Year C — The Second Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 9, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Baruch 5:1-9
Baruch’s vision offers relief to those wearied by the cares of life; how appealing to be able to “take off the garment of sorrow and affliction” and to “put on forever the beauty of the glory from God!”

Notice particularly the contrast offered in vv. 5-6: the Israelites who suffered the ignominious loss of their homes — and their children! — now are able to imagine them coming home again. They were led away by enemy forces, but they will be led home by God.

Verse 8 is a practical reminder for each of us during this season of preparation — look back on the places in your life where God’s presence has “shaded” you during the seasons of difficulty. God has never left you, and God will be present with you still.

Malachi 3:1-4
Malachi informs us of the coming of both the Lord that our hearts are seeking, and of his messenger who comes to prepare the way. Christians read John the Baptizer here, and Jesus, the one to be born in Bethlehem. 

I am struck by the issue of time in this passage, particularly as we reflect on the “Christmas story” over the coming weeks. We see a baby born, and then what seems to us a “gap” in the life of this Christ child —  who really won’t appear again until he is revealed as a man of about 30 years of age. We follow his journey of preaching, teaching, and healing for about 3 years or so — and then, just as Malachi says, suddenly he comes to the temple and his life’s work is completed in the span of about a week.

Makes me wonder just how God is suddenly at work in our midst during this season — with things that may have been happening for many years?

Luke 1:68-79
Famously, Zechariah’s lips have been sealed since the day it was revealed to him by God’s messenger that he would have a son in his old age. With the birth of John, the old priest truly has a song to sing — and he gives a virtuoso performance!

Zechariah connects for us the covenant promise of God, given to Abraham; the “mighty savior” raised up from David’s house; the visions of the prophets sent to God’s people; and, last but not least, this child born to tell the story of the One who would come after him.

John’s ministry would be considered by some to be that of “second fiddle” to the more important work of Jesus. But, without the second fiddle, the song would be lacking harmony, contrast, depth, and invention. Thank God we have John in the orchestra!

Philippians 1:3-11
As Advent progresses, we consider how God’s work in the world does so, as well. It grows — it changes — it adapts — but it always continues.

There is a day in which God’s work will be finished. We wait for that Advent, as well, the “day of Jesus Christ.” In the meantime, the beautiful prayer of the apostle for the church is that love will overflow, leading us to knowledge and full insight (understanding, discerning) so that we can choose what is best.

Sounds like a winner to me!

Luke 3:1-6
Luke is always so precise with the details of his story. He situates John for us “precisely” in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, during the time of Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, et al

We note that he also places John “precisely” in the midst of the wilderness, so that he can receive the word of God. (Hmmm… why couldn’t he be in a resort somewhere, or at home with the wife and kids? Maybe there’s a lesson in there for us preachers when we need to “get in touch with God?”)

That word from God is also fairly “precise;” repent of your sins, be baptized, make a straight path for God in your life.

It might well be that John’s story could and should challenge us today — cut through the “busyness” and the distractions and the plethora of unimportant (in the grand scheme of things) details that clog our minds. Stop — pay attention —  get right. 

Perhaps we could all do with a little “baptism” in the wilderness this season — immersed in the precise wisdom and purpose of God for our lives.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Verse 3: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The word “wilderness” brings a variety of things to mind. I grew up in southwest part of Virginia and in the fourth and 8th grades we studied Virginia history so when I hear the word wilderness, the first thing I think of is the “Wilderness Campaign” of 1864.

My wife is very interested in ecology and the environment and almost once a week we get an appeal for funds from some group promising some form of wilderness preservation.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, “wilderness” usually refers to the area between Egypt and the Promised Land where the children of Israel wandered around following Moses, trying to figure out what it meant to be the chosen people of God.
In the Gospels “the wilderness” meant a relatively narrow strip of desert to the east of the Jordan River. This wilderness is where both John and Jesus went to be alone with God and wrestle with their demons and to become clear about their mission; their calling. While they were in the wilderness, they were hungry and thirsty and hot and lonely and in danger of being devoured by wild beasts.

The question for us today is, “where is our wilderness?”

Where is that place where we wrestle with our demons and look deeply into the face of God and discover our mission; our calling?

As we hear the word of God come to us this day, Dec. 9, 2012, we cannot think of the wilderness as a far-off place from long ago.

It’s not in Israel’s time of exodus through the desert. That was their wilderness.
It’s not in John’s years of study and prayer in the desert. That was John’s wilderness.
It’s not in Jesus’ forty days of trial and temptation.  That was Jesus’ wilderness.

Where is our wilderness?  Perhaps our wilderness is the general state of the world. From war and violence in the middle-east to economic collapse in Europe to an ugly political season back here in the US to political grid-lock in DC; the world is full of evidence that it continues to be a dangerous and unpredictable place.

I open up the paper in tiny Clay County, North Carolina where I live, only 10,000 folks. Three front page news stories; 1) a drug bust of man with van full of cocaine,  2) a cold-blooded shoot out murder and  3) a young man who has been arrested for a string of violent home invasions in which he beat up old people and then took their stuff.

Violence, drugs, crime, disease, economic distress; you never know when something or someone might dart out of the shadows and get you.  Is the danger of the world our wilderness?

Maybe our wilderness is the free-living and freewheeling culture in which we live.  Many times we seem to have given ourselves over completely to the new Golden Rule: “The one who has the gold, rules!” All over the world a simple materialistic principle applies:  if people want it and are willing to pay for it, why shouldn’t they have it?

Sex, drugs, luxuries.  Questions of morals and values and quality of life are quickly drowned out by voices shouting that the market must be free; people must be free even if it means free to pursue their own destruction.  Is ours a world that has completely lost its ethical bearings?  Is that our wilderness?

Well, truth be told, our wilderness is exactly where it has always been; deep in the middle of each human heart. Ever since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden after deciding to follow their own way instead of God’s way, we have carried the wilderness with us, wherever we go.

There is no place on Earth we can go to find the peace we are looking for. And there is no place on Earth the peace of God in Christ cannot find us.

Where is our wilderness?  It is in us, in our fears and failures, our sins and shortcomings, our trials and troubles and tribulations.

And where is our God? God is in our wilderness with us, deep in our lives, showing us the way.

Where is our God? God is in the Word, the word that came to John in his Wilderness, the word of scripture that we read, the word of Gospel that we preach, the word of hope and promise that calms our fears and forgives our sins.

Where is our God? God is in the waters of baptism, washing us clean from the dirt and dust of the desert, rinsing away the wastes of the wilderness.  God is in the water, bathing us in the warmth of the divine love.

Where is our God? God is in the sacrament of the table; God is feeding us on God’s self in the midst of our wilderness; giving us holy food and drink so that we may carry on with our journey.

Where is our God? God is here, in this community of wilderness wanderers, from the youngest to the oldest, from the wisest to the silliest, from the biggest to the smallest, from the most saintly to the most sinful. God is here, calling us together and calling us forward in our Advent journey out of the wilderness into the kingdom.

Amen and amen.

Year C — The First Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 2, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Jeremiah 33:14-16
How very poignant to read the words of the prophet 2,600 years after their first proclamation: “In those days…Jerusalem will live in safety.” As I write this bit of commentary, missiles are flying and troops are massing in yet another conflict between those who seek “the peace of Jerusalem” on their own terms.

2,600 years — talk about waiting! And, yet, the promise of God endures: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made….”

Psalm 25:1-10
The psalmist reminds us that we have a purpose in our waiting. The “in-between” time — the pause between the promise of God and its fulfillment — is a time for trust. We practice “lifting up our souls.” Wow — now there’s a weighty [also, “wait-y”] exercise!

Waiting is a time for learning, as well; God makes known, teaches, and leads us in God’s paths.

Waiting is also, curiously, a time when we ask God to remember God’s mercy and steadfast love — but that we ask God to forget our own youthful indiscretions — the times we have wandered from the path!

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
There are other purposes for the waiting times, as well, according to the apostle. Day by day, God is at work strengthening the hearts of holiness within God’s people; we learn to “abound” in love — love for God, for one another, for God’s world.

Advent is a great time to follow the admonition of the heartfelt (if largely cheesy) words popularized by the smooth stylings of Glen Campbell:

If you see your brother standing by the roadWith a heavy load from the seeds he’s sowed;And if you see your sister falling by the wayJust stop and say, “you’re going the wrong way!”
You got to try a little kindnessYes show a little kindnessJust shine your light for everyone to see.And if you try a little kindness,then you’ll overlook the blindnessOf narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets
(Listen to Glen perform here)

Luke 21:25-36
I suppose the gospel reminds us that this waiting thing is not all smooth sailing and happy-go-lucky cheer-spreading. The real world — while we wait — is filled with “dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

“Distress among the nations” is the order of the day; confusion reigns on many fronts. Certainly, there is no shortage of fear and foreboding.

However — and there is always a however with the gospel! — hope does come around, even in the midst of the cold mid-winter. For many of us (unless you live here in sunny Florida, USA) — the trees that surround us have lost their leaves. Things do, indeed, look a little bleak and barren outside.

But, based on experience, we understand that life has not been lost. What was green and growing will once again return. So, Jesus says, we have reason to hope that the same is true in the kingdom of God. What is needed, for people of faith, is a little watchfulness. 

Be alert — look around. See things that others, who have only earthly eyes to see with, cannot quite make out. Lift up your heads, people of God — your redemption is drawing nigh!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

It was over twenty years ago.  We were on one of those endless car trips from South Atlanta
to Mount Airy NC for Thanksgiving weekend.

We finally got everything and everyone loaded up and ready to go and got on our way about three PM.  With luck we’d be there before midnight.

About 30 minutes from home a little voice from the back seat piped up, “Are we there yet?”
“No, we’re not there yet.  We just left home.”

Five minutes later, “Are we there yet?”
“No.  Read your book.”

Five minutes later, “Are we there yet?”
“No, I’ll tell you when we get there.”

After about fifteen or twenty more, “Are we there yet” inquiries, I exploded, “No!  And if you ask me that question one more time you’re in big trouble!” (One of my parental specialties was the ill-defined and unenforceable threat.)

After a blessed period of silence, a timid voice came from the back seat,
“Will I still be five years old when we get there?”

Advent is the season of waiting.  Sometimes waiting patiently; other times waiting quite impatiently.
What are we waiting for?

Most of us are, with the rest of the world, waiting for Christmas to get here.

And while we wait we have a lot of practical things to do. Presents to buy and wrap and send, cards to write and address and mail, parties to host or attend.

And most of us are either going on a trip somewhere to visit someone
or we are getting ready for others to come visit us.

And somehow, in the midst of all that, we have to find room for the religious part
of our Christmas celebration.

It’s a busy, busy time.

And there are times when many of us just wish it would come and go quickly,
so that we can get on with our lives.

And there are other times when we wish it would wait a while,
give us some more time to get ready.

And those of us in the church are also waiting for still other things as well during this Advent season.

We are waiting for Jesus to come again “…to judge the living and the dead,” (the Apostles’ Creed.)  

Advent reminds us that God is not yet finished, not with us and not with the world.

Creation and redemption are not once and for all,
over and done with acts, of God.

God created the world and keeps on actively creating it.
God in Christ acted to redeem the world and God in Christ keeps on actively redeeming it.

As Jeremiah says “. . . he will execute justice and righteousness in the land,” and until that is done,
God is not done.

Advent is also a time when we are waiting for the Christ Child to be born anew in our hearts.

Life gets tiresome and weary at times and our souls and spirits can grow numb and cold.

The cares of life,  the mistakes and missteps begin to pile up. We can find ourselves slogging through to the best of our ability but somehow, our best just does not seem to be good enough anymore.

And so we wait; we wait for the Christ Child; we wait for the long-expected Jesus;
we wait for a glimmer of light in the world’s darkness; we wait for the renewal of hope in our lives.

While we wait, we look for signs that our time of waiting may soon be over.
“What are the things we are to look for?”
“What will happen so that we will know?”
“Are we there yet?”

Often-times people have looked for these signs with a sense of dread and foreboding.

The Left Behind books and some television preachers have used texts like the one in our Gospel lesson to try to scare people into a commitment to Christ.

That’s not the message Jesus is getting at here.  The parable of the fig tree points to a more optimistic and hopeful promise.

Jesus says, “You know that winter is almost over when the fig tree begins to sprout new leaves.”

That is a sign that the time of darkness and cold and death is almost over; the time of light and warmth and new life is at hand.

Jesus is reminding us that the signs of the time are not bad, but good; not doom and destruction, but joy and jubilation.

The disturbances the world goes through when Christ enters in are not death rattles but rather birth pangs;
not the end but the beginning of life.

And so, how are we to spend our time while we are waiting?  Verse 34 says to “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down . . .”

What if we translated that “be on your guard,” a little differently?   The same word can also mean, “Pay attention to yourselves.”

Can’t that mean that we should look after one another, take care of each other,
protect each other from a loss of hope and faith?

Between the time when Jesus first came and the time when Jesus will come again, we have been called to the ministry of paying attention to each other.

Jesus is calling us to actively participate in changing the world.

Jesus is calling us to become a part of the struggle for peace and justice and righteousness in the world.

Jesus is calling us to feed the hungry,
to clothe the naked, to house the homeless,
the lift up the downtrodden,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to raise the dead in spirit to new life in Christ.

Jesus is calling us to not so much look for signs of his coming but rather to be signs of his coming.

Jesus is calling us to be sprouts on the fig tree of new life;

Jesus is calling us to be a voice louder than the roaring of the seas as we proclaim the love of God.

Jesus is calling us to shine as bright as the sun and moon and stars as we show forth the light of Christ in a dark and lonely world.

And when those little backseat voices ask us, “Are we there yet?” — we can joyfully answer,

“No, not yet, but we are on the road and God is coming to meet us soon.”

Amen and amen.

Year B — Proper 29 (The Reign of Christ)

Commentary for November 25, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

2 Samuel 23:1-7
David speaks the words to which we all, as preachers, aspire every time we stand and deliver: “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.” N‘estce pas?

This word outlines the character of the righteous ruler: one who rules justly, in the fear of God. This ruler brings light and life to the land.

In true Hebrew literary form, there follows a contrasting vision of the godless: thorns that prick and tear, worth nothing but to be piled together and burned.

Let us pray for righteous rulers!

Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18)
The psalmist remembers David’s passion for the worship of God, for a place to serve as God’s dwelling place. Rooted in that same passion and commitment, the psalm prays for God’s blessing on the “sons of David” that will follow as God’s righteous rulers over God’s people in Zion.

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Daniel’s apocalyptic vision is of God, the Ancient One, on the exalted throne of heaven. God is joined by “one like a human being” who is given the authority to rule over all peoples, nations, and languages on earth.

This imagery is picked up by John, in the opening chapters of Revelation, and reworked brilliantly into the theme of God’s great power and authority over even sin and death — made known to all of creation in the Lamb of God (and a slaughtered lamb, at that.)

The power and might of the Ancient One, the King of heaven, the ruler of an eternal dominion — in the end will lay claim to the throne through nothing other than sacrifice and love.

Psalm 93
It is the LORD who is robed with majesty, who has acted in strength to establish the world. 

While the image of floodwaters roaring through our neighborhoods is not a particularly comfortable one (just ask those affected by the recent Superstorm Sandy, the Christmas tsunami of 2004, or the still-memorable Hurricane Katrina in 2006) — there is no denying the power and awe of the metaphor.

Revelation 1:4b-8
Jesus rules the kings of the earth, by virtue of his rule over death itself (a power that conquers even the most venerable kings — cf. King Tut, King Nebuchadnezzar, King Henry VIII, and so on.)

One of the connections with the Daniel passage (see above) appears here as Jesus Christ is envisioned “coming with clouds.” 

Not insignificant is the appointment of Christ’s followers as “kings and priests” in his name. What import does this have for the church’s ministry on this Sunday of Christ, the King?

John 18:33-37
Pilate senses that something is up with this Jesus fellow. He seems to be more than the local rulers have cracked him up to be. Pilate’s questions are probing, intense.

“Are you the King of the Jews? What have you done? Tell me, are you a king?”

Those are questions that we are still answering to this day, I think. What does it mean for me to offer my allegiance to a king whose kingdom, by his own admission, is “not of this world?”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In his book “The Canadians” Andrew Malcolm writes about Cecille Bechard.  She is “A Canadian who visits the United States several dozen times a day; when she goes to the refrigerator or to the backdoor or to make tea for instance.  To read and sleep, she stays in Canada.  And she eats there too, as she at the north end of her kitchen table.  Mrs. Bechard’s home is in Quebec and Maine at the same time.” This is because her house was already there in 1842 when diplomat’s sat down in London to create the official boundary line.

Hmm; a citizen of one country who spends most of her time in another country, all the while staying in the same place, somehow that feels familiar.  We, as Christians, are also citizens on two worlds, of two kingdoms.

Most of our life is lived in the urgent now of eating and sleeping and working and playing.  Most of our thinking is governed by the culture in which we live; indeed most of our opinions about most things are shaped by being citizens of and participants in the secular world around us.

But, to be a person of faith is to perceive another reality besides the one that is easily and readily apparent.  To be a person of faith is to live in two worlds at the same time.  It is to perceive the reality everyone else sees but also to see a reality that can only be seen with the eyes of faith.

In our Gospel lesson these two worlds collide.  At the trial of Jesus we find Pilate, a thoroughly secular pragmatist; deciding what to do with hard, cold, real politick calculation. And we find Jesus, no less aware of the stark reality of his situation and the cross that stands before him, but also aware of another reality, another “kingdom” to which he belongs.

Pilate is both amused and annoyed by the whole thing.  He can’t figure out why this man is standing before him, accused of being, of all things, “the king of the Jews.”  This guy?  This backwoods Bible thumper?  After staring at him and his accusers awhile, Pilate asks, “Okay, what have you done?”

This doesn’t really help, because he can’t understand Jesus’ answers either.  Oh, he understands the words; he just can’t decipher the meaning.  “So, you are a king.  Or not.  What are you talking about?”

The problem is that Pilate, and the social and political leaders of Judea, and most of the people who had been following Jesus around and listening to him preach, were aware of only one world and Jesus was living in two.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” he says, and in that moment he is like Mrs. Bechard, looking across her kitchen table to the “other country” where her refrigerator sits.

We are called to live each day in two worlds, two realities, two kingdoms.  We cannot and should not permanently retreat from the real world which surrounds us with its pain and suffering, hunger and disease, wars and violence of all description.  We are called of God to follow Christ and put ourselves into the midst of the worlds need.

We are called of God to struggle with the world we see all around us, to be active participants in making this world a better place for everyone.  We are called to plunge into the secular now, to dive into the messiness that is the world; we are called to get into it up to our necks.

But we are also called to look beyond the obvious to the really real; to look past the daily to see the eternal; to look within the moment to see the mystery; to stare into the face of the truly human to perceive there the image of the truly divine.

For we live in two worlds at the same time and the trick is to not become so enamored of the one that we lose sight of the other.  With Christ the King as our guide, we are called to see the hand of God moving in our midst, holding us up with the divine love, pointing and gently nudging us in the right direction when we lose our way, holding us back from danger and harm, filling the ordinary with mystery and the mysterious with meaning, that we; like Daniel and the Psalmist and Saint John the Divine and Jesus himself; we will be able always to hold on to faith in the “already but not yet” divine world of which Christ is the one and only King.

 Amen and amen.

We Stand Amazed!

Bubba and me just want to say how absolutely stunned, amazed, and grateful we are that — one week shy of finishing our second year of publishing the Lectionary Lab — we have crossed the 100,000 views threshold.

We were thrilled the first time there were 25 of you who kindly signed on and read what we had to offer — that was about what we had in mind, to tell the truth. Now, there are over 1,500 of you who follow along in an average week. Incredible!

So, we’d like to say, “Thanks for noticing us” — and we hope that you’ll spread the word to other preachers and friends. We always invite your comments and love to meet up with you every chance we get.

Keep preaching!

John and Delmer
Two Bubbas and a Bible

Year B — Proper 28 (The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for November 18, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

1 Samuel 1:4-20
Some of the most effective praying that is done may be with “wordless prayers,” such as that of Hannah. Nothing audible, no profundity of phrasing. Just straight up “pouring out my soul before the Lord.” (v.15)

1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah’s response to God’s goodness in answering her prayer (see above) functions as the psalm text for those using these readings. She certainly does as well as anything David or any other psalmist ever wrote!

One of my favorite questions to ask when the scripture is laid out before me — during those moments when I am simply seeking to let the text speak — is, “What do I learn about God from this text?”

  • There is no Holy One like the LORD
  • God is a God of knowledge
  • God weighs God’s every action
  • God holds the power of both death and life
  • God is in the midst of both poverty and wealth
  • God may be found at the ash heaps of life, as well as in the seats of power
  • God guards the feet of those who are faithful; God’s adversaries will be shattered (ouch!)

Daniel 12:1-3
An apocalyptic portion from Daniel; in chapter 11, he has told us that the vision speaks of “the time of the end.” We have one of the Bible’s four mentions of Michael, the archangel of God (there is a second in Daniel,  as well as others in Jude and Revelation.) Michael is one of seven angels of this rank according to some Jewish and Orthodox Christian sources (a pretty decent article from Wikipedia here.)

Whatever one’s views of end times and angelology might be, we certainly have a text of hope and comfort in the midst of great anguish here. Daniel’s vision has a formative influence on the eschatology of the early church, which knew its share of suffering, persecution, and anguish.

Psalm 16
Another passage with the theme of God’s protection. Notice that faith in God affects the whole person — physically, mentally/emotionally, and spiritually: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.” (v. 9)

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
The preacher of Hebrews places his assurance and hope squarely on the success of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. Jesus has opened a “new and living way” for us to approach God — and we may now do so boldly and with great confidence.

With our eternal destiny secured, the preacher would have us turn to love and good deeds — “provoking” one another in these endeavors. What a different take on our usual impression of the word “provoke!”

Instead of provoking one another with political jabs, insults, taunts, and mocking — can you imagine what public discourse would be like if we substituted encouragement to love and good deeds, instead?

“Yeah, well your mother was so nice, she used to bake cookies for the whole neighborhood!”

“Aw, that’s nothing — yo’ momma was so generous, she used to give us all a quarter for picking up the sticks on Old Man Johnson’s yard!”

“Yeah, well if you don’t stop it, I’m gonna have to go over and help your little brother with his homework.”

“You better watch out; if you do that — I’ll be forced to fix your sister’s bike!

Mark 13:1-8
The prognosticators of doom and gloom are quick to arise whenever there is a major tragedy. In recent memory, there have been all sorts of predictions and pronouncements of the judgment of God attached to everything from the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001 — to Hurricane Katrina in 2006 — and the recent Superstorm Sandy that affected millions on the East Coast of the U.S.

Worldwide, wars and famine and struggles for justice drag on day after day, year after year. Many people are prone to ask the question, “Is this the end of the world?”

Well, I admit that one does have to wonder — just as the disciples in Jesus time wondered. We are there when Peter, James, John, and Andrew (notice the addition of Andy to the usual inner circle of the Big Three) pop the question to Jesus : “When will this be, and what will be the sign?”

I do like Jesus’ response, though it isn’t designed to answer the question directly: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and will say, ‘blah, blah, blah, blah….'”

Provides a nice filter for the talking heads and non-stop purveyors of agony that fill the airwaves. They don’t know any more than you or I; whatever is going on around us, it’s all like birth pangs. Expectant parents all have to learn the same lesson: the baby will come when the baby is ready to come.

So it is with the final chapter of the coming kingdom of God….

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Morgan Wooten was a basketball coach. He coached at DeMatha High School in the DC area. His teams won 1274 games while losing only 192 times. He was considered by everyone who knew him to be one of the great ones. Well, everyone except his grandson.

Wooten is one of only three high school coaches in the Basketball Hall of Fame. At his induction, he told a story about his grandson’s first day of school. The teacher asked Nick, “What’s your favorite sport?”  “Baseball,” he said.

The teacher knew who Nick’s grandfather was. She was surprised, “Not basketball?” Nick said, “Nope. I don’t know anybody who knows anything about basketball.”

The teacher was even more surprised, “But Nick, a lot of people think your Grandfather Wooten knows a lot about basketball. Nick snorted and laughed, “Oh no!  He doesn’t know anything about basketball.  I go to all his games and he never gets to play.”

Sometimes we see God the way Nick saw his grandfather. Because we see the game of life going on and have a hard time seeing the hand of God anywhere in it, we think, “God knows nothing about it,” or, “God cares nothing about it,” or, “God can’t do anything about it,” because, after all, we never see God get in the game.

The Scripture readings today talk about the art of having faith in a world gone mad,  of seeing God’s hand in the wild whirlwind of life around us. Each is an example of apocalyptic literature. Though many use these types of writings to try to make predictions about the future and to frighten people in the present; that is not what these Bible readings are about. They are intended to bring us reassurance of God’s love when we go through hard times and God seems to be very far away.

Daniel was written at a time when the Hebrew people and the Jewish faith were in a tough spot. They were in exile, they were oppressed, they were persecuted. Daniel was written to give hope to a people who had lost all hope; to give faith to those who were losing touch with God.

Chapter thirteen of Mark’s Gospel was written about thirty years after the death of Jesus, to the early Christians, a community of faith that was also in a tough spot, they were a people who were fearful and hesitant about the future. These words were written to give them hope and faith in the God of the future.

Hebrews was written to the Jewish Christian Community in Rome. They were struggling with the Romans on the one hand and their Jewish brothers and sisters on the other. They needed a word of hope in a time of distress. 

Each of these communities was like Morgan Wooten’s grandson. They saw the activity in front of them, but they couldn’t see the hand of the one running the show; and so they were afraid, they were anxious, they were losing hope.

Have you ever seen the Carl Reiner and Mel Brook skit called the 2000 year old man?  Reiner plays a TV reporter and Brooks plays, well, a 2000 year old man.

Newsman: “Well did you worship God in your village?”

Old Man:  “No, at first we worshipped this guy in our village named Phil.”
Newsman: “You worshipped a guy named Phil? Why?”
Old Man: “Well, he was bigger than us, and faster than us, and he was mean, and he could hurt you; break your arm or leg right in two; so we worshipped Phil.”
Newsman: “I see. Did you have any prayers in this religion?”
Old Man: “Yeah. Want to hear one?  – PLEASE PHIL NO! PLEASE PHIL NO!”
Newsman: “Okay. When did you stop worshipping Phil?”
Old Man: “Well One day we were having a religious festival. Phil was chasing us and we were praying. (PLEASE PHIL NO! PLEASE PHIL NO!) And suddenly a thunderstorm came up and a bolt of lightning struck and killed Phil. We all gathered around and stared at Phil awhile and then we realized: THERE’S SOMETHING BIGGER THAN PHIL.

That is the ultimate message of apocalyptic literature; there’s something bigger than Phil, there’s something bigger than the bad stuff that happens in our lives. And that something bigger is God. That something bigger is faith in God’s tomorrow overcoming our yesterdays and todays. That something bigger is the faith that God is indeed very much in the game.  God is involved in all our pain and sorrow, our suffering and disappointment. God is bigger, much bigger than all those things that frighten and haunt us.

Almost every church sings the Hymn Now Thank We All Our God around Thanksgiving.  As you sing it this year, reflect upon this: Pastor Martin Rinkhart wrote that hymn in the early 1600s, in the midst of the Thirty Years War. Six to eight thousand people in his village and territory died in an epidemic including the other two clergymen in town. For weeks at a time he buried as many as fifty people a day, including his own wife and children.

Either Rinkhart was heartless and a bit crazy, or he was in touch with a deep, deep spiritual truth about a God whose promises are ever sure and whose love never fails. If Reinhardt was right, if our Bible readings are telling us the truth that in the midst of this world’s trouble and sorrow, pain and disappointment; we can hold fast to the assurance of God’s concern and involvement in our lives; what are we to do, how are we called to live our lives?

There’s a fascinating line in our Hebrews lesson, verse 24: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,” Usually the word provoke is used in a negative sense; as in “Honest Officer, I didn’t aim to hit him, but he, he provoked me!” but here it is used positively, as encouragement, as stirring up, as prodding and pushing and being active in love.

We are called into a world full of scared, lonely, hurting people, and we are called to provoke one another into acts of love and works of mercy, into commitments to compassion, into doing the right thing for all the right reasons.  We are called to be the hand of God in the world, touching all with the gentle and healing caress of divine love.

Amen and amen.

Year B — Proper 27 (The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for November 11, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
I loved the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. They had such catchy episode titles that always included an optional subtext featured prominently — to wit, the title of Episode 1 — “Rocky and His Friends: Knock on Wood, OR Bullwinkle Takes the Rap!”

(for more Rocky/BW nostalgia, check out the titles here)

I wonder how we might title this episode from the ongoing saga of Ruth and Naomi? I admit that it has always made me a bit uncomfortable for the seemingly questionable (according to our modern sensibilities) situation it puts young Ruth into.

“Fix up real nice, darlin’, and go on down to the threshing floor after Boaz has had plenty to eat and drink. Lay right there next to him, and then do whatever he tells you to do!”

Of course, it works out all right — Boaz is, after all, the kindly kinsman-redeemer (and soon-to-be great grandpappy of King David, the messianic forerunner.)

So, here goes — “Widowed Women: Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, OR Kindly Kinsman Plants a Kiss, Saves the Day (and the Kingdom, Too!)”

Psalm 127

According to Psalm 127, the Eldridge* Family must have been the happiest bunch in Martin, Tennessee, my hometown. (Which, incidentally, was named as one of “Nine Happy Towns in the USA” in 1970 by Esquire Magazine. See, you just can’t get this stuff anywhere else!)

There were 9 of them, seven children with the two parents. They all had bright red hair and rode in one of those way-cool 1970’s station wagons with the wood panels on the side. 

I’m certain that the psalmist’s rejoicing over the Lord’s addition of happy little arrows to the quiver of the blessed had something to do with familial success and security. We tend to rejoice to this day over the addition of little ones in a family, do we not?

     * Not their real surname, though the family did exist — I promise!

1 Kings 17:8-16
As Dr. Chilton points out in the sermon below, this is the first of two “widow-stories” in our lessons for today (I suppose it would be three, if you count Ruth/Naomi in the first story, above.)

Both are stories about little becoming much when given in faith. Just how far and for how long does the blessing of God go in lives that are surrendered to God’s care?

Psalm 146

See previous commentary for this psalm on September 9, 2012 and November 4, 2012. 

Hebrews 9:24-28

Hebrews has been remarkably important on the doctrinal development of the church in so many ways. Today there are two important points to notice:

     * The continuing emphasis on Christ’s sacrifice as a “once for all” event
     * The sure and certain return of Christ to once-and-for-all effect God’s 
salvation (redemption, not the removal of sin)

Mark 12:38-44
Widows vs. Scribes — Choose a Side!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Today, we have read Bible lessons about two widows, both of whom were poor, and both of whom were generous with what they had. The story of the widow’s mite in the gospel was a little tough on ministers and other official church folk.

 “Beware of scribes, who like to walk around in long robes . . .,” Well, I wear them during service, but I don’t walk around in them, much. “ . . . and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” Okay, I do like it when people in grocery stores and restaurants call me Father or Reverend or Padre and treat me a little extra nice. “ . . . and to have the best seats in the synagogue,”  Well, I don’t know if it’s the best, but it is bigger and it is different. “ . . .and places of honor at banquets.”  What can I say, I obviously like to eat!
“They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Okay, I’m clean on these two; I’ve never tricked a widow out of her house, and I’m famous for short prayers, not long ones; so perhaps I’ve escaped the “greater condemnation” by a narrow margin.

Whenever we hear a Bible story, one of the most important things we can ask ourselves is, “With whom do I identify, who in this story feels like me?” Of course, none of us would like to think we’re like the scribes, making a big, loud public display of our religion; in particular, none of us wants to look like a hypocrite. And we all want to believe that we’re like the widow, doing all we can with what little we have.

Most of us, most of the time, hear the widow’s mite story and think it means something like this: “See, it’s not how much you give that matters, it’s the spirit with which you give it that counts. A little bit is just as important as a lot.” That is true, as far as it goes.

But most of us miss an important point here; Jesus did not say that the widow gave all she could afford; Jesus said she gave all she had.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Truth be told, most of us, myself included, most of the time, give out of our abundance.
We give what we think we can afford to give without seriously affecting our standard of living. What Jesus points to in the widow is another thing entirely; her total commitment of everything she has, all her resources, “all she had to live on,” to the Kingdom of God. At root, this story is not so much about giving and generosity as it is about trust in God.

That is why the Hebrew story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath is paired with the story of the widow’s mite in the appointed readings for today. These two stories are not only about widows, they are about putting your complete trust in God as well.

The Widow of Zarephath also gave all she had. She shared with the Prophet of the Lord the last of her food in a time of famine. Yet, when she did, she discovered she had enough, enough at least to keep going, day by day; the jar of meal and the jug of oil having in them each day enough for that day’s needs.

This is the way God operates. This is the way God provides for God’s people. Remember the manna from Heaven, the bread upon the ground provided to the Israelites as they went from Egypt to the Promised Land? If they took more than they needed for the day, the extra would rot before the next morning. It was a lesson in trusting God to provide each day’s needs.

What Jesus noticed and commented upon with the widow is not the size of her gift, but the fact that she gave her all, trusting that God would provide for the next day. This is the Biblical Principle of God’s economy; this is the way God always works. God’s promise is not: If you return to me a tithe, I will make you rich. God’s promise is: If you commit to me your all, I will provide for your needs.

The Bible stories about the widow’s and their generosity are not so much about finances as they are about the relationship of trust we are called upon to have with God.  And, we must admit, this is hard for us, we like to hedge our bets, hold a little something back, play it safe.

A number of years ago I heard a story about a college student who went into a camera store to have a picture enlarged. It was a framed 8×10 of the young man and his girlfriend. When the clerk took the picture out of the frame, he read the writing on the back:

“My dearest Tommy, I love you with all my heart. I love you more and more each day. I will love you forever and ever. I am yours for all eternity. With all my love, Diane. PS – If we ever break up, I want this picture back!”

Today God call us to quit hedging our bets, to stop holding back.  God calls us toward making a complete and total commitment of ourselves to Christ and the Kingdom of God.
We are called upon to make all that we are and all that we have available to the work of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ into all the World.

And the Gospel for us today is that we can make that leap, that commitment, with full confidence in God’s  promise to provide our every need, now and forever more.

Amen and amen.