Year B — The Third Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 11, 2011
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Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

That’s the word that comes to my mind as I read Isaiah’s words. Maybe it’s more like “refresh” — but either way, it’s good news for those who are oppressed, brokenhearted, held captive and imprisoned.

None of these experiences are pleasant; they deplete us, destroy us, demean us. They dry us up — oppression is a desiccating wind that blows its ill effects into our lives. “Suck the life right out of you,” is a phrase that comes to mind. Most of us identify with that experience at one time or another — actually, we identify a lot more than ONE time!

So, the Lord’s word comes as a refreshing, renewing promise: no more ashes for you who have been tossed on the midden heap of life. Here’s a beautiful green garland to adorn your brow, instead. Wash away the worn lines of your mourning; use this oil of gladness as a salve for the pain you’ve felt. The spirit within you — your humanity, your dignity — that light that flickers so faintly — here’s a mantle of praise to wrap it up in. Chin up, head high — you belong to God! You matter!

God is making everything new — fresh!

Psalm 126
Psalm 126:1 has to be one of my all-time favorite Bible phrases: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”

Dreams are the stuff of our hopes, our best wishes, our life’s aspirations. When we dream, we are transported beyond the world of the mundane; for a time, in our dream-like state, it seems that anything is possible. We can fly!

God’s presence among us is the stuff of dreams — but, it is more than that. When God’s hand moves, people know it: “The Lord has done great things for them!” (v. 2)

Interesting, isn’t it, that the “great things” of the Lord are so often sown in the midst of tears? The God of Advent and of Christmas is the God Who Brings Forth Joy from Weeping. Weeping, we certainly have plenty of…may we find the patience and the wisdom to endure till the joy comes.

Luke 1:46b-55
This bit of Mary’s “Magnificat” (the opening phrase in the traditional Latin setting) reflects God’s propensity for turning things upside down — some would say, “right side up.” We read Isaiah last week, who spoke of valleys being lifted and mountains being brought low.

Similarly, Mary highlights God’s acting to bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill up those who are hungry and empty the purses of those who (perhaps) trust vainly in their riches.

 Oh, and one other thing — God has helped his servant. The newly-chosen mother of the Lord is already ahead of the game. Mary gets it. As her offspring will someday say, “Whoever wants to become great, must learn to be a servant.” (Matthew 20:26)

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 
There is a great debate among preachers about the inherent usefulness (or devil-spawned evil) of sermons with titles like, “Ten Ways to Live the Successful Life God Wants You to Have!”

Well, apparently the apostle was wont to throw out the occasional list of actionable items for Christ-like living. There are at least 8 pretty cool things to do here that lead to a much-to-be-desired result: sanctification.

God’s work in our lives, through Christ, is a process of becoming. It is ever God’s work, to be sure, though we are co-workers/participants/beneficiaries; what we are becoming is more “holy” — more like Christ.

John 1:6-8, 19-28
John, who would become the Baptizer, sure had to get through an awful lot of negativity in order to do his job.

Notice all of the “nots” in this passage. He is not the light; he is not the Messiah. He is not Elijah, he is not “the prophet” — that voice of help and salvation that every generation seems to long for.

I imagine those gathered around John — the people famously described by former Vice-President Spiro Agnew as “nattering nabobs of negativity” — surmising that he must not be worth much. So many “nots.”

When they finally asked him what he thought of himself, who he was, John’s reply is laser-focused: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness — get it straight, people! Get ready for God’s way!”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Trying to preach on this lesson from Isaiah reminds me of an old preacher story about the pastor and the Children’s sermon.

Pastor says, “Well, boys and girls, what has a bushy tail and runs around in trees?” Nobody says anything. Pastor waits a bit, then says, “You know, it gathers nuts and puts them in holes in the tree and makes chirping noises, doesn’t anybody know?” Again, a long silence.

Pastor sighs and says, “Help me out, boys and girls; surely somebody knows what animal I’m talking about.”

After another awkward silence, one little boy slowly raises his hand. Pastor smiles and says, “Yes Jackie”

Jackie swallows hard and says, “Well Pastor, we all know it sounds like a squirrel; but since this is church, we all know it’ll turn out to be Jesus.”

None of us can hear this text from Isaiah without also seeing in our imagination Jesus standing in his little home synagogue, reading this text and then saying to his friends, neighbors and relatives, “Today this scripture  has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And because of this, even though we seminary trained folk are aware that that which was running around in the Prophet’s brain might have been a political Messiah like Cyrus, or it might have been the tiny community of folk who had returned from Babylon to find Jerusalem in ruins, it might even have been the writer himself; 

But, since this is church we immediately think of Jesus. And, like the children listening to the Pastor, we are both wrong and right in that assumption.

We are wrong if we think it is primarily, or only about Jesus, but we are right if we think it has something to do with Jesus, and us.  

This text is set among those who have returned to Jerusalem after exile in Babylon.  They have come home to find their city in ruins and their lives in disarray.

There are two important things that the texts calls upon that community to do; 1) Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and 2) Thank God even before it happens.
Most scholars agree that “the year of the Lord’s favor” refers to a Jubilee year, when all debts are cancelled andland is returned to its original owners.  (UM? Sounds a little like Occupy Wall Street.)

The “servant” is sent by God to proclaim a year of God’s favor to a group of down-hearted folk and to invite them to praise and thank God not for the good God has done, but for the good God will do.

John Goldingay, in his commentary on Isaiah, says they are to offer this response before the event actually happens. (Isaiah, p. 349)

That line, “before the event actually happens,” made me rethink Advent a bit.  Most of the time we talk about Advent as a time of waiting for the LORD to act.

 Perhaps our call is to recognize that, like the folk in beat-up old Jerusalem, we are called to  proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor and thank God for the Good News before it happens.

Most folks could use a bit of Jubilee, I think.  Things have been hard in the world and in this country for some time now.

Long years of war and social conflict have raged all over the globe, most countries are struggling economically; there is very little political stability anywhere in the world.

 In the midst of all this we are called to both proclaim and live out a year of the LORD’s favor.

Jesus claimed this text for himself and his life on earth, we are called to do the same.

This is the cross that Christ called us to take up when he invited us to follow him, this cross of proclaiming God’s preference for those whom the world despises,this is what we are called to do while we wait in the time between his coming years ago in Bethlehem  and his coming again.


Year B — The Second Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 4, 2011
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Isaiah 40:1-11  
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” I live in the Appalachian Mountains. I recently ran across a coffee table book in a local book store. It was a collection of “Then and Now” photographs from various small towns in western North Carolina. The photographer had taken great pains in his 1990s shots to exactly recreate the camera angle and location of the 1880s photos in order to show how things had changed in 100+ years. As fascinating as the commercial changes in buildings roads and utility poles were, I was even more fascinated by the changes one could detect in the environment; changes that were not man made but were natural and ongoing. “Nothing lasts forever,” I thought. And then I remembered this text. These early Sundays in Advent remind us that to put our hope and trust in anything but God’s promises is a fool’s bargain. Whether we trust in technology or psychology or political movements or, or, or . . . it is all like the grass and the flower; they fade and wither and only God’s word, God’s promise of hope and blessing, will endure.
Psalm 85:1-2; 8-13  
(Look back to our post for Pentecost 8, August 7, for a very interesting note from regular reader Ruth Hamilton. It is a beautiful image of reconciliation drawn from medieval art and piety.)  

A very important struggle for those of us who embrace any form of the Social Gospel, the Good News for the poor and the dispossessed, is to avoid works righteousness. It’s a difficult tight rope to walk between the quietism of doing nothing and the activism of thinking the coming of the Kingdom of God depends totally on (our) human effort. This Psalm is a good reminder that God builds the Kingdom through us; we don’t build the kingdom for God. Verse 12:“The Lord will give what is good.”

II Peter 3:8-15a  

“while you are waiting,” Waiting takes up a lot of our lives. Waiting in traffic, waiting at the doctor’s office, waiting on hold, waiting in security lines at airports, waiting for the computer to update. I always carry a book or a newspaper with me wherever I go, so that I’ll have something to bide the time while waiting. As much as I hate listening to other people talking on their cell-phones in public, I do understand that it is something to do to fill up the emptiness of their waiting. We, the Christian Church, have been waiting for Jesus for a very long time now, haven’t we? Sometimes I think that a lot of what we do is the spiritual equivalent of doing the crossword, reading a novel or texting and talking nonsense on cell phones; just passing the time while waiting between getting saved and going to heaven. Peter calls us to another sort of waiting, an active waiting, a waiting full of striving for peace and justice in the world. As Peter says, the Lord is not slow, the Lord is patient, giving all every opportunity to get with the program.

Mark 1:1-8 

My son David was an early riser when he was 3 or 4 years old. His room was across the hall from our bedroom and my side of the bed was closest to the door. Most mornings I opened my eyes to find him standing in the floor by the bed, his cabbage patch doll Webster in hand, staring me in the eye from about an inch away. When my eyes fluttered open he would shout, “It’s day! Time to get up!” for several years, I began each day in a startled and confused state of mind.

Mark begins his Gospel in a similarly abrupt and urgent manner. No philosophical musing (John), no genealogical charting (Matthew), no historical scene-setting (Luke); just straight up proclamation. Like little David jumped right into the day, Mark jumps right into the Gospel and sin and salvation. “Baptism of repentance” and “forgiveness of sins,” show up in verse 4. In the Greek text, “metanoias” (repentance) is the 50th word of Mark and “amartion” (of sins) is the 53. WAKE UP! IT’S DAY!

by the Rev. Dr. John P. Fairless

It’s kind of a Southern thing – and it’s meant to be a statement of comfort and support. It’s also a subtle sort of way to evoke pity for a person that you really don’t pity much at all – sort of a genteel put-down…a back-handed compliment… I am speaking, of course, of the phrase, “Well, bless your heart!”
We Southerners use it as a genuine form of solidarity in suffering; for example, when someone loses a loved one, “well, bless your heart.” When there is an accident or a serious illness, the phrase comes in handy: “Well, bless your heart.”
There is also the more insidious usage, say when someone is prattling on about this or that which doesn’t really interest or concern us; it becomes more of a conversational foil or means of avoidance – “oh, well bless your heart.”
Then, there is the third-person form of the phrase – most often used when sharing a “concern” [hear the word judgment, or our really favorite form of juicy gossip.] “Yes, poor Margaret – I don’t know why she puts up with Ralph’s shenanigans, bless her heart!”
Comfort really is a curious thing, isn’t it? What does it require to comfort, or to be comforted, in a time of distress or need? At Advent, we wait for the kind of comfort that only God can bring. It is the kind of comfort spoken tenderly, offered graciously.

It’s not easy to wait. We are accustomed to fast food, fast (and friendly!) service, fast responses to our problems and issues (think of emergency departments and urgent care.) My colleague, Dr. Chilton, told me recently about sitting bemusedly, listening to a fellow customer at Jiffy Lube complaining obviously and ostentatiously about the 30 minutes — for heaven’s sake! –he would have to wait for his car to be ready.

But the gospel at Advent reminds us that we are only at the beginning of God’s great work in our lives; there is much yet to be told, experienced, endured, accomplished.

And God — the very God of creation and re-creation, according to Peter — is with us through every struggle and challenge and joy. God waits — with us. It’s a whispered refrain that accompanies us on the journey of our lives.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *    *
Now, I don’t know that God is a Southerner – or a Northerner, or an Easterner or a Westerner. I don’t suppose God is American, or British, or African or Asian, really. Rather, God is found on all points of the compass, in every race and culture. God is everywhere and always God.
But I do know that God’s intent is always loving, always with the best of our interest in mind – and that, with the coming of the Christ, God’s desire is to comfort – to bless our hearts – truly and indeed.

Year B — The First Sunday of Advent

Commentary for November 27, 2011
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Isaiah 64:1-9
Upon reading through Isaiah’s text, one can’t help but notice how terribly ACTIVE the language is! The heavens are torn, the mountains are quaking, there is fire all around, adversaries are trembling. God is coming down, by God!

Or, at least, that is what we think we hope for at this opening of the season of Advent. We’ve heard that God has come down in the past, and that the results were generally positive. 

But wait — if God is coming to judge sinners, and we’re all sinners — doesn’t that mean we might be in for a bit of judgment ourselves? Is that what we really want “for the holidays?”

Good thing that in our waiting, we remember that God is our Father, that we are God’s people — and that God will not remember our iniquity forever. 

HERE’S A THOUGHT: Ever thought about what it means to be “clay in the hands of the potter?” Here’s a quick video clip (click here) that demonstrates what happens first in order for clay to be usable and moldable. Might not be an entirely comfortable process! Love the commentary, as well, though a bit difficult to hear at times…

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Three times in this psalm, the request is made of God, “let your face shine, that we may be saved.” 

What is salvific about the the light of God’s face? In a season of darkness, what does it feel like to see a light shining in the distance? How is light an image of hope?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
In Advent, we become a “waiting people” — something that is not always that easy to do. What do we wait for?

For some reason I get a flashback image to my elementary school days, when Prinicpal Neilsen would call us all to gather in the gymnasium for a special program. There was a huge purple curtain that covered the stage, and we knew that whatever we were about to see was behind that curtain. There wasn’t a lot of excitement in my little hometown growing up, so it was mysterious and intriguing to wait for that curtain to be pulled back. It was almost as exciting to wait as it was to have the feature of the day revealed to us.

We are waiting on God to “reveal” something — or rather, someone — very important. It is the Lord Jesus Christ that God reveals to the world.  

Mark 13:24-37
Again, we are reminded that Advent has a bit of an edge to it — I would almost call it “weird” or “funky.” A darkening sun, the lack of moonlight, stars falling and the powers of heaven shaken — all of these things give an almost queasy feeling to the coming of the Son of Man.

Certainly, none of us wants to get caught short in our responsibility to serve God. If you snooze, you lose. Perhaps that is why we also remember that it takes all of us to be the church; none of us is alone, because it’s just flat out impossible for one person to stay awake all the time.

Help a brother out, would you? Let’s work and watch together through this, okay?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Have you seen those billboards out on the interstates that purport to be messages from God?

I ride the roads a lot and I see a lot of those signs and they always make me laugh and sometimes
they make me think.

I saw one up in East Tennessee that went like this:

                                                  — GOD.

The writer of our text from Isaiah would like that, I think. Though it is likely that he would be thinking, WHY DON’T YOU COME ON DOWN ALREADY, WHAT’S KEEPING YOU?

This text is part of a lament, an argumentative prayer, in which the prophet struggles with God over the fact that God has not been heard from in a while and things aren’t going so well for God’s people in the midst of God’s absence.

The NRSV ( and the RSV and the KJV) translates Isaiah 64:1 as something of a sighing request,

Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

The Revised English Bible frames it as a question and makes the prophet’s complaint much clearer:

Why do you not tear asunder the heavens and come down?”

The first part of our text has a tone of wondering and smoldering anger that God has left and abandoned the people.

This accusatory theme barely lets up in verses 5 through 7 where, although the prophet admits that the people have sinned and turned from God and are in trouble because of it; he also lays the blame for this sinfulness squarely in God’s lap for having gone away and left them to their own devices.

It’s like the old Mark Twain joke about the man who killed his parents and then pleaded for mercy from the court because he was an orphan.

Then, at the beginning of verse 8, one word changes the tone and the meaning of the entire text.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter, we are all the work of your hand.”

The Hebrew here is variously translated yet, but, however, nevertheless.

After making a serious and passionate case that things are really, really, bad and that God is, honestly, just as much to blame as the folk; the prophet speaks a word of hope and promise; yet, you are our Father.

This word of hope and promise is rooted in an awareness of the mighty acts of God that have come before and in trust that God will act again.

Advent is the season of YET, of BUT, of HOWEVER, of NEVERTHELESS.

Advent is a time when we stare into the face of the present data of the world’s sorry state and dare to believe that God still cares and God still plans to do something about it.

Advent is a time when we wrestle with and confess the reality that we in the church all too often
live out of a practical atheism, in which we say with our lips that we believe in God, but we say with our lives that we really believe, really put our trust, in armies and governments and savings accounts.

Advent is a time when we wait for the Lord to come, and while we wait, we seek to become people who gladly do right, who remember God and God’s ways.

Advent is a time when we do, indeed, wait for God to come down here; but it is not a fearful waiting, for it is promised that when God comes, our iniquity, our sin, our sorrow, will be remembered no more.

Amen, come Lord Jesus.

Year A — The Reign of Christ (Christ the King)

Commentary for November 20, 2011
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In honor of completing the first full year of our “Bubba Blog” — today the Bubbas are switching roles. Commentary by Dr. Bubba #1, aka Delmer and Sermon by Dr. Bubba #2, aka John (the Baptist).

First, a quote from N.T. Wright’s latest SIMPLY JESUS: A new vision of who he was, what he did, and why he matters
I found it to be a thought provoking read leading into the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany-lent-Easter cycle.
“…God is now in charge, and he is in charge in and through Jesus. That is the vision that explains what Jesus did and said, what happened to Jesus, and what his followers subsequently did and said. And what happened to them too.
But here is the puzzle — the ultimate puzzle of Jesus. This puzzle boils down to two questions.
First, why would anyone say this of Jesus, who had not done the things people expected a victorious king to do? Why, indeed, did Jesus end up being crucified with the words “King of the Jews” above his head? And why would anyone, three minutes, three days, or three hundred years after that moment, ever dream of taking it seriously?
Second, what on earth might it mean today to speak of Jesus being “king” or being “in charge,” in view of the fact that so many things in the world give no hint of such a thing? 
(SIMPLY JESUS, HarperOne, 2011, p. 55)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

It’s CHRIST THE KING Sunday, so why are we reading about sheep and shepherds? As Wright often observes, the story of Jesus is dense with images and symbols from the life of the Hebrew people; images and symbols which weave in and out of one another. This text invokes the image of a shepherd because Israel’s king was supposed to be take care of the people the way a shepherd took care of the sheep. Interwoven with this is the image of David the shepherd boy as the model of kingship and the failure of subsequent kings to be good shepherds. In verses 20-24, Ezekiel shows us God taking over and making “David,” the true shepherd.
All this imagery was remembered and discussed by the early church as they meditated upon the meaning of what they had seen and heard in the life of Jesus.

Psalm 95:1-7a

He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the sheep of his hand.” (vs.7, CEV) What if we acted like we really believed that? One day Katy Luther met Martin at the door in her funeral clothes. Surprised, Martin said, “Who died?” Katy said, “Well, I assumed God was dead, the way you’ve been moping around all depressed and defeated acting.” (Delmer version) How would our attitudes and actions change if every day we read and sang these first 7 verses of Psalm 95? “The LORD is a great God, a great king over all other gods.” (vs.3, CEV) I know if I could get that deep in my gut, I would certainly worry less, risk more and sleep better.

Ephesians 1:15-23

Obviously this text was chosen for REIGN OF CHRIST Sunday because of the wonderful, hymnic refrain of verses 20-24 that builds into a crescendo of praise and prophecy. Images of glory and power roll over top of one another. If you listen closely as it’s read out loud you can almost hear marching feet keeping time and the perfect singing of an angelic chorus soaring above the rooftops. And then, imagine these words being read for the first time to a huddled group of nobodies; foreigners, slaves and women, perhaps in a dingy room in a small house late at night, or down by the river in a cold and dewy dawn. One would have to have “the eyes of your heart enlightened,” (vs. 18, NRSV) to see Christ as King under such circumstances.

Matthew 25:31-46


While the issue of judgment dominates most of our thinking about this parable, I have long been fascinated by a minor theme; the fact that neither the sheep nor the goats recognized the LORD in the face of the poor. Often-times we are encouraged to be good to the poor because a) in so doing we are serving Christ Himself, b) in so doing we are earning credit with the Father in Heaven or c) because Jesus liked and cared for poor and sick people we should like and serve them too. None of these positions respects the poor or considers them worthy of our attention in and of themselves, and none of them recognizes the fact that a person might have compassion for others without a self-interested benefit accruing. What if the point of the parable is that while the goats are uninterested in the plight of the poor, the sheep are disinterested in what others (including God) think about their care for the poor? “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Mt. 5:8, NRSV)

by the Rev. Dr. John P. Fairless

My first trip through seminary was as a church music student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I was privileged to serve as what was known as a “Missions Apprentice” for our Home Mission Board – which meant that they paid me a small stipend to serve as the minister of music and youth at a brand new congregation in rural Oldham County. I learned a lot serving that church in the early 1980’s; I also met some fascinating people.
One of the people I met was songwriter Darrel Adams, who – in those days – was in the vanguard of the emerging “Contemporary Christian Music” movement. I liked Darrel’s stuff, though he never really hit the big time when it was all said and done. But it was one of his little impromptu ditties – a song just for fun – that has stuck with me through all of these years. One of the stanzas went like this:
“I don’t want to be a goat – nope!
I don’t want to be a goat – nope!
Live a life without hope? Nope!
I don’t want to be a goat.”
Curious how after 30 years that tune comes back into my mind when I consider the gospel reading for today. I must admit that all of this talk about sheep and goats is more than a little unsettling.
Most preachers – and most parishioners, I would imagine – aren’t that comfortable with the images of judgment and punishment contained here. We really don’t want to presume too much about our own place in the kingdom of God – much less anyone else’s!
It is much more comforting to stick with Ezekiel’s image of the “good shepherd” – seeking for his lost sheep, bringing them home from the darkness and the cold. Lying down in the soft pasture grass, eating richly, drinking sumptuously – now THAT’S the image of the kingdom we like!
[Well, there is that nasty business about fat sheep and lean sheep – but who really wants to be bothered about that?]
I suppose it’s all part and parcel of the sheep and shepherd image. Like most situations in life – and the Bible is always about real life – you have to take the good along with the bad. Apparently, you can’t count yourself among the sheep, living under the care of the shepherd, if you’re not willing to put up with a few head butts and flank jabs!
I’m not really an agrarian, pastoral type of person in the literal sense of the word. I did not grow up on a farm, though I was close enough to my grandfather’s farm to have experienced cows and pigs – but not sheep or goats.
So, I did what any self-respecting preacher looking for research material does – I went to the internet! What I discovered was that it was not that uncommon in biblical times for sheep and goats to be herded together. The two species share some common DNA and characteristics – though there are a number of differences, as well.

Both provided necessary items for the economy of the day: skins, meat, milk. In the case of sheep, they also provided wool – which was the main reason for separating the flock at shearing time.
Sheep to the right; goats to the left; it is the job of the shepherd to send each creature to its appropriate fate. It’s really as simple as that.
Not that the sheep are good and the goats are bad – they just are what they are!
Which is kind of the way it is with the Lord’s people, I suppose. Though I have never been much of a Calvinist (too much Arminian background in my theological line of descent) – when it comes to this passage, I see that Calvin kind of has a point!
A goat can no more produce wool than a sheep can stop it from growing in. To do otherwise is simply contrary to the nature of either.
Jesus says that the unrighteous person can no more produce the fruits of righteousness – actions like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison – than those who belong to him can keep from doing so.
This gospel challenges our preconceived notions of how God does God’s work in the world…no matter which way we preconceive that God ought to do it!
We often make this story into a call for action, as if our choosing can somehow make us includable on the sheep list (especially if we have lived life somewhat goatishly!) We may even demonize those among us who, from our purported sheepish perspective, live goat-like lives of unconcern and callousness toward the needs of the “least of these.”
We may want to make both sheepishness and goatishness about our belief in Jesus (or lack thereof) – so we pin the eternal destiny of the soul on whether we have heard the gospel in its correct form, responded with the correct prayer, and lived our lives in the correct way.
Maybe, just maybe, we have all missed the point!
God has loved the world – passionately and completely – and in Jesus Christ has given every ounce of God’s self to us and for us. As God’s people, we are in turn to give ourselves away in the same kind of love: one loaf of bread, one cup of cold water, one pair of warm socks, one face-to-face encounter at a time.
We can do that, every time we see one of the least of these, and trust that when it’s sheep-sorting time in the kingdom of heaven – the Great Shepherd/King will know exactly which way to send us.
Amen? Amen!

Year A — The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28)

Commentary for November 13, 2011
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Judges 4:1-7
Well, first of all, let’s hear it for Deborah; it is nice to recover at least one remembrance of a woman in a place of authority in Israel. (Sorry for those who may still be caught in the “God can’t call a woman” trap…guess that’s exactly what God did here. But, I digress!)

Sisera, the villain of the story, is going to meet a painful end at the hand of another strong woman, Jael (see v. 21 in this same chapter.) But, the point of the story — as always — is that God is in control and will respond to the cries of God’s people.

Sure, there’s a little retributive justice that they have to go through first. But, God works through the circumstances of our lives to bring about God’s own good purposes, in God’s own good time. Thank God for the Deborahs and Jaels and multitudinous others who have listened and obeyed when God called.

Psalm 123
It may be a bit of stretch for most of us to truly understand what it means for a servant to look to a master for the OK to live, work and breathe. A “maid” depending on her “mistress” for sustenance and support doesn’t ring that true with most of us, either, I would suspect.

Regardless, we do look to God for relief in our distress…and for mercy when what we find in our world is contempt.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Do we serve a “do-nothing” God? That’s the question that the prophet raises here. There are those that believe neither that God will do good, nor that God will do harm. The just don’t believe much about God at all!

I don’t know that the way to their conversion will be through blood-pouring and dung-flinging…but “the day of the Lord” is coming, nonetheless. What do we have to say about that, preachers?

Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
I like the thought of God’s existence being “from everlasting to everlasting.” God lives in all of the time between the boundaries of eternity…and exists outside those boundaries, as well. There is simply nowhere — no place, no space, no time — that God is not.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Back in the way cool 1970’s, there was lots of interest in the ending of the world and the image of “the thief in the night” received a good bit of airplay in the popular culture. Hal Lindsey made a mint from the publication of The Late, Great Planet Earth (28,000,000 copies sold and counting!)

I remember lying awake at night, pretty much scared to go to sleep, wondering if I might snooze through the Second Coming and miss the excitement. (It wasn’t until a few years later that we learned from Tim LaHaye about being “Left Behind.”)

Notice that Paul tells the Thessalonians, “but you are not in darkness;…that day will not surprise you.” (v.4) The purpose of this passage is encouragement, not warning (though I’m brushing up on my apocalyptic imagery, just in case!)

Matthew 25:14-30

Like so many of the parables we have been reading during this stretch from Matthew’s gospel, this one has a bit of a tough pill for us to swallow at the end. We’re not fond of weeping and gnashing of teeth, when it comes right down to it.

I commend to you Dr. Chilton’s treatment in the sermon below. Look especially for his comment, “Jesus calls us to leave our fear behind and give ourselves over totally to trust and faith in God.” I believe that is, indeed, the message of the parable. Don’t worry that you might mess it up; go ahead and live life with the “talents” God has given you. 

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago, my brother Tony got our Aunt Mildred a motorized recliner that would push itself up into a standing position.

One day when he went to visit her she said: “Tony, I’m having a lot of trouble getting out of my chair lately.”

Tony said,  “Let me have a look at the motor.”

She said, “That won’t do no good. I never plug it in.”

Tony,“Well, whyever not?”

Mildred, “Well, what if the electric power went out whilst I was alaying back in it? I’d be stuck up there like a hog on a fencepost. I wouldn’t never be able to get out of it.”

Today’s Gospel Lesson is the parable of the talents. Let me tell you upfront; this story is not about money and investment strategies.

This story is about our God-given abilities and how fear and a lack of faith keep us from using them.

Aunt Mildred had a lot of real and quite reasonable fear in her life. Her husband had died, she was in her eighties, she had health problems, she lived alone on a farm.

She also had a lot of gifts for dealing with that fear. Her problem was that fear kept her from using her gifts to deal with her situation.

In the parable the third servant, the one who received only one talent, took that talent and buried it in the yard. Why?

Well, he says “I was afraid,” and that probably is true. He also calls the master “harsh and cruel,” which probably isn’t true. What most certainly is not true is that God is like the master in the story. God is not “harsh and cruel.”

And, to tell you the truth, all that “harsh and cruel” stuff is beside the point. It’s not his master that the third servant is afraid of; it’s failure.

He is afraid of fouling up, being a disappointment, making a mess of things.

My son was a college basketball player. He says that the worst thing that can happen to a team is in their head, not in their hands. He says that when a team starts playing to avoid losing rather than playing to win, they are in real trouble.

The Third Servant is playing not to lose; rather than taking chances, trying to win.

This story has much to teach us in our current economic crisis. It’s not a good time to be extravagant; but it is also not a good time to give in to fear. If we are to pull out of this downward spiral, we must work together and dare to take risks on each other. We can bury neither our heads nor our abilities in the sand.

A story from the life of Martin Luther may be helpful here.

After Luther got into trouble with the Pope, he was invited, no, summoned, to the city of Worms to defend himself against charges of heresy.

There he stood, in front of the most powerful man in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor. And though he was admittedly quite afraid, he refused to back down and left the City of Worms.

His friends feared for his safety; they didn’t trust either Pope or Emperor,  so they had Luther kidnapped and taken to the castle of Wartburg.  Luther went around disguised as Squire George, while stories were circulated that he was dead.

While Luther was in hiding, his fellow teacher and reformer Phillip Melanchthon was in charge of things back at Wittenberg.

Phillip was as quiet and retiring and hesitant as Luther was loud and aggressive and assertive. Phillip always fretted over doing the right thing and doing things right.

Many in the Church were recommending rash action and rapid change. Others wanted things to stay the same. Still others wanted a gradual change in church and society.

Phillip just couldn’t decide what to do. He couldn’t make up his mind, so he wrote Luther. He laid out his options, in a professorial set of pros and cons in columns and tables. He said to Luther,” If I do this, this could go wrong. If I do that, that could go wrong, etc. etc. I just can’t decide; I don’t know what to do.”

Luther wrote back, somewhat impatiently, “Look Phillip, you’re right. It is hard to know what the right thing to do is. Anything you do will have some sin in it. Therefore, sin boldly, but trust the grace of God more boldly still!” (And you thought he was talking about beer, didn’t you!?)

Luther’s advice to Phillip is the answer for the Servant with one talent and the answer for us as we face uncertain times.

Sure, we’re afraid.

Sure, we’re uncertain.

Sure, we might mess up,

Sure, we might do the wrong thing.

All of that’s true and possible.

But Jesus calls us to leave our fear behind and give ourselves over totally to trust and faith in God. We too are called to sin boldly; to act, to act now, and to also trust that God will take care of us.

Henry R. Rust writes of a visit to a tiny Christian congregation in a village in Kenya. They met in the open air beneath a thatched roof.

When it came time for the offering, a round flat basket was passed up and down the rows of benches as people put in coins and small bills.

The basket came to a young woman with two small children. She looked at the basket for a long time.

Then she took the basket and placed on the dirt floor in front of her.

Taking off her sandals, she picked up her children, held one on each hip, and stepped into the offering basket; standing with head bowed praying for several minutes.

Then she stepped out of the basket and passed it on.

The basket has come to us. What will we put in it? Will we put in only our fear and anxiety, allowing them to hold us back? hold us back?

Or, will we drop our guard in the presence of the holy and step boldly into the center of God’s will and way; giving to God the one thing God really wants, our complete and total trust and love?

Amen and amen.