Year A: The Third Sunday of Easter (May 4, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Verse 39 is one of the Bible’s beautiful promises: “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit — these are each and every one gifts of the promise that we receive from God in Christ.

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
“I love the Lord, because….”

The psalmist participates in giving testimony to God’s goodness, a feature of the worship of God’s people for countless generations. We are invited to do the same. How long since you (or the people in your pews) have taken the time to fill in the blank?

“I love the Lord, because ….”

1 Peter 1:17-23
There is, from time to time, considerable dialogue over just what it means to be “born again”… or, as the NRSV has it, born “anew.” 

No need to revisit any of that ground here; much to be preferred are the descriptors that Peter employs in vv. 21-22. To wit: trust in God, set your hope and faith on God, and love each other deeply “from the heart.”

There is the bit about obedience to “the truth” — another phrase that evokes seemingly endless discussion throughout the church (just whose “truth” does this mean? God’s? And who is the arbiter of said truth?) I don’t know when we will all agree on “truth”…but that still leaves faith, hope and love.

To paraphrase the great American theologian, Meat Loaf: “three out of four ain’t bad!”

Luke 24:13-35
Jesus could certainly be a little coy, couldn’t he?

Here are the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, all abuzz with their visit to Jerusalem and the spectacular rumors emerging from the Passover situation. We are told that they “were kept from recognizing him.” 

By whom, or by what, I wonder? Is this divine intervention in order to set up the tale? Or are we supposed to read something in here, something along the lines of “they were just so caught up in their own concerns that they couldn’t see Jesus right in front of them?”

I have certainly heard the latter interpretation; if I think hard enough, I could probably recall preaching it.

Anyhow, Jesus saunters up and asks, quasi-innocently: “What’cha talking about, guys?” 

Which, of course, gives an excellent opening for the story to proceed and for Jesus to get in a few of his final theological licks before his impending ascension. Somebody has got to understand all of this, after all. Peter and the gang back home weren’t handling it so well at this point!

There’s a lot of stuff we’re still trying to figure out, ourselves. We, too, are “foolish… and slow of heart to believe.” But Jesus is with us, nonetheless, whether we recognize him or not. 

In word and sacrament, the Christ makes himself known as we break the bread and remember. Open our eyes, Lord; open our eyes!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton

A pastor friend of mine played basketball in high school.  He made all conference several times.  He was good.  Didn’t get recruited or given a scholarship, but he was a good basketball player.  He went to the major basketball playing university in his state.  This was back in the day when they all had freshman teams.  He tried out and made the team.  He played quite a bit on that freshman team, he continued to work on his game over the summer, spending almost every day in the gym as he had since he was 12.

About six weeks into his sophomore year he went to the college gym for the announced try-outs for the varsity team.  He knew that most of the spots were taken by the scholarship players, he knew there were only two places for walk-ons, he knew there were a lot of people trying out.  But he thought he could make it, he had made the freshman team without a scholarship, surely the coaches had recognized his talent.  He told himself hey had not offered him a scholarship because they knew he had an academic award.  And 30 minutes into that ry-out, an assistant coach came over, patted him on the shoulder, said “Thank you for trying out,” and pointed him to the door.  He found himself standing outside, sitting on the steps with the other rejects; dazed and confused and disappointed and wondering to himself, “What do I do now?”  Like the two men on the road to Emmaus, my friend had had his high hopes dashed and was left to wonder not only what might have been, but also where do I go from here.

Our Gospel lesson today leads us into a consideration a basic question. Where do we turn when things fall apart?  Fall apart not only for us personally, but also for the world.  What do we of when the things we have trusted in, believed in, hoped in, seem to have failed us?

The men on the road to Emmaus are disheartened by the death of Jesus.  In verse 21 they say “but we had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel.”  What’s interesting is that they say this in the midst of a recital of the basic facts about Jesus.  They knew the story – they just had no idea what it really meant.  Jesus uses the Hebrew Scriptures to explain their experiences to them.  The facts were not enough, the Word of God gave meaning to the experiences they had had with Jesus.

Though the men had begun to understand the connection between the crucified Jesus and the Risen Christ, they still did not make the connection between the Risen Christ and the person in their midst.  Talking, speaking, reading, words alone did not make that happen.  That was something that had to be experienced, and all mystical experiences are in some ways beyond words.

Somehow, when Jesus played host at the meal in their home, the universe shifted. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.“ (vs. 30-31)

What follows is fascinating.  First, the men were able to look back on their experience and see Christ in it. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  Word and sacrament, scripture and experience, work together to bring us into the presence of the Christ, and one is not complete without the other.  They weave in and out; word explaining experience, worship and ritual both underscoring and heightening the meaning of the word.

Secondly, they feel compelled to witness, to share with others what has happened to them.  They hustle back to Jerusalem to tell the others of their encounter with the risen Christ, of how “he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The promise to us today is that the Risen Christ does come to us in the midst of our dashed hopes and shattered dreams.  The risen Christ comes to us in the Written Word, the Risen Christ comes to us in the Proclaimed Word, the Risen Christ comes to us in the Lived Word of worship and sacrament, the Risen Christ comes to in in our moments of hospitality and generosity with others, both friends and strangers.  The Risen Christ comes to us, and never leaves us alone.


Year A: The Second Sunday of Easter (April 27, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Peter — he who had so recently stumbled in his own faith — is now energized to speak boldly in the name of Christ. The Apostle gives us a bit of Hebrew scripture exegesis, quoting from the text of Psalm 16, another of the lections for this day.

David couldn’t have been speaking of himself, Peter reasons, since we know where he is buried and his tomb is not empty! But Jesus — well, that’s something completely different! You all saw the miracles Jesus himself performed while he was alive, didn’t you? Well, the greatest miracle of all was performed after he died…God raised him up, for it was “impossible” for death to hold him.

Gotta love that word “impossible.” We use it in all sorts of circumstances…winning an impossible victory, overcoming impossible odds, describing a sight that is impossible to comprehend. Easter is THE demonstration of the God Who Does the Impossible.

(Not sure of the Hebrew equivalent name here — a la Yahweh Yireh, “The Lord Who Will Provide” יְהוָה יִרְאֶה , as in Genesis 22:14 — so if somebody can figure it out, please post as a comment!)

Psalm 16
The early church came to interpret this psalm of David as “prophecy” regarding Christ (see above.) God did not give Jesus up to the grave.

Apart from this messianic interpretation, the psalm makes a number of powerful and important statements about the life of the faithful person, whose hope is in God as Refuge (v.1.)

  • God protects
  • God gives what is good
  • There is delight in the fellowship of the “holy ones”
  • God gives counsel (wisdom, discernment)
  • God gives a “heartsong” in the night
  • God shows the path of life
  • God’s presence brings joy and pleasure 

Verse 8 makes a great prayer for the week, something I often suggest to my congregation as they depart from worship: ” I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.”
1 Peter 1:3-9
Peter describes the “Thomas Dilemma” (see below) that all of us who were not alive and present at Jesus’ resurrection must overcome. “Although you have not seen him, you love him….” Hmmm, just how do we do that?

It is a bit of a sticky wicket when sharing our Easter faith, isn’t it? Often, we hear from those currently outside the faith, “But how do you know this story is true? You haven’t seen it with your own eyes, have you?”

Certainly true, that; we have not seen him, nor have we directly experienced anyof the events upon which we base our claims of faith. Our only real claim is for what we have received and believe, that which Peter names “the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

It’s a soul thing. And a faith thing. Always has been, always will be. Pretty strong stuff, really, when you think about it — 2,000 years, several billion believers and counting!

John 20:19-31
Ah, Thomas…”Doubting” Thomas, at that! I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t be more accurate to call him “Just Barely Missed the Boat” Thomas.

After all, his whole experience of the risen Lord wasn’t all that different from anyone else’s. The others didn’t believe at first, either. Thomas just wasn’t there when Jesus popped in through the walls (or however it was he made it through locked doors.)

“I’ll believe it when I see it for myself,” Thomas intones when confronted with the enthusiasm of his brothers and sisters. This is not doubt; this is reality. This is feet-firmly-planted, no-nonsense pragmatism. Thomas is just honest. Most likely, any of us would have said the same if we had been in his sandals.

The real story is not Thomas’ doubt or his pragmatism, though; it’s the presence of Jesus. When he does see Jesus a week later, all of the “let me put my hands in his side” bravado is gone. When in the presence of the Christ himself, it is enough for Thomas. Now, he is Thomas, the worshipper and servant.

“My Lord and my God!”

Thomas speaks our Easter response, does he not? What else can we really say?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Not too long ago I read an article in a minister’s magazine by the Rev. Paul Jones.  There he described the ticketing system for stagecoaches in the Old West.  Believe it or not, even in those tiny, tight, uncomfortable boxes on wheels – there was a class system.   Passengers bought one of three types of tickets.  During most of the journey there was no difference.  It was only when difficulties arose that the class system kicked in.

In case of a accident or a breakdown, first-class passengers could remain in their seats.  Those with second-class tickets were expected to get out of the coach and stand back out of the way.

Those with third-class tickets not only had to disembark – they also had to lend a hand with repairs, or with lifting the stagecoach out of whatever predicament it had gotten itself into.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus’ disciples, soon to be the Apostles, the “sent ones,”

learned what sort of tickets they had for their ride on the Kingdom of God express. Up until now they have had First or Second Class tickets; along for the ride, mostly just staying out of the way.  But on the evening of the first Easter, Jesus gave them their Third-class tickets; he made it clear to them that they had work to do in the Kingdom of God.

As they gathered in their hide-away room, the disciples were a disrupted, confused and fearful community. The events of the past week had overwhelmed them; their brains and their bodies were on emotional overload. The Bible says they were full of fear. The Greek word here is phobon, from which we get the English word phobia. A phobia is an irrational and unthinking fear – emotional terror. These people were afraid of their own shadows, they were seeing monsters in the closets and boogie bears under their beds.

Well, they were not exactly irrational and unthinking. Their world had been  turned upside down and inside out. They had left their families and their jobs, their lives and their livelihoods to follow this charismatic healer/preacher. And now this glorious revolution had come to a screeching halt, the wheels had come off the Kingdom of God parade, the movement had collapsed – all was in disarray.

If you want to know what they looked like, just think about the TV images of a favored team in the NCAA basketball tournament that loses. While the winners jump around and celebrate, the losers huddle on the bench, all their hopes and dreams smashed. They sit perfectly still, staring out in space. Or they hide their faces under towels, not wishing to weep on National TV.

The Gospel march had come to an inglorious, confusing, disarrayed halt. Their season was over, and the Jesus team was left fearful, confused, inept and clueless, groping for a way to make sense of it all. And Jesus, the Risen Christ, came into that locked room. He brought to them the things they needed to recover and go forward. He brought them a Third-Class ticket on the Kingdom of God express.

First – he gave them peace. Jesus came to them in the midst of their fear and the first words out of his mouth are “Peace be with you.” This greeting is very important and he repeated it three times. The Biblical words here are  “shalom” and eirene.”  They mean“completeness, welfare, health” a state in which everything is as it should be” and “harmonized relationships between God and (humanity).”

Jesus comes into the midst of these most “un-harmonic” and incomplete folks, and gives them the gift of being at peace with themselves and the world. This peace is a most mysterious thing, for it is not tied to nor dependent upon external circumstances; it is not linked to how well you’re doing in your job or how well you’re getting along with your family or how much money you have in your savings account or how well your retirement fund is doing in the stock market. It is a peace that descends upon their hearts and spirits as a gift from God.

After Jesus comforted the disciples, after he calmed their fears with his peace, Jesus gave them their Third-class ticket – “As the father has sent me, even so I send you.”  Jesus came to this disheartened and directionless group and gave them a reason for living. He defined for them a purpose, laid out for them their future; put in front of them their mission. When Jesus showed them his wounds, it was not just a way of identifying himself, not just a way of proving to them that it was really him. No! In showing them his wounds, his scars, Jesus also them who they were, and what they were to do.

Suddenly, things he said begin to make sense. Things like “take up your cross,” and “losing one’s life for the Gospel,” things that seemed so peculiar when he said them, begin to shout out their meaning as the disciples stare at his wounds. “Now I get it,” they think. “Now I understand. We are called to serve the world, to live for the world, to die for the world if necessary, because that’s what Jesus did.”

This is what Luther meant when, in his list of the seven marks of the church, (The Word, Baptism, Communion, Forgiveness, Ministry, Worship, The Cross,) he said the last one, the Cross, was the most important.  This mark of the church is like the marks in Jesus’ hands and sides; it is signs of the church’s willingness to suffer with and for the world.  Our embrace of the cross on behalf of others is our Third-class ticket on the Gospel line.

Finally, Jesus he gave them the best gift of all. He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.” God provides what is needed to fulfill God’s purposes. That is not the same thing as saying God gives us power.  God works through our sometimes feeble efforts to accomplish God’s will in the world.  This is shown to us in Christ on the Cross, which was not an exercise of power, but a demonstration of humility and obedience and faith. God’s promise is to fill us with the Holy Spirit, to provide for us that which we need to do what we are called to do.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Resurrection of the Lord (Easter Sunday — April 20, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

(Reprinted with permission from The Lectionary Lab Commentary: Stories and Sermons for Year A)

Acts 10:34-43
Love Wins, the recent book by evangelical pastor Rob Bell, has climbed as high as #2 on the New York Times bestsellers list and is currently #8 in the “All Books” rankings on It has also raised the hackles and the blood pressures of countless detractors and supporters as the (perhaps uniquely “modern”?) debate over eternal destiny and the “will of God” has heated up.

What does Peter say in his post-Easter message, referring back to the mighty events of that first resurrection Sunday?

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality,but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him…. God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…they put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

What does it mean to believe on Easter?

Show up for church in a shiny new outfit? Cling to faith like a well-worn security blanket? Hope, desperately and against all odds, that it will all work out okay in the end, God willing? Pray a “sinner’s prayer” someone told you about?

As one of the pastors of my youth used to say: “Whatever blows your hair back!”

Peter also says, “We were witnesses…how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed… for God was with him.” Hmmm, maybe the example of the Christ himself is what we take away from what it means to “believe” on Easter!

Jeremiah 31:1-6
Thank you, Jeremiah, for recording these eternally passionate and significant words: Thus saith the Lord, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
It is a virtual certainty that Jesus, as a Jewish rabbi, knew this “hallel” psalm very well and, most likely, used it in personal and corporate worship. It takes on extra significance on this Resurrection Sunday with phrases like, “I shall not die, but I shall live…” and “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.” ( vv. 17, 21)

It is worth noting that the Christ’s foundation for faith and trust in God is the same as ours, in v. 1: “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!”

Colossians 3:1-4
One of the great rhetorical scenarios of the scripture occurs here — “if you have been raised with Christ.”

Well, people of the resurrection…have we, indeed, been raised with Christ? Then our manner of thinking and living has been set and settled! “Seek…set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

John 20:1-18
Lots of sermons and commentary available on this text…and with good reason! What a beautiful, tender, compassionate encounter with Jesus; feel your own heart rend with the words, “Woman, why are you crying?”

Easter tends to be a bright, blaring, almost boisterous celebration in most of our churches…again, with good reason! But remember that there will be parishioners in our pews who have come, — amidst the egg hunts, wardrobe parades and homiletical fireworks you are sure to unleash — with tears on their cheeks and heaviness in their hearts.

Jesus longs comfortingly to speak their names, too.

Matthew 28:1-10
Here’s the “fireworks” version of the story (see commentary on John 20, above.)

Earthquakes…lightning…rolling gravestones…shaking and quaking…”dead men” walking and angelic visitors. Matthew’s dramatic telling has it all!

But this story is not ultimately about Hollywood-quality special effects — it is about worshiping at the feet of Jesus and hearing his firm assurance, “Don’t be afraid!”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

About fifteen years ago I attended a funeral in Nashville.  It was for the sister of a parishioner who was also an acquaintance of mine.  It was a lovely and unique service, because this particular United Methodist Church was a lovely and unique congregation.

As I sat there listening to the prayers and the sermons and the family eulogies I thought to myself that Holy Saturday was a perfect day for a funeral.  Just as the church sits uneasily poised between Jesus’ death on Good Friday and the joyous news of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning – these family and friends sat in church that day, precariously balanced between the facts of her life and the hope of her resurrection.

The service was a little long by Lutheran standards and the room was a little warm, and some of the eulogizers took a little while to get to the point, and my folding chair was a little hard, and well, I started to get a little sleepy and distracted.

Anyway, I shifted my weight and stretched my neck and when I did I spotted something: up to the right, high up on the wall, almost to the ceiling, was a big, black, square speaker, tilted out from the wall.  And there was something red squeezed in behind the speaker, wedged in between it and the wall.  I stared at it for a while until I finally figured out what it was – a big, red, heart-shaped balloon. No doubt it had drifted up there during some congregational event and no one had been clever enough or brave enough or industrious enough to get it down.

Those familiar with Roman Catholic piety will easily figure out what popped into my mind: The Sacred Heart of Jesus.  It was a strangely comforting thought for a protestant minister, the love of Jesus peeking down at us, half-hidden behind that speaker.

As we gathered and shared very human thoughts and feelings about life and death and grief and hope; that red, heart-shaped balloon helped me remember that God was there too; mostly hidden, lurking in the background, looking in on us with love.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that that little balloon behind the speaker was a metaphor for the life of faith we live each day.  We are here this Easter Sunday to celebrate an unusual thing – an empty tomb. We are not here because of what the women and the disciples did find on that first Easter morning.  We are here because of what they did not find.  They did not find the body of Jesus.

Martin Luther frequently talked about what he called Deus absconditus, “the hidden God.” He said that all of us try very hard to find God in the world, but God plays a game of peek-a-boo, of keep-away, of hide-and-seek, with us.  We look for God in happiness, or success, or in healing power, or in financial security, or in material bounty.  And then our health fails, or we lose our possessions, or we become depressed or unhappy and we cry out like Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” We wonder, sometimes to ourselves in the middle of the night, or out-loud with our friends and loved ones; “What did I do to deserve this?  Where is God in my misery?”

And it is at this very point that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection; the awful cross and empty tomb, begin to speak to us and reveal to us the hidden God who saves.

God is hidden from us, and will be until we are able to let go of all else and place our trust in the love and power that emptied the tomb.  When we have turned that corner we will begin to see signs of the risen Christ all around us.  Not in wealth, or power, or even human happiness; not in success in the world or applause from the world.

No, we will begin to see the signs of God in the risen body of Christ in the world, in the community of saints and sinners gathered around word of love and sacrament of hope.  We will see God in the unconditional love that parents have for children and which the rest of us try to have for each other.  We will see God in the selfless sacrifice of friends who come to our aid in times of desperate need.

We will see God in the lives of saints like Desmond Tutu and Teresa of Calcutta and in the lives of saints like you and like me; we whose sinful humanity often hides the risen Christ who now lives within us.  We can and will see God in the saints behind us, and before us and beside us.

We will see God in the little miracles that fill all our days, like red balloons at funerals that shout out to the heavens, Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed!

Amen and amen.

Year A: Maundy Thursday/Good Friday

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

At a preaching seminar a few years ago I heard Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie, former chaplain to the US Senate and longtime pastor of First Presbyterian in Hollywood, CA. tell about a time he was in a jewelry store in LA, picking up a new watch battery.

While he was there a young woman came in and asked to see some crosses. The clerk took her to a display case and proceeded to show her a selection of large, expensive crosses;  like the fashion accessory crosses worn by hot actresses and hip rap stars. The young woman said, Oh, I don’t want anything like that. I want an everyday cross.

AN EVERYDAY CROSS, she said. And when Dr. Ogilvie told that story, I began to wonder, “What is an everyday cross?” And more importantly, I thought, “Does she, do I, do any of us, really want one?”

All of us want, I suppose, the Cross of Christ in our lives. We want the salvation that Cross promises, we want to know that our sins are forgiven, our failures are forgotten, our souls rescued from the pit of Hell by Jesus’ death there on that awful instrument of torture and execution. That Cross and its benefits we know we want in our lives.

But what about an everyday cross? What about a cross that is uniquely ours? A cross that we pick up in obedience to our Lord’s invitation to take up a cross and follow Him? Is that a cross we want?

I remember a time back in the sixties, back in the days before cable TV and state lottery, back when we were all more easily entertained, they had the Super Market Races on TV. They were sponsored by a supermarket chain and worked something like this: they showed taped races from New York and California horse tracks and the stores ran specials and gave out prizes depending on which horse won. My late father-in-law used to tell a joke about two farms boys (we’ll call them Bill and Jack)watching the Supermarket race after supper one night. Bill said, “I bet you $5 horse #3 wins.” And Jack said, “You’re on!” Sure enough, #3 won. Bill grinned and said, “Aw, I can’t take your money. I saw it last night on the other channel and knew #3 won.” Jack replied, “Go ahead and take it. I saw it too, but I didn’t think he could do it again.”

Those of us here today, hearing again the story of Jesus’ crucifixion are like those two farm boys; we have already heard this story and we know how it comes out, we already know about the Resurrection, we already know who wins. And the issue of FAITH comes down to this, either we believe he can do it again, or we don’t!

You see, it is one thing to sit in a lovely, awe-inspiring naves and sanctuaries and look back at the Cross of Christ as an historic event, over and done with; and to profess our faith that Jesus died there  and three days later rose again.

It is quite another thing to hang on the other side of the cross, to hang where the Cross is still a present event, and to profess faith in Jesus. That is where the question of whether or not we truly want an everyday cross is a real question.

That is where the two thieves are, hanging with Jesus on the other side of the cross, where the end of the story is still in doubt. We are mistaken if we see the Cross of Christ as a past event, over and done.  Each of us, in one way or another, hangs upon a cross with Christ.

It may be a personal cross, a cross of suffering and illness, or a cross of shame and embarrassment, or a cross of loss and confusion, or a cross of fear and frustration. It may be a cultural cross, a cross of rejection and alienation, a cross of being an outsider in an insider’s world, of being the wrong gender or color or nationality or orientation.

It may be a cross of caring, a cross of being aware of the suffering and pain of others, of being concerned for those who are poor or oppressed or hungry or unjustly imprisoned.

Whatever it is, somehow, someway, each of us hangs there on our everyday cross with Jesus, and the question of faith is: We have seen this race before. We know God brought Jesus forth from the grave; do we really and truly believe God can and will DO IT AGAIN?

That is the essence of faith; that is truly what Martin Luther meant when he said that a true Christian theology is a Theology of the Cross. Do we indeed believe that there is Hope in our hardship, Salvation in our suffering, Redemption in our rejection,  Everlasting life in OUR everyday cross?

Can we look from our cross to the Cross of Christ and cry out from the bottom of our hearts:



Year A: Palm/Passion Sunday (April 13, 2014

Click here for the Liturgy of the Palms
Click here for the Liturgy of the Passion

Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Liturgy of the Passion
(as featured in The Lectionary Lab Commentary: Stories and Sermons for Year A available on

Isaiah 50:4-9a
As we enter Holy Week and reflect on the suffering of the Lord, vv. 7-8 perhaps give us a glance at the source of Christ’s determination and strength in the face of scorn and abuse. “The Lord God helps me…I know I shall not be put to shame…he who vindicates me is near.”

Good words with which to pray for these, or any days.

Psalm 31:9-16
In a similar vein, the first half of the psalm reading reminds us vividly of the separation and sorrow experienced by the Lord; this is one of the places we point to when we hold forth the claim that Christ experienced the full depth of what it means to be human. Life is filled with pain!

However, the closing sentences once again point to a different and deeper reality in the midst of the pain — “I trust in you, O Lord…let you face shine upon your servant. Save me in your steadfast love.”

Like Christ as he prepared to face the cross, unless God saves us, we are lost!

Philippians 2:5-11
The ancient “Christ Hymn” lays out for us the cycle of submission, suffering, salvation and exaltation that Jesus has undergone “for us.” Remember, though, that this is not just the work of the Savior: we are invited to have “the same mind” that was in Christ Jesus. 

God’s work in the world — which requires these same qualities of submission and suffering in order to see these same results of salvation and exaltation — is OUR work.

In what ways is God calling us to submit and to suffer?

Matthew 26:14-27:66
The lengthy (and weighty) reading of Matthew’s text hardly needs commentary; the story speaks for itself, as it were. One thought that occurs to me is that we often peg Judas Iscariot for “selling out” in his betrayal of Christ. “How could he do that for 30 pieces of silver?” we often ask.

But, Judas is not the only one who “sells out” in this story: Peter, who boldly promises what no disciple had ever promised before (“I’ll die for you!”) sells out and denies Christ three times; James and John “sell out”– they can’t even pay the price of a little lost sleep!

The high priest and the Jewish council “sell out;” when they can’t find any real evidence against Jesus, they just rent some testimony. Pilate “sells out” when he tries to dodge his decision by releasing Barabbas; the “angry crowds” sold out by first screaming for Christ’s crucifixion and then by deriding him and shaking their heads.

The brave Roman soldiers even “sold out” in their job performance, bringing the whole cohort* (probably 500-600 men) in to observe the brutal beating of this single, solitary “criminal.”

Only a couple of characters manage to stand up for Jesus in this story: Simon of Cyrene, who may or may not have had a choice, but nevertheless bears the cross of Jesus; and a Roman centurion who is the only person in the story who seems to “get it.” His commentary stands in stark contrast to the rest of the scene: “This man was God’s son!”

Bottom line: there’s plenty of blame to go around here — it’s not all on Judas. We might want to consider that as we gather with the crowds in our own lives this week. Will we “sell out” or will we “stand up?”

Liturgy of the Palms

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Psalm 118 gives the background of the “festal procession” (v. 27) witnessed in the gospel account of the Palm Sunday parade.

Matthew 21:1-11
There is perhaps no greater irony in all of the Bible than the crowds gathered on Sunday, shouting “Hosanna!” and assembling again on Friday, screaming “Crucify him!”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In today’s Gospel readings; the first telling us of Jesus  of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the second vividly portraying his trial and crucifixion; we have a laid out before us what Martin Luther and other Reformers identified as the two theologies which have competed  for our allegiance down through the ages.

One is the Theology of Glory – which  looks for God in the good, the beautiful, the strong and the powerful.

The other is the Theology of the Cross- which  looks for God in exactly those places where we feel God’s absence: in pain, in humiliation, in suffering, in weakness and foolishness and death.

A Theology of Glory is concerned with health and happiness and prosperity.  A Theology of Glory centers on what God can do for us; how being a person of faith can make us more popular and powerful and successful.  At the time of the Reformation, it was centered on the penance and relic system.

Today it spreads out across the “spiritual but not religious” folk who swear that breathing right and arranging your furniture correctly unleashes your power;  it moves through the Babylonian captivity of the Mainline Churches in the Land of Pseudo- Social-Science gurus who will tell us everything from how to raise money to how to get more members using the results of the latest research and business techniques,  and on to the evangelical cult who find their wisdom in the land of Christian Bookstores filled with books like “The Purpose Driven Life,” or “How to Unlock the Bible’s Wealth and Prosperity Principles.”  A  Theology of Glory is all about power and control and winning and living large.

A Theology of the Cross is concerned with God, with who God is, and with what God wills and with what God has done for us on the Cross and with what God calls us to do in response. A Theology of the Cross is concerned with what looks like failure, with what appears to be disaster, with what seems to be the utter and complete absence of God in our more desperate and trying moments.

A Theology of Glory centers on some formulation that makes the difficulties of our lives okay, makes everything all right, that somehow turns the evil and hurt we experience into a moral good, in the long run, in the overall scheme of things. A Theology of Glory has to have God, and us, in control and good always winning.

A Theology of the Cross makes no attempt to either justify of condemn, to either find God’s hand or lament God’s absence.  A Theology of theCross points and weeps and realizes that we humans are of so very much in the need of the grace of God. A Theology of the Cross brings us to the stark realization of our own mortality and imperfectability, or our need for rescue from outside ourselves.  A Theology of the Cross calls a thing what it is, Luther said;  death is death, Sin is sin, horror is horror, suffering is suffering.  There is no window dressing that can make them anything else. And yet, and yet, it is in the stark, cold cross that we are saved.

In our text from Philippians, we see Jesus modeling for us that which we are called to do – for salvation is not just about the Cross of Christ; it is also about the Cross of Delmer and the Cross of Jane and the Cross of John  and the Cross of  . . . .  put your  name in that blank.

Jesus showed us the way.  We have been called to follow him on that way.  For Jesus, that meant giving up whatever glory he had – and he had it all:  Glory, power, wisdom, you name, he had it and he let it go.

The word translated into the phrase “exploited” – means “clung to,”  “held on to,” “clutched at.”  Jesus had everything and instead of clinging desperately to it, he opened his hands and his life and let it go.

Many of us spend our lives striving and self-improving and working and networking and dieting and working and investing and saving to get what Jesus had and let go. The “Spiritual but not religious” folk who encourage us to seek the holy within, to get in touch with our inner divinity, to ascend to the level of our own holiness; have gotten it backwards. “Equality with God” is not a thing to be sought, but a thing to be let go.

Jesus went further, not only did he give up all the power in the universe; he completely emptied himself of it, got rid of it, purged it, flushed it, threw it away, Jesus then became as we are, and then went further than most of us are willing to go; he became a servant to others, a slave.

In completely humbling himself – he went from being everything to being nothing.  From being in charge of the universe he went to being in control of nothing; from being the agent of creation he went to being de-created by dying upon a cross. And there, there dying on the cross as the ultimate servant of humanity is where we will find God – or rather where God finds us.

For it in in our own crosses that we find ourselves driven to Christ for salvation – it is when we stop chasing after whatever it is we think will justify our existence – it is when we release ourselves from the relentless pursuit of success and happiness that we take as every American’s birthright – it is when we open our hands and let loose of that knot in the end of our existential rope – that God can begin to come to us.

When we let ourselves become more human and then more fallible and then more frail – when we move beyond just being ordinary into an intense awareness of our sinfulness – when we begin to die with Christ – then we begin to become converted.

For to be a Christian is to die and rise with Christ – there is nothing that can save us but the cross – there is no place we can turn for help but to the cross – there is no way to God but the way of the Cross.

But we must not just sit back and passively accept the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross.  That is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” God’s grace is free, but it is not cheap. We must imitate Christ in dying to the old self.

Christ’s act of saving us began in the incarnation – the letting go of heaven and the embracing of being human,  including the human fate of suffering and death. This is dying we are talking about.  It is not easy.  It is painful and arduous and time-consuming.   Once we have turned our faces to follow the way of the cross, we discover each day new things about ourselves that need to die in order that a new Christlikeness can be born within us.

To be saved is to follow Christ to the Cross, knowing that the old person you have been must dieand not knowing if you will survive, but knowing only that you cannot go on as you are.  To be saved is to give up on your “self” and place everything in the hands of God.

Upon the Cross – Jesus said both, “Into your hands I commend my spirit!”  and, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To go to the Cross is to go to one’s spiritual death because one must, without sure knowledge of what comes after.

It is in that moment when we despair of saving ourselves that God can save us.

We are called to the Cross.

We are called to die to who we think we are.

We are called to cease our endless rounds of striving.

We are called to conversion.

We are called to death.

We are called to life.

We are called to Christ.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fifth Sunday in Lent (April 6, 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

Ezekiel 37:1-14
The rich texts selected for this Sunday invoke a number of themes: life and death, hope and despair, help and abandonment, etc. You almost have to choose one set of ideas and use them as a lens through which to read the texts. One such theme, or lens, that strikes me is the places that God meets us in order to do, or accomplish, God’s work.

In Ezekiel, the very bone-chilling (pun alert!) and unlikely scene is a valley of “very dry” bones. The “very dry” is important, because the author wishes to remove all doubt as to the presence of life in this desolate place. There absolutely is none. Not only is there no life, there is — symbolically speaking — no hope for the intended audience of Ezekiel’s message.

The nation of Israel has just been ransacked; the Temple in Jerusalem lies in ruins. The faithful have by and large been carried away to Babylonia in a captivity that will ensure no return to the Jewish homeland for a majority of the people who experienced it. It’s just not a good time!

And, yet…in the midst of this pile of bones, this barricade of desolation, God promises to breathe new life into God’s people. It is an audacious claim and is certainly a vivid vision. The bones rise up, receive new bodies, and are enlivened not only by the breath of life but by the Spirit of God. Hope remains alive in the midst of the most hopeless of scenarios.

Is this vision “true to life,” as you have experienced it? What are the kinds of places that God shows up? If you have been in a place where your own bones felt “very dry” and you have not received the breath of new life, is there anything in this passage that gives you hope (or at least a reasonable expectation of help) for the future?

Psalm 130
The psalm text starts in the pit — and moves from there.

Notice that, again, we have a speaker for God expressing hope for God’s help while waiting in a difficult situation. Are you beginning to sense a theme, here?

Verse 6 is evocative, especially for anyone who has ever experienced waiting up all night, praying that the morning light would come and that “things will look better tomorrow.” There is certainly a ring of truth to that. The psalmist says that waiting for God’s redemption while in a deep, dark place is like that.

Ever been in a pit, waiting for some help from God (or anyone else, for that matter?) What did it feel like when help finally came? Why is it that we associate help from God most often with the low places in our lives??

Romans 8:6-11
Paul writes about another contrast of places that God does God’s work: the flesh and the spirit. I don’t think the point here is so much that God wants NOTHING to do with the flesh, and EVERYTHING to do with the spirit. After all, scripture teaches us that God created our flesh and called it, “good.”

Rather, I think Paul wants us to understand that flesh is, by its very nature, limited — especially when we forget that it is God’s spirit — the same word is translated as “breath” — that God placed into each of us. The spirit and the flesh are designed for co-existence. The spirit needs the body in order to “flesh out” God’s will for our lives. And the body certainly needs the spirit in order to receive the guidance and sense of the mind of God.

A person can become so overbalanced in the “spiritual” direction that they fit the stereotype of “so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.” So, balance, folks…balance is what we need!

What kinds of things help to keep you in balance in your physical and spiritual life? Are there any warning signs that you should pay attention to in either (or both) of these areas?

John 11:1-45
Dr. Chilton treats this story well and extensively in his sermon (below.) The story is provocative on several levels.

  • Why does Jesus decide to stay for two more days after he learns that Lazarus is ill? Just how exactly was God to be “glorified” in Lazarus’ death and resuscitation?
  • Is Thomas really the doubting disciple that many assume him to be? In what ways is his statement in v.16 a “profession of faith?”
  • Jesus asks both Martha and Mary if they believe in him, if they trust him to do what is best. In what way is this a story about belief…and how hard it is to hold on to sometimes?
  • How hard was this experience for Lazarus? We don’t get much of his perspective, but coming back through the portal from death into life certainly demanded a level of belief and trust in what Jesus was doing that is unparalleled by any other experience expounded in the scripture. We may blithely assume that being made “alive again” in the way Lazarus was in this story is a good thing — but, then again, maybe not. Once on the “other side,” would any of us really like to come back into this life of sin, sickness, hurt …not to mention decaying bodies?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My grandfather had a very sly wit, one that snuck up on you.  He used to tell a story about a man who died.  They had the funeral at his home, with the preachers and immediate family on the porch, mourners standing in the yard and an open coffin in the back of a mule-drawn wagon.  After several sermons and much weeping and gnashing of teeth, the widow climbed onto the wagon seat next to the undertaker who drove the wagon up the hill to the family cemetery. The road went underneath the limbs of a very large oak tree and the wagon bumped heavily on an exposed root.  At that moment, the “deceased,” snorted and coughed and sat up in the casket – not dead but alive, having been in a deep coma, apparently.   Some years later, the man died again.  His funeral played out exactly like the previous one. As the wagon neared the oak tree, the widow leaned over and whispered to the driver, “Why don’t you go wide around the tree this time?”

Every time I read the story of the raising of Lazarus, I think of Grandpa’s little tale.  In particular, I think about two things – 1) in both stories there was someone (or some ones) who would have preferred that the corpse stay dead, and 2) it always makes me wonder how the deceased felt about coming back to life.

Some of the people were not happy that Jesus had brought Lazarus back to life. There is a hint of their discomfort in verse 37, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  Things get really heated in the aftermath – in the verses following our reading.  There the writer contrasts those who believe with others who “went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.” What follows in verses 47-50 is a scene of cold, political calculation. They cared nothing for the fact that Lazarus had a new lease on life, that he had been restored to the arms of his loving family and friends.  No.  All they cared about was that a person like Jesus would upset the political and social balance of power, might upset and frighten the Romans and, in the process, threaten the elites own positions of wealth and influence.  So they decided, “Better for him to die than all of us,” and the wheels were set in motion for the death of Christ.

Does Jesus frighten you?  More importantly, does the gospel of Jesus Christ threaten to upset your life?  If it doesn’t, you haven’t been paying attention – either to the Gospel or to your life.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when Christ calls us, he bids us to come and die.  That is meant both figuratively and, ultimately, literally.  We are called each day to die to selfishness and privilege. We are called to regularly examine our lives and let go of all the many ways we resist Christ by holding on to our dignity and our precious individuality.   Christ calls us to drop those things so that our hands will we free to pick up our cross of servanthood and our lives will be free to follow Christ in a life devoted to serving others.  If that does not frighten us and threaten our sense of security and our plans for a safe and leisurely retirement – then we have failed to understand the nature of what it means to be a Christian.  If we’re honest, most of us would rather drive the wagon of our life in a wide loop around that particular tree.

Which leads me to my thought about how the deceased may have felt about being recalled.  I don’t know what Lazurus’ life was like before he took sick and died; but from the fact that Jesus loved him (vs.3) and his sisters grieved him so, and the whole community turned out to mourn with them, he must have been quite a guy, with a pretty good life. So, though we don’t know much about what happens after death, given the fact that Lazurus appears to have been a righteous person and considering all the stories of the tunnel of light and the warm, loving presence who receives you that we’ve all heard – I just imagine Lazarus settling in to eternity quite happily.

And then he gets the call, “Lazarus, come out!” and there’s a whoosh, and a movement faster than the speed of light and then, instead of being in warmth and light and love, Lazarus finds himself back in a cold, dark tomb, bound head to foot in burial cloths and about to gag on the stink of his own rotting flesh.   I don’t know about him, but I’m thinking that  if it had been me, I would not have been happy about this.  And, eventually, he will hear the story about how his good friend Jesus, who loved him, let him die and rot in the grave, so that Jesus could demonstrate his divine Son of God healing skills.  After all – isn’t that what Jesus said and did?  “What kind of Messiah is that” Lazarus thinks, “who will let you die so he can show off?”

How often have we found ourselves wondering what God is doing in our lives?  We love God, we trust God.  We love Jesus, we trust Jesus.  But sometimes one has to wonder.  And the reality is, as it says in Ezekiel, the wind, the breath of God, the spirit of God, blows where it will when it will and we are never totally sure when and where that will happen; or where that wind might blow us and what it might do to us and through us.  Just as God used Lazarus to show forth Jesus as the Son of God, full of God’s power and glory and love; God uses us in the same way – and often times we are no more aware of what we’re doing and no more responsible for its success than a corpse in a tomb.  God acts in and through us just as God acted in and through Lazarus.

We are bid this day to die and live with Christ.  We are called to come out of the dark tomb of our fear and hesitation; we are commanded to unbind ourselves from the limitations imposed by our desire for stability and success.  Dying to self and embracing God’s future, we are invited to step out with Jesus and Lazarus and all the saints into the grand adventure that is life after death, an adventure that that begins now and continues through the grave into eternity.

Amen and amen.