Year C — The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Commentary for May 5, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Acts 16:9-15
The “invitation hymn” has long been a staple of Baptist church life. Arising from the frontier revivals of the first Great Awakening in America, the general idea is that as the Spirit has spoken to persons during religious services, there is a time to respond to the Spirit’s call and sinners are “invited” to come forward in a demonstration of repentance — going in a new direction with their lives. “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go” is a classic example of such an invitational hymn. 

(You can hear a version of it here — our thanks to the choir of the Armenian Cilicia Evangelical Church in Pasadena, CA.)

Reading this passage in its context, it strikes me that Paul had an “invitation” of sorts — from the Spirit of Jesus, no less — and had a moment of repentance that changed the course of history. Paul wanted to go in one direction, but the Spirit wanted to send him in another. 

“Come over to Macedonia…” becomes a standard expression for missionary movement of the gospel around the world. I love how the vision that compelled Paul to change his plans led him to several wayside posts — such as Samothrace and Neapolis — before he arrived at what would become one of his most famous and successful church plants — Philippi.

Be sure to read Dr. Chilton’s treatment in the sermon below for more about how God used a woman named Lydia — an unlikely candidate, to say the least — to expand the horizon of the gospel by orders of magnitude far beyond the imaginations of anyone in the church up to that point.

Wherever he leads, I’ll go…indeed.

Psalm 67
The psalm text affirms God’s good intention of spreading the message of salvation to “all the peoples” of the earth. 

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
The most striking features of this vision from Revelation are those that are NOT in it: the temple, the sun, and the moon.

“God is with us” has been the theme of the Revelation readings for the past several weeks. Here, we see the ultimate expression of what it means to live in the presence of God. God IS our temple; God IS our light. The Lamb of God is our lamp, shining and showing us our way. 22:3 gives the blessed promise: “Nothing accursed will be found there anymore.”

Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight. (from It is Well with My Soul, Horatio Spafford.)

John 14:23-29
The power and presence of the Holy Spirit are hard to over-emphasize in their importance in the lives of believers. From the Advocate, (Greek: parakletos, “the one who stands beside and speaks”) we receive guidance, remembrance and, most importantly, the peace of Christ.

A pretty good deal, all in all.

John 5:1-9
This passage contains one of the most poignant questions that Jesus ever asked (and he asked a bunch of ’em!): “Do you want to be made well?”

That question probes to the very deepest levels of our hearts and souls, does it not? 

  • What do I really want? 
  • Do I enjoy the attention that comes from being “lame?”
  • Am I willing to “get up and walk” or is simply lying here much easier?
  • How many reasons do I have on my own list for the reasons I’ve never really seen or felt the power of God in my life?
  • Do I believe that Jesus can help me?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Our lesson from Acts this morning focuses on Paul and the twists and turns of fate or God’s will which led him first to Philippi, then to a riverside prayer meeting, and finally to the home of a woman named Lydia, who became the leader of the first church in Europe.

As the story opens, Paul is a very frustrated man. His first mission trip had gone well. From his base in Damascus he went into the eastern part of Asia Minor, what we now call Turkey, with his partner Barnabas, a gifted preacher and trusted friend.

But his second mission trip was a bust so far.  First, he and Barnabas had had a falling out, a big argument over Mark. Mark had gone with them part way on their first journey, then got homesick and went home. Now, Mark wanted to go on this trip and Paul wouldn’t hear of it, “No second chances,” he thundered. Barnabas insisted, Paul said no way, and finally, Barnabas went out preaching with Mark and Paul picked up a new partner, Silas.

So, Paul’s mission trip got off to a rocky start; they were going to the western part of Asia Minor this time. But they couldn’t seem to get anything going once they got there, the text says “they had been forbidden by the Holy Spirit,” and prevented by the “spirit of Jesus.”

Then Paul had a vision; a vision that called him to go to a new place, a place he had never thought of, a place and a ministry which had never crossed his mind. God showed him a “man of Macedonia,” that is a Greek, pleading with him to come over the sea and bring the gospel to that land.

So Paul and Silas went to Philippi, named after Alexander the great’s father. And on the sabbath, they went looking for the Jews. They went to people with whom they were familiar, hoping to start a conversation. It was a tiny Jewish community in Philippi, as they had no synagogue, they met in good weather under the trees, down by the river. 

Notice the text says, “outside the gate.” Many towns of that day had laws that forbade foreign religious practices within the city, for fear of the wrath of the gods, so people like the Jews had to go outside the gate to pray. And there Paul and Silas found them; at least they found the women.

That’s interesting. Though a man spoke to them in the vision it was the women who were at prayer. Or perhaps there were both men and women at the meeting, but it was only the women who were open to hearing something new. Paul and Silas sat down and shared the Gospel.

“A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was a dealer in purple cloth. The LORD opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” “A worshipper of God,” this indicates that she was not Jewish, but was interested in the Jewish religion, in particular that she was interested in a faith focused on God, community and morality rather than the ancient world religion’s mix of war, fertility, prosperity and revenge. She was a person primed to hear what Paul had to say.

We are today surrounded by people who are ready to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. We live in the midst of a people who are dying of spiritual thirst and we have the Living Water they need. 

There are Lydias all around us; people who are looking for something more in their lives, who are anxious and eager to be a part of something real and honest; people who need to know what God in Christ has done for them; and the question is “Do we see the vision, do we hear the voice calling us to reach out to them with Christ?”

Second thing in this verse: “The Lord opened her heart to listen.” Many times we fail to realize that God is the one who leads people into the faith, not us. We are simply God’s instruments, God’s tools, for saving the world. God does it, not us. 

In 2007 Time magazine reported that “word on the street,” “buzz,” “word of mouth,” are the most powerful marketing tools around. When it comes to brands, consumers say they’re influenced by people, not by ads. 56% reported trying a new product because of recommendations of friends or family, 10% because of TV ads, 9%- newspaper ads, 6%- radio ads. (TIME – April 23, 2007) We are called to “recommenders of Christ” to each other, to our family and to our friends. 

Lydia responded to the Gospel. And she shared it with her family and soon she and her household were baptized. We don’t know how soon this took place, how quickly she converted, but notice how the conversion had a ripple effect, first Lydia; then her household, those nearest and dearest to her. As a wealthy woman, a household would have included personal family, plus quite a few servants and several children.

From this beginning there came a church, the church to whom Philippians is written.
It is our call today to join in God’s missional outreach, to become a part of bringing more and more folk into the household of God. We are called to be Lydias today; people who hear the Good News and share the Good News in all that we say and do.

Amen and Amen.

A Bonus Posting — Bubba Speaks on Mission

The following keynote address was delivered by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton to the Evangelical Lutheran Coalition for Mission in Appalachia, gathered in Pickens, SC this past Monday. I think Bubba done a right nice job!

Luke 24:1-7 – “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

A few years ago I ran into an old friend in a shopping mall in Raleigh, NC. It had been 20 years since we had seen each other while students at Duke Divinity and I wasn’t sure it was him. He wasn’t very sure about me either; especially since he had been laboring under the illusion that I was dead. We stared at each other for a long time and finally I spoke his name and identified myself and he turned as white as a sheet and sat down on a nearby bench.

He was very shook up. Someone had told him I had died in a car accident. Well, actually, they told him about another Chilton from Surry County who had died and, not being familiar with the large number of Chiltons there are in Surry County, he had somehow gotten the impression that it was me who passed. Once we got that cleared up he said an interesting thing. “I had gotten used to the idea of your being dead. It’ll take me a while to get used to the idea of your being alive.”

I sent that out to my church and a few friends around Easter. One of them, Bishop Gordy of the Southeastern Synod, emailed back – “sounds like the motto of the post-Christendom church”. “I had gotten used to the idea of your being dead. It’ll take me a while to get used to the idea of your being alive.” It has taken those of us in the mainline a long while to get used to the idea that the church we knew in the 40s and 50s and 60s, maybe the early 70s in some places, is really dead.

I was ordained in June of 1977. I was 23 years old. About two weeks later I went to my first district minister’s meeting. The District Superintendent spent the hour telling us how the United Methodist Church was in decline, it was losing members and influence, but he had a plan. We all leaned forward expectantly. We were to go out door to door with our “lay leader” and knock on all the doors in a 5 mile radius of our church and invite the unchurched to come to our church. We were also required to send him a quarterly report on the visits we had made and our attendance and membership statistics. He handed out postcards for us to use in mailing him the reports. (long pause) His plan did not work.

I spent the summer going door to door as he said. I found no one who would admit to not having a church.
I only found one person who would admit to not liking her church or her pastor’s preaching; but that was my wife and I decided her data was skewed.

Over the years we in the church have attempted many reorganizations and mission strategies and ecclesiastical pep rallies; all in a futile effort to turn back the clock.We have tried small groups, and contemporary worship, and men’s ministries, and youth rallies, and wild women weekends, and mass mailings, and word and witness, and Facebook pages, and glitzy websites, and, and, and . . . you fill in the blank – and for the most part none of it has really worked. Listen to what my friend said one more time: I had gotten used to the idea of your being dead. It’ll take me a while to get used to the idea of your being alive.

We in Appalachia have spent most of the last 40 to 50 years getting used to the idea of being dead. It is time to wake up from our long Holy Saturday of mourning and to recognize that the Easter Vigil is over – it is time for us to embrace the resurrection, to welcome the new things God is doing in our midst. We need to begin getting used to the idea that while Appalachia is different, it is not dead.

I was born and raised in Appalachia; Stuart, Virginia in 1954. I grew up in a world of tobacco farmers and cotton mills. From generation to generation people were born, lived, worked, and died in the same community, doing essentially the same things. John Chilton was born in Prince William County Virginia in 1620. I can trace a direct line from him to my father, Lowell Chilton born in 1923, in the house where he was living when he died in 2003. Migrating west and south, the Chiltons had been in the same area along the Virginia border since the 1820s. And they had been doing the same things, farming and logging and occasional “public work,” for all those years.

That world does not exist anymore. No more tobacco allotments and farming, no more cotton mills, no more inheriting one’s place in life from the prior generation. Though the economic engines are different in East Tennessee and West Virginia, in Pennsylvania and New York and eastern Ohio; across our region the same story can be told. Life has changed. Close knit, traditional cultures have been slipping away and poverty has been increasing in many areas. And the churches have been struggling; many wondering exactly what it is that they have been doing wrong.

My mother was for many years the treasurer at her church – Hatcher’s Chapel Methodist in Claudeville, VA. When I say many years I mean it – I think the final count was thirty. I asked her one time how she ended up as treasurer. She said they found out she drove by the bank on her way to work and asked her to drop off the deposit, then they asked her to go on the bank signing card, and then they asked her . . . you get the idea. When she got in her 80’s she asked me how she should go about getting rid of the job. I told her to start bouncing checks. It worked. They gave her a potluck retirement dinner and passed the job off to a younger person. I believe Myrtle is 65.

Anyway – they have about 15-20 regulars at Hatcher’s now. Mama asked me what was wrong with them. I told her nothing really. I said – “Look at the pew where you sit next to Daddy’s window.” (The five children and Mama paid for a window in memory of Daddy when they put in stained glass a few years ago. We asked for the one in the back row and closest to the door seeing as how Daddy was just barely in the church anyway) 

I continued – “Back in the day – there were seven people on that pew – you and Daddy and five children. For generations those five kids would have gotten married and the girls and their families would have ended up at Hatchers, with the boys going wherever their wives told them to go (you know it’s true) because they would have most likely stayed around here. Now – look at your five kids. Because farming is gone and the mills are gone, four of the five of us went elsewhere, following the work and the opportunity: over the years -Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh, Tucson AZ; now Mooresville, Greensboro and Murphy in NC and Salem, Oregon. Only Tony is here and he goes Terrie.” The story is the same all over. The young adults go where the opportunities are. In the county where I live now, the only jobs for people with a college degree are to teach or to work for the government.

We also have fewer children in Appalachia than we used to, especially among the mainline Protestants. i.e.
Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. – My grandparents had ten children, my parents had five, I had two. My boys are 29 and 27 and unmarried and childless.

All of this is to say, the culture has changed, greatly. The church we have was built, was constructed, was organized, for a culture which in many ways, no longer exists. The unfortunate thing is that we have gotten used to the idea of the culture, and the church with it, being dead or dying, and we too often operate as a hospice, holding the hand and commiserating with either the dying or the bereaved.

Years ago I took Black Church studies with Dr. Herb Edwards at Duke Divinity School. I learned a lot in that class, but the thing I remember most is this. Dr. Edwards used to say that, “The trouble with the white church is that it does not believe in the resurrection. When you do not believe in the resurrection, you spend all your energy avoiding death instead of embracing life and taking risks for the sake of the gospel.”

Let me say that again: “The trouble with the white church is that it does not believe in the resurrection. When you do not believe in the resurrection, you spend all your energy avoiding death instead of embracing life and taking risks for the sake of the gospel.

It is my humble and quite limited opinion that too much of what we do in ministry in Appalachia is an attempt to stave off death instead of embracing life.Too much of what we do is an attempt to either die in peace or go down fighting in defense of a past that either never was, or, was not that great to start with.

Too little of what we do involves turning our faces like flint, to go through this time of death and uncertainty
into the new Jerusalem of God’s intended and inbreaking future for us and our communities and churches.

We must acknowledge the death of the old; but we must also embrace the rebirth of the region and with it the renewal of God’s call upon our lives to serve these people in this place.

I am what is sometimes referred to as “detailed challenged.” My sons have long had a nick-name for me. It is “Dr. Half-right.” because I can usually get half of some famous person’s name right but then mix it up with some other loosely connected name.

For example: I might refer to “the actor Harrison Jones” – combining Harrison Ford with the character Indiana Jones. What’s funny about it to them is that I am so sure I am right until they show me other-wise. So as Dr. Half-right I have long been convinced that “ELCMA” stood for the Evangelical Lutheran Coalition on Ministryin Appalachia and have told many people that’s what it means, including my replacement on the Southeastern Synod staff, Pastor Paul Summer.Then I looked up the website and found that is stands for “Evangelical Lutheran Coalition for Mission in Appalachia.” And I thought. “Gee, I wonder when they changed the name.”

Dr. Edwards said that to believe in the Resurrection is to embrace life and take risks for the sake of the Gospel.” It would seem to me that “taking risks for sake of Gospel” equals “being on a mission.” For “The Evangelical Coalition FOR MISSION in Appalachia” to begin to get used to being alive, we must find and embrace a new calling, a new vocation, a new mission for the 21stCentury.

Charles Malik was a Lebanese Christian Philosopher who studied under Alfred North Whitehead and Martin Heidigger and received his Ph.D. at Harvard. All he wanted to do was teach and philosophize. Instead he found himself immersed in the world of politics both in Lebanon and at the United Nations. Professor Mary Ann Gleason of Harvard Law School published a tribute to Malik, in which she outlined three distinct lessons about vocation she had learned from his life:

1 – God’s plan for your vocation may be different than yours.
2 – finding your vocation does not mean you will find comfort.
3 – we may never see the most important fruits of our vocations in our sojourn here on earth.
(Sacerdos, July-August – 1999 – p.7-15)

I would like to take the last few minutes of this talk to apply these thoughts to the future and mission of ELCMA

1 – God’s plan for your mission may be different than yours.

I well remember my Ordination as a United Methodist Deacon. June, 1977. It was in the big auditorium at Methodist College in Fayetteville, NC. There were 25 of us that night. Bishop Joseph Thomas, the African-American Bishop of East Ohio Conference preached. I don’t remember what else he said, but this has stuck with me all these years. “The Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go. If you wanted to go there, the Holy Spirit would be unnecessary.” Let me say that again – “The Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go. If you wanted to go there, the Holy Spirit would be unnecessary.”

There are two things I have been my entire adult life – one is married and the other is a minister. And neither one has turned out to be anything like I thought it was going to be 35+ years ago when I got into it. Not that either one has been bad, but God’s plan for my life in both has been other than I could or would have ever imagined. And in order to survive and thrive in both I have had to learn to let go of my notions in order to embrace God’s plan for the future.

We in the church talk too much and listen too little – as a general rule. Mostly, we talk too much to each other and spend too little time together listening to God. It is not the purpose of this speech to outline techniques for group spiritual discernment; rather I want to encourage us as individuals and as congregations and as synods and as a coalition, to find the time to listen to what God wants to do in us and through us in this region in the future.
Let us be humble enough to remember that God’s plan for our mission may be different than our plan.

2 – Finding your mission does not mean that you will find comfort

I would probably rephrase that to say for us that finding our mission does not mean we will find anything like what the world defines as success. Mission in a “post-Christendom,” “post-Appalachia” world will have a different template of success than before. In finding our new place in this new reality; we may well find that that place is more around the edges than in the center, more alternative viewpoint than general consensus, and more out there in the midst of the world than in here away from the world.
We will not be building institutions and careers and facilities in which to house them; rather we will be creating temporary networks of like-minded folk that will function and then dissolve so that folk can move on to the next concern and new networks can evolve. We will be involved in multiple organic connections and relationships and it will be difficult to keep track of what’s happening and who’s in and who’s out. At the center will continue to be Word and Sacrament, but the delivery system will have to evolve into a more flexible organization or it will continue to wither away into insignificance. This will push most of us far outside our comfort zones, but
Remember – “finding your mission does not mean you will find comfort.”

3 . We may never see the most important fruits of our mission here on earth.

A member of a synod staff told about something that happened to him. I am going to disguise it a bit. Anybody here have Dr. Park at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary? He used to start these types of true stories with – “in a church not a thousand miles from here.”

So – in a church not a thousand miles from here a synod staffer walked in on a Sunday afternoon for an installation service. Walking down the hall with arms full of Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal and sermon notes and vestments bag, he was almost run over by a man coming out of the men’s room. The man recognized him and said,
“Gosh Pastor Jones, I’m glad to see you. I bet you don’t remember me do you. You did my uncle’s funeral when you were pastor at St. John’s by the Gas Station in Hubbardsville.” Pastor Jones had to admit that he did not remember the man or the funeral; he did remember being pastor in Hubbardsville, though sometimes he wished he could forget.

After considerable conversation, it was determined that the funeral was one that Pastor Jones had done for a friend of a friend of a friend whose family had no minister and would Pastor Jones help them out. Pastor Jones would and did. He did not actually remember anything about it; it had been a good while ago.

The young man went on to say, “At that time I didn’t go to church, but something you said in that funeral made me want to go back. I don’t know exactly what it was you said that stuck with me, but something did. The next Sunday I decided to go to church and I had seen the word Lutheran on this church’s sign, so I came here that Sunday. And I just kept coming back. I’m the church council president now.” Much of ministry is like that. God acts within the things we are doing to accomplish things we never imagined possible.

We may never see the most important fruits of our mission here on earth. And that’s okay, because it’s not about us; it’s about God and God’s love for God’s people. It is a humbling thing to think about – the fact that God is working through us and we are not in charge. God has called each of us to for a purpose, but it may not be the purpose we have in mind. ELCMA’s purpose, its mission, its most important contribution to the Kingdom of God, not only may not be what we think it is; we may never know what it is or ever see the results. We who have lived and worked and served in Appalachia for a long time have certainly been able to get used to the idea that the Appalachia we once knew and loved is different, but it’s not dead.

The church we have lived with and worked in and served for so many years is also not dead, but it is different and it is time to not only get used to that fact, but to embrace and celebrate it. For us to move forward, we must discern a new mission for a new day, we must be ready to fail and suffer on behalf of that mission, and we must hold on to the eternal promise that God is working in Christ and in us to reconcile the world to himself, whether we see that reconciliation come to fruition or completion or not. Our call today, as the Evangelical Lutheran Coalition for Mission in Appalachia, is to commit ourselves to getting used to the idea of being alive for God in the 21stcentury.

Amen and amen.

Year C — The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Commentary for April 28, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast with the Rev. Dr. Ruth Hamilton

Acts 11:1-18
“Well, shut my mouth!”

I love the response of the ‘circumcised believers’ (aka, those who are right and know it!) in v.18. There are simply those moments in our growing understanding of God and God’s mercy that we have nothing to say. God’s goodness can still take our breath (and our words) away!

Psalm 148
This psalm reminds me of my early 1970’s heritage as a teenager. This is creation “letting it all hang out” in praise to God!

Revelation 21:1-6
God’s work in the redemption of all creation is finished — and, is not quite finished. God is “making” all things new, even in this ultimate scene from the Bible’s book of the end. Making implies that God is still at it, still renewing the world — and will be right through to the very end.

That’s why one of the most intriguing names for God is Alpha and Omega — the beginning and the end. The beginning of God’s work is ever new, ever with us — and the ending is not quite yet, still tantalizingly open to the possibility of God’s love and grace.

John 13:31-35
Short passage; big message.

Love one another, love one another, love one another. Any questions?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My grandma had a brother who was one of the most worthless and trifling human beings I ever met. He was mean to his wife, ignored his children, avoided honest work like the plague and was known far and wide as the biggest and most brazen liar in half a state.

One day Grandma and one of her many grad-daughters were sitting on the front porch; rocking, shelling peas and gossiping about the brother. The young woman maintained that her uncle was beyond hope and a serious embarrassment to herself and every other member of the family. She filled Grandma in on his latest episodes of public sorriness.

Grandma just rocked and shelled and nodded and listened and finally she said, “I’m sure everything you say is true. Still, Jesus loves your Uncle.” The granddaughter turned red in the face and sputtered, “I doubt that, I don’t think even Jesus could love him.” “Yes child,” Grandma said, “Jesus loves everybody and Jesus loves your uncle too. 

Then she stopped rocking and shelling and sat perfectly still, while she stared off across the hills. “’ Course”, she said, almost to herself,” that could be ‘cause Jesus don’t know your Uncle as good as we do”.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus commands us to love one another. But Grandma has put her finger on the crux of our problem with that commandment; some people are genuinely hard to like. How in the world are we to be expected to love them? How can Jesus order us to do something so difficult?

Part of the problem is that we confuse “like a lot” with love. We think love is just “like” taken to the highest degree. This is because in our culture, love is almost always associated with romantic love, what in Greek is designated by the word EROS. So to love is to have intense feelings of affection for. “How can that be commanded?,” we think. We “fall in love,” we feel what we feel. 

Or, we associate it with friendship, the Greek philea, as in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. And again, this is a natural thing; we like some people and others we don’t. We get along with some people, with others we don’t. 

Marriage is usually a combination of eros and philea, as well it should be. Friends we make along life’s way, people we just like being around, this is most philea, affinity and affection.

All this is natural and cannot be commanded.

But Jesus calls us to agape, self-sacrificial love. This is love that has to do with how we act toward one another, not how we feel about each other. 

Feelings are, in many ways, uncontrollable. You can’t help liking some people more than others, just like we like some foods and dislike others. Me, I love Pinto Beans and hate collard greens.
Or sports – I love the Braves and hate the Yankees. Same dynamic for UNC and NC State.
Nothing serious, just emotions. But, God calls us to move beyond our likes and dislikes, beyond our feelings, so that we may behave in a loving manner to all people.

This is the point of the story in Acts. An observant Jew didn’t eat certain foods and didn’t associate or eat with uncircumcised people who ate unclean food. Peter has a vision of being commanded of God to eat of the unclean food, then going to a Gentiles house to preach and eat.
God wants Peter to understand that all people are God’s people, that all races and colors and types of humanity are God’s humanity and are to be included in God’s community of faith. Peter’s feelings did not matter to God. Peter’s actions did. God was concerned only with how Peter acted toward those to whom God was sending him.

And, that’s what matters to God about us. God is calling us to love one another. God is calling us to act with love toward all those around us. Like Peter, we are being called to move beyond our comfort zones in terms of whom we relate to, and how we act toward them.

Love comes first, feelings follow. This is why Grandma was wrong about Jesus and her brother. Jesus did love him; but not because he didn’t know him very well, but because he knew him completely and totally, and cared about him in spite of what he knew.

Jesus loved him because God’s love, Jesus’ love, is not determined by the worthiness of the object, but by the character and intentionality of the one who loves.

It is God’s nature, it the very core of God’s being, to love. Love is what compelled God to create us in the first place. Love is what makes God sustain us. Love is what brought Jesus to this earth. Love is what Jesus taught and lived every day of his earthly life. Love is what took Jesus to the cross and love is what Jesus left behind to bind us together.

And not one of us deserves that love any more than my great-uncle did. But all of us have received it, and all of us are called to share it, pass it on, spread it around; we are to love one another, just as Jesus has first loved us.

Amen and Amen.

Year C — The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Commentary for April 21, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast with the Rev. Ellen Johnson-Price

Acts 9:36-43
What are we to make of the story of Tabitha?

Help widows and do good works, and you’ll never die? Silly widows, she wasn’t really dead, she was just sleeping really hard? God allows miracles to demonstrate God’s power when the time is right? Stuff happens that we just don’t understand?

I know that, historically and exegetically, this portion of Acts is illustrating the spread of the gospel and faith in Jesus through the dynamic things that Christ’s followers were able to do. We are also seeing Peter ascend to his zenith, while Saul is emerging and will soon take center stage.

But, still…here’s Tabitha. Dead. Alive. I can’t help but wonder if she ever met up with Lazarus and had a confab in the world’s smallest club.

For the time being, I’m going with God is simply amazing. Sometimes, you just gotta follow your gut.

Psalm 23

There’s always something for us in Psalm 23. It seems that no matter the translation, its rhythms and flow manage to comfort, assuage, and assure us for the day (and days) ahead.

On this day, as I read it again, I am drawn to v.3 — “the Lord restores my soul.” Life drains us; soul-less society is superimposed upon the reality of God’s beautiful world. 

More than a simple need to get back to nature, pausing in the presence of God in the great sanctuary of the green pastures and still waters truly replenishes and restocks “the store” of our hearts and lives — our souls. 

Revelation 7:9-17
God’s mercy has no limits. I love it that, in this scene of the redeemed from every nation, we see a multitude “that no one could count.” 

We are good at counting — how many parish pastors live and die by the dreaded accountability reports that must be turned in to superintendents, bishops, boards, or other ecclesiastical entities? I do realize, as I once heard an impassioned presenter proclaim, that “every number has a soul.” 

But, really — don’t we get a little too hung up on the numbers some times? Especially when the numbers are designed to tell us who is “in” and clearly delineate who is “out?” 

No counting in heaven. How cool.

John 10:22-30
Even in the Jerusalem of Jesus, it seems people wanted easy answers.

How often are we compelled to make our decisions based upon the sound bites from the latest news cycle? Matters of great weight are decided (much to my chagrin) by the latest hot-button issue, expressed in our societal proclivity for “Yes” or “No” answers.

Are you for cutting the budget? Are you for raising taxes? Are you for protecting the unborn? Are you for “gay marriage?”

Some things just can’t be loaded into a 20-second video clip or encapsulated in 140 characters in a tweet! Some things need to be heard, considered, discussed, ruminated upon, and then decided. Don’t be in such a hurry!

Jesus said, “You have the works I have done; you have the Law and the Prophets; you have had me walking daily in the temple courts. What do these things tell you?”

Yeah, but…what would Bill O’Reilly say?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“My sheep know my voice,” Jesus said. Our Scriptures for today are full of references to sheep and shepherds. In Acts we see Peter living out the promises he made to Jesus to tend Christ’s sheep. Psalm 23 is full of beautiful imagery about God’s love and support and care for us as our shepherd. Revelation is a vision of heaven, of the faithful from all times and all places, all countries and all races, gathered around the heavenly throne, and the last verse tells us, in a mixed metaphor, that the Lamb is also our Shepherd, who will protect and comfort us forever. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus answers those who question him about being the messiah with a sheep and shepherd image, as well as an admonition that they should look to his words and his actions if they want to know who he really is. 

The shepherd was a very powerful image in Israel. For much of their history, they were a nomadic people dependent upon their sheep. Because of this, sheep imagery was very important, and the king of Israel was often referred to as the Shepherd of Israel, harkening all the way back to King David, the traditional author of Psalm 23, who is the king by whom all kings were measured, and who began life as a shepherd boy.

The ancient kings of Israel were seen to be different from the kings of the nations around them, in that they were not seen as divine themselves, but as human beings who represented God on earth and ruled in his name. The idea was that God had placed the responsibility for the nation in their hands. The kingdom was not theirs, it was God’s and they were to take care of God’s kingdom and God’s people in God’s name and with God’s help.

North Carolina Synod Bishop Leonard Bolick told the story of a retired clergyman who organized a Holy Land Tour. One day the group made a bus trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Along the way the Pastor told the group how they would see many sheep and shepherds and to think about how Jesus was the Good Shepherd and how shepherds always went in front of the sheep leading them; he never went behind, beating or pushing or shoving them. Suddenly the bus was stopped for a herd of sheep to pass. The pastor was surprised d to see a man with a stick beating the sheep. He got off the bus and confronted the man, “Look here, everything I’ve read says the shepherd leads the sheep with love, doesn’t come from behind beating and pushing.” “That’s true,” the man said, “but I’m not a shepherd, I’m a butcher.”

A true king, a true leader of Israel, was a shepherd, not a butcher. Now when the folk come to Jesus asking if he is the messiah, they are asking if he is the one sent from God to free them from the Romans and their puppet king Herod. They all knew Herod was no true shepherd; he was a butcher, a cruel man using his position for his own advantage.

Jesus’ answer to them points them to his actions. “Do I act and talk like a Messiah, like a true king of Israel? Are the things I say and do for the benefit of the people, do they honor God?” He then goes on to make it plain, just as they requested. “My sheep hear my voice,” he says. “They know their true shepherd and follow and respond to him.” He goes further by claiming that God has put the true Israel into his hands to protect and keep, and that he is doing this on behalf of God, indeed that he is God, “The Father and I are One.” 

The hearing of the Shepherd’s voice is not the difficult part in all this. Just hearing the voice is not enough. This is an issue which has confounded the church for generations; why do some believe and others not? Why do some respond and others turn away? Those of us gathered here on a Sunday morning have in one way or another heard and recognized the voice of our master, our savior, our Lord. Some of us are more sure than others, some of us hear it more clearly and distinctly than others, but all of us have heard it; that is why we are here.

And, to varying degrees, we have all put ourselves into the hands of that shepherd; we have trusted him with our souls and our lives. We feel secure in the promise that we will not be “snatched away,” and in the hope of praising him around the heavenly throne.

The one question that remains is what are we to do about that voice here and now, in this time and in this place; which brings us back to the Acts lesson and our gospel for last week. 

In Acts, we find Peter doing what Jesus told him in the last chapter of John, being a shepherd to the sheep, doing what Jesus did. This story, the raising of Dorcas, is very similar to the story in Mark, chapter 5 where Jesus raises the synagogue leader’s daughter. And in the verses just prior to our lesson, Peter heals a man in a way that reminds us of the way Jesus healed the man lowered down from through the ceiling, even to telling him, “Get up and walk.” It is clear that Luke wants us to see Pete as following in the ministry footsteps of Jesus.

And that is our calling as well. In order to follow the voice of the Shepherd, we are to follow him and do what he did. Not just pastors, but all of us. We, the church, are the shepherds, and the hurting, lonely, lost people of the world are God’s scattered sheep. And we are called to go out to them with the Voice of the Shepherd, calling them home, calling them home to God, calling them home to safety, calling them home to love.

We are the voice of Christ in the world. What people know of God’s law, they learn from us; what people know of God’s forgiveness, they hear from us; what people know of God’s love, they receive from us.

The shepherd calls. How will we answer?
Amen and amen.

Year C — The Third Sunday of Easter

Commentary for April 14, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
I once was blind…

Literally, for about a minute, during surgery to repair an abnormality in my left eye — I completely lost my sight, even though I was awake and my eyes were open. It was one of the strangest sensations I can ever recall experiencing. My first reaction was…panic. 

Then, my rational brain took over and began to assure my reptilian brain that this was “normal” and that I was in the capable hands of a gifted surgeon, etc., etc. But, I gotta tell ya’; for a minute there, I knew what it was to be lost.

Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ had to be an initial mixture of confusion, fear, and an utter sense of confronting his “lostness” in terms of the direction of his life. Why did it take that kind of experience for Saul to come to know Christ?

I suppose it’s very different for each of us, this business of our particular service to the Lord. For many, following Christ is a simple, plain decision that has been reinforced by generations of God-fearing, church-going forebears. For others, the “decision” to believe and to attend church and serve God is, perhaps, a bit more dramatic.

Thankfully, God loves and needs and uses us all. As my colleague says so often, “Amen and amen.”

Psalm 30
I believe that we have referenced the classic Mac Davis song, “O Lord, It’s Hard to be Humble” here on the Lab before. (Thanks to the “Search” feature over there on the right-hand side of the page, I see that Dr. Chilton did so in October, 2011!)

Anyhow, I can’t help but wonder if that’s not a bit of the tune the illustrious King David is singing here in Psalm 30. The psalm is a wonderful praise hymn to God’s sustaining power. But, it is evident (in v.6) that, in order to learn just how much it means to have God lift him up, David has experienced a fall from a great height.

We know this to be true from our reading of scripture; the whole Bathsheba/Uriah/Nathan thing and the resultant loss of a child was absolutely devastating for David. In a very real way, he was never quite the same again. (see 2 Samuel 11 ff.)

Life is not permanent, either in its blessings or in its difficulty. God is present through the weeping of the long night, and is the One who brings joy with the morning light. God is the Lord of the Dance and turns sackcloth into festive attire with alacrity and aplomb!

Revelation 5:11-14
Wow, talk about a “mass choir!”

The praise of heaven and earth is never depicted with more forcefulness than in this scene before the throne. It is a vision of the “ending of all things.” 

While topics like Armageddon and Babylon the Great Whore and the “mark of the beast” often get more attention when people think of Revelation, we do well to remember that those are but momentary distractions in the cosmic story of God’s triumph.

The real action is right here — in praise of the Lamb that was slain and who, by his blood, has redeemed “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth….”

John 21:1-19
Are you gonna fish, or cut bait?

There is a time for reflection and then a time for action;  Jesus’ “final” appearance to the disciples in John’s gospel is designed to motivate the latter, I believe.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One day this week I asked a neighbor pastor how he was faring. He said, “I am dealing with the tedious consequences of procrastination. It’s time to get back to normal.” Things put off and piled up during Lent and Holy Week and Easter need tending to; it is time for life to return to normal.

In our Gospel lesson, Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” And he does. There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is to see him as deciding he needs a break, a bit of relaxation, a vacation. But I don’t think this is why Peter went fishing. I think Peter had had enough. Enough tension and stress and death and dying and dead people coming back to life; enough of all of it. He decides to get back to normal. And normal for Peter and many of the others was fishing. They were, after all, fishermen, professional fishermen; it was their life and their livelihood. There were bills to pay, mouths to feed, families to provide for. It was time to get back to the normal tedious consequences of procrastination, time to get on with life and forget this crazy Jesus stuff. The trouble is, post-Easter, there is no getting back to normal, no way to go back to the way things were, not completely, not entirely. Some events change us forever. Because of the presence of the Risen Christ in the world, things can never be quite normal or completely tedious again.

Peter and his friends go fishing. Fishing at night was normal for commercial fisher folk. That’s the way you get fresh fish to market by sun up. And it was quite normal to have bad luck. Fishing is a bit of a gamble, sometimes you come up empty. And there is nothing unusual, or miraculous, about someone on shore pointing out to those in the boat where a school of fish is hiding. It happens all the time in net fishing in shallow water. It has to do with angle of vision and the glare of the rising sun on the water. And there’s nothing all that special about the someone on shore having breakfast ready when those in the boat come to shore after a night of fishing. Indeed, outside of the fact that the someone on shore is Jesus, a formerly dead person now risen from the tomb and flitting about the country in a resurrection body, there’s nothing odd or miraculous about this story at all. 

It’s all pretty normal stuff, except for Jesus’ presence in the middle of it. Jesus’ presence says, “Guess what folks, from here on out, there is no possibility of returning to business as usual, no going back to normal.” As long as the risen Christ is in the world, there is no insignificant activity; there are no merely tedious details. Christ’s presence in the world transforms ordinary busyness into extraordinary opportunities to serve God and humanity.

All too often, we miss God’s activity in the world because we’re looking for something spectacular; loud thunder, blazing lights, shows of supernatural power. A few days after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech a few years ago, Franklin Graham interviewed on MSNBC about the chaplains who were sent by his organization to Blacksburg to counsel students and parents. The reporter asked the Rev. Graham, “How do you explain to parents how a good God could let this happen?” Graham said “A chaplain’s job is not explanation but comfort and love and care. People in trauma aren’t in a place to deal with those larger questions, nor do they need to.” This did not satisfy the interviewer. Three times he asked, “How do you explain to a parent how a good God lets a thing like this happen?” and three times Graham gave his good answer,

“You don’t. You give comfort and care and love.” The reporter wanted something spectacular and Graham gave him what was simple, yet true. And it is in the love and care and quiet comfort provided by loving people that the activity of God in crisis is found.

In our Gospel lesson, after breakfast, Jesus begins a dialogue with Peter. He asks him, “Peter do you love me?” Not once, but three times. The number is not by accident. Jesus is rewinding the clock, turning back time. Remember; Peter denied Jesus three times on the night he was betrayed. Now Peter has three opportunities to affirm his love for Jesus, and he does. But notice also that every time Peter affirms his love for Jesus, Jesus then calls upon him to take care of his “sheep.” Twice his says feed them, once he says tend them; in all of it he calls on Peter, and by extension, all of the disciples, and by further extension, all of us who call ourselves Christian, to take care of and love one another.

Now, think about it; feeding and tending sheep isn’t all that exciting or spectacular; it’s repetitive and boring and tedious and normal, and oh so necessary. Or it’s like washing dishes and cooking meals and doing laundry and mowing grass and cleaning house and changing diapers and paying bills and driving kids to school and going to work and drawing a check and sitting up all night when somebody’s sick; which is nowhere near as interesting as being in love and going on dates but is so much more like being married.

Just so, the Christian life, lived out in the Body of Christ, the Church, empowered by the Risen Christ, is seldom exciting or spectacular. It is much more often ordinary and mundane, a matter of living together under the leadership of the will of God and the way of Christ. The Gospel is that the change worked in us and the world by the presence of the Risen Christ is greater than any evil that can befall us. And the call of the Gospel is the call to reach out to a world of hurting and mournful and scared people with simple acts of love and care and concern.

Do you love Jesus? Help out a child struggling in school.
Do you love Jesus? Go visit someone who lost a loved one and still grieves.
Do you love Jesus? Help feed the hungry at Loaves and Fishes.
Do you love Jesus? Help Habitat for Humanity build a house.
Do you love Jesus? Do you? Do something simple and ordinary and kind today, knowing God is present in all that you do.

Amen and amen.