Year C — The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)

Commentary for October 6, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Lamentations 1:1-6
True to its name, this is about as lamentable a passage as there is in Holy Scripture. This is the prophet’s vision of what life is like when God has turned God’s back on God’s people. 

Or, perhaps it is the people who have turned their backs?

Lamentations 3:19-26
And, then — the hope of the gospel (i.e., “good news”) that God has NOT forgotten us. Every morning is a reminder that God has once again been with us through the night. Waiting quietly for the salvation of the LORD is a good thing.

Psalm 137
My heart breaks with those of the exiled as they sit by the rivers of Babylon and weep. There was a time when the city was filled with hope, light, and life — all found in the presence of God. No more.

The quizzical verse 9 seems to me to be a symptom as much as anything of the mindset to be found when in the absolute pit of dark despair. Only then could such an invective make any sense. Not good sense, mind you, but certainly the kind of thoughts that proceed from a mind focused only on grief for too long.

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Habakkuk’s vision is honest, searing, and insightful. It hurts to see violence rule as the law of the land. How long will this kind of perversion of justice last? (Habakkuk could be ripped right out of the headlines from around the globe today, don’t you think?)

And yet…there is still a vision! It is a vision of the faith of the righteous made plainly visible — “our faith shall be sight,” as Horatio Spafford wrote in the classic hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. God’s truth marches on and will surely come; once evident, it will seem as if there was never any delay at all!

Psalm 37:1-9
Hmmm, lots of active waiting verbs here: trust, delight, commit, wait, refrain, inherit. I guess “waiting” for the Lord is not necessarily an empty enterprise.

2 Timothy 1:1-14
Pass It On was the contemporary folk anthem of my youth group years during the 1970’s. I guess I’ve played and sung it a few hundred times — no exaggeration! (Here‘s some nice finger-picking work on a guitar version, if you need to get your youth group jiggy on…:)

Paul’s remembrance of the way Timothy’s faith was handed on to him through his matriarchal lineage is a great reminder of the way all of us have come to faith. Jesus passed the word to a rag-tag group of guys and gals, who passed it on to a few more folks, who then took the message and passed it on, and so on and so forth…and then, one day, someone passed it on to us!

“Stir up the flame…” Paul admonishes Timothy; hey, it only takes a spark!

Luke 17:5-10
“But, Lord, if I only had a little more _____!”

We may tend to come to the Lord with a laundry list of the reasons that we haven’t been more effective in our service to God and the kingdom. Jesus, with the famous faith-as-a-mustard-seed quote, reminds us that it’s not about how much faith, or money, or talent, or anything else we have — it’s about what God can do through us and in us when we are willing. 

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

To understand our Gospel lesson for today, it is necessary to read the first part of chapter 17, particularly verse four.  There Jesus talks about rebuking, repenting, forgiving and what to do when that doesn’t work out as well as the forgiver had hoped.
After advising the disciples to rebuke people who fall into sin, he then tells them that this is so important that they must be willing to do over and over, even if the sinner commits the same offence seven times in one day and asks for forgiveness seven times.
No wonder the disciples say “Increase our faith!”  Who wouldn’t?  That kind of forgiveness feels superhuman, even divine.  What is the saying?  “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
Whenever I got caught doing something bad when I was little, I would hang down my head and say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”  One time my mother had had enough with one of my regular misdemeanors.  She said, “I know you’re sorry.  You’re always sorry.  What I want to know is when you’re going to stop doing it.”
I’m with Mama on this one.  Jesus seems to be asking more of us that is humanly possible.
And he is.  And that is the point of this text. 
When the disciples say “Increase our faith!” they are thinking of faith as something human, something that we do, some intense believing or really positive thinking that results in good things happening.  The disciples are thinking of faith from a very human point of view.
But Jesus is talking about faith from God’s side of the equation.  This is why Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed can uproot a large tree and plant it in the ocean; it is not the faith that does it. It is God who does it.
The disciples are worried about their ability to forgive as much as Jesus demands.  So they ask for an increase in faith, so that they will be able to perform this feat of humility and generosity and compassion. 
They are fretting about their performance as disciples and followers of Jesus.  They desire to look really spiritual and faithful to the Lord.  This is why Jesus takes great pains to remind them that in the life of faith, it is not the faithful who act and receive praise, it is God.
This is the point of the story of the master and the slave.  Though it seems a little harsh to us; Jesus’ point is to remind the disciples of the proper relationship between God and humanity, between creator and creation.
As long as we perform our acts of love and service with an eye to praise from others or a reward from God, we are missing the point.  There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love.  God’s love washes over us all, unbidden, unearned and unstoppable.
Charles B. Cousar of Columbia Presbyterian Seminary in Georgia says, “The story (granted in a sneaky fashion) reminds us of our place and shows how easy it is to exchange roles.  God is God; we are God’s creatures – no more, no less.  But subtly the order can get reversed, as Adam and Eve discovered.  Dominion over the earth is a heady challenge!  Why stop there? The serpent says, “You will be like gods!”  Or we think of Jesus as the one who washes feet, forgives sins, hears prayers, supplies needs.  Pretty soon we come to expect it.  And the old Reformed catechism question slowly but surely gets a skewed answer: Jesus’ chief end is to glorify and serve us forever.”
With this story, Jesus reminds us that the true kingdom, power, and glory belong to God and any wishful thinking on our part that if God would just give us more faith we would be able to do more things for God misses the point entirely.
The reality is we have all the faith we need to do great things for God, or more correctly, to allow God to do great things in, with and through us.  Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough, more than enough, to do all that is needed.
Our calling this day is to humbly ask God to increase not our faith, but our willingness to be used by God, in whatever way God chooses.
Our challenge today is to open up our lives to the leading of God’s spirit, to allow that hole wind to blow us about in God’s world, touching down to serve wherever God wills.

Amen and amen.

Year C — The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)

Commentary for September 29, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
The things that God asks of us don’t always seem to make sense — at least in the moment. Why would Jeremiah buy a field and then go through the elaborate ceremony with the deeds and the pot in front of the crowd gathered around the king’s palace?

“Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land,” said he. I’m sure there were more than a few head scratches. But, J-man knows times are about to get really tough — the people will be carried away into captivity in Babylon. Even so, in the midst of God’s judgment, there is a plan for redemption.

It’s the gospel, I tell ya’!

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
Fowler’s snares and deadly pestilence make apt metaphors when you are surrounded by the armies of a foreign power, bent on your destruction. But, God has not forgotten — and will not forget — God’s people!

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Having plenty to eat and singing along with the harp aren’t necessarily bad things — unless they distract you from paying attention to those in need. 

Psalm 146
There will come a day — no matter how healthy you are or rich you are or powerful you are — when you will draw your last breath and your time here will be done. What of your life will last? What matters when you put such a perspective into view?

The LORD reigns forever, the psalmist says; you might want to think about casting your lot in that general direction.

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Another pop quiz from the Apostle: how much of the stuff you manage to accumulate during your lifetime will you carry with you when you die?

The real treasure is to be found “over there” — on the other side of this life. In order to be rich there, here’s a list for the here-and-now: do good, be rich in good works, be generous, and be ready to share. 

Luke 16:19-31
The Rich Man and Lazarus. Boy, oh boy — lots of hay has been made in the pulpit with this story!

I don’t necessarily think this text is so much about eternal destiny as it is about “those who get it and those who don’t.” Are there ways in which our lives — and our lifestyles — are screaming so loud that we can’t really hear what God is trying to say to us? Will we reach a point with the Lord some day at which we will say, “Well, if you had only let me know, I would have been glad to live for you?”

Will God simply have to shake His/Her/God’s head and heave an Almighty sigh?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Many times we hear about such and such a pastor as being GIFTED. He has so many gifts for ministry; she is a gifted speaker, or musician, or counselor; he has the gift of leadership, etc. and I applaud and revel in their giftedness. So many people have so many gifts that I don’t have and that I envy. 

Singing, for instance. Not only do I wish I could sing; other people wish I could sing too. Being creative with Liturgy. Wow, I wish I could do that. I’m a setting One, Two or Three, pick three hymns kind of pastor. I don’t have the gift of being creative with liturgy.

But it’s important to remember why we pastors have been given our gifts for ministry. We have received these gifts not for ourselves, not for our own enjoyment and not so that we can be praised and lauded for having these gifts.

We have received these gifts for the benefit of the church, for serving God by serving the world, for preaching and teaching, for spreading the Good News of Christ to the world.

The difficulty of this task is revealed to us in our reading from Luke’s Gospel, in the very last line, where Jesus tells the rich man in Hell, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even someone rises from the dead.”

Well someone did rise from the dead, and many are still quite unconvinced, and we, the pastors and the people of the church, still find ourselves talking to people so enamored of their stuff that they are unable to hear the word of truth.

The first part of our text, verses 19 through 26, is a familiar middle eastern folk tale. In the modern world, we recycle jokes and urban legends. Names, professions, locations change but the point is always the same. In Jesus’ world they recycled these folk stories, and when a good story teller started to tell one, everyone settled in to see how well he told it, what clever riffs he used. Here in Nashville, we might think of a singer making an old standard song her own by singing it in a unique way. Creativity grew out of the art of adapting the story, not in creating a totally new one. So as Jesus began the story, everyone knew where he was going, they just weren’t sure how he was going to get there. 

The rich man/poor man reversal in the afterlife was a familiar moralistic tale; often used to shame the rich into being more generous to the poor. So when the rich man sees Lazarus in the “bosom of Abraham,” and cries out for mercy, everyone is ready for the discussion of the finality of Hell, the great chasm that has been established and can’t be crossed, etc.

What they are not prepared for is the next part, New Testament Scholar NT Wright says, “In the usual story, when someone asks permission to send a message back to the people who are still alive on earth, the permission is granted. Here, it isn’t; and the sharp ending of the story points beyond itself to all sorts of questions. . . “ (Luke for Everyone, p.200)

Jesus’ story was aimed at some familiar targets: those who think that being rich is a reward from God and proof of their goodness and those who think that poverty is largely deserved and either divine punishment for evil or just desserts for those who seem able to work but aren’t very successful at it.

These words are also aimed by Luke at the early church, the first tellers of the Good News of Jesus, to remind them of the difficulty of their task. The people of Israel had had Moses and the Prophets, revealed words from God, for a thousand years and many were still sinful and in need of repentance. Just adding the Resurrection of Jesus to the story didn’t make it easier for people to accept, believe and live out; indeed, for most people it made it harder.

Our calling as a community of faith is to take the old, old familiar story of God and sin and rescue and rebellion and death and resurrection; a story that has been told so often that many no longer listen, or if they listen, they think they know what it means and how it’s going to turn out.

We are called to take that story and like Jesus, tell it in new ways, with surprising endings. We are called to tell that story to this generation, to people in the 21st century.

We are called to aim the story at the spiritual needs of people living now, in this time of richness and poorness, in this age of technology and social networking and the collective national attention span of a gnat.

We are called to bring the great truths of Moses and the prophets to people on this side of the grave, so that they will hear the call to repent, to turn, to change, to bring their lives into alignment with God’s will and God’s way. 

I started my career as a pastor in three little churches in rural NC. Wood-frame buildings on isolated dirt roads, a few dozen farmers and shop-owners and their children and grand-children who drove out on Sundays from the cities to visit the folks and go to church. One weekday noon I went into a church member’s place of business for lunch: Alvis Brigg’s Bar-B-Q.  

As I walked in, a Briggs grandchild, a boy about 4 years old, spotted me.  He stood up in the booth where he was sitting and yelled out, “Hello . . . ” and then he was silent, because he couldn’t remember where he knew me from. He tried a couple more times, “HELLO . . . ” then silence and meditation, “HELLO . . .” again, and more thoughtful silence.  By this time everyone in the room was quiet and looking back and forth between the boy and me. Finally his face brightened and he shouted, HELLO CHURCH!” 

We are called to remember who we are as God’s people, and to remember what we  have to say and  we are to say it and do it in such a way that when people see us coming, they will shout in their hearts, “HELLO CHURCH!”

Amen and Amen.

Year C — The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Commentary for September 22, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Jeremiah is not called “The Weeping Prophet” for nothing!

His brokenness over the sin and rebellion of Israel is God’s brokenness, as well. How it pains God when we are willful and choose our own paths, come hell or high water!

The irony of the situation is that there IS plenty of balm in Gilead (known for its soothing ointments — probably a form of myrrh —  in the ancient world.) But, a sick person must be willing to be healed.

Psalm 79:1-9
What recourse do we have in the aftermath of God’s judgment upon sin? It can be pretty tough to accept discipline in our lives (have any of you parents ever had the “I hate you!” moment from your kids when you were in the midst of a course correction?)

The closing verses make an excellent prayer of penitence — when we are genuinely in a place to understand that. Our hope — our only hope — is in the deliverance and forgiveness that comes from God, for God’s own name’s sake.

Amos 8:4-7
Are we ever impatient in accomplishing our assigned or expected “holy tasks” so that we can get on to real life? And why do you think God is so doggone interested in the poor and needy, anyhow?

Psalm 113
I’m loving so much about this psalm, but I am immediately captivated by v. 2. There is simply no better time to praise God for God’s goodness than right now — “from this time and forevermore.”

Again — with the needy!


1 Timothy 2:1-7
Fill in the blank: God would like to see ____________ be saved.

Luke 16:1-13
There’s a very interesting discussion of this passage — one of the more difficult in Luke’s gospel, and among Jesus’ more quizzical parables — on The Lectionary Lab Live podcast this week. 

Perhaps we are called both to be like and unlike the “shrewd manager” in our handling of the gospel. We don’t really need any extra deceit, but there sure is an advantage to getting focused on our tasks when time is of the essence!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Once in a worship planning meeting, the longtime church organist and Christian Educator, with masters level training, took one look at this gospel lesson and said, “I have never understood this stext.  Why don’t we just skip it this year?”

It is a strange story. A business owner finds out that his office manager is guilty of mismanagement. He calls in the manager and says “You’ve got two weeks to get ready for an audit. Now get out of here.”
The manager knows he’s in deep trouble. Too proud to beg; too weak to work; what to do? What to do? Suddenly, he has an idea. He calls in some of the company’s biggest customers. “Have I got a deal for you?” he says. The plan is simple. He cuts their bills in half, destroys the paper trail and writes new invoices. 


Now when the audit happens, no one can prove that he cheated and all the richest men in town will owe him a favor. His future is secure. Of course, when the owner looks at the doctored books he knows what has happened but there is nothing he can do about it. He knows he has been conned. And here’s the surprise. He says to the man:” I have to admit it, you were pretty smart. You got me. Now get out of here.”
Up to this point the story makes perfect sense to us; maybe even more so in these years after the Wall Street crash involving loan schemes that nobody understood, financial sleight of hand that caught everybody off guard. What doesn’t make sense to us is the fact that Jesus seems to join the owner in praising the manager for his dishonesty.


But a careful reading of the text shows that Jesus is not praising the man for being dishonest.
Rather, he is pointing to the man as an example of someone with single-minded devotion to a cause, which in this case, happens to be himself. Jesus’ point here turns out to be pretty simple. Here, he says, is someone who knows how to give his entire heart, mind, and soul, to the service of his god, the thing he values most.

“Hey,” Jesus says, “what if we, the citizens of the Kingdom of God, were to give such single-minded and complete devotion to the cause of the one and only true God!”

Martin Luther, in the Small Catechism, says: that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God. This story of the unjust steward confronts us with some serious questions we have to ask ourselves, the first one being “What really is my God?”  Is it my #1 concern in life to preach good news to the poor? To heal the sick? To give sight to the blind?  How much of my valuable time do I spend each week in prayer and Bible Study? In visiting the sick and lonely? How much of my time and money is given pursuing help and justice for the poor of the world? These are the question Jesus is asking us in his story of the con-man office manager. He’s smart and devoted to serving his god; are we smart and devoted in serving ours? 


NT Scholar and preaching professor Fred Craddock said:The life of a disciple is one of faithful attention to the frequent and familiar tasks of each day, however small and insignificant they may seem. The one faithful in today’s nickels and dimes is the one to be trusted with the big account, but it is easy to be indifferent toward small obligations while quite sincerely believing oneself fully trustworthy in major matters. The realism of these sayings is simply that life consists of a series of seemingly small opportunities. 


Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than the chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat.” [Luke; Interpretation Commentaries pp. 191-192]


God’s call to us today is to be single-minded in our devotion to the kingdom; every minute of every day.  But it is not a devotion that calls for us walk to around as “holier-than-thou,” overly pious, religious fanatics.  Rather, it is a call to pay attention to and give service to the holiness of the ordinary, the sacred within the people and problems of our daily existence.


We are invited to realize that the genuinely important things in our life to not have price tags and dollar signs attached.  Once we realize that, we are then free to turn our hearts and souls and minds and bodies, and our wealth and resources, to the task of serving God by serving one another.


Amen and amen.

Year C — The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Commentary for September 15, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

There’s a new wind a-blowin’ — and it’s not one you want to be around for!

This passage speaks of God’s judgment on a people whose will it is to live life without God. Imagine, if you will, the world as it would appear were Jeremiah’s famous lamentation not in place: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,  for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3: 22-23)


Here– in Jeremiah’s prose– you have it.


Psalm 14

The psalm text reinforces the foolish choice of a person who says, “There ain’t no God! Why would I want a God, anyhow?”

Exodus 32:7-14

Moses takes the sly approach with God in this passage, in which God’s anger waxes hot against the people who are turning away from him.

“Now, God, don’t you think it would make you look pretty bad if word got out that you lost control of your people in the desert? Let’s see if we can’t work this thing out, here.”


Maybe God’s faithfulness needs a little urging sometimes?


Psalm 51:1-10

There is simply not a passage in scripture that illustrates more clearly the significance and shape of repentance. 

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Paul could certainly come across as pompous, opinionated, stubborn, and probably a whole load of other invective we could sling in his general direction. However, he also realized that he — an Apostle of the Lord Jesus — was also a sinner. In fact, in his own estimation, he was the biggest sinner around!

And God’s grace was for him, too.


Luke 15:1-10

We read two-thirds of one of the most famous gospel passages in the Christian Scriptures for today. (Noticeably absent is the parable of the lost son.)

Though we often focus on that which was lost and is now found in these stories, it might be a profitable exercise to ask to whom and for what purpose Jesus is directing these parables.


Possibly the “scribes and the Pharisees?” Surely not at us? We would never be “grumblers,” would we?



Sermon

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Mom, is God a grown-up or a parent?” Writing in the Catholic Digest, Kathleen Chesto admits being confused by her 5-year-old’s question. “Mom, is God a grown-up or a parent?” “I’m not sure what you mean,” she said, “What’s the difference between a grown-up and a parent?” “Well,” the child went on, “Grown-ups love you when you’re good and parents love you anyway.”

It’s a good question, isn’t it? Is God a grown-up or a parent? Does God love you only when you’re good? Or does God love you anyway, that is, anyway you are? In many ways, that’s what our Gospel lesson is about today. What is the nature of God’s love? Is it really complete and total and unconditional? Really?  And if it is, what does that mean for us? Do we have to love everybody too? Or are there some people we are allowed to dislike because God doesn’t like them either?

In today’s Gospel lesson, we find the Pharisees and the Scribes are definitely the Grown-ups. They have done a fine job of figuring out all the dos and don’ts of good and bad behavior. And, they have, like Santa Claus, made up a list of who’s been naughty and nice, they’ve checked it twice, and they have separated themselves from the bad people, the “tax collectors and sinners.”

Problems start when Jesus acts more like a parent than a grown-up; that is, even though he knows that the people with whom he is “fixin’ to party” are not acceptable, nice and good people; he’s fixin’ to party with them anyway. 

And this upsets the “Grown-up” Pharisees and Scribes because they thought He was on their side.  They thought he was one of them. They thought because he knew so much Bible and talked about giving your all for the Kingdom of God and was an obviously good man, well he must be a Pharisee or a scribe or someone acceptable to Pharisees and scribes and . . . . . .well, they just couldn’t figure this behavior out. What was he doing eating with those people? Doesn’t he know who they are, and whatg they’ve been doing?It is an unfortunate part of basic human nature that we try to figure out who’s in and who’s out; who’s hot and who’s not; who’s cool and who’s a fool.

It starts in elementary school and, unfortunately, continues in some form for the rest of our lives. We separate ourselves out into working class and white collar, urbanites and country folk, red states and blue states, the Religious Right and the Secular Humanists, good people and bad people.

It is when this separation-ism works its way into our religion that it is especially heinous. Not only do we decide whom we like and whom we dislike, who’s in and who’s out; we turn into grown-ups and judge the behavior of others and love them only when they’re good and then put the blessing and curse of God upon our choices and prejudices; for we know that God is a grown-up too and will, of course, endorse our decision.

This is what the Pharisees and scribes did. Not only did they decide that these people were violating the rules of good behavior; they had further decided that God had rejected the bad people and would have nothing further to do with them, and so, all Good People should unite in rejecting and shunning them as well. Therefore, when they saw Jesus’ eating and drinking; partying, with these “tax collectors and sinners,” they were appalled and seriously questioned his Good Person credentials. Jesus, as was typical of him, responded to their distress by telling them stories, stories about who’s in and who’s out, and about how God feels and acts toward those who are out.

The two stories have what we might call “God figures,” people who, according to Jesus, act like God. One is a shepherd, the other is a woman. These are interesting choices for Jesus to make, because both shepherds and women were out as far as Pharisees and scribes were concerned.  Because of their nomadic, outdoor lifestyle, shepherds were unable to keep most of the purity laws. They slept, bathed, ate, lived outdoors. nAnd women were always a problem for strict Pharisees; they preferred to neither see them not speak to them anymore than was absolutely necessary.

Jesus’ stories about the 99 and the 1 sheep and the woman and her lost coin have two simple points;  First: Just as a shepherd values his lost sheep enough to spare no effort in looking for it, just so, God values all people enough to spare no effort in looking for them. God values us the way the woman values her piece of money and will spare no effort in getting us back.

These are incarnational stories, stories about God in Christ coming into the world to seek out and find God’s lost creation. Jesus is the shepherd seeking out those not in the fold, Jesus is the woman, sweeping through the house, looking high and low for a valuable possession.

Second: In telling about the parties given by the shepherd to celebrate finding the lost sheep and the woman to celebrate finding her coin., Jesus is chiding the Pharisees and scribes over their grouchiness about Jesus spending time with the “tax collectors and sinners.”  Look, he says, God is real happy these people are interested in spiritual things. These people are thinking about coming back to church. That is cause for celebration.


The question for us today is; are we Grown-ups or Parents? Do we only love people when they’re good, or do we love them anyway, including anyway they are? Do we make lists of ins and outs, goods and bads, acceptables and unacceptables?  Or do we, like Christ the good shepherd, the good wife, go into the world looking for those whom God has placed in our care, which is everyone. 

What is the Gospel for us today? Is God a grown-up or a parent? Does God love us only when we’re good, or does God love us anyway? God has clearly been revealed as a loving parent who never ever stops loving us. Christ left the safety of heaven and leapt into the world to seek and save us. Christ has grabbed onto our souls and has promised to hold on to us until the fires of Hell go out.


Amen and Amen.

Year C — The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)

Commentary for September 8, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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

Jeremiah 18:1-11
I’ve never been very crafty with my hands; manual dexterity just isn’t my long suit. But I have long been amazed at the gift of those who make beautiful things from “just stuff” — and pottery is certainly one of those arts.

Our lives are “just stuff” that becomes molded in the hands of God, the Great Potter. We are God’s artwork. No artist really wants to reject a piece of his/her handiwork. But, there is a strong warning at the end of this text about that very prospect. 


Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Oh, wow…I always love reading from Psalm 139!

Pick a verse, almost any verse from this text and you’ve got the subject for a sermon. Taken together, there is not a more powerful statement about the presence of God in, around, and all through our lives. Especially comforting to me after what has been a summer of great loss in my congregation, is the final phrase: “I come to the end — I am still with you.”


As my colleague often says (and writes), “Amen and amen.”


Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Life’s choices are not always clear and unambiguous, at least in the moment. The calorie-laden chocolate eclair looks awfully tempting, even to a person prone to diabetic fluctuations in his bloodstream. 

It takes a bigger, longer-term view to add proper perspective — something akin to God’s view. The words of wisdom from Deuteronomy are, “I set before you today life and prosperity, [as well as] death and adversity….. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”


The first stanza of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer, which is often mis-quoted (a little bit) comes to mind here:


God, give us grace to accept with serenity 

the things that cannot be changed, 
Courage to change the things 
which should be changed, 
and the Wisdom to distinguish 
the one from the other.

(For the entire prayer, complete and unabridged, click here.)


Psalm 1

The opening of the Psalter makes a nice companion piece to Deuteronomy; a wonderful, poetic description of what happens when we choose good, and what happens when we choose evil. 

Philemon 1:1-1:21

We’re used to hearing Paul in his relentlessly didactic mode (and we mostly love him for it!) Philemon gives us a look at Paul’s somewhat softer side. How can Phil refuse to grant Onesimus the grace that he needs, after Paul has finished setting him up by reminding him of the grace that he (Philemon) has received in his own life?

Luke 14:25-33

Luke now records some of Jesus’ hardest sayings. The cost of discipleship is great — in fact, the text tells us, the cost is everything we have. 

Everything.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In 2007 this was “Youth Sunday” at Friedens Lutheran Church in Gibsonville, NC.  Though I was the pastor none of what happened that day was my idea; those little Tarheels had a mind of their own. They did almost everything in the service. My role was to be the celebrant at the Eucharist, and to make brief comments after their dramatic rendition of “The Little Red Hen,” which was the sermon for the day.
I thought it a brilliant and hilarious choice, but the Youth Director was afraid that the more literal minded among the congregation wouldn’t get it, so it was my job to point out the connections between the story and the texts for the day. (And also to stall for time while the girls changed from their “chicken suits” into their free-flowing white dresses and tights for the liturgical dance accompanying the Creed; like I said, it was all their doing.)
So here goes; my homily on the connections between the texts for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost and the classic children’s story the Little Red Hen.

It is tempting when reading our first lesson from Deuteronomy (30:15-20) to conclude that God is setting before the people a stark, legalistic choice, like the bully on the playground who says, “Play by my rules, or I’ll beat you up.” Way too many religious leaders have used that technique down through the years. “Choose to follow my rules, my ethics, my commands, or you will burn in Hell!”

That version fails to recognize the Law, the commandments of God, as a gift, a teaching, a help to God’s beloved people. The commandments were given to us to help us chart our way through life. Is it possible that God’s word of promise here is better understood as;

“Look, I have shown you the way. This is how one must live to successfully make it through life. If you do not follow this way, the consequences for you, and for others, could be very serious, very dire, could maybe even lead to death?” 

In that light, God’s call to “choose life” is a call to take seriously the need to follow a strong ethical path through life. To “choose life” is to choose to be a part of a community that cares about and respects one another and looks out for one another, for that is what the commandments call us to do and to be. 

In the story of the Little Red Hen, all the other animals refused to follow the rules, the guidelines, the commandments; for being a part of a family, a community. They refused to participate in the things that make a community safe and productive for all involved. They refused to help; but they all wanted to reap the benefits of the work done by the Little Red Hen.

In our Gospel Lesson from Luke, Jesus talks about what it means to be a full participant in a loving community. His words about sacrifice, giving up family and counting the cost, and taking up the cross; are meant to bring home to his listeners and to us, the seriousness of becoming a part of the Kingdom of God, the Community of Christ. 


Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer died at the hands of the Nazis at the end of WWII.  In his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” he pointed out the problem that he called “cheap grace.” Way too many of us accept salvation without being willing to take up our own cross of service and sacrifice in order to follow Christ. We are like the animals who want to eat the bread, but don’t want to help the Little Red Hen bring in the crop.

In the original story, The Little Red Hen ate her bread alone. But our youth showed that they are good little Lutherans and have learned their theology well. In their story, the animals repent and the Hen shares her bread. This is how God is. God does forgive us our cold hearts and idle hands.

But we are called to respond to God’s free (notice I said free, not cheap) God’s free grace with lives of gratitude and discipleship. This day we are called to take up the Cross and follow wherever our Lord leads.

Amen and amen.