Year B — Commentary for Proper 26 and Sermon for All Saints Day

Today, the Lab does some “double duty.” There are many congregations that will observe All Saints Day on the first Sunday in November, while others will follow the lectionary for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. It may not be the best decision on our part, but below you will find commentary for the latter, and a sermon for the former. 

We do our best. 

Commentary for November 4, 2012 (Proper 26)
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Ruth 1:1-18
What’s a woman to do?

The upshot for Naomi, widowed and childless in a foreign land, is that she’s in a mess of trouble! There is no visible means of support for her, or for her daughters-in-law (Orpah and Ruth,) given the cultural and financial constraints of the time.

So, Naomi follows the only viable course for herself — she makes plans to return to her home. She releases her d-i-l’s from any sense of responsibility they might feel for her and basically has to say to them, “You’re on your own, kids!”

There’s a bit of a protest from the younger women, after which Orpah says, “You’re right, mom; guess I’ll be seeing you,” and promptly hits the trail. But Ruth — well, her response is another matter.

I like the little phrase that is tucked into the story in v.14: “…but Ruth clung to her.” Ruth is holding on for dear life; she is tenacious, persistent, unyielding. Maybe she has nowhere else to go, but one gets the sense that there is more to her insistence than that.

There is something to be said for the “Ruth Response” to life’s challenges and deepest difficulties. Sometimes, you just gotta’ hang on and see what God is about to do!

Psalm 146
An excellent psalm for worship anytime, of course. For those of us in America, these words are an appropriate reminder on this weekend before our national elections. 

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”


As God’s faithful people, we should and must pray for our leaders; however, never doubt for a moment that our trust is not ultimately in any human wisdom or strength. 

“Happy are those…whose hope is in the LORD their God.”

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
This beautiful, powerful section of Jewish Torah introduces the “Shema Yisrael” — Hear, O Israel — the communal prayer that forms the centerpiece of Hebrew morning and evening prayer.

Jesus uses these verses to answer the question, “What is the most important commandment?” (cf. Mark 12:28ff, below) It’s loving God with all your heart (and stuff!)

All followers of the Creator God and of Jesus the Christ do well to remember and practice the Shema‘s admonition: “Keep these words…in your heart; recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”

Psalm 119:1-8
Psalm 119 follows closely on the heels of the Shema (see above) and lays out the significant benefits of keeping God’s decrees and walking in the way of God’s laws.

It is important to note that both the Shema and the Psalm call for “whole-hearted” devotion to God’s way. Nothing “half-hearted” about it — just part of your attention will not do!

Hebrews 9:11-14
The writer of Hebrews has spent much time building up the great high priestly role of Jesus; in so many ways, he is uniquely qualified to do what he does, which is to make atonement for the sins of the world. V.12 makes the poignant summation toward which this preacher has been building: Christ’s sacrifice is “once for all.” 

There is no need for his ministry ever to be repeated — the salvation (redemption) that Christ accomplishes is eternal. That’s a long, long time, my friends.

Mark 12:28-34
There was a popular contemporary Christian song (although we didn’t call it that, yet, in those days) back in the 1970’s — it’s title was, “Hand Grenades and Horseshoes.” 

Coming out of the evangelical Jesus Movement, it was about making your decision for Christ before things got out of hand and it was too late. The “hook” line was this: “Close only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes — even though you are not far, you still lose.”

Certainly, there is a tinge of something missing in this dialogue between Jesus and the scribe who brought the BIG question (“Which commandment is first of all?”)

Jesus says, after the scribe’s wise explication of the scripture and its theological significance: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Not far. Close — but no cigar. 

Maybe I’m still a bit of that evangelical teenager deep down inside, but I think it bears asking: When it’s all said and done, do I want to find myself “close” to the kingdom, or more like “in-the-door-safe-and-sound?”

Sermon (All Saints Day)
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I go to a lot of family reunions as a pastor, especially those that happen at the church after worship. People graciously invite me to stay for lunch and I seldom decline.

I remember one reunion when a woman had gotten all excited about doing the family history. So after dinner, she began to give everyone a report.

She started with the first settlement in North Carolina in the 1700’s and worked her way back up the Great Wagon Road through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to the Pennsylvania Dutch area back over to Germany, to the time of Luther and beyond.

It was kind of interesting for a while, but it then dragged on and on for an hour and people started getting bored. As usual, I was sitting with the teen-agers and as she drew to a close, she asked, “Did I leave anyone else?” The kid next to me muttered, “Yeah, Adam and Eve.”

Today is All Saints Sunday. It is a day when we remember those who have gone before us in the faith. It is a day to trace our Christian family history, yes, all the way back to Adam and Eve.

It is a day when we thankfully remember those of our church members and friends and relatives who have died in the last year, who have gone on to join the saints in heaven.

It is also a day when we are called to examine our own saintliness, a time to remember our call to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors.

As Christians, our family tree is not limited to nor defined by our biological connectedness. We are all grafted into the family tree of God through the sacrament of baptism; we have all been adopted as children of God and sisters and brothers of Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When I look back at “the saints,” the ones I have known personally and the ones I have only heard or read about, I don’t feel very saintly myself. I feel like the little boy Lois Wilson wrote about meeting at her door on Halloween.

He was about four and he was wearing a Superman outfit. He reached out his hand as he said trick or treat. Ms. Wilson couldn’t resist teasing him a bit, “Where’s your bag?,” she said. He replied, “My Mom’s carrying it. It’s too heavy for me.”  Ms. Wilson smiled and said, “But you’re Superman!”

He looked down at the S on his chest and looked back at Ms. Wilson and whispered, “Not really, these are just Pajamas.”

Though the Scriptures tell us that because we’re Christians, we’re also saints; most of us don’t believe it. We look down at the S on our chest and then plead with God, “Not really, I’m only human.”

Which is the great mystery of All Saints Day. We are indeed only human, but we are also “The saints who gather” at Such-and-Such church, as Paul put it in many of his letters.

We are, as Martin Luther said, saint and sinner at the same time. While we do not go around in Christian Pajamas, with a big haloed S on our chest, we do have an invisible cross on our foreheads, put there at our baptism with the words;

“Delmer Lowell Chilton, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever.”

Each of us has that mark on our lives; a mark which calls us forward into saintliness. We are called to continually try to live into our name as Children of God, as baptized saints.

And, we never quite make it. We’re always aware of falling short, of not measuring up. We are also always aware that the other people in our family seldom measure up either. Unfortunately, we are sometimes more aware of the failures of others that we are of our own.

Someone sent me a little poem a few years ago. It’s one of those things that got tucked away in a file. I ran across it the other day;

“Oh, to live above, with Saints we love,
Oh, that will be Glory.

Oh, to live below, with Saints we know,
Well, that’s a different story!”

The struggle of the Christian life is to remember that we are Saints in spite of our failures, and to remember that the other people in our Church Family are Saints as well, in spite of their imperfections.

One of the things I love about Family Reunions and Church Homecomings is that they are the most grace-filled moments we share. It is a time when we look beyond the surface to see the mark of the family, the mark of Christ on everyone.

Regulars and irregulars, the faithful and the wandering, the staunch believers and “barely hanging on to their faith by the skin of their teeth,” doubters, those close at hand and those who came from far off; all together in one place, celebrating and enjoying their relatedness to each other and to God.

Our calling on this All Saints Sunday is to remember our saintedness, our blessedness, our holiness; which is a gift from God, a gift we were given for the benefit of the world.

It is also a day to remember the saintliness, the blessedness, the holiness of others. To remember that they too are the beloved Children of God and that we are to treat them that way.

Amen and amen.

Year B — Proper 25 (The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for October 28, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
What is the best we can hope for out of life? Job’s epitaph is, “And Job died, old and full of days.”

Beyond numerical substance, the context indicates that Job’s days (yom, in Hebrew) were full — full of joy, full of sorrow, full of exhilaration, full of frustration.

We often describe someone who is undergoing a particularly trying time — and somehow managing to find grace and peace in the midst of it — as having “the patience of Job.” Certainly, that patience was hard-earned in Job’s instance.

There is something to be said for simply never giving up; I am reminded of Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and prominent psychotherapist who became a proponent of Kierkegaard’s “will to meaning.” 

Beyond the simple will to live, there is the ultimate human urge for life to have meaning. (A nice, ultra-brief review of Frankl’s classic text, Man’s Search for Meaning, may be found here.)

Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)
Why should I bless the Lord at all times?

Psalm 34 acknowledges that “many are the afflictions of the righteous.” There’s no sense in pretending that life is all A-OK, peachy keen, no problemo, etc.,  just because one has placed one’s trust in God. Life is difficult, as M. Scott Peck (among others) has reminded us. 

The kicker comes with the other half of the psalm’s message: “…the LORD delivers them from them all.” Most especially, v.4 gives the operative phrase, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is over-quoted, but he defined the paucity of fear’s power over us when addressing a distraught nation in 1933: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” 

In the presence of the LORD, our fears may be named, our reason restored, our terror replaced with calm assurance.

THAT is why I bless the Lord at all times!


Jeremiah 31:7-9
The path of return to the Lord — to the safety and sanity of God’s refuge — is quite often through weeping and consolations. But God is the God who, like a father, walks alongside his children and leads them so that they will not stumble.

Psalm 126
Weeping to laughter, tears to joy. God sure does good work!

Hebrews 7:23-28
I remember the conversation with an older (in those days, as a young “preacher boy,” older was probably anyone over 40 from my perspective) church member who wryly commented, “I appreciate all you’re doing, but remember: preachers come and go. Some of us have to stay here all our lives.”

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that God has always had to have a steady supply of priests and preachers in order to minister among God’s people — for one very simple reason: preachers come and go. Or, at least, they eventually die.

But, Jesus is not like any mere human priest. He is the Great High Priest, and he will never die again. His priesthood, his ministry, is forever. It has been given to him by God, and he is now and ever will be doing what priests do — interceding on our behalf. 

Mark 10:46-52
Blind Bart. What a great character!

Several points come to mind when I read this story:

  • Don’t let other people discourage you or shout you down when you know what it is that you need
  • Never give up — keep praying — in fact, don’t be afraid to shout at the Lord!
  • When Jesus invites you to come, jump at the chance
  • When Jesus asks you what you need, tell him (no need for hem-hawing, eh?)
  • Faith is awfully strong

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together, a great company, they shall return here.” Jeremiah 31:8

A young priest was assigned to the staff of a large cathedral. He soon noticed a woman who came in every day before mass and knelt before the statue of the Blessed Virgin and prayed for an hour.

He commented on the woman’s obvious holiness to an elderly priest who had served the cathedral for decades. The old priest smiled and said. “Things are not always what they seem. Years ago, that woman was the model for the statue of the Virgin. She’s not worshiping God. She’s worshiping who she used to be.” (Apocryphal: told by various sources about a variety of famous clergymen.)

Worshiping who we used to be; it’s a bad habit that all of us with a few years on us can fall into.  The older we get the smarter, hipper and more successful many of us apparently once were.

Churches and denominations often fall into this habit as well.  I have served two churches in North Carolina with histories dating back into the 1700’s and they both had walls filled with portraits of former pastors (referred to by the less reverent as “the rogues gallery”) and a history room stocked with artifacts (dare I say relics?) from an earlier time.

And there is nothing particularly harmful in any of that.  It’s good to know about and honor those who came before us.  It’s also good to learn from their mistakes, if we can.  George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Things get messy when we adore the past more than remember it.  Oct. 31 is not only Halloween, it is also Reformation Day and this is a time when many Lutherans are sometimes guilty of “ worshiping who we used to be” rather than worshiping God.

A recent poll showed that for the first time in a long time less than half of the people in America identify as Protestants.  The days when the grand old churches of the Reformation dominated the religious landscape are far gone.

Too many Lutherans and Methodists and Presbyterians and Episcopalians and Congregationalists are left looking back at a rich heritage while scratching their heads and wondering what in the world happened.  We must avoid the temptation of worshiping (and trying to recreate) who we used to be and get on with the business of worshiping God and sharing God’s story now, in this place and in this time.

Writing in America magazine and quoted in the Huffington Post, Jesuit priest James Martin shared an interesting sidebar to the recent vice-presidential debate.

“. . . listeners may have been flummoxed by the Vice President’s offhand reference to de fide doctrines of the church, which simply refers to the most basic Catholic beliefs, which cannot be denied by any Catholic in good standing. (Think, for example, of what is contained in the Creed.) Ironically, this was such an abstruse theological reference that the official transcription CNN simply wrote ‘inaudible.’ “
(Huffington Post, Oct. 12, 2012)

“Inaudible.”  Basically it means “un-hearable,” “incapable of being heard.”  It could be a metaphor for the voice of the church in the modern world. No matter what we say, the world no longer hears us.

It’s like my favorite line from the Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan movie Rush Hour:  “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?”  Faced with a world that stares at us uncomprehendingly, we try saying the same old thing louder and more slowly.

It’s not going to help.  They don’t know our language.  And they are not running out to get a religious Rosetta Stone course in order to learn it.  It is on us, the church, to learn the new languages the world is speaking so that we can talk with the world about the gospel of God’s love.

The text from Jeremiah gives us a vision of those whom God desires to bring together in one holy community.  “From the farthest parts of the earth,”  “the blind and lame,” “those with child and those in labor,” “a great company.”
Jesus’ healing of the blind man in the gospel lesson is a sign that this holy community is here in the world now.

God has chosen us to be the ones who call the world to participate in the community of love that is being created. We are the tellers of the tale, the proclaimers of the promise, the speakers of the spiel; the witnesses to the world.

What story are we telling?  Are we talking about who we used to be, inviting the world to join us in restoring our imagined former glory?

Or are we telling God’s “old, old” story in a new, interesting and exciting way, inviting the world to join us in the healing, loving, sacrificing and joyful work of God in today’s world?

Amen and amen.

Year B — Proper 24 (the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for October 21, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
Be careful what you pray for. 

Job spends the better part of 37 chapters (assisted by his “friends,” no doubt) bellyaching before God and demanding to speak face-to-face with the Almighty. Then, his request is granted.


Kind of puts a feller in his place, if you know what I mean.


The questions that God asks Job are a masterful exposition of God’s nature, character, abilities — of God’s “God-ness,” if you will. 


Like any good courtroom exposition, by the time God has finished deposing the witness (Job, in this case) there is very little doubt left in the minds of the jury. God really is God, so I think I’ll just hush now and go on back to the business of being mortal.


To quote Bill Cosby in another biblical context (his awesome monologue between God and Noah): “You and me, Lord — right?”


Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c

This psalm text forms the basis of one of my favorite hymns, “O, Worship the King.” I prefer to sing it with voices and organ, but Chris Tomlin has brought it to a new generation in his contemporary version (you can check it here.)

The psalm is a powerful complement to the Job reading — the opening sentences are a masterpiece of understatement: “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great.”


Isaiah 53:4-12

The Song of the Servant depicts the other side of greatness — one who is willing to suffer the greatest sorrow imaginable in order to “make many righteous.” (v.11)

Christians most often read this passage with Jesus in mind. It is indeed fitting to do so. The passage serves as a guide and as inspiration for all who would suffer righteously, as well. God’s presence with us allows us to see light and find satisfaction beyond the injustice and pain of suffering. May we live as our Savior has lived, with no deceit in our mouths.


Psalm 91:9-16

Lynn Anderson made a hit song out of it: “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.” (Of course, you can hear her here!)

One might be tempted to think that God’s promise of refuge would mean that all our troubles will go away. Not so fast, my friend!


God is awfully good to have around when trouble comes, no doubt; but notice that the text says, “I will be with them in trouble….” The troubles do still come, but God is right there in the midst of the trouble with us. 


God is a dwelling place (a shelter, a safe space) when the skubala is hitting the fan, so to speak!


Hebrews 5:1-10

No one should ever presume to take the honor of service to God on for themselves; the Hebrew priests didn’t do it, and neither did Jesus, the Great High Priest.

God calls, we answer. That call may involve all sorts of trouble, pain, and suffering — but the glory is God’s. 


Mark 10:35-45

Now, in Mark’s version of this tale, James and John come asking for themselves about the best seats in the house when Jesus comes into his glory. (Matthew says it was their momma what came and asked this for them — see Matthew 20:20-21)

Either way, the main question Jesus has for the boys is, “Do you think you really can follow me? Do you think you can handle the truth?”


Following Christ in his glory is something we all would like to get in on — entering into his suffering is another matter entirely. 


Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Father Ed was pastor of a small Catholic Church at the beach. One Good Friday morning, he removed the purple Lenten banners from the three wooden crosses in the churchyard and carefully draped the crosses with long black shrouds. Early that same afternoon, the priest received a phone call from the local Chamber of Commerce. A tense and angry voice said,

“Look Preacher, we’ve been getting some complaints about those black crosses out in your churchyard. Now inside the church, who cares? But out front, where everybody can see them, they’re offensive. The retired people here don’t like them–they’re depressing! And the tourists don’t like them either. People come down here to get happy and have a good time, not to get depressed. It will be bad for business!”

The cross was, and still is, offensive, depressing and bad for business.

All three of our scripture lessons make reference to the offense of the cross, the suffering and death of Jesus offered as a sacrifice to Gad and a ransom for our souls.

In Isaiah 53, we read of the person whom the scholars called “The Suffering Servant” Though it is doubtful that the prophet Isaiah clearly foresaw a person like Jesus fulfilling this role far into the future, it is clear that Jewish religious thinking had made a connection between one or a few suffering and dying to spare and free the many. And it is no surprise that the early Christians, all Jews and all familiar with the Prophetic writings, immediately recognized in Isaiah’s description of the Suffering One the life and death of Jesus.

Immediately before our Gospel reading, Mark shows Jesus clearly explaining to the disciples what is going to happen to him. Listen:  “The son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” And almost as soon as these words were out of his mouth, James and John ask him,  “Can we be the #1 and #2 power people in a Jesus administration?” Obviously, they didn’t get what he was talking about.

So Jesus tries again. The talk about cup and baptism refer to the cup of God’s wrath and the baptism of death. Jesus refers to the cup again in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays that the cup might pass over him. They still don’t get it, so Jesus just shakes his head and says, “You will suffer and die, but honors are up to God, not me.”

Hebrews 5:7-9 point again to the cross:  “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all….”

Jesus was not suicidal, not a “willing martyr,” happily going to his death with visions of grandeur in his mind. He was not deluded. He was very much aware of what this meant and he struggled over it, crying out, as the text says: “to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard. . . “

This cuts to the very heart of the issue. Jesus knew that his path led to death. Jesus knew that God could save him from this fate. And Jesus was not ashamed to let his fears and feelings be known. What agony! “You could save me if you would! But you won’t! Why won’t you? Why won’t you? My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?”

“He was heard . . .” the text says, and yet he died. And yet he died.

When I was about 12 or 13, I was in the Boy Scouts. My Daddy was one of the Dads who helped out. One night we were playing around in the parking lot and I fell while racing some other boys. I hit squarely on my forehead in the gravel, and a piece of gravel got lodged under the skin against my skull. You can still see the scar.

Our Scoutmaster was also the local doctor and his clinic was across the road, so he and Daddy took me in there to tend to my wound. I was scared and hurting as I shivered on the cold examining table. He was a good doctor, but he had a lousy bedside manner, more appropriate for crusty farmers than little boys.

He washed his hands and then made some instruments ready, all the while chatting with Daddy.  Suddenly he turned toward me with a needle the size of a baseball bat, or so it seemed to me. I never did like needles. I looked at Daddy and started crying and yelling
“DADDY, DADDY, DADDY don’t let him hurt me. Please, Daddy, please!”!

The doctor threw a huge leg over me to hold me down and put his left arm across my chest and swabbed my wound with alcohol, then approached me with that needle. I continued to cry and beg Daddy to make him stop. And just as the needle entered my forehead, I saw my daddy’s hands, clutching my jacket. The knuckles had turned white. I looked up at his face and saw a tear in the corner of his eye; the only time I ever saw him cry. “DADDY, DADDY, DADDY!” I was heard, Oh yes, I was heard. And I was denied.”

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation . . .”  That is the great mystery of our faith: that where we are; in the midst of sin and suffering, decay and death; Christ has been, fully completely, totally.

Whatever is the worst that you have been through; no matter how scared, lonely, lost and forsaken you have been; Jesus has been there! Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Jesus has been there! Have you ever wondered how you were going to make it one more day? Jesus has been there!

And the promise of the Gospel is that where Jesus is now, we are going. The Gospel is that God brought Jesus through to the other side of the Cross. The Gospel is God can and will carry you through as well.

God calls us to follow Him. It is not an easy way, it is not a painless path, it is not smooth sailing. Jesus’ way is the Way of the Cross. But the joyous paradox and mystery of the Gospel is – the way of the cross leads home.

For all of us, from the greatest to the least, from the oldest to the youngest, from the power brokers to the powerless, from the first to the last; all roads lead to, and through and beyond the Cross to Christ.

“Who was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment which made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

Amen and amen.

Year B — Proper 23 (The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)

Excusez-moi…Eh?

It seems we had a little mix-up in the readings for this week, and one of us Bubbas (we won’t point any fingers, here) pulled up the lessons for Thanksgiving Day in Canada. Not that we have anything against our Canadian readers — in fact, we’ll just leave those comments up below in their honor!

 But, you can rest assured that the sermon is based on the ACTUAL gospel lesson for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. Passez une bonne journée!

Commentary for October 14, 2012

by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for Thanksgiving Day (Canada) readings
OR
Click here for Sunday’s readings

Joel 2:21-27
English is such a bothersome language sometimes.

The English word “fear” is prominent in the Bible; for most of us, its connotations pack pretty powerful negative images. From it we get words like “afraid” and “frightening” and “fearful.” 

Thus, when we read the ancient wisdom of Proverbs 9:10 — “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” — we can get the idea that God is simply an angry deity, waiting to strike down unrighteous sinners with lightning bolts of wrath (or natural disasters or any number of diseases du jour popular with for-profit prophets and disgruntled pulpiteers.)

Of course, in the original languages of scripture, there is often a great deal of nuance and shading of meaning for these terms; the writer of Proverbs means no such thing. Rather, fear is used in its foundational context of “reverence, respect, awe” — realizing that there is and ought to be a discrete distance to be kept because of the nature of the object or person to be “feared.”
Joel gives a healthy corrective to the angry-god-in-the-sky mantra. The Creator God is one who cares for the creation — do NOT fear, this God says to the soil, the animals, the pastures, the growing things. God’s people will be vindicated, the days of sin and sorrow will be repaid with a great bounty.
Most importantly, there will be a day when God’s words ring true for all of God’s people: “And my people shall never again be put to shame.”
Psalm 126
Like many a poor joke about children in worship, I was actually one of those youngsters who thought the old gospel song based on this text was, “Bringing in the Sheeps.” (Sheaves…get it?)

What is really impressive to me now, as I read the words of the beautiful psalm, is the “dream-like” state of those whose fortunes the Lord has restored. When times are tough and the days look dark, deliverance does, indeed, seem only to be a dream — one that may never become reality.

I’ve never seen the watercourses of the Negev — though I did find a pretty awesome picture of the region (click here) thanks to Wikipedia. I have seen the lakes and ponds in my area of the country awfully low (even dry, in some cases) during a drought. It is a genuine relief — and an abundant blessing — when the rains come and begin to restore the water levels in such a situation. 

This image gives some real power to the prayer of v.4 — “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses….”

1 Timothy 2:1-7
It is election season in America — and a bitter one, at that (aren’t they all, these days?)

Citizens of countries around the world would do well to remember — and preachers would do well to remind them — of the prayer urged upon young Timothy by his older, wiser mentor, Paul.

I would venture to say that genuine prayer is never partisan — may it be passionate and persistent, however!

Matthew 6:25-33
There has simply never been a better explication of faith than this snippet of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” 

Need to understand faith in the sustaining presence of the world’s Creator? Look at the birds — gaze at the flowers in the field. They get along just fine — they get up and get dressed every single morning with complete confidence in God’s supply.

Been a little worried lately, and you just can’t seem to let it go? Try this: get a yardstick or tape measure, and see just how tall you are. Write it down. Now, worry for the next 24 hours about getting taller, then measure yourself again. How did that work for you? (The alternate translation for v.27 has always been my favorite — which of you can add a single cubit to your height by worrying?)

I suppose I could even make do with a sort of “urban slang” translation of v.33, which has the advantage of being succinct: “God’s got this!”

Sermon 
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton


Some years ago I found myself at a revival meeting in a small rural church.  One of the young women from my Lutheran youth group had been asked to sing a solo so I went to support her.

The preacher was a traveling evangelist and he put on quite an exhibition; shouting and hollering and stomping his feet and breaking into song and denouncing sins, some of which I had never heard of.  It was quite a show; both his theatrics and the crowd’s reactions. One little boy in particular caught my eye.

While his grandmother tried to pay attention, he kicked the pew in front of him, he laid down, he slid off the pew into the floor, he drew in the back of the hymnal with that stubby little pencil you can usually find in a pew rack, he loudly chewed gum and he sucked on a mint, he played with Grandma’s car-keys, and he asked if it was time to go, oh, about every two minutes.

Finally, as the Preacher launched into a fire-breathing altar call, with the congregation standing, every head bowed, every eye closed, I saw the little boy stand on tip-toe in the pew and whisper loudly into Grandma’s ear, “Are you sure this is the only way to get to heaven?”

This is a question that in one way or another, all of us get around to asking eventually. The man in our Gospel lesson asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus tells the disciples that rich people are going to have a hard time getting in, they ask, “Well, who can be saved then?’ “What must I do to be saved?” says one. “How can I get right with God?” says another.

There are secular, non-religious versions of the question: “What is the meaning of life?” “How can I be fulfilled?” “What does success look like for me?” To me, it’s all a part of the same question.

In the Gospel, a man came up and knelt in front of Jesus. We have traditionally referred to him as the “Rich Young Ruler.” This is a composite name from three gospel writers. Matthew calls him “young,” Luke calls him a “ruler,” and all three say he’s “rich.”

The man came asking a question to which he thought he already knew the answer. He’s like the wicked witch in Snow White talking to the mirror. “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all.” The rich Young ruler believes he is, and comes to Jesus for affirmation, not information.

He wants Jesus to give him a benediction, a good word. He wants the JESUS OF NAZERETH, PROPHET AND TEACHER, seal of approval on his life. And much to his surprise he doesn’t get it, not in the way he had expected.

You see, he had rested his claim on the Kingdom of God on the twin pillars of righteousness and riches. Obey the Ten Commandments and enjoy worldly success. And worldly success is an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and visible blessing.

So the young man believed. And honestly, so did everyone else in that time and place. That very debate was part of what the book of Job was about. Do we love God because we’re blessed with material things; or are we blessed with material things because we love God?

If we’re not blessed, does that mean we’re bad? And if we’re clearly good, and we have nothing, does that mean God’s not fair? The people in Jesus’ world, including his disciples, believed that morality and material blessing went hand in hand. If you were good, God would bless you with riches and comforts in this world.

So, when Jesus said to the young man, “You lack one thing, go and sell all and give it to the poor. . .” it wasn’t just the giving up of his money and stuff that bumfuzzled him; the rich young ruler’s whole world view, his entire way of looking at how the world works, has been turned upside down and inside out.

Remember the little boy at the revival meeting? After church I was standing in the parking lot chatting when Grandma came marching him out the door; hat squarely on her head, suitcase-size pocketbook on her arm, holding him by the neck with one hand and swatting at this behind with the other. He danced ahead of her with that pelvis-forward, swat-avoiding, Michael Jackson moon walk we’ve all seen. He yelled back at her, “What you hitting me for? I ain’t done nothing.”

The rich young ruler hasn’t done anything either, and that’s just the point. Though he has lived a fastidiously moral life, (“All these I have kept from my youth”), he had never learned that there is more to the moral life, to life in the Kingdom of God, than being good and safe and not wrong. He had never learned to go the extra mile, to take a risk, to boldly go where he has never gone before.

Jesus looked upon him with love and spoke to him out of that love when he said to him, “You lack one thing.” Because Jesus then tells him to get rid of his wealth and give it to the poor, we can become confused about what Jesus sees as missing in his life.

The man doesn’t lack generosity, he doesn’t lack compassion for others, he doesn’t lack doesn’t lack morality; he doesn’t lack an awareness of call of God on the Jews to hospitality to the stranger. This man lacks faith.  He lacks a willingness to trust God both now and into the future. He lacks a confident and joyous reliance upon the love and generosity of God.

He is relying upon his goodness and his goods to get him through this life and into the next, and Jesus says, “Friend, that’s just not good enough. “Why is it hard for a rich person to get into heaven, harder than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle?  Because when you’re rich, it’s really hard to realize how much you need God and other people.

Being rich is not evil; it is just exceptionally dangerous to your spiritual health. The question for us today is this: what are we depending on in our relationship with God? Are we depending on our rightness, our ability to discern and know the right answer to spiritual and religious questions? Are we depending on our righteousness, on our goodness, on our obedience to the Ten Commandments? What is it that keeps us trusting ourselves and not fully trusting God?

What is the one thing that we lack, the one thing that keeps us from totally and completely committing ourselves to God’s will and God’s way. What keeps us from doing wild and wonderful right things in the name of the Living Christ?

The Good News is that Jesus has come to transform the impossible into the possible. Jesus has come to release us from our bondage of serving ourselves and our things. Jesus has come to take us by the scruff of the neck and to drag us kicking and screaming through the eye of that needle, into the center of God’s love.

Amen and amen.