Year A: The Sunday of the Transfiguration (March 2, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 24:12-18
All of the texts for today are coordinated in support of the gospel account of Jesus’ transfiguration. The presence of Moses certainly figures prominently, and the account from Exodus gives us a glimpse of Moses as the one who is called into the presence of God in order to receive an important message for the people. There are a number of important symbols, or clues, to be considered here — the mountain, the cloud, the fiery presence of God. All of these are reflected in the Matthew account about Jesus on the mountain.

The numbers in this passage are quite interesting to consider, as well; 40 days and nights is a “biblical standard” for a holy experience, as this is the time that God caused rain to fall on the earth (a form of cleansing) in the time of Noah, as well as the number of years that Israel would wander in the wilderness due to their disobedience to God’s command to cross over and take possession of the Promised Land. Jesus was in the wilderness for the same 40-day period during his fasting and temptation by the devil.

The six days of waiting by Moses, before he is summoned into God’s presence on the seventh day, provides a mirror image of the creation story; God worked for six days, then rested. Moses now waits for six days, and is given his assignment on the seventh. This six days plus one is reflected in the gospel account, as well.

It might be fruitful to discuss this idea of “waiting” before God in a time of spiritual preparation, especially since we live in such a hurry-up world — one that is based on “fast” food and “instant” gratification. Are there times that we particularly ought to consider slowing down and simply waiting in the presence of God in order to have our hearts tuned and our spirits reset to the rhythm of the holy? Have you ever experienced moments like this? How did it happen — and how can we experience them in our continuing walk of faith?

Psalm 2
This psalm comes from the corporate life of the nation of Israel — it was used on the occasion of the anointing of a new king. The word for “anoint” is the root word for messiah, or by the time of the New Testament, christ. In each setting, it means an individual that is set apart for a special purpose — often, the king (or priest) would be anointed with oil as a symbol of God’s blessing on their life.

For Israel, this holy calling — anointing — was a sacred moment; Psalm 2 quickly became identified in the Christian community as picturing the life of Jesus. The lines that jump out on this day include v.7 : “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” This is, of course, nearly verbatim in the account on the mountain when the voice from heaven speaks about Jesus.

What do you think it means to be anointed (chosen) by God for a special purpose? Are there ways that each of us — and, perhaps, all of us — are anointed and chosen by God?

Psalm 99
The second piece from Psalms also contributes language to the background of the transfiguration scenario: the mountain of the Lord, the pillar of cloud, the presence of revered leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Samuel.

Why is it important for our faith to see continuity in the ongoing work of God throughout several generations, and over the course of many years? Are there particular revered leaders, or “saints of the faith,” that you look back to and draw inspiration from?

2 Peter 1:16-21
Peter was there; writing now as an elder statesman of the faith, Peter says, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty!”

What he doesn’t say is, “And we didn’t get it!” The gospel story tells us that Peter might just have missed the deeper point that God was trying to make with the whole transfiguration event. As a man of action (usually along the lines of “open mouth, insert foot”) — Peter wanted to rush into a display of worship and awe over the scene displayed before him. Notable and noteworthy. But God really needed him just to get quiet and pay attention to what Jesus was saying — not to rely so much on his own efforts.

The more mature Peter now advises, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Wait; listen; pay attention.

Peter closes his admonition by reminding us of the power of listening to God together, in community. The words of scripture and the experiences of worship and service are not intended as lone actions by solitary Christians. We really do need each other!

What have been some of the most important and/or formative times with others in your Christian experience? Has there ever been a time when you learned the value of speaking less and listening more?

Matthew 17:1-9
There are so many excellent opportunities for discussion around this story! You might take a few moments to think and discuss:

  • Why does Jesus select Peter, James, and John from among the other disciples to come up with him “by themselves” for this experience on the mountaintop?
  • What is the purpose of Jesus’ transfiguration? The word is the same root as our English word metamorphosis — “a change in form.” Do you think it was more a case of Jesus changing form before the eyes of the disciple, or perhaps of his true nature being revealed?
  • What symbolic meaning is added by the appearance of Moses and Elijah?
  • Go back and read Matthew 3:17; compare it to verse 5 in this passage. What is consistent about the message given by “the voice from heaven?” Is there any difference in the two passages?
  • How significant is the touch of Jesus in v.7?
  • After the fireworks of the transfiguration, the scene returns to just Jesus and the disciples. Why?
  • Why does Jesus tell them not to tell anyone else about this event until after the resurrection?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My older son is a science guy; his parents, a preacher and a social worker, most decidedly are not. This became very clear to us one day when he was seven.  My wife and the boys were fishing in a little pond in our sub-division.  The sun was setting and the western sky was full of colors; red, purple, orange.  The four year old asks, “What makes the sky so pretty?”  Mom answers something about God creating natural beauty for our enjoyment and to remind us of the presence of the holy in the world around us.  And the seven year old says, “Well, Mom, actually it’s just the sun reflecting off dust particles and moisture in the atmosphere.”  Like I said – a science guy.

The Transfiguration is one of those stories in the Bible that mystifies us. If we had been there and saw what Peter and the others saw, we would probably have been terrified as well.  As it is, we can stand back from the story and try to figure out “what really happened?” We want a “dust particles and moisture” answer, and there isn’t one. And looking for such an explanation will keep us from seeing some very important things going on in this story.

A more fruitful question for us to think about is “Why did Matthew think it important to tell us this story?”  And “Why did he tell it to us in this way?” This is one of those times when it’s important to step back and look at the big picture, at the overall story of Jesus, and the ways Jesus’ story connects with the story of Moses.  Matthew’s gospel has as an underlying theme the idea that Jesus is a new Moses and the writer employs many parallel images in telling us about Jesus.  The reading from Exodus makes many of those connections easy to see; holy mountain, voices from heaven, clouds, fire, over shadowing.  Even Peter’s suggestion of the dwellings recalls the Feast of Booths, a Jewish festival during which people lived outside in little tents to recall the time when the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness – following a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Focusing in a little closer, we remember that we’ve heard that voice, those very words before.  When was that?  Oh yeah, it was at Jesus’ baptism, at the beginning of Jesus ministry.  And right after he was baptized he went into the wilderness to wrestle with Satan over what it meant to be the Son of God.  And here we are, after a couple of years of teaching and preaching, at the Transfiguration.  Just before this, in chapter 16, Jesus has asked the disciples his famous, “Who do people say that I am” question.  This leads to Peter’s famous “You are the Christ” statement.

After this, Jesus explains that being the Christ means he is to suffer and die, and you will recall, Peter didn’t like that idea and protested, which lead to Jesus’ even more famous statement, “Get behind me Satan,” which is an echo of his time of temptation in the wilderness.

And now, we come to this day, this moment, of Jesus going up the mountain with Peter, James and John. There is a cloud, something happens and Jesus glows with holiness and divine glory, and Moses and Elijah appear talking to him.  While the disciples shrink back in fear and wonder a voice thunders, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”  And then it’s over and Jesus reaches out and touches the disciples and tells them everything is okay.

And what are we to make of this?  Put another way, what difference does all this make to us?  Is this just a bit of the sun reflecting off dust and moisture; or is there something here about Jesus and God’s holiness, God’s beauty and, more importantly, God’s love?

At the very end of the Gospel lesson, there is this peculiar little line where Jesus tells the three witnesses not to tell anybody about what they’ve just seen and heard “until after the son of man has been raised from the dead.”

There are a couple of important things here. One is that it would be difficult to get anyone to believe you.  This would be a first century equivalent to telling people about being abducted by aliens.  It’s just too strange and pointless to be believed.  Healings and casting out demons and the feeding thousands of folk are somewhat reasonable uses of divine power; but just lighting up Jesus’ just seems kind of random, unless you were there.  So, Jesus says, just keep this to yourselves.

But, after the resurrection, this day on the mountain with Jesus is another piece of evidence about who Jesus was and is, and what God was and is doing through him. So, as we see in our second lesson, Peter backs up his preaching about Jesus and the resurrection with his testimony about the miracle he saw and the voice he heard.  Then it becomes a piece of the long story of God reaching out to all of us with a message of love, compassion and steadfast mercy.

And, truth be told, if we would take a good look in the mirror, most of us can find ways we have been changed, transfigured, by the presence of the holy in our lives.  No, for most of us,  it’s not been a dramatic change – at least not as dramatic as Jesus shining as bright as the sun, or even Peter’s change from cowardly denier of Jesus on the night of his trial to brave preacher of Christ on the day of Pentecost; but we have all changed.

Yes we have been “transfigured,” by having Christ in our lives.  We are less selfish and more generous than we used to be.  Less judgmental and more tolerant, less anxious and more trusting, we do fewer bad things and more good things. If we look back at the long story of our personal relationship with God, we will find that we have been “transfigured” by God; smoothed out, reshaped, and formed more and more into the image of Christ.

And like Peter, we called to tell the story of our encounter with the holy, we are called to give our testimony of the voice that has claimed us as God’s beloved child, and the glow of joy that fills our lives when we remember what God in Christ has done for us.

Amen and amen.

 

Year A: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (February 23, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A commentary

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Sometimes, we may feel the the “commandments” of God are so lofty and ideal that we can’t really hope to keep them. This section from Leviticus is a version of the more famous Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20 — but seem to be a bit more focused and “down to earth.” You might say they are kind of a practical guide to holy living.

The word holy means, “something set aside” — the idea here is that, as people of God, we live in a different kind of way because of our relationship to God. We are set apart by the distinction of who God is, not necessarily because we are special in and of ourselves. As you read through the listing of ways that God wants God’s people to act, can you think of any ways that we can and should live out these commands in our day and time? (For example, what does it mean to leave something from our own “harvest” for those who are poor?)

Psalm 119:33-40
This famous psalm contains 22 8-verse stanzas, of which this is the fifth. Each succeeding stanza, besides forming an acrostic based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, has something of a mini-theme that relates to the overall theme of the dependability and necessity of God’s word (Torah, to the Jews.) What would you suggest as the “theme” for this passage?

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Speaking of themes, the last several readings in Corinthians have followed a similar idea: God has sent Jesus Christ to be the beginning, source, and wisdom of our lives of faith. Today, we see Jesus as the foundation upon which our lives are built. Interestingly, the verses that are not included in the reading (vv. 12-15) offer additional explanation as to the materials we use during our lifetimes to construct our “houses.” We can build on the foundation Christ has laid by using things that will last, or things that will be consumed by the fire of trial.

What kind of life are you building on the foundation of your faith in Christ? Is your life one that makes Christ — who holds your life, and is in turn held by God — proud?

Matthew 5:38-48
This section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount compares quite closely to the reading from Leviticus for today (see above.) It is very much along the same kind of theme; the way you live your life as a follower of Christ, and a child of God, matters!

The word translated as perfect in v. 48 has given some people cause for consternation; if, after all, God wants us never to mess up and to always perfectly accomplish God’s will — then we’re all pretty much toast! It actually has more of the connotation of “getting [eventually] to the goal God has set for you.” Living for Christ is something of an ongoing process.

Looking over Jesus’ statements here, what are some ways that living these ideas out can help move us along the way of progressing, or growing, in our “real-life” faith?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

  • “On a scale of one to ten, how good is the pizza at the Mellow Mushroom?”
  • “On a scale of one to ten, how good is the movie “Philomena?”
  • “On a scale of one to ten, how good-looking is your brother’s girl-friend?”

I was trying to remember when the whole “scale of one to ten,” with ten being perfection, came into our normal public conversation.  The best I can do is the romantic comedy “10,” starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek.  I’m sure the scale was popular in some places before that, but it has been universal ever since.

And when we hear the end of today’s gospel lesson, with Jesus telling us to, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” most of us think “morality.”  And then we measure ourselves on a score of one to ten with ten being perfection and think, “No way I’m a ten.  I’m a six or seven at best, especially if I have to measure it the way Jesus does here in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Because Jesus sure has ramped up the goodness requirement, hasn’t he?  All this “you have heard it said but I say to you,” has put being good almost out of reach.  Last week he told us it was no longer good enough not to kill or beat up people who make you angry; now you can’t even get mad at them.

Well, today he has taken that even further and says that you can’t take revenge on people who do you wrong.  As I read this, you’re supposed to let people just walk all over you.  Turn the other cheek, give them your coat and cloak, so the second mile.  Give to just anybody who begs, with no regard for their need or their honesty or what they intend to do with the money.  Seriously?

Well, it will come as no surprise to you that we 21st century Christians are not the first people to wonder is Jesus was serious about this level of moral perfection.  Over the years a number of proposals have been put forth as to what Jesus “really” meant here.

One idea is that he intended to propose an impossible ethic. This is usually tied to the thinking of Saint Paul about how we cannot please God through obeying the “law,” and must be saved only through grace.  According to this theory, Jesus wanted us to try and fail to achieve this level of perfection so that we would recognize our inability to be good on our own and turn to the grace shown to us in the Christ.

Another idea is that the pursuit of perfection pushes us to do our best.  Something along the lines of Robert Browning’s line “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  Pushing for perfection, so it is thought, keeps us from settling for “good enough,” keeps us pushing ourselves to the limits of our abilities.

Others point to the way the Hebrew Scriptures frequently refer to both Abraham and Noah as “perfect,” and we know they were not.  Genesis is pretty blunt in exposing their various moral failures.  Their perfection was a perfection of obedience it is said.  Abraham believed God’s promise of a son through all those years of Sarah’s barrenness and even after the child was born, obeyed God in taking him to the mountain to sacrifice him.  Noah believed God about the flood and obeyed God in building the ark while others laughed and jeered. Their perfection was a perfection of obedience.

The best answer comes directly from the scripture itself, from the word itself.  The Greek word here translated as “perfect” is telios.  Its definition is “end” as in the phrase “as a means to an end.”  It refers to the ultimate and final purpose of a thing or a person.  Being “perfect” is being about the purpose for which God created you.  To be “perfect” is to be completely focused on one’s role in God’s kingdom.

This last line of the Gospel lesson about being perfect is related to the second line of our First Lesson about being “Holy as the Lord your God is holy.”  The Hebrew word here is kadash and it connotes being separated out.  It is the root of the practice of kosher, keeping the holy things separate from the profane or ordinary things.  Though “separateness” can degenerate into an unhealthy and unholy judgmental-ism, at root it is about recognizing the holiness of the ordinary, including your own ordinary life – and treating that ordinary life with extraordinary care.

Both Leviticus’ promise of holiness and Matthew’s call for perfection are rooted in grace; they are anchored deep in our relationship with God and are lived out in our relationships with each other.  Over and over in Leviticus, God says, “I am your God.”  You will do this because “I am your God.”  Not “If you do this, I will be your God.” But, “because I am your God, you will do this.”  The text says “You shall be holy.”  That’s a promise, not a threat.  That’s grace, not demand.  And it results in kind and gracious treatment of others in the real world of food and money and relationships.

In the Gospel lesson, in verse 45 – we read “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  Our treatment of others, at a level that seems so demanding as to be impossible, is simply a mirror image, a reflection of how God has treated us.  For, if the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous, surely we are honest and humble to admit that the category of the unrighteous often includes most of us.  It’s the same idea as when the Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of others.”  This text calls us to treat others the way God has treated us.

If you listened carefully to the readings today, you noticed that in Leviticus we are told to love our neighbors.  You will have also noticed that in the Gospel we are enjoined to love our enemies.  GK Chesterton observed that we are asked to love both our enemies and our neighbors because, generally speaking, they are the same people.

Indeed they are.  And God calls us to love them and treat them all like 10s on any scale we can devise.  Because all of us are 10s in God’s eyes and in God’s love.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 16, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A Commentary and Sermon

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
What we’ve got here (tip of the hat to Cool Hand Luke) is a clear communication about the simple, direct choices that often lie before us. God wants us to understand that we have two ways to go in life: the way of life and the way of death. Every choice we make bears a consequence. Some of those are good consequences that we desire — e.g., if you put away 10% of every paycheck you earn, you’ll have plenty of money one day when you need it. Others are bad consequences that we’d rather avoid — if you spend every penny you earn, you’ll come upon a day when you’re flat broke and dependent on the kindness of strangers (second tip of the hat to A Streetcar Named Desire.)

It is simply not possible to walk the two paths at the same time. The “commandments” of God, rather than being vicious rules imposed upon us by a Heavenly Tyrant, are rather intended for our good, serving as guides along life’s way to help us choose the better path. Hmmm?

Can you think of other paired sets of consequences (positive and negative examples) that confront us along life’s way? Where do you see the grace of God made available to help us make the better choice?

Sirach 15:15-20
Verse 16 in this brief passage provides a very vivid image to underscore the message of Deuteronomy (see above): where would you rather stick your hand? Into a bowl of water or into a raging fire?

Psalm 119:1-8
The psalm text continues the theme of the joy (happiness) to be found in following the way set out by God in God’s commandments. Why do you think it is such a strong human tendency to focus only on the negative aspects of “commandments” — i.e., what I have to give up or might lose if I do things God’s way — rather than on the benefits gained by keeping to the path?

1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Two thoughts surface as we consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians here:

  • There are basic, introductory kinds of things that we need to learn as we begin coming to faith; these are like the “milk” that an infant needs in order to survive and thrive in the first days and weeks of life. When proper growth ensues, “solid” food will be the natural progression for continued growth. What would happen if a baby continued to feed only on a mother’s milk? Spiritually, what happens to us if we never move on to the “solid” food of God’s word and the church’s teachings?
  • Jealousy and envy will kill a church quicker than almost any other “sins.” Even preachers are subject to it (maybe they are especially subject to it!) How important is it to realize that “we are God’s servants, working together?” What does the Apostle mean by “we all have a common purpose?”

Matthew 5:21-37
We have here a lengthy section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; it seems that Jesus is interested in helping us “get behind” the rules laid down in God’s commandments. Why is it important to understand the feelings/motivations/issues that surround the kind of anger that makes us mad enough to kill? (And, to realize that there are many different ways to “kill” a person — like sabotaging a reputation, poisoning a relationship, or purposely causing someone to suffer.)

Perhaps Jesus isn’t really all that interested in how well we attend to a rigid checklist of things we’re not supposed to do — “Okay, I didn’t commit any adultery today, I didn’t pull out a gun and shoot anyone — I guess I’m okay!” Rather, the Lord desires that we dig a little deeper — or a lot deeper — and discover why we can’t seem to get rid of the grudge that has kept us from speaking to a fellow church member for the past year, or the envious way in which we wish we could trade lives with a well-to-do sibling or classmate.

How hard is it to face the feelings that lie just under the surface of our hearts and minds? How important is it that we open these sensitive areas to the scrutiny of the Spirit and our own self-consciousness?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

23”So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

These words come near the beginning of our rather long Gospel reading, which at first glance seems to jump all over the place – going from murder, to calling people names, to worship etiquette to courtroom advice and warnings, to adultery to rather bizarre and exaggerated talk about self-mutilation.  The writer then catches his breath before taking off in a new direction on divorce and the taking of oaths. It all seems rather random and quite confusing.

When confronted with a text like this, the preacher has two options (well three really; you can chicken out and preach on something else.)

Okay, two options: 1) you can attempt to explain everything in the text, or 2) you can pick a bit of the text and through it try to shed some light on the larger picture.  I have chosen this “small bit of the text” option.  I tell you that so you won’t be sitting there with bated breath waiting for me to explain Jesus on divorce or the thing about gouging out your eyes; those things will have to wait for another day.

23”So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

My father died about ten years ago.  At his funeral, my cousin and her husband sang a song he had asked them to sing, an old mountain tune called, “Don’t Bring Me Flowers When I’m Dead.” I smiled as to myself as they sang, thinking the song a perfect choice by my daddy to sum up his theology, his straight-forward way of dealing with others, and his musical taste. Some of my good Lutheran friends, who had never experienced an Appalachian Methodist/Baptist funeral and were unfamiliar with the folk “hymnody” of the region, were puzzled by the whole thing.

I explained to them that the song had in mind a tradition still carried on in some small mountain churches of what is referred to as the “Flower Service.”  (This is not to be confused with “Decoration Day” when people bring flowers to decorate the graves in the church cemetery.)

At the flower service, everyone brings a bouquet of flowers and places them on a table in front of the pulpit.  These are not arranged bouquet; they are a large fistful of flowers from the garden and wild flowers from the fields and woods.  Then the minister preaches a sermon on Matthew 5:23-24, stressing the need for harmony and peace in the congregation and reminding people of Our Lord’s admonition to make peace with our neighbor before kneeling at the altar to pray to God. After the sermon, a genuinely amazing “passing of the peace,” takes place as everyone in the congregation comes to the table and retrieves their bouquet and then begins to go to every other person in the church to apologize for any hurt feelings or harsh words or misunderstandings.

From the oldest to the youngest, everyone talks to everyone else, not caring how long it takes. After  apologies and words of forgiveness and reconciliation have been spoken and heard, people then exchange flowers, sealing the restoration of their relationship and then moving on to another sister or brother in Christ. (see Howard Dorgan, “Giving Glory to God in Appalachia: Worship Practices of Six Baptist Subdenominations.” University of Tennessee Press, 1987, p. 147)

This practice in these small mountain churches is spiritually a very wise thing. It comes out of a deep understanding of what Jesus is about in this entire lesson.  Jesus is digging beneath the surface of outward observance to get at both the difficulty and the serious importance of being genuine and transparent in God’s new community of the church.  For the writer of Matthew’s gospel – it is unimaginable that people who profess to be followers of Jesus should be Christians on the surface only.

Therefore, there is to be no walking about with deep resentments against others festering inside while on the surface we act as if nothing is wrong.  We are not only not to murder; we are to deal with our anger appropriately and honestly.  There is to be no secret lust driving your life, if you have problem with that sort of thing, Jesus says, acknowledge it, deal with it, get help. All throughout this text, Jesus’ words are about dropping pretense and dealing with the real problems of being in relationship and community with others by being honest, straight-forward and humble with each other.

Which brings me back to Daddy’s choice of this song for this funeral. My father was not a perfect man; but he was the most honest man I have ever met.  It was his firm conviction that if we would tell each other the truth and deal honestly with one another at all times, we would have very little need for either remorse or regrets.  If you need to make peace with me, the song says, bring the “flowers” now – as in the flower service.  Don’t hold on to your grudge and then salve your conscience with a nice spray at my funeral.

That is the call of today’s text on all of us.  Do it now.  Live by kingdom values now.  Straighten out your life now.  Make peace with others now.  The kingdom of God is here, now.  The spirit of God is giving you strength for whatever changes you need to make, now. The love of Christ is forgiving you and inviting you to forgive others, now. Now. Now. Now.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 9, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A Commentary and Sermon

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
Coming to church every Sunday — well, almost every Sunday — is a good thing! Learning the liturgy, singing the songs, receiving the Eucharist — all of these are good things — helpful things — lifegiving things that are a part of our worship.

But, by themselves — separated from actually living the life that God desires for us to live — they are not enough. I hope this doesn’t burst your bubble! As God speaks through the prophet Isaiah,  God informs the people that the real acts of worship that God most desires include not only fasting and observing excellent ritual but things like: loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, and letting the homeless poor come into your house.

Geez, talk about getting practical with your faith!

According to vv. 9-12, what are the results of practicing these kinds of acts?

Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
The psalm text similarly speaks of the kinds of “benefits” that belong to those who live lives of generosity. Especially in vv. 6-8, what are some of the benefits of those “who conduct their affairs with justice?”

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Preachers and pastors are trained to use “plausible words of wisdom” — at least, that’s what we often think. Paul says that it is something quite the opposite that communicates the power of God here. As you read through vv. 2-5, why is it that the message of “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” is so powerful and effective?

Verse 7 says that God’s wisdom has been “secret and hidden” … and yet v. 10 says that it has now been revealed to us by the Spirit of God. How do you think this happens? In what ways can you remember the Spirit revealing things to you? What should we be doing in order to open our hearts and minds to the presence of the Spirit?

Matthew 5:13-20
Jesus has a good bit to say about our opportunity to shine as the light of the world — a light that more than one commentator has noted is reflected from the brightness of Christ himself (kind of like the moon reflecting the light of the sun.) What kinds of things show a reflection of Christ in us — bringing light to the world around us? What does Jesus intend for us to do when he asks us to “let you light shine?”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Karl Barth was one of the last century’s great religious thinkers.  He said that the parish pastor should prepare sermons with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.  Here are some things I learned reading the paper this week. (Well, actually the internet, but you get the point)

Pope Francis’ critical comments about the wealthy and capitalism have at least one wealthy capitalist benefactor hesitant about giving financial support to one of the church’s major fundraising projects.

Ken Langone, billionaire founder of Home Depot and the head of an effort to raise $180 million for the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, told CNBC that “one potential seven-figure donor is concerned about statements from the pope criticizing market economies as exclusionary, urging the rich to give more to the poor and criticizing a culture of prosperity that leads some to become incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.”

The president of Uruguay, Jose’ Mujica, lives in a one-bedroom farmhouse and donates most of his salary to social justice projects.  Meanwhile the former Governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, is being brought up on corruption and graft charges.  Apparently he did not find the Governor’s mansion and his salary to be sufficient and solicited funds from a rich friend so that he and his wife could “dress the part,” when they entertained wealthy potential supporters and donors.

And the “income gap,  the apparent fact that most of America’s financial growth is going into the pockets of the fabled 1% who own a majority of America while middle class and working class incomes have been steadily decreasing –  has become a major argument on the opinion pages and in the halls of Congress.  Is it true?  If so, who’s to blame?  Is there a fix?  Etc. etc.

People in poverty.  People who work hard at two jobs and still can’t pay their bills.  People who struggle to feed their families in the best of times and who begin to starve in the worst of times.  People who are denied the basic opportunities to not only survive but to thrive; opportunities this country has long treated as part of our social contract with one another. These are the same people Isaiah is talking about in today’s text. People whom we, who call ourselves God’s people, are called and commissioned by God to serve and to save.

So, here’s the question of the day:  What is it we modern Americans do that takes the place of doing justice and mercy in the world? The ancient Hebrews observed the temple rituals, thinking that those things made them righteous, when it didn’t. If Isaiah were pointing the finger at us, what would Isaiah say?

Most of us these days don’t do a lot of animal sacrifice and ritual cleansing; we don’t deck ourselves out in sackcloth and sit in piles of ashes.  We diet, but we don’t fast.   But we do

do religious things; going to church, giving an offering, singing in the choir, teaching Sunday School, reading scripture, serving on the altar, ushering, being on a committee, working with the youth, cooking breakfast, etc. etc.

And, just like fasting, and sackcloth and ashes, and attending temple rituals; there is nothing wrong with any of these things – unless we think that doing them makes us “right with God,” fulfills some obligation we have to be “holy before the Lord.”  They don’t.  They don’t – they

are no more effective for us than fasting was for Isaiah’s people.

Isaiah, the Psalm and the Gospel are all full of admonitions to be salt and light, to go out into the world performing acts of justice and mercy in the name of God. The key is to understand that it is not we who do these things; it is God in Christ who does them through us.

Notice carefully in the Gospel reading – Jesus doesn’t say “you should be the salt of the earth.”  Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth.”  Jesus doesn’t say “you should be the light of the world.”  Jesus says “you are the light of the world.”

In the Psalm, people are not told what they should do; they are told what the righteous are like when they delight in the commandments of the Lord – “the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.”

Back in Isaiah the people are told that what they had been doing bee not working, that they have missed the point of being in a covenant relationship with God, and then they are told what their life will look like when they get it.  “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

In the Gospel lesson, when Jesus says that the law will be fulfilled – he is not talking about the minutia of ritual observance.  Rather, he is talking about the fulfillment of the Law, the Torah, the Teaching, through the fulfilling of its purpose.

The purpose of Torah was to teach the Jews to be righteous.  It was also the purpose of the Torah to make the Jewish community a light shining in the world’s darkness, a city on a hill that would show the way to all the world.  In todays’ Gospel lesson, we are invited, called, commissioned, ordained, anointed, to join the Jews in being Torah people.  We are sent out to be people who show God’s way to the world more through our lives than through our words.

Pope Francis named himself after Francis of Assisi – a man who gave away everything he had to the poor, a man who walked unarmed into a Muslim army in the Holy Land in hopes of stopping a war;  a  man who inspired million to lives of love and sacrifice for others.  The story is told that one day a new friar wanted to go out “preaching” with Francis.  They went around all day helping people in trouble.  At the end of the day, the young man protested that he had learned nothing about preaching.  Francis said, “You should preach the gospel at all times.  Only use words when absolutely necessary.”

Amen and amen.