Second Sunday in Lent for Year B (March 1, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Abram’s call from God continues in Genesis 17. It has been almost 25 years since Abram first heard the voice of God, asking him to “get up…and go to a land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) In the earlier encounter, God had promised to make Abram a father, the progenitor of “many nations.” Well, 25 years later — Abram is still childless and is nearly 100 years old. Talk about the biological clock ticking! There has been an instance or two along the way, in which Abram’s faith might have been said to “wobble,” if not to have faltered. But God continues to show up and swears to Abram that things are about to change. As a sign of this, Abram’s name is changed, as is that of his wife, Sarai. Just how long does it take for God’s promises to “come true” in our lives? Are there any times that your own faith has wobbled — even just a little?

Psalm 22 is a great statement of faith in God, even and especially in the midst of difficult times. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus quotes its first verse from the cross. As in the case of the promise to Abraham, this promise is made in the context of generations yet to come. For how long will God’s promises endure?

Paul writes in Romans 4 that the promise of God rests on one thing, and one thing alone: grace. We can never work hard enough (i.e., “keep the law”) to earn it; we cannot even leave the completion of God’s promise up to our own faith. Though both obedience and faith are important, it is ultimately God’s grace that “guarantees” (v. 16) the promise.

In Mark 8, Jesus’ message gets hard to hear on the part of the disciples. Peter may symbolize the reluctance we all feel when we first learn a difficult truth. “Say it isn’t so, Jesus! Tell me I didn’t sign up for this!” What Jesus actually promises here is the saving of our lives — both now and forever — by first being willing to “lose” them. Is that a bargain you are willing to make?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“. . . being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”  Roman 4:21.

I heard this story thirty years ago, in my first call in Rowan County, North Carolina. German Lutherans began settling there in the 1750s; it used to be said that southern Rowan County had “more Lutherans than people,” that is the Lutheran church membership rolls were larger than the population!   Back in the 1930s there was a major drought in Rowan County and the Lutheran congregations came together for a prayer meeting to pray for rain. It was held in Concordia Lutheran Church, out between China Grove and Mooresville. The stern old Lutheran “Herr Pastor” leading the service went into the pulpit and asked everyone to show their umbrellas. Nobody did, no one had brought one. “What!?” he exclaimed, “No umbrellas! Then you have no faith. Go home and come back tomorrow and bring your umbrellas; then we will pray for rain.”

Faith is difficult, isn’t it?  It’s difficult to have faith and it’s difficult to live faith.  Sometimes it’s very hard to put our trust in the promises of a God we cannot see, especially when we have lived long enough to see some of our own hopes and dreams fall apart and also to have seen many bad and ugly things happen in the world.  It’s hard to put all that aside and trust the promise that God loves us and wants us to be well.

Abram and Sari knew how hard it was to trust the promises of God – for years God had been saying you will be the father and mother of multitudes, of a great nation and here they are late in life, as Paul says, they are “as good as dead,” and they have no child, not one.  And yet God kept promising.   And in the midst of a lot of false steps and misunderstandings and ordinary human-ness; Abram and Sarai kept believing, kept trusting, kept having faith.

And God, in the words of Paul, “reckoned,” their faith, “as righteousness.”  To get the full flavor of what Paul is saying, we need to unpack these two words.  In my experience, reckon is seldom used in the United States except in the south, and here it has a meaning different from the one intended by the text.  The southern, slangy use implies guessing or supposing; “Think it’ll snow?” “I reckon it might.” Or it could mean to grudgingly accept; “Can I come by later today?”  “I reckon that’ll be all right.” The word is quite common in British English with a much more precise meaning; which is to calculate and then come to a conclusion.  The question, “How do you reckon?” includes not only one’s opinion but also what steps one took to arrive at that answer.   Righteousness is the translation of the Hebrew sedeq. It is not the abstract idea of justice or virtue, as in the “righteousness of our cause.”  Rather it is right standing and right behavior, within a community.

For Paul, it is the faith of Abram and Sarai that God uses to “reckon,” to calculate, to come to a conclusion about, their righteousness, their standing, their relationship with God.  Paul is particularly interested in pointing out that Abram and Sarai believed before the law was given, therefore there was no possibility of their obedience to the law being “reckoned” by God as having earned them righteousness.  For Paul, obedience follows faith, relationship creates righteousness.  Faith comes as a response to the fact that God has reached out to us just as God reached out to Abram and Sarai.

To mark this reaching out, this covenant-making, this love-promise, God changed Abram and Sarai names – calling them Abraham and Sarah. “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name…”  (Genesis 17:5, 15)

Names have power. And what we call each other and what we call God and what God calls us are powerful things. We have a tendency in the post-modern world to think that things like names and labels are mostly matters of indifference, or of perspective. We live in a world of shifting meanings, a world of “thinking by public opinion poll”, where “what’s hot and what’s not” is more important to many folks than “what’s true and what’s not”.

In such a world, it is important to inject some timeless reality. Abram and Sarai’s name changes were part of a one-time shift in their relationship to God and God’s relationship with them and, ultimately, with all the peoples of the world. This was not a thing done lightly, it was not done for more popularity or more propriety or more coolness or hotness or what-ever-ness. This name change signaled the beginning of a new covenant, a different relationship, a personal, first-name basis relationship with God, a first-name basis relationship which leads to a consideration of the second way in which faith is difficult.  It is difficult to have faith, to trust in God.  As our Gospel lesson shows us, it is equally difficult to live faith, to follow God in the way of Christ.  Twice in this short lesson what Bonhoeffer called the “Cost of Discipleship” is laid out for us:  “great suffering, rejection, death,” and “deny self, take up cross, and follow,” presumably to a similar death.  No wonder Peter rebuked Jesus.  This is not what he or anyone else thought they were signing up for.

It is difficult to find faith, to feel trust, to believe with heart, mind and soul.  It is also difficult to live faith, to put one’s life on the line for God.  Yes, it is difficult.  It is also essential to what it means to be a Christian.

When the opportunity came for Ray Romano to do the show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ he was making a decent living as a stand-up comedian in New York, but he was neither rich nor famous. On the day he packed to move to Hollywood to do the show, his brother pinned a note to some clothes in his suitcase. After the taping of the last episode, Ray came out and talked to the studio audience. He told them about his brother’s note and read it to them. It said, “For what will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  In the midst of tears he waved goodbye to the audience and said, “I’m going to work on my soul now.”

Faith is difficult. But it is not impossible, for nothing is impossible with God.  God has reached out to us just as God reached out to Abram and Sarai.  God has called us by name and claimed us, God has made covenant with us, and God has reckoned our weak and hesitant belief and trust as righteousness.  And knowing all there is to know about us, God has called us to the difficult but not impossible task of following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Amen and amen.

First Sunday in Lent for Year B (February 22, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

In Genesis, God establishes a covenant with those who come through the Flood. It’s pretty much a one-way deal, as God promises to refrain from such stern judgment ever again. The “rainbow” in the sky — so often seen as a sign to us — is actually pictured as a sign for God, so that God may remember God’s own promise. Regardless of our actions, God says, “I will remember….”

Psalm 25 continues the theme of remembrance, this time with a twist. The prayer is, “Remember your mercy, O Lord…” — always a good thing! But notice that the prayer continues, “Do NOT remember the sins of my youth…!” Sometimes, we need to ask God to forget?

1 Peter gives us a great summary of the gospel in the opening verses of this passage. There’s a connection to the Noah story from Genesis, reminding us of the power (symbolic, or otherwise) of baptism. And, we get the quasi-ambiguous line about Christ “preaching to the spirits in prison.” I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but I note that it — like the other mighty acts of God listed throughout scripture — is a work of the Spirit. So, there you have it.

Mark gives us a quick review of passages we have already heard in recent weeks (Jesus’ baptism and John’s arrest) and adds the important “sandwich” story of Jesus in the wilderness. Again, a work of the Spirit, who drives Jesus to this lonely place. Mark’s account is the sparsest of the gospel accounts — we get no details of the “conversation” Jesus had with the devil. But, we do understand that Jesus is tempted, he survives, and God shows up when God is needed. Jesus is not alone (love the wild beasts hanging out, not to mention the angels.)

Neither are we.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My wife and I have been married for over forty years, and we met while we were still in high school. When you’ve been together that long, you have a lot of shared memories.  Well, actually not so much.  What you have is a lot of shared experience which you almost inevitably remember differently.  This situation provides a lot of, shall we say “opportunity for vigorous conversation,” which usually begins with, “I have no idea who you’re talking about.  You say we went to dinner with them in Nashville in the 1990s?” or “No, no, no; you’ve got that all wrong, it was in Hightower in 1979 – not China Grove in 1985.”  Trust me, sometimes this can go on half the night.

It’s a good thing then that we can be sure that God’s memory is better than ours; clearer, more precise, and, most importantly, more to be trusted. After all, God has promised that “When I see the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant.” (vs. 16) And what is that covenant? Again, God speaks, “. . . that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.”(vs. 11)

Now most people, especially those of us who were raised in church or synagogue, know the story of Noah and the flood and most of us think of God’s promise, at least fleetingly, when we see a rainbow.  But how many of us remember that the bow was intended as a sign to God, not to us?  How many of us remember that the bow is primarily intended to help God remember God’s promise, God’s covenant, to not destroy all flesh?  I know I didn’t.  Even though I have studied it many times, I remembered it differently.

This time, as I read the story of Noah and the flood, I kept thinking of something North Carolina novelist, English professor, and occasional scholar of the New Testament Reynolds Price said.

There is, he opined, one sentence beyond all else that people yearn to hear in all stories: “The Maker of all things loves and wants me.” (Price, p. 72)  Professor Liston Mills of Vanderbilt Divinity School often said a similar thing, “All theological questions boil down to one thing, ‘Can God be trusted?’ ”

The story of the flood is a story that tells us that God can indeed be trusted.  It is a meditation upon issues of human sin and divine wrath, of our fragile vulnerability in the face of the world’s unpredictable power and violence, and the possibility that God can repent, change God’s mind, and in the future remember a promise to be merciful.

The psalmist remembers God’s promise to remember and holds God to it.  Verse 6 and 7 use “remember” three times.  It is not by accident that the writer first calls upon God to “Remember your compassion and love.” Look to the rainbow, God.  Remember your promise.  Then the psalmist invites the Lord to “remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions.”  Finally, God is asked to remember the person, not the deeds but the person, in light of God’s own steadfast love and goodness.

Both the flood story and the Psalm reflect a consistent thread that runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures – the thread of God’s compassion and mercy and love outweighing God’s judgment and wrath and condemnation. And remembering is the key. Both God and us remembering God’s promises to us, God’s covenant of grace with us. Methodist bishop Will Willimon used to say that in preaching, “We do not so much need to be told as we need to be reminded.”

In 1 Peter, we are reminded of the basic facts about the Cross of Christ.  “Suffered for sins,” “once for all,” “brought us to God,” “resurrection of Jesus Christ,” “gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.”    In the midst of this familiar and almost creedal language is buried a reference to Noah and the flood.  Peculiar stuff about “proclamation to the spirits in prison,” and the flood waters being like our baptism.

While this bit is open to a lot of interpretation, it seems that Peter was in some way trying to say that God had not forgotten those who died in the flood, those who, “in former times did not obey.”  With Christ “descending into hell” to invite those languishing there to “repent and believe in the good news,” God closes the circle and indeed makes Christ a sign that God’s love is for all people and for all time.

After forty plus years together, my wife and I do have trouble remembering the same details of our life together, or remembering the same details the same way – but we always remember we love each other and want the best for each other.  So it is with God and us.  We sometimes remember the story of God’s love differently, we forget details others think are important, we harp on things nobody else cares about.  But underneath it all, we can be sure of one thing – “The Maker of all things loves and wants (us).”

“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is one the earth.”  Genesis 9:16

Price, Reynolds in “Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament” Alfred Corn (ed.)

New York: Viking Penguin, 1990, p. 72

Ash Wednesday (February 18, 2015)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I did not know what a creature of habit I had become until after my mother died last November.

It happens when I least expect it, a sudden urge to call her and chat a minute.  Then I took the time to think about when these urges came and realized there was a pattern, a pattern that started when I worked for Hinton Center and continued while I worked for the Lutheran Bishop’s office.  I spent most weekends on the road, consulting and preaching in churches all over the south. I usually left Hayesville early on Friday mornings and came home on Sunday afternoons.  And sometime on Friday morning I would call Mama as I drove down the Interstate and inevitably she would say, “Where are you going now?” And on Sunday I would ask her, “How were things at Hatcher’s Chapel this morning?  How was church?”  Now, every Friday morning and every Sunday afternoon I feel it before I think about it; sometimes I reach for the phone.  Time to call Mama.  Then I remember – she’s not there.

The questions Mama and I asked each other are important questions for all of us.  We need to ask them often, personally and as a community of faith.  “Where are we going?” and “How is church?”

One of the constant themes in our scripture lessons of the last few months has been the word “repent.”  John the Baptist called people to repent, Jesus announced his message as “the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news.”  We’ve even heard, in the story of Jonah, about God repenting of the evil he had intended.  To repent means to change one’s mind, to completely re-orient one’s life direction.  In order to repent in the true Biblical sense, one has to take a good look at one’s life in relationship to the life we feel God has called us to lead.  It is not an easy process and it is never really finished.  The regular “examen,” is a necessary part of a healthy spiritual life.  On an individual basis, a simple way to do it is to read over the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and ask yourself how you’re doing.   “Where am I?” and “Where am I going?” and, most importantly, “Where is God calling me to be and to go?”  Making the necessary life adjustments as a result of those questions is the true nature of repentance.

“How is church?” That is another important question that all of us need to ask on a regular basis.

Not in a critical manner, as in, “I wish they would do things differently,” but in a contemplative, communal way; “Where are we as a church?”  “Where are we going?” and, most importantly, “Where is God calling us to be and to go?” Church communities that go years without asking those questions often find themselves wandering around the desert in circles, stuck somewhere between leaving Egypt and arriving at the Promised Land.

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a time for us to think and pray about these questions of life and vocation.  We are invited to “return to the Lord,” to “rend our hearts and not our garments,” to be, in the words of 2 Corinthians, “reconciled” to God.  You have to stop before you turn.  If not, you’re apt to spin out of control.  Ash Wednesday is the time for us to stop.  Stop dead in our tracks.  Stop and breathe, stop and think about who we are and the direction our life has been taking.  It is time stop so that we can prepare to turn and start out in a new direction, returning to the Lord.  But first we stop.

Amen and amen.

Transfiguration Sunday (February 15, 2015)

Our apologies for being a bit “off our game” this week. It has just been one of those weeks! Here’s Bubba’s sermon, and we hope to get back in full swing next week with comments and the Lec Lab Live

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”

(2 Corinthians 4:5)

German Lutheran Theologian Helmut Thielicke told various versions of this story.  A young boy walking home from school every day during the first world war, going from a cold and empty house to a cold and empty school and back.  Every day, coming and going, the little boy passed a shop with a sign in the window.  The sign showed a lovely picture of a loaf of fresh baked bread, little wavy lines of warmth radiating from it.  The sign said, “Bread, 5 cents a loaf.

Every day, the boy fantasized about that loaf of bread. Finally, he quit dreaming and decided to do something. Though money was hard to come by he eventually came up with the 5 cents.  One day after school, he walked into the store, laid his 5 pennies on the counter and said, “One loaf please.”   The man behind the counter stared at him and said, “What did you say?” The boy repeated, “One loaf of bread please, like in the window.” and pointed at the sign. The man looked over at the sign and then looked at the boy and said, “Son, we don’t sell bread, we paint signs.” (Insight, 8/7/1988)

Has the church gone into the sign business?  What if we are hanging out signs that say to a hurting and desperate world that we have answers to their spiritual needs, but when they get inside they discover we have great signs, we just don’t have any bread?  If we’re not careful we will forget that we are in the “Jesus business;” not the “voluntary, like-minded, spiritually-oriented, people like us,” business.  Sometimes we can get so fixated on what we do and what we offer that we can forget the God we serve and what our God promises to the world through us.  We must not “proclaim ourselves.”  We must, instead, “proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as (slaves of others) for Jesus’ sake.

Our Gospel lesson shows how hard it is for people, both us now and the disciples then, to get a handle on what Jesus was about and what it means to follow Jesus.  This story of the Transfiguration comes almost exactly in the middle of Mark’s gospel, and it comes in the center of a three chapter section Mark.  This three chapter section (8:20-10:52) begins and ends with the healing of a blind person.  In between these healings Jesus talks to the disciples three times about his death (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34) and they never get it.  They remain blind.  This section contains that great story where Peter first calls Jesus the Messiah and then, almost immediately, tells him, “Oh no Lord, you don’t have to die, you don’t understand what a Messiah is.” To which Jesus replies, “Get behind me Satan.”  Just like us, the disciples resist the cross, they resist suffering, they resist service.  As Fred Craddock says, “After all, how can persons who have lived with the motto “When the messiah comes, there will be no misery” understand suffering and death as kingdom experiences?” (Preaching Through the Christian Year B, p. 127)

Today Mark shows us God demonstrating to the disciples, represented by Peter, James and John, who Jesus really is. All the mysterious pyrotechnics and the presence of long gone prophets and the voice from heaven are for Peter and James and John’s benefit, for our benefit really.  By this time Jesus is clear about who he is – the issue is our becoming clear about who we are. And they still don’t get it.  Peter says, “Wow, this is great.  Let’s stay here.”  Let’s be fair, let’s not be too hard on Peter– if we had a chance to hang out with Jesus and Moses and Elijah – we’d do whatever we could to make that moment stretch out as long as possible, wouldn’t we?  And yet, they still didn’t get it, not really.  They didn’t really get it until they experienced it. Until they saw Jesus die. Until they encountered the Risen Christ.  Until they saw him ascend into heaven.  Then the pieces began to fall into place.  Then they began to get a handle on the exciting and different and new thing God was and is doing in the world, in and through Jesus, in and through them, in and through us.

“For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord – and ourselves as (the world’s) slaves for Jesus’ sake.”  Philip Yancey has recently written about a refugee camp in Somalia staffed by the Christian organization World Concern. “Medically, the camp was hell on earth.  Dysentery, whooping cough, measles, diphtheria and tuberculosis were breaking out, their symptoms complicated by malnutrition.”  There were 60,000 refugees and only seven relief workers, yet in seven months they had managed to transform it from a boiling cauldron of discontent into an orderly, well-run community.  With a break for the worst of the heat in the afternoon, the seven toiled from seven in the morning until seven at night.  And when he visited, Yancey kept asking why?  Why do you do this?  Why suffer like this for people you don’t know when you could be making good money and a good life back home in America.?

Lois, a 21 year-old nursing school graduate said of her graduation day, “I remember the expressions on my friends’ faces when I said I would be doing relief work in a war-stricken Muslim country on the horn of Africa.  ‘That’s a really insane thing to do.” one girl said.” Lois then continued, “In some ways, I guess coming here does look like an insane thing to do.  Yet I have never felt more satisfied and fulfilled in my life. . . . .A spirit of hope now infects every person in this camp, all because donors in the West and relief workers here sacrificially gave of themselves.  I can’t verbalize the source of my hope here because the government forbids talking about the Christian faith.  But I can demonstrate by my presence and my spirit that there is hope. . . .I almost feel sorry for people who never have the chance to serve God like this.  I believe I am beginning to learn what Jesus meant when he said, ‘If you lose your life, you will find it.’” (YANCEY, “Vanishing Grace, pp.106-108)

When Thielicke used to tell the story about the sign that said, “Bread – 5 cents,” he always said “People can’t eat signs; they need bread.” Our calling is bring the bread of Christ to the world.  We are invited to serve the world in the name of Christ.  We have the opportunity to reach out to the world with the loving presence of God in Christ.

“For, we do not preach about ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord – and ourselves as (the world’s) slaves for Jesus’s sake.”

Amen and amen.

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (February 8, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

I’ll admit I was a little behind the times this week when, on Monday morning after the Super Bowl, I had no idea who had won or lost the “big game.” Not that I was a completely uninterested party…I like football! I just got busy with other things and didn’t have time to watch the game or catch the news. What I discovered was that people everywhere were talking about the controversial ending and the perhaps-somewhat-unexpected triumph of the Patriots over the Seahawks — especially with a practically “sure thing” for Seattle from the one-yard line and four tries upcoming for the end zone. (I’ll spare you the reliving of the pain/gain scenario that ensued…)

Like the words from Isaiah, other fans looked at me with those “you mean you haven’t heard?” eyes…almost incredulous that I didn’t know the outcome — and have a strong opinion about it! When it comes to God’s playbook, it truly gets spectacular. There aren’t really any fumbles or interceptions (even if there is a sense of mystery about God’s timing, etc.) when God gets to work in the world. I love to imagine the “soaring with eagles’ wings” things; I appreciate those times when God’s strength allows us to “run and not be weary.” But, I am especially grateful for the days God is there to help me simply “walk and not faint.” Or fumble.

You don’t have to be a gifted or great singer to join the text of Psalm 147: “it is good to sing praises to our God.” Go ahead, lift up your voice and sing, or shout, or testify. God is gracious and does good things for God’s people!

If you don’t stand up for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Great country song hook — maybe a little questionable when it comes to appreciating the fine art of Christian life in community. Paul encourages the Corinthians to be willing to bend a little in order to accommodate the perspective of others, especially for the cause of Christ. When is a dose of humility a necessary component of the gospel?

As I have read and proclaimed the gospel from Mark in my congregation this Epiphany, we have thought a lot about the “everydayness” of Jesus’ ministry. He meets people where they are — fishing, collecting taxes, hanging out at home and around the town. I’m struck that part of the every day ministry of Jesus includes meeting people where they hurt, too. Simon’s momma-in-law is “stove up,” as we used to hear; she is laid up in the bed with a high fever. Jesus is concerned enough to meet her and minister to her. She is helped and healed by the compassion of Christ. Notably, after being released from her burden, she immediately begins to serve Jesus and his crew. Maybe, just maybe, a life lesson there for us. As my pastor used to proclaim from time to time: “Jesus didn’t save you to sit and soak — he called you to serve!”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Years ago a youth group gave me a T-shirt I wore so much I wore it out.  It read something like this:

“To be is to do.”  Socrates.
“To do is to be.” Plato.
“Do-be-do-be-do.”  Sinatra.

Our Gospel lesson for today shows Jesus moving back and forth between doing and being – healing Simon’s mother-in-law and the others who were brought to him, getting up early and going off alone to pray, to just BE with God.  In the midst of his prayer time, the disciples interrupt him with demands that he come and do what everyone wants him to do – more healing. Instead he insists on going to the next city to preach because, “that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1:38)

As with Jesus, so with us. For the church and as individual believers, it is sometimes difficult to find a balance in the doing and being departments.  We can get so busy with our ministries and programs and in keeping the organization running and in meeting the needs out there that we take no time for either God or ourselves.  And the usual end result of that is those who are doing too much get resentful of those whom they think are not doing enough.

On the other hand, there are those who are really good at “being with God,” but have a hard time figuring out ways to be involved with and care for God’s people. I count myself in this group.  I grew up on a farm.  My Daddy once told a neighbor, “Delmer works hard but you have to tell him what to do.  If you ask him to figure it out himself, he’ll just sit there and look at the work and think it to death.”  Some of us think our religion to death, contemplate the beauty of holiness or liturgy while ignoring the ugliness of sin and hunger and disease and homelessness and violence and, and, and . . .  going on all around us.

Those of us who do too much need help in finding time for self and God; those of us who do too little need a push, a prod, a kick in the pants, to get moving and let our faith be ACTIVE in love. We can get some guidance from a few incidents in our text.

1) We must deal with what is put before us.  When Jesus went to Simon’s house for dinner, he discovered his host’s mother-in-law was sick.  In a simple act of compassion, Jesus healed her. Jesus touched her and she got up and served. People heard about it and began to bring people who were sick or had demons to Jesus for healing.  And Jesus dealt with what was put before him – he did healings and exorcisms into the night.  You can’t always chose what it is you are to do, sometimes God choses for you.

2) While we do need to carve out time and space for ourselves and that personal time does include spirituality and prayer, that’s only part of what’s going on with Jesus getting up early and going off pray.  This episode is a continuation of the temptation, the forty days in the wilderness with Satan. (Mark 1:12-13) Mathew and Luke (Chapter 4 in each) make clear that Jesus temptations were the urge use his power and authority in ways that would attract fame and attention and popularity.  Jesus is feeling that temptation one more time.  People are astonished at his teaching, the whole city is coming to be healed or to see healing.  His fame is growing.  He goes to the mountain to search both with God and deep within himself.  “Who am I, really? What does it mean to be the Son of God? What am I doing?  What am I called to do?”  When the disciples find him, Jesus is once again clear on the answers to those questions.

3) Just like Jesus, we have to learn to say no when the demands upon get in the way of a God’s purpose.  The disciples came looking for Jesus because people had come to them looking for him.  They were excited, the people were excited.  Jesus of Nazareth was the “next new thing,” the latest in a long list of faith-healers and exorcist who had emerged in the multi-cultural Galilean region, which was a mix of Hebrews, Greeks, Romans and others.  Everybody wanted to see Jesus do his stuff, the time was ripe, the iron was hot.  And Jesus said no.  Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  Jesus “being” and “doing” had come together.  He knew who he was and what he was to do.

I’ve always loved this bit from the writer Anne Lamott:  “Again and again I tell God I need help, and God says, “Well isn’t that fabulous?  Because I need help too.  So – you go get that old woman over there some water, and I’ll figure out what we’re going to do about your stuff.” (“Traveling Mercies,” p.120)

So it is with us; we turn to God for help and God sends us out to help others.  Like Simon’s mother-in-law, we have receive a touch from Jesus, and in response we get up and begin to serve others.  Sometimes the touch we receive is charismatic. Some people have been sick and were prayed over and got healed. Sometimes the touch is emotional, a crises life or morals that lead one to give up and turn it all over to God, resulting in a conversion and a change of life.  But most often the touch is less dramatic than that.  Jesus touched us with water in our baptism, Jesus touched us with gentle persuasion in Sunday School, or caring relationships in Youth Group, or a hot meal and kind conversation in Campus Ministry, or week in and week out in our local congregations Jesus touches us in the sacrament of the table, giving his body and blood for us and to us.  However we have been touched by Jesus, the call is the same; the call to get up and serve.

Amen and amen.