Holy Trinity Sunday for Year B (May 31, 2015)

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

Isaiah 6:1-8
I don’t know that any of us will ever be able to capture or imagine the awe and terror of Isaiah’s vision of a visit to the throne of the Lord. The hem of God’s robe fills the temple; now that’s a big robe!

Seraphim are there, hovering and shouting (though we often think of angels “singing,” the text never really says that they sing.)

The house is shaking and there’s smoke everywhere — much more dramatic than our sanctuaries on most Sundays, I’d say. 

The cumulative effect is that Isaiah comes quite undone. “Woe is me,” is the best hymn of praise that he can squawk out. Something about truly seeing God as holy reminds us deeply and painfully that we are not.

And, yet — the call of God comes: “Who will go for us?” Since there’s nobody else present, Isaiah steps us with one of his most famous lines: “Here am I (gulp); send me.”

The old evangelist used to say, “When it comes to the call of God, it’s not your ability God is interested in. It’s your availability!” I kind of like that, even if it makes me nervous!

Psalm 29
The psalm text offers accompaniment and counterpoint to Isaiah’s grand vision of God.The emphasis is on the commanding, calling “voice of the LORD.”

This voice is not for the faint of heart, yet it is a source of both strength and peace.

Romans 8:12-17
Our readings in Romans 8 continue, opening doors to yet more aspects of the limitless, ever-present Spirit of God. 

  •  The Spirit leads and guides
  • The Spirit “puts to death” our fleshly inclinations
  • The Spirit does not lead us to fear
  • The Spirit allows us to cry out to God, as a young child to a loving, trustworthy father
  • The Spirit assures us that we are, indeed, children of God

John 3:1-17  
We have encountered portions of this reading already through the church year; there is much of note in this third chapter of John’s gospel. On Trinity Sunday, however, perhaps the center of the text is found in v. 8:

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

One of the most difficult illusions for we human beings to give up is that of control over our lives. Experience teaches us that there are really very few things that are within our capacity to control.

Certainly, we do not control the Spirit of God — anymore than we can control the wind. (As I write these words, we are entering the “hurricane season” in Florida with a tropical storm just off the coast. If you’ve ever survived a hurricane or similar natural disaster, you realize just how little control you have!)

That image helps me connect to Isaiah’s experience in our first reading. His experience of God was somewhat out of control, to the point of being terrifying. Much like the roaring of hurricane-force winds and the sound of trees splitting or being ripped up by their roots.

May we not forget the power we are dealing with when we blithely mention the presence of the Spirit, pronouncing the Spirit’s blessings on the lives of those to whom we preach and with whom we minister.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When my parents were still living, I used to call home about once a week.  It was a “News from Lake Woebegone” sort of phone call – though in my case it was the “News from Slate Mountain.”

I got an update on the latest spat at the church and how the weather and the crops were doing and finally the obituaries, which were always a bit confusing because I never really knew who was being talked about – neither who was dead nor who was mourning.

Daddy would say, “Well, I don’t reckon you heard about William McCorkle dying?”  While I was smart enough not to point out to my father that a 75 year old man dying in Slate Mountain, North Carolina was unlikely to be big news in Atlanta; I was not smart enough to refrain from admitting that I did not know who William McCorkle was.  “Sure you do,” he would protest, “He was your Great Aunt Vesta’s first boy by her second husband, Old Man Willard McCorkle.  She married him after your Great Uncle Grover Cleveland Chilton died.” Me: “I still have no clue Daddy.”  My father: “He ran that little store up on Highway 52, almost into Virginia.”  Me: “Oh yeah, I remember him.  He would sell beer to me when I was still underage and in high school.”  Daddy, “Well, he wasn’t a real Chilton, but anyway – he died.  Funeral’s at the Holiness Church on Tuesday.”

The thing that always fascinated me about these conversations is that while abstract, technical connections were important to Daddy – “Great Aunt Vesta’s boy by her first marriage,” – they meant nothing to me.  But, whenever he could identify an activity, something the person did,

I would often remember who they were.

Identity and activity are closely intertwined. When trying to describe someone else, after we say they are tall or short; fat or thin; young or old; blonde, brunette, gray, or bald; what do we have left to say?  We most often shift to talking about something they do: how they dress, how they talk, what they like to eat, the books they read, the hobbies they pursue, stories about funny things that happened while you were with them.  All of this is about activity, about doing.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday.  Traditionally, Lutherans use the Athanasian Creed on this day.  It’s on page 54 of the Lutheran Book of worship.  And on page 55.  It’s really long.  And it has lines in it like this: “Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son, uncreated is the Spirit.  The Father is infinite, the Son is infinite, the Holy Spirit is infinite.  Eternal is the Father, eternal is the Son, eternal is the Spirit; And yet there are not three eternal beings, but one who is eternal; there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited.” and so forth and so on for two long pages.  This, to my ears, sounds a lot like “Your Great Aunt Vesta’s boy by her first husband Old Man Willard McCorkle before he died and she married your Great Uncle Grover Cleveland Chilton.”

All the abstractions about both God and William McCorkle may be true and technically accurate, but for most of us, they are not particularly revealing or relevant to the way we live out our faith.  What is important to most of us about the Trinity is the way it helps us understand and participate in the activity of God in the world.  Who God is and what God does in the world is revealed to us in the Living, active Word of Scripture and the way we learn there about how God acts to save the world and us.

The three basic cycles of revelation in the Bible are 1) – God as Creator and Parent, Provider and Liberator told to us in the Creation, Exodus and Promised Land stories.  2) – God as Redeemer shown to us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. And 3) – God as Sanctifier, the one who makes us holy, bursting upon in the stories in Acts as the church grows upward and outward.  We traditionally talk about these using the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But, both in the scripture and in our lives, it is not so easy to separate things.  Genesis Chapter One talks about the Spirit of God moving on the waters and John’s Gospel in its first chapter makes a case for Jesus as the Christ as the Word of God that speaks creation into being.  Our text from Romans intertwines all three aspects in its exploration of what it means for us to be adopted as Children of God.  Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, told to us in John 3, talks about the Kingdom of God and being born of the Spirit and the Son of Man being lifted up – more mixing and matching of the activities of God in the world and in our lives.

Whatever else it may be, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is important to us as a short-hand way to remember the “many and various ways” God has revealed God’s self in the past, and as a guide to the possible ways God will continue to reveal the Divine Presence in the present and future.

The trinity reminds us that our God is an active god, not content to sit back and see what happens.  Our God is a god who has been and will continue to be engaged in the lives and goings on of the world and God’s many beloved children.

The trinity reminds us of our calling to be actively engaged in carrying out God’s will and way, mission and ministry in the world.  We are invited to jump into the work of creation, caring for and bettering the earth, which God made and then placed into our hands for safe-keeping.  We are invited to carry on with the task of redemption; taking Christ’s message of love and forgiveness, grace and renewal, to all people in all places.  We are invited to live life in the Spirit, being ever more attentive to the intimate presence of God in our lives; praying, meditating, and living out the fruits of love born through our interior communion with God.

Because, as important as it is to know who “Great Aunt Vesta’s boy by her first husband Old Man Willard McCorkle” was; it’s much more important to know how to treat him when you meet him on down the road.

Amen and Amen.

Day of Pentecost for Year B (May 24, 2015)

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

Acts 2:1-21

We have mused and bemused over this story for years now; most of you have tried to preach it every which way you could possibly think of. It may not be necessary, but I like to point out the miracle of “spiritual hearing” in this text — not the generally-assumed miracle of “speaking in tongues” that is so often accentuated. Vv. 6 and 8 clearly indicate that, no matter where you were from or what language you spoke, if you were in the room that day you heard the gospel proclaimed in your native tongue.

(I have, at times, wondered if I’d been there, would Peter have begun his address with, “Now, ya’ll settle down…?”)

For us, seeking to hear the gospel on this day, what exactly will the Spirit need to enable in us so that we might have “ears to hear?”

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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 104:24-34, 35b

The psalm reminds us of the creative work of the Spirit, echoing the opening passages of Genesis. It was the ruach (“wind, breath, spirit”) of God present in the beginning that brought order to the creation. It is the same ruach that brings renewal to our lives — re-creation, if you will, over and over again!

Romans 8:22-27

It can be awfully frustrating to be told, “Just be patient; remember that good things come to those who wait!”

Our lives are not often given to the pace required to wait; for better or worse, we tend not to enjoy struggling in order to get good results, either. We want what we want, and we want it now!

The Christ-life is not something that is produced in us — at least not in its fullness and entirety — instantly. “Being saved” is a process, one that Paul likens here to childbirth. Those of you preachers who are also mothers are allowed to chime in here in manifold witness to the fact that bringing a new life into the world is neither instantaneous nor easy!

But…and we can thank God here…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Even when we haven’t a clue what we’re supposed to be doing (like praying, for example) — the Spirit teaches, guides, and occasionally takes over when needed.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Take a look at the ways that the Spirit is named by Jesus in this passage:

  • Advocate (one who takes your side)
  • Truth-teller (someone whose words you can always count on)
  • Testifier (someone who speaks up for you)
  • Prover/Judge (someone who can see what is right and make it plainly known)
  • Guide (someone who knows the way and is willing to show it to you)
  • Speaker (of the words of God)
  • Glorifier (of Christ)

What are some situations in which it would be helpful to remember that the Spirit, who is always with us, can be a resource for us in these ways?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Acts 2:2 – “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”

In the fall of 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast with a fury that did not peter out until it reached the North Carolina mountains. I know, I was there. I was leading a retreat for a group of young pastors. It was their first week together. They were from all over the country. It had been a good week, a getting to know you week, but on Thursday night, it became a very interesting week indeed.

It had been raining all day and we knew a hurricane had hit the Gulf, but we were hundreds of miles away in the mountains, for God’s sake. We were safe. After dinner, I went out and sat on the lodge porch and looked at the rain on the lake, trying to do some last minute program adjustment. Suddenly, I realized what was happening right in front of my eyes. I thought, “Look at that, little tornadoes, water sprites, dancing across the lake. And waves. Big waves. Wait a minute, we don’t have waves on the lake.” Then Ivan really hit. Trees bending toward the earth, electricity going out, roofs lifting up. Light pole breaking off 5 feet in the air, power lines dancing around on the ground.

And, in the midst of that, I had an attack of the stupids. Someone came into the lodge kitchen and said there was a tree down across the road that was the only way in and out of the retreat center. For some reason, he and I decided it was vital to get that tree off the road, in the middle of a hurricane. So we got a chain saw and loaded a couple of the young pastors into my old Jeep Cherokee.  We drove down until we got to the place where the trees had fallen across the road and began to work.

The wind was blowing, the rain was falling, the trees were slick. We made some progress on one and moved up to the next one. And then; well it’s kind of confusing but I’ve never been so scared in all my life, before or since. The wind started blowing in a particularly hard and swirling manner, and the trees around us began to twist and twirl in the air and to crack and moan and make noises both mournful and threatening, and looking up into the twisting tree tops induced a swirling feeling of vertigo; and suddenly we knew ourselves to be in mortal danger and ran to the seeming safety of the car.

And now I understand what it means to be not only “amazed and astonished,” (vs. 7) but also “bewildered,” (vs. 6) and “perplexed.” (12) This out of control, rushing, “violent” wind as an image for the Holy Spirit is not a comforting image.  No way, not at all.

In the movie, “The Princess Bride,” there is an overly confidant schemer and plotter who confidently proclaims various things to be “inconceivable;” yet the very things he dismisses always happen.  Eventually his huge and supposedly dimwitted henchman turns to him and says, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

Those of us who talk about wanting to feel God’s sweet, sweet spirit in this place, or about being “spiritual but not religious” may need to think about that.  It may be that the word “spiritual” does not mean what we think it means, at least not in this context and not all the time.

We read a line like Romans 8:26 about the Spirit helping us “in our weakness,” and think “that’s nice.”  We fail to put the text in its context and quickly forget that the prevailing image here is childbirth – “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains.”  Anyone who has witnessed a birth, and especially anyone who has actively given birth, knows that this is not a sweet, gentle, non-violent process.  As a man I hesitate to talk about it, but having been present for the birth of both of my sons, I can testify, I can give a witness – it is not a sweet nor gentle process.  And I can imagine that there comes a point in every birthing process when the one giving birth yearns for help in weakness.

The bestowal of the Holy Spirit is not for the weak of heart.  “Tongues as of fire,” may mean speaking in unknown languages, but it more likely means being pushed out of our comfort zones to speak about Jesus to others in a “language” not our own, uncomfortably and fearfully learning to talk to people with whom we normally would not associate.  And it might mean speaking truth to power, addressing issues and concerns some people would rather the church not talk about.  The Spirit might prompt you to say things that are so out there, so against the grain of what most people think and believe, that someone is likely to ask you , “What have you been smoking?’  This is, of course, the 21st Century equivalent of accusing you of being drunk at 9 am.

This Holy Spirit business is a dangerous thing.  Peter is quoting the prophet Joel when he talks about women and men prophesying, about the young seeing visions and the old dreaming dreams.  We all know that visions and dreams and prophecies are dangerous things.  They are vertigo inducing and frightening.  It is better that we stay safely rocking on the porch, watching God’s mighty wind blow on somebody else, somewhere else.

But, here’s the catch – it doesn’t work to try to stay on the porch.  What’s the old expression, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”  The Spirit will find you, just like it found the apostles, huddled together in one place.  Yes, the Sprit will find you, and it will fill you, and it will give you a tongue as of fire, and it will push you out of your cozy chair and into a wild ride through the world. And really, all one can do is take a deep breath and hang on for dear life.

Amen and amen.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter for Year B (May 17, 2015)

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

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
You gotta love Matthias; he is the poster child of unsung heroes of the church everywhere.

It is “The Twelve” that get most of the attention during Jesus’ ministry — and, of course, it is the Big Three (Peter, James, and John) who get the most ink on top of that. After the shocking betrayal of Judas and the hurry-scurry days that followed Jesus’ resurrection, it takes a while for the leadership core to get around to filling out their numbers with another apostle.

An aside — I’ve sometimes wondered why Jesus himself didn’t ask them to pick a replacement for Judas. Was it just not on his radar during his post-resurrection appearances? He certainly had business with Peter (“feed my sheep”) and Thomas (“don’t doubt any longer”) and others who needed him. Or was Jesus just not that concerned with the numbers?

I know that we have a nearly legendary concern for numbers, and reports, balancing the books, filling up committees — sort of ecclesiastically rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, if you know what I mean. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Or is there? Are we consuming a good bit of our time and energy with the functional details of ministry, when we could be spending it on things that are more relational?

At any rate, Matthias is chosen to round out the Twelve. Check his record of consistency and persistence: he had been with Jesus and the other disciples “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.”

Never held a position, never had a title, never noticed until the moment of need, not even a consensus candidate during the first round of balloting. But, in the end, he was present, available, willing and able. I like the guy…may his tribe increase!

Psalm 1
Psalm 1 is perhaps the clearest presentation of the Hebrew concept of the “two ways” in all of the Bible. Exercising the distinct human gift of free will (choice,) we may follow the way of the LORD — the righteous path — or the way of the wicked.

Both ways have attendant rewards and consequences; both paths require effort. It is the latter point that impresses me as I read Psalm 1 again. We often hear words along the line of, “It’s just too hard to follow God; God expects too much of me; I just can’t keep all those commandments.”

But we fail to realize that it takes a good deal of effort to walk the opposite path — to follow the advice of the wicked, one must first take time to listen; taking the path that sinners tread requires actually walking along that way; sitting in the seat of scoffers doesn’t “just happen.” You have to decide to stop and sit a spell, so to speak.

1 John 5:9-13
John writes very much in line with the concept of the “two ways.”

The church’s testimony has always been, as summarized in v. 11, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” That’s it. Jesus is the Savior of the world. In our fractious dissent (borne of that same pesky free will we just mentioned?), we have often debated just exactly HOW Jesus is the Savior of the world — but never IF.

Whatever the HOW, John holds that the inevitable conclusion is: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Thus, has the church been given a “great commission” to teach, tell, instruct, show, demonstrate and by any and all means get the message out to the world — “believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”

John 17:6-19   
Jesus’ prayer of protection for his followers — also known as a prayer for the unity of his followers — is rooted in this same mission of making God known in the world. “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.”

Part of the church’s life (at least) is to live in imitation of Jesus; what he does, we seek to do. Making God’s name known — through the life of Jesus — seems to me to be a basic part of the church’s job description.

Who are the ones that God has given us from the world? Who are we to pray for, protect, love, minister to? In whom — and in what ways — is God making our joy full as we share the life of Jesus?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Anybody ever heard of Ernie Shore?  Probably not unless you’re a really big baseball fan or grew up in Winston-Salem North Carolina.  Ernie Shore was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox about a hundred years ago.  After graduating from Guilford College, he played for the Baltimore Orioles, was sold by the Orioles to the Red Sox along with another player named Babe Ruth.  In 1917, Ruth started a game, walked the first batter, hit the umpire and was thrown out of the game.  Shore came in and the man on first was caught stealing, then he proceeded to pitch a perfect game, getting the last 26 batters out without a hit or a walk.  He had to share the credit with Ruth.  And in 1919, along with Babe he was sold to the New York Yankees, the “player to be named later.”  By 1920 he was out of baseball.  He was later the long time sheriff in Winston-Salem and the Wake Forest University baseball team plays at Ernie Shore Field, a former minor league park.  Everybody’s heard of Babe Ruth; only a few know about Ernie Shore.

Let me read you what the Harper’s Bible Dictionary has to say about Matthias, “According to Acts 1: 15-26, the successor among the Twelve Apostles to Judas Iscariot.  After prayer, Matthias was chosen by lot over another candidate, Joseph called Barsabbas.  According to Acts, both men had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry until his ascension.  The New Testament contains no other reference to Matthias.” Wow – no other reference.  Never heard from before or since. Won the Apostleship Lottery and then disappeared from the pages of the Bible.

I’m guessing Matthias didn’t disappear from the church, just from the pages of the Bible.  It’s likely he had a long career of praying and leading, of preaching and teaching.  He had the training for it. He spent three years following Jesus, from his baptism to his ascension.  He heard the sermons, he saw the miracles, he participated in the late night conversations.  He was one of those of whom Jesus said in our gospel lesson, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (vs. 18)  Yes, Matthias was sent, in his case into relative obscurity.

Most Christians down through the life of the church have been a lot more like Matthias than they have been like Peter or Paul; just as most people who have played major league baseball have been more like Ernie Shore than like Babe Ruth.  And for the most part, that’s a good thing. Ernie Shore lived a good, solid life.  He grew up a member of a Friends Meeting, he went off to a Quaker college and got a good education.  He played baseball to earn money to set himself up in life.  His career was cut short by his decision to enlist in the army in World War I.  Though he came back alive, he was never the same player and was out of baseball in a few years.  He was the long-time sheriff in Forsyth County, NC and though he was no activist in racial matters, he was no Bull Connor either.  His Quaker religion and education saw to that. He was called to live a faithful life to the best of his ability and he did, for 89 years.

We in America are a bit addicted to fame, to celebrity, to prominence.  Why else would we pay any attention whatsoever to either Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian?  They are famous for being famous and not much else.  In the area of religion, we have a bad habit of thinking that bigger and flashier is better; why else would megachurch preachers with megawatt smiles and Late Show quality bands dominate.  And when we look away from those Babe Ruth churches, those preachers with Peter and Paul level name recognition and look at the churches most of us go to – well, we might think them insignificant or almost not see them at all.  We might miss the important things these churches are doing in their communities and are being for each other.

Because we too have been given the truth, we too have won the Apostleship Lottery, we too have been sent.  Maybe not to Jerusalem, or Macedonia, or Damascus – but certainly to Murphy and Andrews NC, to the inner city and the lonely plains, to small churches in small towns and big churches in the ‘burbs where everything looks fine but people still hurt, still need a kind hand and a loving heart.  This is where week in and week out unknown preachers prepare sermons and worship services and visit the sick and distressed.  This is where people knit prayer shawls for the hospitalized and collect food for the hungry and volunteer to staff food kitchens and raise money for Nepal and World Hunger and other needs.  This is where local churches open their doors to AA and Scouts and all sorts of other community needs and projects.

Yes we’re all Matthias.  As Mother Teresa is reputed to have said, “Not all of us can do great things for God.  But each of us can do small things with great love.” We have all had our named called, our number come up, in God’s grand mission and ministry lottery.  God has chosen us, God has blessed us, God has taught us the truth – God fills us with the Holy Spirit and sends us out into the world so that all the world will know that God is love.

Oh, by the way; the monk who taught Babe Ruth to play baseball?  His name was Brother Matthias.

Amen and amen.

Special Edition: The Ascension of Our Lord

“ . . . he ascended into heaven,” APOSTLES’ CREED and NICENE CREED

The story of the Ascension doesn’t get a lot of attention in the life of the church.  I think this is because it is somewhat hard to see the point of it.  Laying aside all the standard, modern, empirical doubts about the resurrection appearances themselves, there is still the question of why?

If Jesus was resurrected and if Jesus could flit here and there in his new resurrection body, appearing and disappearing at will as if he had Scotty from Star Trek beaming him about, why would he pull this somewhat theatrical stunt of floating off into heaven, like the Wizard taking leave of Oz in his balloon?  Why didn’t he just say good-bye and go?

Well, for one thing it was important that when he went to “sit at the right hand of the father,” people knew that he was really gone this time.  Gone and not coming back until he came back for good, came back to “judge the living and the dead.”  If he had just disappeared again, well there would have been more Jesuses seen in Jerusalem than Elvises in Las Vegas. It’s difficult to get busy with the important business of loving the Christ in your neighbor if you are constantly on the lookout for Christ in the Burger King.

The Ascension of Our Lord is the completion of his resurrection.  Christ came from God to take on our flesh, our life, our troubles, our sin and yes, our death.  In the mystery of the Three Days, sin was removed and death was defeated.  For forty days Jesus walked and talked among the believers, making sure they knew that this new life was real and not imagined.  And then he went back to God, in the spirit and in the flesh, fully human and fully divine forever and ever, amen.

And he left us here. We were all, in one sense, left behind.  We were left but we were not abandoned.  The Ascension marks the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus and prepares the way for the birth of the church with the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.  Up until this moment the Gospel has been about what God in Christ has done for us; from this day forth the Gospel is about what God in Christ is doing for the world in and through us.

This need to get on with the mission and ministry is reflected in Acts, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:10-11, NRSV)

Every time I read that I remember being twelve years old and doing, or rather, not doing, my chores. I can hear my father come around the corner of the barn or see him suddenly appear beside me in the field.  He would scowl and look disappointed and said, “What are you doing just standing there?  Get busy; we’ve got a farm to run.”  In the same way, we are reminded to stop looking up and to start looking around at the work we are called to do, at the world full of hurting people who need to hear and feel the love of Jesus in their lives.

Peace,
Delmer

The Sixth Sunday of Easter for Year B (May 10, 2015)

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

Acts 10:44-48

Let’s be honest…most of our work and worship in the day-to-day of serving God is pretty mundane. Good, pleasant, important — but not that “out of the ordinary.” I think much the same was true of Peter and the other apostles (and, probably dating back to their days with Jesus.) Every day, you get up and go do the work that lies in front of you. For Peter, that often seemed to include speaking to groups. On this day, in the midst of his everyday activity of speaking, something rather “out” of the ordinary happened: the Holy Spirit fell on an uncircumcised (read, non-Jewish) group of believers. The text says those who were with Peter and witnessed this event were “astounded.” Stuff like this had never happened before.

What did it mean? It seems that, in this post-Easter context of the continuing spread of the message about Jesus, God’s blessing and presence (which is what the Spirit symbolizes for all of us) is available to anyone. Absolutely anybody. Hmmm, go figure. That’s probably what was so astounding to them. Like us, they were tempted to believe that God’s blessing was certainly for us — and for people like us. But those who are “different?”

Upon whom would the blessing of God need to fall in order for you to be astounded?

Psalm 98

Psalm 98 is clearly a “thanksgiving” song in celebration of God’s deliverance of Israel (from Egypt, from battle, from exile, etc.) But notice that it is celebrated in the context of “the nations, the earth, the peoples.” God’s work — even when it is carried out in the particular — is always also universal.

1 John 5:1-6

In this world, there is trouble. You don’t need anybody to tell or prove that to you (and neither do the people in our pews!) John’s audience knew this for a fact — everyday life was hard! But, the beloved apostle told them that there was One who had “overcome” or conquered or subdued the world and all its troubles. That One is, of course, God — who has now through Jesus opened our lives to the same conquering power.

Again, it is not “we” who overcome — it is God. Our faith is in God and is activated by God, lest we get too cocky and think we can simply “name it and claim it” and be done with the world’s troubles. More to it than that, methinks.

I like the shading of meaning for this word that connotes “endures” or “holds on till the storm is over.” Not every victory is triumphant and shiny; many of them are gritty and hard-fought. But either way, it is the strength and presence of God with us, in us, and among us (hence, abide, in the following gospel lesson) that sustains.

John 15:9-17

Jesus’ whole modus operandi, according to John, was based on his observation of and cooperation with the One he called, “My Father.” Since the Father had loved him, he loved his disciples; since he obeyed the Father’s commands, he asks his disciples to obey his commands. The natural outcome of such love and actions is the agricultural image of “bearing fruit.” A nice, wholesome, healthy image, don’t you think? Who doesn’t like a tasty bite of fresh apples or tangy peaches right off the tree in season?

Jesus also illustrates this working of love and obedience as “laying down” one’s life for friends. Wow…what gift is more valuable than the gift of your life? I sense that “laying it down” is not always necessarily the willingness to die; few of us will be called to exercise that option! But, “giving it away” seems an apt comparison — a kind act or service at a time.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you….” Just how HAS Jesus loved you and me? Let us go and do likewise.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

And the circumcised believers were astounded because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the gentiles”

                                                                                                            Acts 10:45

In the fall of 1976 I started studying for the ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. (I was not a Baptist.  Like most American Protestant seminaries at the time, Southeastern was open to students of all traditions.  I was a United Methodist.)

We had chapel every day at about 10 am.  Most days a professor or an upper class student preached, occasionally we had special guests. On this particular day, it was the very new, and relatively young, Roman Catholic bishop from Raleigh just down the road.  Also in attendance, along with 400 or 500 students, were the members of the area’s African-American Pastor’s Association, whose monthly meeting included attending chapel and dining in the cafeteria.

Well the bishop, who was from somewhere up north, was in the middle of a carefully researched and written homily on Christian unity when he said something like, “No matter what our differences we are united in having been saved by the blood Christ, and made alive by the gift of the Spirt;” at which point several of the pastors got up, waving handkerchiefs and shouting, “Amen, Preach it!  That’s Right! C’mon!”  Manuscript pages shot up in the air and fluttered to the floor while a flustered and somewhat embarrassed bishop said gracefully, “I’m sorry.  You have to understand.  In the Catholic Church, no one says “amen” unless it’s written in the worship book.  I’ll be ready next time.”

“And the circumcised believers were astonished because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the gentiles”

The good bishop was not the first person to be astonished at an unexpected manifestation of the Holy Spirit.  Those whom the writer of Acts calls “the circumcised believers” were absolutely floored at the idea that the Holy Spirit, the spirit of YHWH, the god whom they understood to be the God of Israel and nobody else, had “fallen upon” these gentiles.  This was, to them, simply unbelievable.  And yet; it was true, it was real, it was a fact – it was happening right in front of them.

Luke uses “circumcised believers” to refer to these folks for a very good reason.  He wasn’t trying to avoid the word “Jews,” he was not trying to avoid being anti-Semitic.  After all Peter and Paul and James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus himself, were all Jews. No – the point here is simply this: up until now the believers had thought that what Jesus had done was about the Jews and about being the Jewish Messiah, so their logic said, “If you want to be a Jesus follower, if you want to be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit – you need to be a Jew first.  And becoming a Jew involves being circumcised.”  So their thought pattern went like this – everyone is welcome – as long as you first become a Jew by being circumcised, then you get baptized, then you get the Holy Spirit.

And God said, “That’s nice.  But oh so very wrong.  Let’s just skip the first parts and go directly to the bestowing of the Holy Spirt, shall we.”  And the Spirit came down, and the gentiles started waving handkerchiefs and shouting, “Amen! Preach it! That’s right! C’mon!” and pages shot up in the air and fluttered to the . . . – wait a minute – I’ve already told that story.  Or is it the same story; a story that has happened over and over again, down through the ages?

“And the circumcised believers were astonished because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the gentiles”

Throughout history, people have misinterpreted their calling from God.  They believe they have been chosen for privilege instead of purpose – they forget that they have been called to carry the word to the rest of the world, they begin to think they and those like them deserve to be God’s special ones, and that those other people, well they do not.  Women can’t preach, pagans don’t have souls, slaves are not really people, Native Americans are savages, etc. etc.  And even if we make them Christians, they must first become like us, they must cut away that which is the uniqueness God created when God created them. And God astonishes us and skips over all our objections and bestows the Holy Spirit on whomever God will, regardless of our rules and our prejudices.

It is not much of a stretch for us in the twenty-first century to accept the idea that God wants to extend the Kingdom to gentiles.  After all, that’s who most of us are.  When we hear Peter ask,

“Who can withhold the water for baptism for these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  we must ask ourselves, “From whom are we withholding the waters of baptism?”

Almost none of us would do it on purpose, but do we do it accidentally?  Have we decided that some people would rather not be a part of our type of church?  Has our invitation to the community failed to be as open to all as we want it to be?  Our calling today is to move beyond saying we’re open to all and beyond believing we’re open to all – to going out into the community and genuinely inviting anyone and everyone to be a part.  And I warn you – no matter how much you try to prepare yourself – you will someday find yourself astonished when the Holy Spirit falls upon that very person you had written off.  Just like some people were astonished when it fell on me and on you.

Amen and amen.