The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 6, 2015)

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

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

We’re on a roll by this point in the book of Proverbs — it is interesting to me that the Hebrew canon’s list of “one liners,” nearly 3,500 years in the making by now, is so relevant to our short attention spans. God’s wisdom has always been pretty contrary to our own. For example, most people would be hard pressed to choose a good name over a pile of gold. In our view of things, gold wins pretty much every time!

Psalm 125

I’ve always loved heading for the mountains. There’s something so solid and serene about them, whether the softly rolling Smoky Mountains of my beloved Tennessee, the verdant Catskills in upstate New York, or the towering Rockies in Colorado. It really hit me when I read v.2 this time around — “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore.” Yeah. That. That’s why I like the mountains, and why I’m thankful for the ever-surrounding presence of God.

Isaiah 35:4-7a

How comfortable are we with the “terrible God?” Being strong and casting out fear are generally desirable characteristics of the faith-filled life. But at what cost? The results given by Isaiah sound so worth it — blind eyes opened, deaf ears unstopped, Bambi and his friends leaping about with joy (and a resonant Disney soundtrack?)

But must it be the terrible God, coming with vengeance, who delivers these startling accomplishments? It’s a rough world, and sometimes the ways of God may seem a bit rough. Pay attention to today’s gospel text and Dr. Chilton’s sermon below for further insight.

Psalm 146

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” We feel the painful truth of that line quite often, don’t we? The “princes” of modern-day life are our politicians and government officials. In America, only about 15% of the population approves of the job done by our politicians, so we don’t have much trouble following the psalmist’s advice. Trusting — actually relying on and depending on — God is another matter, however!

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17

It’s true — what goes around eventually comes around! James reminds us that decency and mutual respect should be characteristic of the Christ life. I am particularly moved, given the current climate of our culture, by v.13 — “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” I would like to add, “Every time.”

Mark 7:24-37

I’m not sure that we think much of how our gentle Jesus, meek and mild, got tired and irritable, too. A reminder, I guess, that he was “only human.” (Well, not “only” human, but you know what I mean!) His treatment of the Syrophoenician woman is shocking by our standards, perhaps; but faith is faith, and she’s got it. And she gets what her heart desires.

The poor deaf man gets his ears popped and his tongue spat upon — what kind of weird healing ritual is this? Doesn’t matter, I don’t suppose; when God works, God works. And which of us can contest the ways that God chooses to work?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

(The bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have called upon the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to join in observing September 6 as “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” This sermon is offered in response to that request.)

(Jesus) said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Mark 7:27-28

For over fifty years, Atticus Finch, the lawyer/father in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has occupied a position of “secular saint” in American culture.  He is shown to us, both in the book and in Gregory Peck’s screen portrayal, as a man of rare courage, great moral integrity, and most of all, as a man untainted by the systemic racism of his community.

Then Harper Lee published, “Go Set a Watchman,” a different book written before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but set in a time 20 years later.  She has the same characters, but they are different than they were.  In particular, the sainted Atticus is different.  He is no longer so perfect and so pure.  This later Atticus is still an educated and somewhat enlightened man for his time and place, but he is also a bigot and a racist who participates in organizations designed to keep Black people in their place.  The reaction to this new Atticus was a combination of disbelief and dismay.  This is not the man who so sat on the jail porch, unarmed, facing down the Klan to defend Jim Robinson, nor is it the man who so ably defended him in court.  We do not recognize this new/old Atticus Finch.

Most of us have the same reaction to the Jesus we see in this story from Mark’s Gospel.  We do not recognize this careless bigot as the same man who eats with “tax collectors and sinners,” who healed the Roman Centurion’s daughter, who consistently reaches out to the despised, the ignored, and the left-behind.  “Who is this?” we wonder, “Who is this man who not only rejects the woman’s plea for healing, but who crudely insults her in the process? This is a Jesus we do not know.”

Over the years, Biblical scholars and preachers have tried to mitigate the distress we feel when we are confronted by this different and somewhat unlikeable Jesus.  Some have made much of the fact that in the Greek the word used for dogs could be translated puppies or household pets, but that really doesn’t help much.  Jews did not see dogs as pets, they were seen as wild scavengers, more like our attitude toward coyotes or wolves, and the word was used by Jews to refer to heretics and false teachers.  And even if he did mean puppies, it’s still an insult. Others have pointed out that Jesus doesn’t say the dogs won’t eat, just that the children get to eat first. I don’t think this helps very much. Any way you look at what Jesus said to the woman, he insulted her.

Now others say things like, “Jesus is being intentionally provocative, seeking to draw out a response of persistent faith from the woman.  He wants her to claim what is rightfully hers . . . While Jesus “loses” the debate, he is delighted to do so, since his purpose is to provoke even greater faith.”

(Mark L. Strauss, “Mark” Volume 2 in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p.313)   I really doubt this notion, mainly because there is nothing to base it on other than our desire for Jesus to always look good. Just like we resist a racist Atticus Finch, we push back against the notion of a Jesus who was somehow less than the perfect person we believe him to be.

What would happen if we were to take the text just as it appears upon the page, without trying to read into it or read behind it or read between its lines?  In that case we are confronted with the possibility that Jesus genuinely had his mind changed by his encounter with the Gentile woman.  We see Jesus coming into this debate with an attitude of Jews first.  We see him as being, like most Galileans, somewhat contemptuous of a person from Tyre.  It was an ancient dislike based on ethnicity, on race and racial conflict. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, Tyre and Israel were long time “bitter enemies.”  Jesus perhaps thinks himself generous in even mentioning the possibility that Phoenicians will be fed at all.

What the woman does here is fascinating.  Instead of bristling at the insult, she turns it in her favor.  She picks up on Jesus’ reference to children and paints a different picture, one any of us with dogs as household pets will instantly recognize.  She says, “True enough, but the dogs don’t have to wait to eat until later.  They just sit under the table and pick up what the children spill.”  And I might add, what the children slip to the dogs because they love the dog or because they don’t want to eat liver.  Jesus hears her and changes his mind about her request and heals her daughter.  I also think he changes his mind about the nature of his mission; about the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the new Kingdom of God.

Think about this for a minute.  In Mark’s story about Jesus, this is his first recorded encounter with someone who is not Jewish, someone who is not a member of his own race and own religion. Jesus grew up in a multi-cultural context, with Greeks and Romans and others all around, but then as now, ethnic groups tend to spend most of their time together, especially in matters of religion and politics. So, this is, perhaps, the first time Jesus has had to articulate his understanding of his mission as the Messiah to someone who did not share his ethnic and cultural background.  And he stumbles and says some things that maybe should not have been said.  And the woman made him think.  Indeed, it appears she made him change his mind, which resulted in his changing his actions.  In a very important sense, Jesus “got converted” by his encounter with the bold, truth-telling, Syrophoenician woman.

This has been a year of heightened race awareness in the United States.  From Ferguson and “Black Lives Matter,” to Baltimore, to a traffic stop in Texas, to the horrific events at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, to pick-up trucks driving our streets with rebel flags flying off the back – we have been confronted with an issue most of us would rather not think about or talk about.  But we must.  We must not only talk about it; we must act, we must do something about it.

We thought we were past it, we thought we were like the Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But the events of the last year have told us a different story, have held a mirror up to our lives and let us know that we are, as a people, more like the Atticus in “Go Set a Watchman;” most of us tone-deaf to the realities of life in America for minority persons.

Today, we are called to be like Christ in his conversation with the Gentile woman. We are called to listen to the voices of those who will tell us the truth about themselves, the truth about what it’s like to be a person of color in this country.  We are called to listen, and then we are called take action, first changing those things about ourselves that can change and should be changed.  Then we are called to speak out without fear, calling our nation to listen to the voices of those amongst us who have been ignored and silenced too long.

Amen and amen.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (August 16, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
The Lectionary Lab Live podcast will resume in September!

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

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
All good things must come to an end.

So with the life of the great king of Israel, David. Honestly, we have seen David at both his best and his worst over these past few weeks of readings. A great reminder that the people of the Bible’s stories are just like us — imperfect, unholy, obedient, faithful, willing and willful. God loves us and uses us for God’s own good purposes, just the same.

Young Solomon now ascends the throne, and begins his reign well, according to the text: “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David….” So far, so good. But, we do get a little hint of trouble to come with the rest of that verse: “…only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.”

Solomon will follow God, and be blessed greatly by God — as the rest of today’s passage clearly indicates. But, he will always have a bit of a weak spot for other ways, other women (lots of them,) and other gods.

As we have learned repeatedly: nobody’s perfect.

Psalm 111
A nice text for worship, we are immediately assured of the virtue of seeking God with our “whole hearts.” Not half-hearted, mind you — God wants and deserves it all!

In an additional nod to the accession of Solomon to the throne, we have v. 10 which echoes the famous words of Proverbs 9:10 — “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” 

Whole heart, healthy respect. These are two of the prerequisites for entering the worship of the God of heaven and earth.

Proverbs 9:1-6
Wisdom is personified in Proverbs, a wise woman who provides counterpoint to the fleeting pleasures of youthful desire embodied in the “adulterous woman.” While it may be a difficult choice to make in the throes of ardent, hormone-induced passion — the mature choice is life and insight, not momentary satisfaction.

Psalm 34:9-14
One of the most poignant questions ever asked of me was by a young college student who had just returned from a short-term mission experience in Africa. Regarding this psalm, she queried me: “Pastor, I don’t understand. I met some of the most passionate believers in Christ I have ever encountered, but they are starving to death! Why does this psalm say, ‘Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing?’”

I’m still puzzling that one out.

She went on to say that the people she had left behind were not the ones who were complaining; it was those who had come from cultures of plenty and more. We decided that maybe a part of her experience was a call to wake up to the wealth with which she was blessed, and to turn that toward sharing with those whose lack was a daily part of their lives. 

Could it be that the “good” that is needed in the life of another faithful brother or sister in the Lord, is currently residing in my own pocket or bank account or other reservoir of the overflowing blessings of God.

Or, as a member of my current congregation said to me recently, “When my cup’s overflowing, I believe I need to let it run into somebody else’s saucer.” 

Ephesians 5:15-20
“Be careful how you live.”

That’s not a statement of fear or restriction, but a call to careful examination. Keep a lookout on your life; walk around it, kick the tires, be sure things are in balance.

Getting drunk? Not your best move for a real purpose in life. Walking around singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs 24/7? Well, maybe that’s not exactly what the apostle is talking about, either!

Give thanks to God at all times…have an attitude of gratitude, as the old saying goes. Not everything that happens to me is going to elicit a “hip, hip, hooray” kind of reaction — but I can be aware and open and observant to what is happening around me. And, I can remember to thank God in my abundance and to ask for God’s help when I encounter need.

John 6:51-58    
See Dr. Chilton’s explication below.

(I can’t really add anything to it…and if you can’t say nothing nice, don’t say nothing at all!)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Over twenty years ago I served a church in the suburbs of Atlanta.  That year our bishop held a series of Chrism Masses.  This is a tradition dating back to the early church. The clergy gather with their bishop during Holy Week and renew their ordination vows and receive an anointing with oil from the bishop.

In order to get there at the appointed 6:00 am, I got up at 4:30 in the suburbs. Forty or fifty Lutheran clergy gathered in the early morning darkness to drink coffee and put on our albs and stoles in the small, cold and somewhat dark chapel.  We processed into the cathedral style church in single file, singing Veni, Creator Spiritus.

We sat in the chancel, in longs rows of dark wooden pews, facing each other across the aisle, the huge sanctuary to our right unlit and dark and foreboding, the altar to our left brightly lit by ceiling lights and dozens of candles.

The bishop preached, and we prayed, and we promised to be good pastors, and we took communion and the bishop and the assistants laid hands on us and anointed us with oil and prayed for our ministry, and it was haunting and mysterious and really, really, cool. After the worship, we returned to the chapel and took off our vestments and hung them in our carrying bags and laid them across the backs of pews. Then we all went down the hall for breakfast.

This was no ordinary minister’s breakfast – eating Krispy Kreme donuts on Thrivent napkins and coffee served in styrofoam cups while sitting on cold metal chairs in the Fellowship Hall or ancient donated couches in the Youth Room.

NO, We ate in the well-appointed Dining Room with thick plush carpet and an antique walnut and gold trim buffet table covered with platters overflowing with sausage balls and egg quiche and cheese grits and fresh fruit and bran muffins; and we ate off real china and drank out of real coffee cups while seated around wooden tables covered with linen table cloths.  We were all decked out in our best dark suits and black shirts and bright white collars and gold or silver crosses.  We sat and ate and looked out at the awakening city through the plate glass windows which ran wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling along one side of the room.

After eating my fill and talking myself empty, I decided it was time to leave and I made my good-byes and headed out.  Somewhere in the bowels of the building, I took a wrong turn and instead of going out the back into the parking lot, I went out the side onto a parallel street.  As I stumbled out into the early morning chill, I realized it was raining, and I was lost, and I was being stared at by 100 pairs of eyes.

All along the narrow strip of grass that separated the sidewalk from the outside wall of the nave, homeless people were huddled on newspapers or were leaning against the building, waiting for the food kitchen in the church to open at 9:00 AM.  As I looked at them looking at me, I felt both embarrassed and vulnerable and started walking as fast as I could down the street; unfortunately in the opposite direction from my car.

I arrived at the corner and realized I had gone in the wrong direction, I needed to go back, and I turned around and, for a brief moment, I was confronted by the Cross.  As I turned, I realized I could at one and the same time see into that huge plate glass window and also down the side street.

Through the window I saw the spiritual leaders of Georgia Lutheranism: warm, dry, well clad, well fed, laughing and talking and having a good time. Without turning my head, I also saw the homeless of Atlanta: cold, wet, in shabby clothes, depressed and silent and miserable. And the question came to my mind: If Jesus were standing on this corner, to which breakfast would he go?

At the time I thought the answer to that question was easy, that it was a clear cut “either/or.”  For some reason the idea that it could be “both/and” never occurred to me.  At the time (and long into the future) it was a personal parable, a moment in which I confronted my own failure to live up to the ideals of self-giving love which I so frequently and fervently preached.  And it was, and is, a good parable and a good reminder of our call to take up our cross and to serve the “least of these.”

But, there is more than that going on here because there is more than that to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In the old days my answer would have been that Jesus would be in the street with the homeless people.  Now my answer is that Jesus would be in both places at once – drawing the people to himself and to each other…

In our gospel lesson, Jesus says, “I am the living bread from heaven that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Verse 51) When Jesus says that he is the living bread from heaven, he is also saying that other things are not.  Not the things rich people have, not the things ordinary people have, not the things poor people don’t have and so desperately want.  While providing food for the hungry and clothing for the naked are important things; they are not the only things or even the most important things.

What Jesus gave to us, to all of us, to the world, was his flesh, his very self. To use an outdated image of God; Jesus did not look down from above and see our need and then lean over the balcony of heaven and hand down to us care packages of divine wisdom and holy  food and drink.  No, Jesus came himself.

Just so, God in Christ did not and does not send divine help to us by some sort of holy UPS truck, or beam it into our midst by use of a Star Trek Transporter.  The gift God gives us is God’s very self, in the person of Jesus, in the sacrament of the table and the community of the church – for we too are the “body of Christ,” called to be “living bread from heaven.”  The gift we are called to give to the world in Jesus’ name is not our stuff, not our extra cash or excess provisions.  NO!  The gospel invites us to give ourselves, our flesh if you will, for the sake of the world and for the life of the other.

Will you?  Will you take Jesus at his word and receive his life into your life?  And will you accept the invitation to follow in Christ’s footsteps, giving of yourself for the life of the world?

Amen and amen.

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (August 9, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
The Lectionary Lab Live podcast will resume in September!

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

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Our children, no matter how rebellious or “unloving” toward us, are always still our children.

There are very few words in scripture more pathetic (as in, filled with pathos) than David’s declaration of his grief over the death of Absalom. David would gladly have traded his life for his son’s, wayward child that he was.

The fulfillment of Nathan’s prophecy aside, what parent among us cannot identify with the pain in David’s heart? After sitting with the inconsolable grief for a few moments, which of us cannot be moved by imagining the same pain within the heart of God toward each of God’s wayward children across the earth?

Psalm 130
A plaintive and elegant song for the times we, too, must “cry from the depths” of life’s dark places.

1 Kings 19:4-8
There are those places that we, both as preachers and people of God, are sometimes called to go that just feel far too wearying to endure on our own. Laying down and waiting to die sounds like a pretty preferable alternative on some days.

But, on those days, God is still there. May the “bread of heaven” that sometimes appears in the strangest ways and places fill us and strengthen us for the journey.

Psalm 34:1-8
At all times.

That’s the key phrase in this psalm text — at least, it’s a key phrase. Blessing God is fairly easy when the good times are rolling by like a parade (though, admittedly, we often forget to bless God as our first instinct.)

When the bad times roll in like a fog, our first instinct may be to offer a prayer more along the lines of “help me, God!”

I’m with Anne Lamott, who quoted a wise friend (in Traveling Mercies, still one of my favorites of her work) as saying, “The two best prayers I know are ‘Help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
More practical applications of the grace of God for everyday living from Ephesians. This is good stuff. I like that all of it comes out of the phrase, “be imitators of God… live in love, as Christ loved” in 5:1-2. A pretty good set of companion ideas when paired with Psalm 34:1 (see above.)

John 6:35, 41-51
More than one wag has commented on this series of gospel readings, “When will Jesus ever stop talking about bread?”

We all love images of freshly-baked loaves, still warm from the oven, served up delightfully for us on platters with plenty of butter or cream cheese. Now that’s some “bread of heaven” we can get into!

As Jesus’ images turn toward eating his flesh, we find that the number of takers begins to dwindle pretty sharply. More than one Christian, when faced with the complexity and difficulty of living out the Christ lifestyle, has bemoaned, “This is not what I signed up for!”


by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Many years ago, when I was a young pastor, I was teaching a Catechism Class on a Sunday afternoon. A few minutes after we started, a young man came in, toting his four-year-old sister on his hip. “Mama has to go to the hospital to see Grandma. Says I got to keep Annie.” “Which means I ‘got to’ keep Annie,” I thought to myself as I heard his mother pull out of the church parking lot.

We were studying Holy Communion. I got Annie set up in the corner with a coloring book, then I began to go over the lesson with my three students.

Question – What two things make a Sacrament?
Answer – An Earthly Element and a Divine Command.

Q – What are the two Sacraments we observe? A – Baptism and Communion.

Q – What is the Earthly Element in Baptism? A -Water.

Q – What is the Earthly Element in Communion? A -Bread and Wine.

Q – What are the Bread and Wine? A – The Body and Blood of Jesus.

Q – So, when we eat the bread, what are we eating? A – The Body of Christ.

Q – And when we drink the wine, what are we drinking? A – The Blood of Jesus.

At this point I heard a noise in the corner, and turned to see Annie staring at us, wide-eyed. She loudly proclaimed “YEECH!” Then she threw up.

Most of us are so accustomed to hearing liturgical language about the bread and wine being the Body and Blood of Christ, that we no longer really hear the crude, primal, visceral nature of such language.  At least not the way Annie heard it; not the way Jesus’ audience heard it when he said to them: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6: 51)

How are we to understand this? What are we to make of such language? What is John trying to tell us with in chapter 6, filled as it is with “bread” stories? We’ve got the feeding of the 5000, the many references to the wilderness experience and God’s provision of manna from heaven and Jesus’ claims to be the true Bread from Heaven and then, this crude, cannibalistic reference to eating Jesus himself. It’s all a bit much for our modern, antiseptic sensibilities. It sounds too much like snake-handling and poison-drinking and being slain in the spirit and all those overly enthusiastic things some remote Christians are rumored to engage in. We prefer our religion neat and clean and appropriately done and appropriately metaphorical if you please.

And, so did many of the people to whom John was writing when he composed this Gospel. They were not only offended at his language about eating Jesus; they were offended by the very idea that Jesus was really human. They preferred to think that he was some sort of ghost who only appeared in human form, but was really all spirit. There was an idea about that the body was bad and the spirit was good and that true religion consisted of being really spiritual and escaping the body. So many who became Christian with this idea decided that Jesus, being the ultimate “spiritual person,” wasn’t really human, wasn’t really real, I guess.

John’s emphasis on Jesus’ fleshiness is meant to counteract this notion. The Greek word used here, “sarx,” denotes meat, flesh; whereas the other Greek word, “soma,” just means body. John is making it clear that Jesus was a real, live, human being who ate and slept and went to the bathroom. This was important then, and it’s important now. If Jesus just appeared or seemed to be human, then his death was not a real death, his suffering was not real suffering and his resurrection was just a show, a trick, an illusion.

For the economy of salvation to really work, it is necessary that Jesus be a real human being who lived and taught and suffered and died and went to the place of the dead and was brought back to life by the power of God. Otherwise, it’s just a nice story and it really doesn’t affect anything, doesn’t communicate anything to us about God’s love and our life.

In his book “Written in Blood” Robert Coleman tells the story of a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. For various reasons, the boy was the only donor whose blood could save his sister. The doctor asked, “Would you give your blood to Mary?” The little boy’s lower lip began to tremble, then he took a deep breath and said, “Yes, for my sister.”

After the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, the little boy began to look very worried, then he crossed himself, then he looked at the doctor and said, “When do I die?” Suddenly, the doctor realized that the little boy had thought that to give his blood to his sister meant he had to die, and miracle of miracles, he was willing to do that for his sister.

The gospel is – Jesus did that for us. That’s what John wants us to contemplate. It’s not a metaphor, not a parable, not a mythological construct about dying and rising gods. John is clear about that and wants his readers to be clear also. Which is why we have the language about eating Jesus’ flesh. The word rendered as “eat” in our text is perhaps better translated as “gnaw” or “chew.” Again, John wants to drive home the point of the “real world” nature of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.

As we come to the table this morning, we are to be mindful of Jesus’ presence in our midst. It was a real presence then and it is a real presence now.  The Gospel is that Jesus really, truly came down from heaven to live among us as the fleshly love of God. The Gospel is that Jesus really, truly died upon the cross, giving up his flesh and spilling his blood, to save us from our sins. The Gospel is that God almighty really, truly raised him from the dead, brought him out of the grave to a new and eternal life. The Gospel is that God almighty really, truly has just such a future in store for each and every one of us.

And the Gospel is that when we come to the table, we really, truly take a bite out of that future.
We really, truly drink deeply of that promise. We really, truly receive into ourselves a love that will never, ever let us go – in this world or in the next.

Amen and amen.