condition. My recommendation is for you to consider just letting nature take its course and then in a few days there shouldn’t be a problem.”

The couple seemed confused by what the doctor told them “If the condition can be corrected, then we want it corrected. . . .”

“Is it fair for you to bring this sort of suffering upon your other two children?” said the doctor.

At the mention of the word “suffering,” it was as if the doctor finally began speaking the woman’s language. “Our children have had every advantage in the world. They have never really known suffering, never had the opportunity to know it. I don’t know if God’s hand is in this or not, but I could certainly see why it would make sense for a child like this to be born into a family like ours. Our children will be just fine. When you think about it, this is really a great opportunity.”

The doctor looked confused. He abruptly departed, with me following him out into the hall, “Reverend, I hope you can talk some sense into them.” (P.99)

What the doctor did not understand was that the couple were already being reasonable. By the standards of the Kingdom of heaven, what they wanted to do made perfect sense. In the Kingdom, all lives are valuable treasures to be honored and cared for and accepted as gifts from God. In the Kingdom, all sorts of fish, all kinds of treasures are present and welcome and valued.

A church I served once had a significant number of minority members. Our Vacation Bible School was held at night and one evening parents and teachers were standing around in the gathering darkness, enjoying the cool of the evening while the children were out in the side yard playing. They were boys and girls, black and white, ages 3 to 13.

They were playing a game called “Ghosts in the Graveyard” a version of hide-and-seek. I stood on the church stoop and watched and listened. What I saw was joy and what I heard was laughter.

What is the Kingdom of heaven like? Maybe it’s like a game of Hide-and-Seek in the dark. When you really can’t tell who’s who, differences cease to matter. Surprises are around every corner, activity is going on whether you see it or not, and it really doesn’t matter who’s looking for whom; for the games the thing, the joy comes because of the Good News that everyone gets found in the end.

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11)

Commentary for July 17, 2011

Click here for today’s texts

Genesis 28:10-19a
Jacob — the trick-playing, blessing-stealing exile — gets his first taste of God while camping out under the stars. The famous “Jacob’s Ladder” dream, replete with angelic beings and a personal appearance by Yahweh, causes him to wake up to the presence of God all around him. “Wow…the LORD is in this place — and I didn’t even know it!”

How many times are we, like Jacob, surprised that God might be up to something that we’re not in on, or that we didn’t personally design or approve?

This passage always causes Led Zeppelin to hum through my brain. Stairway to Heaven wasn’t written for this text, certainly, but there are a couple of nifty lines that make you wonder about Jacob’s journey:

Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder. 

Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him…
Ooh, it makes me wonder!     (words by Richard Plant, 1971)

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
The Psalmist’s words could have been custom-written for Jacob, couldn’t they? But, then again, they describe us all pretty well. There’s material here for multiple sermons, and inspiration for most of life’s toughest situations. I like praying verses 23-24 on those days when I feel a little “off,” but can’t quite figure out why. So often, there’s something that lies just outside the periphery of my own self-examination — something that could use a little dusting up with regard to my attitudes or actions.

For those of you who might be looking for a nice contemporary expression of the text, check out “Highest Place” by the group Desperation Band. You can hear a pretty decent recording here.

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
Verse 17 is perhaps the key in keeping with the theme of today’s readings: “For you show your strength when people doubt the completeness of your power, and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it.”

Jacob certainly had an inside straight on insolence; as we walk the path with him for the next couple of weeks, encountering those powers greater than himself (a crafty father-in-law and an arm-wrestling stranger in the night) — we, too, will experience what it means to understand the strength of God, even when we have our doubts!

Isaiah 44:6-8
A fairly direct challenge from God, spoken through the words of the prophet in v. 7: “Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.”

Any takers?

Psalm 86:11-17
One of the consistent themes of scripture is the call to serve God with our “whole hearts.” Jesus put it plainly in the Sermon on the Mount: “You can’t really serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24)

The psalmist gives a beautiful account of what the whole heart is like, replete with words suitable for song or prayer: ” Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”

Romans 8:12-25
I love the language here of labor, childbirth and what it means to be children of God.

I suppose my maleness makes me suspect to read too much into the whole labor thing…there certainly is groaning and pain in the process. But, on the other side of the birth trauma, we generally acknowledge the joy of a new life brought into the world. Baby time is happy time!

It strikes me how fundamental is the joy of realizing our relationship to God through the life of Christ. Like babies, we are happy to babble at the One who has birthed not only us, but all of creation. The Aramaic word Paul uses here to name God, Abba, is said to come from the sound an infant makes when responding to his/her earthly daddy: “babababababa.” (Babies are so cool.)

It’s just fun to make the sounds, isn’t it? Go ahead…give it a try. Lallate to your heart’s content!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Weeping and gnashing of teeth. Burning the weeds to separate them from the wheat.

Not our favorite images for preaching, are they? What does it mean that some among us may be sown from the good seed, and others from the bad? Nobody really wants to be considered a child of the devil, do they?

Dr. Chilton deals with the text provocatively and thoughtfully in the sermon below. We certainly need to remember that patience is required in this process of winnowing the wheat, and that the separating is not really our task. We are sowers of the word and reapers of the harvest. It is the Lord of the harvest who will draw any separating lines that need to be drawn.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My late Father-in-law used to like to tell the story of a man who owned a parrot. Every day at 5:00 the man took the parrot and walked down the street to the corner bar where he had a few drinks and talked with his friends. He had taught the parrot to order for him, yelling out, “gimme a beer, gimme a beer” every time he came in the room.

Every Sunday the man and his wife went to church, locking the bird in its cage before they left the house. One Sunday the door on the cage did not latch well and the bird got out. It flew out an open window and found its way to the church. It flew in and lit on its master’s shoulder, crying out at the top of its lungs, “gimme a beer, gimme a beer.” The man was embarrassed and told the bird to hush, “Shut up. This ain’t the bar; it’s the church.” The bird looked around and said, “AWWK! Same old crowd, same old crowd.”

Today’s Gospel lesson deals with the difficulty in telling the difference between the good seed and the bad seed, the wheat and the weeds, the saints and the sinners. Always and forever, near as we can tell, it looks like the same old crowd. Many times in the history of the church, the good people have tried very hard to separate themselves from the bad people.

In Jesus’ story the master tells the workers to wait and not try to “weed out” the bad. This story is not so much about farming as it is about realizing that only God can judge and that we are called upon to withhold judgment and treat one another with respect.

Because, and this is the really important point, there is no such thing as separating the good from the bad in this life. As Martin Luther put it, we are simul justus et peccator; in English, “we are all Saint and Sinner at the same time.”

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know this is true. We know that most of us, most of the time, are decent people, but we’re not really saintly, we don’t really live up to the ideals and standards we set for ourselves. We all slip, we all fall, we all sin.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Yes, indeed. The line separating good and evil, wheat and weeds, good seed and bad seed, saints and sinners; does not go between us; it goes right through us.

This is why Jesus counseled patience in dealing with others. All of us are, we hope, growing and maturing in our faith. And none of us is a finished product yet.

So, between NOW (which is today) and THEN, (then being the Second Coming and the Final Judgment); what is it that we, the church, are called to do?
Well, it seems to me that we are called to be sowers of good seed.

We, the church, as the followers of Christ, are called to announce to the world that God has set up the Kingdom of Heaven, and that it is a Kingdom of Grace, not of Judgment; it is a Kingdom of Love, not of Hate; it is a Kingdom of Mercy, not of Law.

We are called to let the world know that God has sent a remedy into this world to deal with our sinfulness, and that remedy is Jesus the Christ. God knew that we, all of us, each of us, were sinners.

And God knew that we could not fix ourselves, that we could not NOT SIN. As the Confession says, “We are in bondage to Sin and CANNOT free ourselves.”

So Jesus came and lived and died and rose again SO THAT our sins could be forgiven and we could live each day as forgiven sinners and supposed saints.

And the great sign and symbol of that great Kingdom of Salvation where all are welcome and none are excluded is the meal we are about to receive, the Holy Communion.

I love going to family reunions; mine, my wife’s, anybody’s. I love to see the strange collection of people who gather together to visit, to catch up, to care about one another, to eat together because they are connected by blood and marriage.

I love to see the good and the bad, the wheat and the weeds, the good seed and the bad seed all together, all accepted and all welcome at the table. Everybody comes and we’re glad to see them.

It’s not by accident that the church is the “bride of Christ,” and the heavenly banquet is the “marriage feast of the lamb.” We in the church are those who gather together because we are connected by blood and marriage.
When we gather around the church’s table, it is a family reunion,
a reconnection, a re-membering, of the people of God, everybody’s welcome and we’re glad to see them.

That’s what the Kingdom of God is like, everybody’s welcome and we’re glad to see them.

You know; one of these days, we’re going to get to heaven and we’ll look around and start laughing when we see who’s there that we weren’t expecting to make it. “Good Lord, what are you doing here!”

And they’ll be laughing when they see us.

And somewhere in the distance we’ll hear a loud voice call out, “Awwk! Same Old Crowd. Same Old Crowd!

Amen and Amen