The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (August 2, 2015)

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

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a
Two phrases from this poignant story resonate with me: “You are the man” and “I have sinned.” Boil it all down, and you have all one really needs to know about the gravity of sin and its resolution.

David is outraged and moved by the story of the defenseless lamb. Alas, it is always much easier for us to see sin in the lives of someone else; our own shortfalls are arguably “not so bad.” But, Nathan’s accusation is straight up and to the point. “You know you did it, David.”

When confronted with our sin, we can aver, justify, minimize, shift the blame or use any number of other strategies to avoid owning up. In the end, not a one of them will avail our need for cleansing and righteousness. There is only one way through to forgiveness — confession. “I did it; I was wrong.” 

The cost for sin is great; confession does not take that away. But it does make restoration possible — it opens the door for hope from despair.

Psalm 51:1-12
The textual notes tell us that this is written by David after he has been confronted by Nathan about his sin with Bathsheba. The language speaks for itself; the depth of agony, sorrow, and penitence are as palpable here as any place in the scripture.

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
“Huh?”

Can you imagine that response to a miracle? The Israelites have been dreaming of bread and “fleshpots” back in Egypt, and Moses tells them God will send them food the next morning. “Just look for it when you open your tentflap and step out.”

So, they do — and they may have been a little underwhelmed at first. “What’s that?” Kind of like children confronted with a plate of spinach or stewed carrots, perhaps. 

We aren’t always immediately thrilled with God’s answers to our prayers, are we? Sometimes, it takes some time to get acclimated and to catch up with the wisdom of what God is doing. Manna may not have been a four-course meal, but it sure did get them through some tough times in the wilderness!

God tends to come through in the clutch, even if it’s not the way we would have done it ourselves.

Psalm 78:23-29
The psalm text calls God’s manna from heaven, “the bread of angels.” Probably a little poetic license here — we don’t literally know if this is what angels eat for breakfast every morning.

But it is the symbol of abundance and provision. Good enough for angels, good enough for you and me!

Ephesians 4:1-16
The Apostle reminds us that we are definitely all very different parts of the same body. No two of us perform exactly the same functions (or see “eye to eye” on all things, necessarily!) But, we all definitely need each other in order to perform most effectively.

Besides, there is a powerful argument presented here for finding unity in the midst of our considerable diversity: we all share one hope, one calling, one one Lord, one faith, one baptism (even if I use more water than you do!) — there is one God who looks parentally upon each of us.

We are a family, after all, and though we may fuss and fight like one — in the end, we are here to stick up for one another, as well.

John 6:24-35    
People are always hungry.

Things were no different for Jesus; after a couple of “feeding the five thousand” episodes, there are those who find themselves standing in line, coming back for more. He is hard-pressed to keep up with the demand, as he evidently did not come into the world “to save the people from their hunger.”

He tries really hard to point them to the bread of heaven — not exactly the same thing as the manna they had all heard about (see above) — and promises that their spiritual hunger and thirst will definitely be satisfied if they believe in him.

“Fine, but we’re still hungry here, Jesus. What are you going to do about that?”

As we will see in next week’s lesson, Jesus will tell them that eating his flesh is the answer– but he doesn’t get many takers.

Ministry sure is hard.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I am a total and complete “land-lubber.” I get sea-sick standing on the pier at Myrtle Beach.  Therefore, it will not surprise you to learn that I know absolutely nothing about lobsters, except what I read in Wikipedia and in this illustration I clipped from an unspecified “Christian magazine” and put in a file about twenty years ago.  So, I am dependent upon those two slightly wobbly sources for the accuracy of this idea.

“From time to time lobsters have to leave their shells in order to grow.  They need the shell to protect them from being torn apart; yet when they grow the old shell must be abandoned.  If they did not abandon it, the old shell would soon become their prison – and finally their casket. The tricky part is the brief period of time between when the old shell is abandoned and the new one formed.  During that terrible, vulnerable period, the transition must be scary to the lobster.  Currents cartwheel them from coral to kelp.  Hungry schools of fish are ready to make them a part of the food chain.  For a while at least, that old shell must look pretty good.” Brent Mitchell.

“The brief period of time between when the old shell is discarded and the new one is formed” – that’s where we find the congregation of the Israelites today. They too had left behind an old shell – years, generations really, of slavery in Egypt.  It was not a good life, but it was life.  It was bad and hard, but at least it was a place where they understood the rules, they knew what to expect.  It may not have been a land flowing with milk and honey but at least there was water to drink and food to eat and a roof over their heads.  True they were slaves – but then again, it was steady work.

Here in the desert, in the wilderness – nothing was certain.  Everything was wide open: they had no jobs, no crops, no storehouses, no overseers, and no certainty about where the next meal would come from.  No wonder they were grouchy and complaining.  Truth be told, in their shoes, we would be too.

In this state of exposure and uncertainty and anxiety about the future – the past began to look pretty good.  Throughout the biblical stories of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness a constant theme is played out, over and over and over again.  The congregation of Israelites complains about their condition and blame Moses and God for getting them into this mess.  And they also look back upon their time in Egypt as the “good old days,” reciting fuzzy memories of their years of suffering and servitude.

“The tricky part  . . .  is the brief period of time between when the old shell is discarded and when the new one is formed.”  That was true for the Israelites and it is true for us.  American Christianity is in that time between shells; we are walking through the desert without the security and safety of the old ways of doing things.  Sometimes it feels like we are being forced to reinvent ourselves on an almost weekly basis and in the midst of being blown about by the winds of change we are tempted to look back on the way things used to be and to think how much easier it would be if things never changed.  We can find ourselves wishing for more stability, for more security, for “now” to go back to being like “then”.

Until I was thirteen my family lived in a little four room house on a farm we shared with my grandparents.  Four little rooms and an attic for two parents and five children.  A well in the yard for water, and an outhouse in the woods for, well, you know.  Within a year both my grandparents died and my aunt who had lived with them married and moved down the road to her husband’s farm and my family occupied my grandparent’s house.  It was a large rambling two story farmhouse with lots of rooms, big porches on the front and back, and best of all – indoor plumbing.

Our family had some difficulty adjusting to our new home.  I don’t want to be indelicate here, but when the men in the family got up in the morning, they headed outside before they remembered they had a bathroom.  More interestingly, we found ourselves living in the same amount of space we had used in the old, smaller house.  It took us a while to spread out and take advantage of all that unrestricted room.

The congregation of the Israelites complained about food and God gave them food.  In chapter 17 they complained about water and God gave them water.  As time goes on they complained about other things.  Sometimes God got angry, sometimes God didn’t; but God always responded to their need and provided for them  Because God knew that lack of food, water, and other things wasn’t what was really bothering the Israelites.  It was all that freedom, all that uncharted future in front of them.

So it is with us.  We too face an uncertain and uncharted future.  We too are often guilty of succumbing to the fatal allure of the familiar.  We too look at the way the world is changing and we become frightened.  We too look to the past for assurance: We cling to the old hymns and the old liturgies as if we can only pray and God can only hear in those words, in those ways.  We go down the hall of the church and point at pictures of pastors and confirmations of the past and think, “It was so much better when things were like that.” And maybe it was, but the fact is, it will never be that way again and we must be the church in the world as it is – not as we wish it were.

And the story of the manna is our assurance that God is with us in our wilderness, God is leading us through this time of uncertainty and growth, God is providing what we need, not necessarily what we want, but certainly what we need.

The writer of Exodus refers to the manna as a test.  Sometimes we forget that testing is an educational tool, a tool to help us discover those places where we need to learn more and grow more.  God is not trying to trip the Israelites up, not trying to see if they measure up to being the “Chosen people” – God already knows that they don’t and that such measuring up is beside the point.  God is using this test to teach them the lesson that faith is not about what we know and not about what we are capable of doing.  Faith is about trusting God in those times when we are without even the vestige of a shell of outward protection; when we are bereft of anything except our sheer and utter dependence upon the goodness of God.  To go out to pick up manna and to take only enough for one day is to trust that God will provide again the next day, and the next day after that, and yes, the next day after that.

Pray with me please:  “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 317.  Collect after the Litany)

Amen and amen.

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (July 26, 2015)

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

2 Samuel 11:1-15
Boy, oh, boy! What can we say about King David and his wandering eyes?
There are any number of approaches possible for preaching this text; certainly, “be sure your sins will find you out” is a tried and true message. The futility of trying to “hide from God” (a la the story of the Fall in the garden of Eden) might be another. Seeing if you can find somebody else to take the fall for you (“go on down to your house, Uriah, and ‘wash your feet’ –[wink, wink]”) is another fool’s errand.
 
I am struck by the depth of the desperation that ensued as David sought any remedy other than honest confession for his sin. Those in the recovery community learn — at a price, to be sure — that every offense is only made right by an act of atonement. Responsibility must be accepted and amends must be made.
You can’t send Joab to do your dirty work for you.
Psalm 14
I recently re-watched Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien (all three movies — it was a holiday!) When I read this psalm, I get a visual image of the “all-seeing eye” of Sauron flashing in my mind. 
(Of course, you can Google it and find an image — or you can just go here.)
I’m not certain that this is what the psalmist had in mind with his line, “The Lord looks down from heaven…” — but there is something to be said for the pervasiveness and thoroughness of God’s vision when it comes to considering the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.
 
2 Kings 4:42-44
The Hebrew Bible version of loaves and fishes: loaves of barley and fresh ears of corn (well, at least of grain — what else other than corn comes in ears?)
At any rate, Elisha’s miracle — based on a word from the Lord — foreshadows the trust that Christ would call forth from his disciples on the hillside. Little is enough — and more than enough! — when God is in the mix.
Psalm 145:10-18
This is one of the most encouraging psalm texts in scripture — and that’s saying a lot! Both God’s words and actions are intended for good (v.13.) God is near to “all who call” on God. Truly.
Ephesians 3:14-21
Love, strength, grace, glory, riches — Ephesians is filled with these “power” phrases, available as Christ dwells in the hearts of believers. Indeed, in the fullness of God’s good intention — its height, depth, and breadth — there is very little that God cannot accomplish. Certainly, more than we can imagine (if not always exactly what we have imagined!)
John 6:1-21    
No rest for the weary — and, on this occasion, no food, either.
John’s telling has Jesus slyly testing the disciples. They are excellent foils for his plans to illustrate what faith in God looks and acts like. Jesus works with very little (compare the relative bounty in Elisha’s story, above) but leads the disciples to see that God provides not just enough — but much more than they ever could have imagined (see Ephesians, above.)
For the disciples, it’s personal. When the lesson has ended, they each have their own basket to carry away — a reminder of God’s sufficiency in the time of need.
The second episode, with Jesus walking on water in the midst of a storm (and transporting not only the disciples, but their boat, to safety with Mr. Scott-like efficiency) illustrates even further how little we need fear when God is the strength of our lives.
It’s tough in the midst of our own storms — admittedly. But let the words of Christ dwell richly in us: “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the far west of North Carolina where I live, you will often see a sign in front of a church or Masonic Lodge or VFW building announcing a “Poor Man’s Dinner” fundraising event. (Except the Catholics; the Catholics have “Friday Night Fish Fry”, for which I am eternally grateful.)  A “Poor Man’s Dinner” consists of pinto beans and cornbread, with sweet iced tea and appropriate deserts.  This is a nod to the area’s past when most of the people were very poor and pinto beans and cornbread got many families through the winter.

In our gospel lesson for today, Andrew brings forward a young man who “has five barley loaves and two fish.”  Barley loaves and fish was a poor man’s dinner.  The middle classes, the wealthy, the Greek merchants and the Roman occupiers all ate wheat bread – the poor ate bread made from barley.

I have often wondered about how Andrew stumbled upon the young man with the loaves and fishes.  Did the boy shyly tug at his elbow and say, “It isn’t much but the Teacher can have it.”?  Did he sit off in a corner with his lunch under his cloak, occasionally sneaking a bite before he was spotted by Andrew, who then said, “Aha, you need to share that.”?  Or was it something in between?  How was that the boy decided to share?

Surely the boy had to wonder about what difference his little bit of food, his “Poor Man’s Dinner,” would make.  He had to think, “There are so many and I have so little.  All that will happen is I will have to go hungry along with everyone else.  Better to keep what’s mine and let the other people take care of themselves.”   Someone shared a cartoon on Facebook this week.  It showed four people in a rowboat.  The two people at one end were furiously bailing water out of the boat as it began to sink.  The two people at the other end sat back comfortably and smiled as one said to the other, “Sure am glad the hole is not in our end of the boat.”

Sometimes we’re all like that.  When things look dicey, we decide that the hole isn’t in our end of the boat, therefore it’s not our problem.  We look to take care of our own people and our own stuff; we secure what matters most to us and certainly don’t want to waste what little we have on the needs of someone else.  Besides, it’s easy to think, “What difference will it make?  I have only enough for me and mine.” I read an article recently about what are called “Preppers.” It’s a more urban and urbane version of survivalists.  These are people who believe that we are facing a major economic crises and social upheaval in the near future.  They are storing several months’ worth of food in their homes, creating emergency plans to get out of the cities into an isolated hideaway, and arming themselves to fend off the masses of unprepared people who will want to get at their stuff. (“The Week,” July 17, 2015)

In contrast to this attitude of scarcity and self-protection, our scripture lessons call us to have enough faith in God to share what we have, trusting God to provide whatever else is needed.  In Second Kings, the man from Baal-shalishah showed the offering, the first fruits, to Elisha.  He is a bit embarrassed – it is not much, just twenty Barley loaves and some other fresh grain, a poor man’s dinner indeed. But Elisha doesn’t bat an eye. “Give it to the people.” he says.  “What? How can I?” the man sputters. Elisha’s servant chimes in, “It’s not enough to feed all these people.”  And Elisha assures them both, “The Lord has promised, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’ ”

As we saw in the gospel lesson, the boy hands over his five barley loaves and two fish to Jesus.  And somehow, someway, God provides.  There is plenty, more than enough for everyone. Jesus makes a rich feast out of a poor man’s dinner.

We often think we don’t have much to offer either God or the world, either personally or as a congregation. We see ourselves as poor, or small, or weak, or otherwise inadequate.  And nothing could be further from the truth.  The Biblical story is a story of a God who takes our little and turns it into a lot.  We often try to hang on to what we have because we don’t really trust God’s promise that if we turn everything over to him we will be all right, really we will.  Deep down, most of us don’t believe that God will take what we grudgingly, almost reluctantly hand over and turn it into more than we ever imagined possible.

But the gospel is – God in Christ has done and will do just that.  God doesn’t really want our treasure, God wants our trust.  God doesn’t really want our finances, God wants our faith.  God doesn’t really want our things, God wants us.  God wants us to let go of everything else and to truly believe that we can rely on the fact that the divine and holy love that made the universe also made us and that this immense love, a love “that surpasses knowledge,” (Ephesians 3:19) will provide for us and will use us to provide for others.

May we let go of our endless need for self-protection and self-reliance.  May we turn loose of our desperate desire to control our own lives and manage our own future.  May we look upon the love of God in Christ and relax, and open our hands, and release into God’s care all those things we have been so desperately holding on to because we are afraid of not having enough.  May we give to God our “barley loaves and fish,” our “pinto beans and cornbread,” our “poor man’s dinners,” so that God can transform them and us into a rich blessing for the world.

Amen and amen.

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (July 19, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

2 Samuel 7:1-14a

Not every idea that we have for ministry or for “God’s glory” is necessarily a good idea — at least for the moment. There is something significant about waiting and working on God’s timetable.David’s motivation for the temple project was most likely very sincere. But, God urged David to wait on that project. God just wanted David to do what God had set before him: be the king, lead the people.

Unfortunately, David — like so many of us — had a very short attention span when it came to listening deeply and waiting patiently for the will of God. We tire of the plain old day-to-day tasks of ministry and long for something more exciting, something grander.
Soon, David will “find” an object for his attention and energy — in the form of Bathsheba, another man’s wife. We stray from the path God sets for us at great peril, my friends.

Psalm 89:20-37

What an incredible word of God’s faithfulness to us, in spite of our actual and potential unfaithfulness!
God plans in advance to remain faithful to God’s own covenant promises. We may (and certainly do) stray from God’s commandments, and that always has a cost (vv. 31-32.) But, God does not give up on us (vv. 33-34) — God determines to continue the work of building our lives and making God’s righteousness known throughout the earth.

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Not every leader among the people of God is a good and faithful leader. This fact is sad, but true. There are “flocks” that have been hurt by unfaithful shepherds — just as there are faithful shepherds that have been injured by their flocks — but that’s another story.
Wherever there has been hurt in the lives of God’s people, God is present to bring healing and restoration. (v. 3) God is the God who makes it right. (v.6)

Psalm 23

God is the restorer of our souls — when we are physically depleted, God guides us to the place of rest (green pastures.) When we are spiritually and emotionally drained, God allows us to drink deeply from the  still waters of God’s own compassion.

Ephesians 2:11-22

This passage forms part of Paul’s clear vision for God’s work in building all the people of the earth into a “new humanity.” Begun in the covenant promises given to Israel, that work is now moving toward completion through the life of Jesus Christ.
There is one Spirit, Paul says, that grants us all access to the Father. As the Spirit completes the work of fashioning our lives into a temple, we look forward to the time when God will dwell with God’s people — all of them, without division or hostility. (v. 14)
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Compassion costs.
The apostles return from their mission work excited, but a bit exhausted, as well. They have seen and felt the power of God made manifest through their lives. Many, many others have been “blessed” by God as a result of their faithful ministry. Jesus tells them that they have earned a respite — a little rest.
But, alas, there is very little rest for the weary in ministry, it seems. There is almost nowhere that Jesus and the guys can go that there are not needy people waiting on them, hoping for a touch of the Christ.
Where will the crowds gather in our lives — hoping to be touched by Christ through us? Careful, it’s costly!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Evening Shade” was a show that starred Burt Reynolds as a small town football coach in Arkansas. One night the coach’s two small children were leaning out the upstairs window, looking at the stars.
They began to chat. The boy says: “I’m glad I’ve got you guys. It sure would be lonely without you.” His sister replies, “Remember Sunday School.” The boy looks at her and asks: “Remember Sunday School? What do you mean by that? Oh, yeah. You mean how God is always here so we’re never alone.” She nods and says, “Yeah, that’s what I mean.” and her brother looks back at the sky and sighs, “Well, I know that’s right, but sometimes I just need somebody with some skin on them.”

I think most of us know how he feels. The world can be a difficult and dangerous and lonely place. And as comforting as it is to believe in a God in Heaven who loves us and cares about us and has a plan for our lives; sometimes you just need somebody to talk to who will talk back. That’s why people flocked to Jesus. Sure there were those who had heard about his miracles and just wanted to see a good show. And there were those who were there just because everybody else was there.

It’s like the Friday night high school football in the small-town south. When my son was in the band I used to sit in the stands and listen to women talk about church and teen-agers talk about who’s dating whom.  One night the Methodist preacher told me to sit with him. He said, “This is the section for the football fans. The other people are just here because everybody else in town is here.”

So there were the thrill seekers and the crowd seekers, but there were also the God seekers, those who had heard about Jesus; had heard about his words and his actions and had come to catch a glimpse of the Holy. Jesus and the apostles had been really busy and really needed a break. So Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” They were going on retreat, on vacation, on holiday. But it was not to be. By the time they got where they were going, a crowd had gathered. Jesus looked at them and weighed his own and his companions’ weariness against something he saw in the faces turned up at him, something in the crowd’s eyes.  What was it that swayed Jesus to give up the plan to rest? I think he looked at them and saw their hunger.  Not a hunger for food, but a hunger for companionship, a hunger for community, a hunger for love, a hunger for God.

Verse 34 says, “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Compassion literally means “to feel with.” Jesus felt compassion for them because he had felt what they were feeling.  After his baptism, the Spirit drove him into the Wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. There he learned what it feels like to be abandoned, deserted, alone in the universe.  He also learned what one does and does not need in a time like that.

There in the wilderness, Jesus realized that fixing every human hurt was not to be his mission. People didn’t need a Superman jumping to their rescue. People needed to know that God was in the world with them, not off in heaven above and beyond them. People needed to know that God cared, and that God wanted them to care, and to act with caring as well.  So, there in the desert, Jesus came to a momentous decision; he would purposely withhold his power, restrain himself.  Throughout his ministry opportunities for healings came to Jesus, but he didn’t go looking for them. Every time he worked a miracle it happened because of those three little words – “he had compassion.”
That he had compassion is the most important thing we can say about Jesus, and about God. We live in the midst of a world in which people are afraid of their own shadows, a world where if they believe in God at all, they believe God to be either remote and uncaring, or cruel and vindictive. In such a world, we in the church have been called to witness to the fact that he had compassion.

The world in which we live is depressed and sad and frightened and on edge about the future. And into this bog of sadness and sorrow, we the church are called to imitate our Lord and find ways to break into the cycle of fear and violence with words and acts of hope and assurance, words and acts of compassion and healing. Now, that is a mighty tall order isn’t it? What can one church do? What can one Christian do?  In the face of all this hurt and pain, who are we to think we can make a difference?

Those must have been the sorts of questions a little Albanian nun asked herself over fifty years ago when she found herself in Calcutta, one of the worst and most hopeless places in the world. And what she decided to do was to do what Jesus did in our story, she had compassion on the ones right in front of her. She dealt with the need she was given and did what she could. She began to pick up the dying beggars off the streets of Calcutta and to give them a decent place to die. That was it. She washed their wounds and their bottoms, she cleaned their sheets and their latrines. She fed them, and bathed them and turned them on their pallets when no one else would touch them. She had compassion, one dying person at a time. We are called to have compassion, to preach compassion, to teach compassion, to live compassion. We are called to break whatever rules and taboos and cultural barriers necessary to let the world know God is not harsh, God is not out to get them, God is not punishing them for their sins. God is love. God is steadfast, everlasting, never-ending love.
God is reaching out into the midst of our fear of death with an offer of life, of life eternal.

“He had compassion.” Jesus had compassion then, and God has compassion now. Open up your hearts and let God love you.  Open up your arms and show God’s love to the world.

AMEN AND AMEN

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (July 12, 2015)

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

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

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
The reading, as assigned, feels a little disorienting, in that there is a three-month break in the action between verse 5 and verse 12. The quizzical and tragic incident involving Uzzah — who was probably just doing what he thought was best — is omitted, as is the aforementioned 90-day hiatus of the ark in the house of Obed-edom, as David was “afraid of the Lord.”

But, once it became clear that the ark was a source of blessing and not of curse (as long as you kept your hands off of it,) David proceeds with the processional. And, I mean, proceed he does! 

The former shepherd boy does the Holy City Hoedown, as it were, and his wife — Michal, Saul’s daughter — is ashamed of him. (Maybe she was still ticked off that David had won her in the Goliath contest…who knows?)

Whatever the source of her bitterness, it didn’t serve her well; she remains barren for the rest of her life, a symbol in Israel of the withdrawal of God’s blessing. (But you don’t get that part of the story in today’s reading, either — look to v. 23)

Worth noting: the blessing by David of God’s people took a very tangible form. He distributed food to every household. Might be a good reminder for us of just how the blessing of God is intended for every one of God’s people, everywhere.

Psalm 24
A fitting psalm for the processional. Lift the gates, open the doors; the celebration is for the LORD, who is strong and mighty. As we learned from David’s earlier encounter with Goliath, “the battle is the Lord’s.” 

Amos 7:7-15
To whom are we ultimately accountable for our lives? Against whom are we measured? Ever and always, it is God’s measurement (judgment) that counts. God’s will is the rule of life.

Psalm 85:8-13
When we are quiet long enough to hear God speak, what we will often hear is God’s message of peace. Love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace — these are “the good” that God desires to give.

Ephesians 1:3-14
We are, indeed, blessed with a number of “spiritual blessings” in Christ:

  • we are chosen before the foundation of the world (God works way ahead of the curve!)
  • we were destined to be adopted into God’s family
  • grace is freely bestowed on us, as are redemption and forgiveness
  • we have an inheritance (who wouldn’t like to get one of those?)
  • we have heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and we live for Christ’s glory
  • we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit — a “down payment” of sorts on the life we will live forever with God

Mark 6:14-29
Some days, it just doesn’t pay to be a preacher!

John has famously and steadfastly proclaimed the message from God: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” For Herod, that repentance involved not marrying his brother’s wife — but, he just couldn’t help himself!

While Herod is uncomfortable with John, he also respects him and is intrigued by him. But, with his blood all riled up after watching his niece/daughter dancing after dinner, Herod pretty much traps himself into killing a man he really wanted to protect.

Rather than let his pride suffer (not to mention the hell he would have to pay for refusing his wife,) Herod lops off John’s head and serves it up on a platter.

Oh, be careful little mouth what you say!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Recently I made a quick stop at a convenience store and parked at an awkward angle. When I came back to the car, a woman driving a UPS truck was pulling in behind me and asked, “Are you going forward or backing up?”  I quickly figured out her problem – if I was pulling forward, it was safe for her to park behind me; if I was backing up, she needed to park somewhere else. Being a preacher I took her question far beyond its original, pragmatic meaning. “Am I,” I thought, “going forward or backing up in my life?” For the rest of the day I applied the question to myself and to my relationships and to my family and to my church. Am I going forward or backing up? Am I making progress or am I losing ground? Is my church making progress or backing up?

In our gospel lesson, King Herod has a dilemma about what to do with John the Baptist. He has more than a political decision to make here; the text reveals that he was struggling with a deep spiritual question, a question he only barely perceives or acknowledges, but one which was more important than any other question he would ever face. What would he do about John’s call to repentance and the coming Kingdom of God? Would he go forward or would he back up?

As the story begins, Herod has begun to hear about the preaching and teaching and healing of Jesus. People are speculating as to who Jesus is. Herod leaps to a farfetched conclusion, one based on his own guilt and fear: he decides Jesus is John the Baptist, whom he beheaded, now reincarnated to haunt him.  Herod had an affair with his brother’s wife Herodias.  Herod and Herodias then divorced their respective spouses and got married. John was not hesitant in telling the king that he was a sinner bound for hell.  Herodias was furious that a popular preacher was calling her an adulterer in public, so she pressured Herod to shut him up. Now, Herod could have killed John right away, but, but . . . something stopped him – fear and perplexity and the minute stirrings of the soul. “. . .for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.” (verse 20)

Herod was perplexed. He was confused. He couldn’t decide whether to go forward or back up. He knew what politics and self-protection dictated; and he was a consummate politician; and yet something kept him from doing the politically right thing. Something deep inside, be it religion or superstition, kept him from doing away with John. So he kept him in prison, locked away, kept John from interfering with his daily life, and yet, and yet, he liked to listen to him.

Is that perhaps the way some of us live our spiritual lives? Most days, in most ways, we follow the customs of our time, the dictates of the so-called real world, making decisions based on pragmatic necessity; keeping our religiosity locked away in a convenient spiritual prison, where we can listen to it when we have time and when it won’t cause us any trouble. That’s what happens when we try to live our lives by two contradictory and competing standards. Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti tells of taking voice lessons while also attending teachers college. At graduation, he said to his father, “What shall I do, be a singer or a teacher?” His father said, “Luciano, if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.”

Amos used the symbol of the plumb line, a simple builder’s tool, a string with a weight at the end. Hold it to the top of the wall and it hangs straight down, showing you if your wall is built correctly.
Amos says that God’s word and God’s way are to be our plumb lines, that by which we measure our lives to see if we are straight and true. Herod’s problem is that he has too many plumb lines working. One is John’s preaching, a plumb line that judge’s Herod’s life and finds it wanting. Another is Herod’s wife, who is pressuring him to follow her will. Another is public opinion, another is the will of his political friends and another is the will of his political enemies. No wonder Herod is perplexed, his plumb lines are getting tangled, calling him in different directions. Herod can’t decide what to do, so he tries to get away with doing nothing.

Herod’s hand is forced when the plumb lines come together and he can no longer delay. There is a party, he drinks too much, then he makes a rash promise. His wife seizes her moment and demands the death of John; and there Herod sits, again perplexed and bothered. Will he do the right thing? Or will he cave in to the pressures of prestige and pride? In his struggle to sit between two chairs, Herod falls. In his choice between going forward into God’s Kingdom or falling back into his old ways, Herod chooses badly and calls for the head of John the Baptist. He has picked the wrong plumb line by which to measure his life.

In “the Robe,” a novel about early Christianity, Lloyd C. Douglas tells the story of what happened to Jesus’ robe, the one the soldiers gambled for at the foot of the cross. In the novel, it continually changes hands, and its owners are faced with a choice about how to respond to the story of the Robe, the story of the crucified Jewish peasant. One who responds is a Roman soldier named Marcellus. He hears the gospel story, he receives Christ into his life, he becomes a Christian. He writes his lover, Diana, back in Rome, telling her the story of the Robe, the story of Jesus. She writes back, “It’s a lovely story, we don’t have to do anything about it do we?

Diana, like King Herod before her, has hit upon the dilemma of hearing the Gospel. It is a beautiful, frightening, perplexing story, one people like to listen to. And if you listen carefully, you will realize that it is calling you to change, to become different. And most of us don’t want to. Like Diana, we cry out, “We don’t have to do anything about it, do we?”

Well, yes we do. We cannot sit on two chairs, for we will surely fall between them. We cannot live our lives by a variety of standards, we cannot measure ourselves by contradictory plumb lines, for they will surely get tangled, and our house of faith will fall. We cannot sit still in the parking lot of life; we must go forward or back up. We cannot keep God and Christ locked away in a private prison of our own devising, bringing them out to look at and listen to at our convenience. We must decide, we must do something about the story of Jesus.

Our calling today is to measure our lives by the plumb line of God’s love. That plumb line was established on the cross, where Jesus gave his life, his all, for us. Our calling is to conform our lives to his, to love with his love, to forgive with his grace, to move with Christ into the fulfillment of the Kingdom. So, I ask you, as I ask myself, “Are you going forward, or are you backing up?

Amen and amen.