Year A: The Seventh Sunday of Easter (June 1, 2014)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for The Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 1:6-14
So many things happening in this brief passage…so many possible directions for a sermon!

It was just a couple of years ago that much of America (and at least portions of the rest of the world) was watching to see what would happen on the so-called date of “the Rapture” — an apocalyptic prediction by self-appointed prophet Harold Camping that just didn’t quite materialize. (refresh you memory here)

A reminder of Jesus’ words here in vv. 6-7 could have provided a little balance to the harebrained mania that infected too many well-meaning people. 

The main point is never looking somewhere else for what it is we’re supposed to be doing as Christ’s followers — we have our “marching orders” already! To summarize the words of Jesus and the angels from Ascension Day:

  • The Holy Spirit will come
  • You’ll be witnesses
  • Don’t stand around cloud-gazing     (technically, practicing nephylococcygia)

There you have it! As you read back through this passage, can you name at least one action that we — as the church today — are to be undertaking?

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
Among the many “titles” given to God in the Psalms, here we have one apropos for the theme of the Ascension: “The One Who Rides Upon the Clouds.” 

All I can say about that is, “Cool!”

What do you think it means to pray and ask God to, “rise up?” What are some of the ways you can identify that God has “provided for the needy?”

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
The fact that Jesus was coming again was a very present hope, evidently, for the early church. They were hanging on –sometimes by the skin of their teeth– trusting that trouble would last only for a little while and that Jesus would make it all go away when he came back.

We may think them naive, and we may well scoff at the “rapture nuts” like Mr. Camping (see post above) who are dead-set sure they know the day and hour. But, the undeniable testimony of scripture is that there is coming a day when God will, indeed, bring this age to a close and will make everything new. Some day, it will be “the day.” 

Peter gives his followers a couple of key admonitions about how to live in the meantime, however long that turns out to be. They’re good words for us –

  1. Humble yourselves under God’s hand; God will exalt you in due time
  2. Cast your anxious cares on God; God cares for you
  3. Discipline yourselves, stay alert; evil can (and will) pounce on you and drag you down before you even know what’s happening
  4. Resist…you do have a choice, you know!

I did a little “Googling” to see what was out there in terms of information on lions attacking their prey — there are certainly some pretty disturbing images if you want to check them out. However, I did find this brief video which illustrates very well that it IS possible to resist. In other words, even the lion doesn’t always win!

Lion and Prey video here

Thoughts? Reactions? Ideas?

John 17:1-11
Oh, how long until we can live into the prayer that Jesus prayed for us as he prepared to leave the world? A good question for preacher and parishioners hearing the gospel this week: what will you do to move a little closer to being “one” with another person or group who understands God differently than you do?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Thursday was the Ascension of Our Lord, an event described in our first lesson from Acts.  Today is the bridge between Easter and Pentecost, the end of the story of the earthly ministry of Jesus and a prelude to the coming of the Holy Spirit and the growth of the church. It is day to ask ourselves two very important questions:

1) Why did Christ come?

2) Now that Christ has gone, what are we to do?

To get at the first question of why Christ came, listen for a moment to the last paragraph of Dennis Covington’s “Salvation on Sand Mountain,” which is partly a story of snake-handing churches and more importantly, a memoir of growing up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s:

“Most of the children in my neighborhood are called home for suppers by their mothers.  They open the backdoors; wipe their hands on their aprons and yell, “Willie!” or “Joe!” or “Ray!”  Either that or they use a bell, bolted to the doorframe and loud enough to start the dogs barking in backyards all along the street.  But I was always called home by my father, and he didn’t do it in the customary way.  He walked down the alley all the way to the lake.  If I was close, I could hear his shoes on the gravel before he came into sight.  If I was far, I would see him across the surface of the water, emerging out of shadows and into the gray light.  He would stand with his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker while he looked for me.  This is how he got me to come home.  He always came to the place where I was before he called my name.” (Dennis Covington, SALVATION ON SAND MOUNTAIN, 1995)

“He always came to the place where I was before he called my name.”

God (in Christ) came to the place where we were before God called our name.  That is the why of Jesus life on earth, he came to call us.  1 Peter 5:10 says,  “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ. “  The God of all grace has called each of us, and came to where we were to do it.  No loud shouts out the backdoor of heaven, no clanging bells echoing across the water; God came in the humble form of a human being, gently speaking our name to us and calling us home to heaven. As the first two verses of the book of Hebrews says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days (God) has spoken to us by a Son.” (Hebrews1:1-2a)

That’s the basic answer to the first question, why did Christ come.  Everything Jesus did – his teaching, his preaching, his healings, his interactions with common folk and religious authorities and political powers, his suffering and death, his resurrection and ascension – all were a part of God calling to us, reaching out to us with love. But that answer leads to our second question: Now that Christ is gone, what are we to do?  Why have we been called?

My friend Mark Scott is, like me, the Lutheran pastor of an Episcopal congregation.  His is in Chapin, SC.  One day recently on his way home from the church he saw a sign outside a church run thrift shop:  JESUS LOVES YOU.  DONATIONS ACCEPTED.  That’s a good answer to the question of why we have been called.

Acts 1:8 says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

God in Christ came to us in the life of Jesus to call us home, to let us know that we are loved beyond any measure we can imagine.  There is nothing we have to do; indeed there is nothing we can do, to earn that love. It is ours.  Like the sign says, “Jesus Loves You.” No conditions on that whatsoever.

But our donations to the cause will be joyfully accepted.  We have been called to be loved, and to be witness, to tall others about that love.  We here at the episcopal Church of the Messiah are called to witness to that love in Murphy, and in Cherokee County, and in the state of North Carolina, why even in Georgia and throughout the United States, and yes, into the whole world.  Just as there are no limits to God’s love, there are no limits to our opportunities to share that love with others

My young friend of mine had a baby 17 months ago.  He has had a tough go of it lately, including heart surgery.  Recently his mother shared that for every night of his 17 months on earth he has been put to bed by his parents with these words, “You are a beloved child of God.” Recently he responded with his first words, saying somewhat quizzically, “child of God?”

Our call is to go out into the world, out where God’s people are, and call out to them using the most important name they will ever hear, reminding them that they are all a “beloved child of God.”

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 25, 2014)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for The Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 17:22-31
The old saying goes: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” (Not sure who actually said that first.)

Paul’s comment at the Aeropagus actually fits quite well in contemporary society — “I see you are religious in every way.” We religiously head to the gym, we religiously support our favorite teams, we religiously hang out at our favorite restaurants where many of us religiously order pretty much the same thing each time we’re there.

We have lots of religious items on the spiritual menu, as well. Some say that all religions and spiritual traditions lead to the same place. Not so sure the Apostle agrees with that. It is his contention that “God…has fixed a day on which [God] will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom [God] has appointed…by raising him from the dead.”

What evidence of religious activity do you see around you? Are there “religious” — or, perhaps “spiritual” — points of contact with people that you can use to engage in conversation as Paul did?

Psalm 66:8-20
It’s a good thing that God has not rejected our prayers, nor has God removed God’s everlasting love from our lives. Even when we get testy or whiny about the nets that ensnare us or the burdens laid on our backs.

The “fire and water” language in the psalm echoes the promise given through the prophet: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2, NIV)

What prayers have you prayed that you feel confident God has heard? Do you ever feel that there are nets and snares laid for you as you navigate your way through life?

1 Peter 3:13-22
When I read these verses as a teenager, I was intrigued by the King James language that exhorted us to “be instant, in season and out.” For some reason, I could never get the image of a Lipton Cup of Soup out of my head — ready, warmed up, and available at a moment’s notice.

How do I keep my faith ready, warmed up, and available for sharing at a moment’s notice? “Always be ready…” the NRSV proffers.

Another of the features of my evangelical upbringing was learning that I could be “certain” about the tenets of the faith — this was touted as the reason I could always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who might “need Jesus.”

I don’t suppose we ever got around to reading v.16 that much. Gentleness and reverence — especially for another person’s faith perspective — were not generally on the list of attributes of a faithful witness, as I was taught it.

Thank God for patience — on the part of God who gently lets us mature in our faith, and from the many friends and strangers (and parishioners) who have put up with my feeble attempts at explaining the hope I have within me because of Christ.

How do you “stay ready” to share in the faith of Christ?

John 14:15-21
Love for Jesus translates into obedience to the things that Jesus has asked us to do. We do the same for those that we love in our earthly relationships, and rightly so. There are those persons that I love so much and so truly that, literally, I would do anything within my power to accomplish anything they asked me to do.

A preacher friend of mine was wont to use the line: “The answer is, ‘Yes, Lord;’ now, what’s the question?” I like that.

Is “obeying Jesus” a burden or a blessing? Where do you think that true obedience comes from?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Grumpy 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer drew a very stark portrait of the fate of the human race.  He compared us to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night.  He said, “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt each other with our quills.  And in the lonely night of the Earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness.” (cited by Wayne Brauner, Leadership Journal, Vol. 17, No.2)

What a powerfully sad image.  And the saddest thing about it is that all too often it is all too true.  We draw together for comfort; we prick each other, and then we pull away into loneliness.  In everything from international politics to backyard bickering; over and over again we see this sad scenario come true.

Almost half of all marriages end in divorce, friendships fail or fade away, churches fight and split, neighbors squabble, local government is awash in a sea of contentious contrariness, the federal government can’t stop name-calling and finger-pointing long enough to actually run the country.  Indeed, we draw together for comfort, we prick each other, and then we pull away into loneliness.

Sometimes this feels like an inevitable and incurable state of affairs.  We seemed to be doomed to a recurring cycle of false hope, shattered dreams and near despair.  Yet the Gospel says no, this is not our necessary future.  There is hope and that hope is Jesus, the Christ of God.

Jesus the Christ has broken into our downward spiral of spite and has transformed it into an ever ascending circle of love.  Jesus the Christ has appeared in the midst of our prickly huddle and has pointed us on the way to the peaceable Kingdom of God.

John 14:20-21: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” John lays before us a description of circle of love, a cycle of care, an upward spiral of gentleness and commonality.  A new community, built by the work of God in Christ andbound together in a web of love.

How do we become this community?  What do we have to do to make this happen here, here in our church? And the answer is:  nothing.  We don’t do anything to become this community; because we are, already, this community. We don’t become it; we are it.  It is already here, here in our midst.  It is a gift of God.  Our call is to learn to pay attention to our community, to look at it with love and nurture it with care.  To see within the huddled pile of prickly porcupines the already present body of Christ.

A young mother of four recently told me about something that happened in her family almost ten years ago.  Hers is a military family, her husband is an officer and they have had frequent moves around the country, most of their postings lasting only two to three years. They are people of faith, church people, and they always seek out a church and get active wherever they find themselves.  At the time of this incident they were in a wonderful church, a church that was particularly good for Jay, their five year old, who was extremely shy and awkward at the time.  His Sunday School teacher was another military man, a father of three himself.  He was a man who lit up a room with his smile, who made everyone he was talking to feel like the most important person in the world.  He was the perfect teacher for Jay, and the boy loved church because of that man in that class.

There came a time when Jay’s father was on a year-long deployment.  Those times are tough, tough on the military person, tough on their families.  The Sunday School teacher and his family were great about including my young friend and her three children in their family activities while Dad was away.  They were military, they understood.  In particular five year old Suzy knew how to get shy Jay out of his shell and into their activities. She would grab him by the hand and lead him into the midst of their play.

But, in January of that year a tragedy happened. The Sunday School teacher was killed in a training exercise. The community and the church were devastated.  As his widow and her children adjusted to their “new normal” (if you can even say something like that) they were noticeably absent from gatherings.  And the rest of their friends were heartbroken, too.

A month later for Valentine’s Day, one of the young mothers decided to host a party for all the kids the Sunday School teacher’s children knew from church.  Their mom dropped them off as she was just not quite ready yet for a public appearance.

The house was swarming with happy kids, and chatty moms, and every surface was draped with red and white and pink and purple banners and hearts and the word “Love”.  The sad little girls entered our friend’s home with downcast eyes.  Their anxiety was palpable. Then, an older boy waltzed up to them and said, in that nasty, sing-songy way that bullies seem to perfect, “Nice of you to show up since your dad died.   The older girl burst into tears.  There was stunned silence, then a flurry of activity as mothers rushed to discipline the one and comfort the other.

In a heartbeat, my young friend found herself alone with grief-stricken, abandoned little 5-year-old Suzy and silent, wide-eyed Jay.  She wanted to walk over and console that beautiful little lonely girl, but was afraid that Suzy wouldn’t recognize her.  She was so little and had been through so very, very much.  My friend remembers feeling as though the world had frozen around her, and she couldn’t move to help.

And then, and then…she watched as her child, her sweet, shy, little boy walked over to Suzy, put his arm around her shoulders and whispered, “I miss my dad, too.” They stood there in the kitchen holding onto each other with thumbs in their mouths, heads together, loving one another through the pain of separation and the sting of death. (Much of this story has been told in my friend’s words, not mine.  I changed names and pronouns for privacy.)

Jesus promised his disciples that he would not abandon them to the loneliness of the world’s dark night. In John 14:16 he said, “I will not leave you orphaned.”  And he has not.  He has come to us in the visible Body of Christ in the world, the church – which in this case was a shy little five year old boy reaching out with arms of love and words of comfort.

We are called to be the church in the world.  We are called to stand up and stand out in the midst of the world’s cold and prickly winter of loneliness and division as a unique and warm place of community and acceptance, of forgiveness and love.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 18, 2014)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for The Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 7:55-60
The contrast between Stephen — “the first Christian martyr” (if you don’t count Jesus)– and Saul is striking. Stephen is older, more experienced; Saul is a “young man.” Stephen is filled with the Spirit, while Saul is filled with rage and zeal for what he thought was right, like everyone else in the crowd that day. Stephen gets a straight-shot view through to heaven, where he can see Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Saul, of course, has yet to gain his spiritual eyes. He is blind to these details, even as he will become blind on the road to Damascus in just a little while.

Not to be missed are the visual and vocal cues connecting Stephen’s faith in God to that of Christ at his own execution. Stephen commits his spirit to Christ, as Christ had done in commending his spirit to God. Amazingly, Stephen prays– as did Jesus on the cross– a form of the “Father forgive them” prayer.

What kind of example do we have here from this outstanding deacon of the church, as well as from Christ himself? “Do not hold this sin against them,” Stephen prayed.

We don’t usually want to let those who have sinned against us off that easily. Like the bumper sticker says, “I don’t get mad — I just get even!” 

In its original context, the word for martyr (martys) simply means someone who suffers — not necessarily dies — for taking a stand. Are we still called to be martyrs — in this sense — for our faith?

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
This psalm text has connections both to the experience of Stephen (see above) and of Christ. Verse 5 is a poignant prayer: “Into your hand I commit my spirit….” Notice that the rest of the verse indicates a future that can already be claimed as present: “…you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”

Perhaps a part of living with the kind of vivid faith exemplified by Stephen and Jesus is the realization that God’s promises for the future actually reach to our present reality. As the psalmist says, “My times [past, present, and future] are in your hand….” 

What segments of your life — past, present, or future — do you need to commit into the hands of God?

1 Peter 2:2-10
Babies are sweet, aren’t they? Bring a newborn baby into any room, and there will be “coos” and “aahs” issued from every direction. We just love to hold them, cuddle them, smell them, and generally “make do” over the little ones!

But babies are a mess, too; let them get hungry, or wet, or dirty and the object of our affections is no longer quite so appealing. We’re soon looking for the momma or the daddy in order to hand them off. Nobody likes dealing with an upset baby!

All the more reason to see Peter’s analogy as an apt description of the necessity of nurturing new Christians in the faith. It is an exciting prospect to receive young members of the faith into our churches, through confirmation or “profession of faith.” We love to “coo and aah” over such events, and everybody in the congregation feels a bit like proud parents. But, then the messy work of growing these young converts sets in.

We might well want to put them aside — perhaps give them to the pastor or the Christian Ed person — or, better yet, the “youth director” — until their spiritual maturity has been accomplished. But, Peter says, it takes the hard work of building one stone at a time in order to see God’s house raised to fullness. “Babes in Christ” don’t automatically turn into “royal priests” overnight or automatically.

It takes a church — the whole church — to raise a Christian in his or her faith. 

What things does your church do to help people “grow” in their faith? What more could you — both plural (as in “all y’all”) and singular (as in you, personally) — in this area?

John 14:1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Easy for you to say, Jesus!

We have plenty of trouble all around us, everyday, don’t we? It’s pretty hard for us to see our way through, sometimes, when it seems the effluvia of life just keeps piling higher and higher. The disciples said as much on this day when Jesus sought to bestow on them a bit of the heavenly vision.

Jesus: “I am going to prepare a place for you…and you know the way to that place.”
Thomas: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?”
Philip: “Yeah, Jesus, just show us the Father, then we’ll be satisfied.”

Oh, those crazy disciples — always asking Jesus for a little more of this and a bit more of that. As if Jesus himself might not be able to handle it and ought to just go ahead and call God in!

Of course, as Christ’s followers, all we ultimately get is him — just Jesus. “I am the Way…” he replied to Thomas. “You walk with me and follow me, and you’re going to end up just where you need to go” — that kind of thing. No other roadmaps or directional signs.

I like the way that Eugene Peterson puts it in The Way of Jesus: “To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always derivative from Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. To follow Jesus means that we can’t separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it. To follow Jesus is as much, or maybe even more, about feet as it is about ears and eyes.” (p. 22).

So — how can you go about “putting some feet to it” and following Jesus more closely?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I read this in the Christian Century magazine this week – “A Good Friday passion play was called off after the Oxford (England) City Council said the sponsoring church failed to get the proper permit. (Listen carefully now)  The council acted on the presumption that the “passion play” was a live sex show.   In a statement of apology, an official said, ‘At the time of processing the application, I did not appreciate that this was a religious event.’ ” (Christian Century, May 14, 2014, p. 9)

It is becoming clear that we in the west live in a world that is not simply biblically illiterate; the truth is worse than that – the world is actually religiously illiterate.  We have long worried about those who are opposed to Christianity; a more important worry, and mission opportunity, is those who are indifferent to, and ignorant of, religion in general.  The world we live in neither disdains nor disapproves of us anymore – it simply does not see us or know anything about us.

On the same page in the Christian Century there is a chart showing a couple of interesting stats: one fourth of all adult Americans say they never read the Bible, including 40% of adults under thirty.

Given that we know most people responding to such surveys tend to answer with their “best self,” rather than their “actual self;” it’s a pretty good bet that the real numbers are actually higher. And  reading the bible is not the same thing as actually understanding it, especially when it comes to complex and layered and nuanced books like the Gospel of John.

So, to go out into a world that knows almost nothing about either religion or Christianity or the Bible, a world in which a reasonably intelligent person like a City Council official thinks a Good Friday Passion Play is a live sex show for example; proclaiming that “in my father’s house are many dwelling-places,” and that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life,” and that Jesus “will do whatever you ask in my name,” is a recipe for both baffled misunderstanding and possible rejection and ridicule.

In this, we are not unlike the people to whom the words in John 14 were first addressed. Frankly, we are better off – we have billions of co-believers around the world; they had only each other, the people in the room with Jesus. This is a part of what is called the “farewell discourse,” a long section stretching from chapter thirteen to seventeen.  It occurs between Jesus’ last meal with the disciples and his departure to pray in the garden of Gethsemane.  In this long speech Jesus goes back and forth; on the one hand offering his followers assurance that things will be all right after he’s gone and on the other challenging them to persist in the mission and ministry he began with them.

Our reading for today falls into three sections; the first  is verses 1-4 where we hear the famous words, “In my Father’s house are many mansions (or dwelling places).” N.T. Wright points out that the only other place Jesus uses the term “my Father’s house,” is also in John, in chapter 2 where he is referring to the Temple. Wright makes the case that for the Jewish people the Temple is that place where heaven and earth meet, where people are in relationship with God.  The word translated mansions or rooms or dwelling-place sis the noun form of the verb “abide” or “stay.”  The promise Jesus is making here is less about a particular place called heaven with rooms or mansions or houses and more about a continued relationship with the divine, a relationship that will carry-on after death. It is a promise that whatever happens, we will “stay” with God in Christ. The promise is that just as who Jesus was and what Jesus did in life continues on in the Risen Christ;  that what we as people of faith are and what we do in life will also live on as a part of the Risen Christ.

The second promise in this text is sometimes the most difficult to talk about, not only with those outside the church who are often offended by it; but also among us within the church who do not wish to be either exclusive or offensive.  The promise here is that Jesus is “The way, the truth and the life.”  Not “a” way, but “the” way. Not “a” truth, but “the” truth.  Not “a” life, but “the life.  This does not go over well in our modern, inclusive, diverse, multi-ethnic, world.

How do those of us for whom Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” of our daily existence talk about Christ with others in a humble, inclusive and non-dismissive way? I got some help on this in a remark by Scott Kisker, Church History professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.  During a panel discussion at the Northwest Festival of Preaching in Seattle this year, he pointed out that in the post-modern world it is impossible to find an “apologetic” that will logically persuade anyone to believe in Jesus. The response of the post-modern is “you have our truth, I have my truth.  Why can’t our truths just get along?”  To point out that two contrary things cannot be true at the same time is to misunderstand the way most people think these days.  We live in a world of many “truths.”

We must remember that “The Truth” is just a third of the promise Jesus makes here.  We have sometimes forgotten  “the way” and “the life.”  Over and over again, careful research in church history has proven that people are attracted to and convert to Christianity because of the way Christians live their lives; not because of the “truth claims” by an evangelist.  My later father-in-law was a Baptist deacon and when I first became a minister he often encouraged me to remember that people “don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”  What’s true for pastors and preachers is also true for all of us as the Christian community.  If we want people to want to know our “truth” about Jesus Christ; we must first show them that truth in the way we live our lives. The promise here is that the way Jesus lived his life is a true path for us to live our lives and it will keep us in a good relationship with God, each other and the world.

The last promise in this text is the promise of power in prayer.   This promise is connected to everything that has come before about being in relationship with Jesus and the Jesus way, truth, and life.  Simply put – this is not what some of my seminary friends referred to as “blab it-grab it” theology.  “If you believe enough in Jesus and pray with a believing heart, you will get what you ask for.”   Fred Craddock says it this way, “In Jesus name” is not a formula for ending prayers but rather a reminder to think before you pray and to only pray for those things that fit within the Jesus’ way.

It is helpful that this is a communal and not a personal promise.  All the “yous” in this text are plural.  Since English doesn’t have an official plural you, when it occurs in the Greek it is sometimes difficult to detect and remember.  Jesus doesn’t say “When you the individual Christian decide you want something, just pray for it using my name and you will get it.”  Instead, he is saying “When you, the church, pray in my name (in my way, in my truth, in my life) for something to further the life of the kingdom, you will receive it.  This is about the church as the body of Christ, agreeing together about a missional need in the world and seeking God’s help in fulfilling it.

So, how should we respond to the unfortunate fellow who didn’t know a Passion Play from an X-Rated Peep Show?  Berate him for his ignorance?  Sit down with a Bible and a Catechism and educate him?  Ignore him and his ilk and retreat into a like-minded enclave of those who think and act like us?  Or perhaps we could live out our ongoing relationship with God in Christ by loving and forgiving and interacting with him in the gentle, honest straightforward way Jesus lived his life.  Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 11, 2014)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for The Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 2:42-47
This Easter thing was really starting to take off by the end of Acts 2! The “church” (and there was still only one at this time) was devoted to some pretty amazing things: teaching, fellowship, communion and prayers. 

Ever long for “the good old days” when those were the things we focused on…instead of board meetings, ecclesiastical folderol, soothing the saints’ hurt feelings and such?

Though not particularly a proponent of the “recover the church of the 1st century” type of movements, I do think there is something to be said for asking ourselves: how did we get sidetracked from these things? And how could we get back some of our “devotion?”

It’d be nice to see a few added to our number (as opposed to the inverse of addition) for a change, don’t you think?

Psalm 23
Are you kidding? Me — comment on Psalm 23? 

It is pretty obvious why the Committee for Consultation on Common Texts pairs this “Shepherd Psalm” with the gospel reading from John 10, concerning the voice of the shepherd. The Lord is a faithful Shepherd, performing everything expected of a competent sheepherder…and then some!

All analogies are limited, and even this beautiful metaphor isn’t perfect. But, the words have proved meaningful for many thousands of years. This is one of those passages that you just read…then let it do its work.

What does it mean to you to have the Lord as your “shepherd?” In what ways do you think God might call you to be a “shepherd” to others on God’s behalf?

1 Peter 2:19-25
Peter was no doubt mindful of the Isaiah 53 background of this text: “All we like sheep have gone astray…” (v.6) and “by his wounds we are healed…” (v. 5.)

Wounds were something that many of his listeners were evidently familiar with. He speaks to slaves who have been beaten by their masters, presumably unjustly. Peter draws a connection for them, reminding them that all of Christ’s wounds were undeserved.

It is perhaps difficult for today’s preacher to parallel the experience of being beaten as a slave for our congregants. Maybe we are accused unfairly from time to time in our experience; few, if any of us, will ever be beaten for “standing up for what is right.” 

Still, like the slaves of Peter’s times, if we deserve such accusation, that’s one thing. If we are innocent, God will have to take care of it. It may not seem like much comfort, but Jesus understands.

Can you say that you are called to suffer in any way on behalf (or with) others? What can you say about the ways that you actually suffer?

John 10:1-10
In today’s reading, Jesus presents himself as the gate of the sheep pen, the place where the sheep are kept safe and secure. It is not actually until verse 11 that he says, “I am the good shepherd.” But that’s probably close enough, since most of us are going to naturally use the shepherd metaphor for this sermon, anyway!

What we do learn about Jesus — whether gate or keeper or shepherd — is that he has come to do the opposite of the “thief,” who wants to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus has come to bring life, and to bring it “abundantly.”

What a cool word: perissos in Greek, which in this context means, “superior, extraordinary, surpassing, uncommon.” (Thayer/Smith Greek lexicon, online here) Again, whatever else may be said about the life Jesus came to share with us — and that we share in our Easter faith — it is way, way better than pretty much anything else we can imagine!

What way is your life “abundant” in Christ?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

This is, traditionally, “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  It is, again traditionally, a “warm and fuzzy” kind of day.  This makes sense: sheep are, after all, very warm and fuzzy.  And Jesus?  Well, there’s the ultimate warm and fuzzy guy of all time – at least that’s the way I heard it in Sunday School.

“Sweet Jesus, meek and mild.”  “Suffer the little children to come unto him.”  “Come unto me who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” Sing it with me, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  Ah. Yep, that Jesus sure is a sweet guy – the warmest and the fuzziest.

And brave.  Kind of a first century Captain America.  Maybe “Centurion Palestine.”  HMMM, I need to work on that.  Anyway, he’s got a rod and a staff; maybe we can add a supercharged chariot and a really cool costume.  Warm, fuzzy, protective, non-threatening – that’s the Jesus of the day on Good Shepherd Sunday.

But – there are other images in these texts; images that are not so comforting; images that are, in fact, downright disturbing.  These are images that show a darker and more complex Jesus and a darker and more complex vision of the life of faith.

Starting with the Gospel lesson – there’s all this talk about thieves breaking in and bandits sneaking off with the sheep, etc.  Who are the thieves and bandits? Are they those things that look better to us than following Jesus?  Okay, fair enough; but honestly, a careful reading of the New Testament makes a lot of things look better than following after Jesus.

Look, look here in Acts.  You have to give away all your stuff.  Really?  Seriously? All of it? Really?  Everything?  But, but, I like my stuff.  I mean, I have a “Sid Bream Sliding Into Home With the Winning Run in the 1991 National League Playoffs” bobble-head. I was there that night.  Do I have to give that up?  And my books – seriously, I like my books and nobody else would want them – they’re old and ragged and marked up and written in and they’re about religion and history and nobody cares about that stuff anymore.  You were serious about that?

You mean you want me to get rid of all my stuff and trust God and my fellow Christians for my future – while I share whatever I have with those who need it?  Get outta here; you have got to be kidding.

And look over here in 1 Peter – look at this stuff about enduring suffering.  Well, part of it makes sense: the whole you do bad stuff, you suffer, you endure it like a real trooper.  That makes sense in a lex talionis, eye-for-an-eye, instant karma, what goes-around-comes-around, keep a stiff upper lip, schoolyard sense.

But this other part- the part about “you do good and you suffer and you endure it wordlessly and you endure” and that’s supposed to be a good thing? That’s, that’s, that’s un-American, that’s what that is.  (Which is the same thing as being un-Christian isn’t it? Well, isn’t it? Well, maybe not.) I mean, this country was built on standing up for yourself and your rights. “Don’t tread on me.”  “Get back or I’ll sue.”  What’s all this about enduring being treated wrongly wordlessly?

Does being a Christian mean you have to let people walk all over you?

Well, this certainly isn’t “warm and fuzzy” Jesus will take care of you.  This is scary and confusing, apparently not only to me, but to the disciples.  Listen again to verse six of the gospel, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”  Which, being interpreted, means “Uh?  What? Did you get that?”

1 Peter 2: 21 holds the key to understanding all this – “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”  Jesus suffered for us; we are called to suffer for others.  It is a recurring theme with Jesus.  The father sent me, I send you.  I forgive you, you forgive others.  I feed you, you feed others.  I heal you, you heal others.  I suffer for you, you suffer for others.  I shepherd you, you shepherd others.

For too long, we have read our Gospel lesson from only one point of view.  We have seen ourselves, the church, as the sheep and Jesus as the Shepherd who calls and protects us.  But there is another way to read it.  A further-along-the faith-road way to read it.  The others, the world, the “lost,” the hurting, hungry, confused, oppressed, put-upon and preyed-upon world of others are the sheep; and we, we are the shepherds – we are called to be shepherds to the world.

Not just the world half-way around the globe but the world that starts with the person in the pew next to you and extends out the door and down the street across the country and over the seas to the ends of the earth.

It is not a warm and fuzzy calling, but it is a calling to an “abundant life.”  A life abundant with things that matter rather than things that just fill up space.  A life abundant with caring for others, most especially for those who don’t matter to anyone else.  A life rich with concerns so important that you will willingly suffer because of them and for them.

There is a world full of hurting and needy people walking through the valley of the shadow today.  Will you take up your rod and your staff and walk with them?  Will you give up your comforts so that they may have necessities?  Will you suffer so that their suffering might end?  Will you help Jesus shepherd the world?

Amen and amen.