All Saints Day (November 1, 2015)

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With All Saints Day falling on Sunday this year, we are fully embracing that here on the Lab. The Lectionary Lab Live podcast for this week features commentary on all the texts for the day, and Dr. Chilton’s sermon is spot on for the day. Blessings to all who preach, read, and consider the Word for this day!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He said, “Where have you laid him?”  They said to him, “LORD, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.”  John 11:33-35

When I was a kid going to Sunday School in the Baptist Church you answered the roll with a “memory verse.”  The line rendered here “Jesus began to weep,” was only two words in the King James Version, “Jesus wept.”  It was a popular memory verse in the Junior Boys Department until the teacher banned it from further usage.  For a very long time that verse meant very little to me except as a pleasant memory of boyhood cutesiness.

But not so as I move into my sixties.  More and more people that I have known and loved most of my life have died in recent years; my mother and my close friend John in the last year alone.  And like Jesus, I have wept.  Unlike Jesus, I did not have the power to bring my loved ones back to life.

All Saints Day is an oxymoronic celebration of sorrow and joy, of loss and anticipation, of the remembrance of things past and the hope of things to come. On this day we remember not only the great and celebrated saints of the church, we also remember the not so great and seldom celebrated saints who fill our personal lives.  Most of all, this is a day on which we smile through our tears, trusting in God’s promise that all our yesterdays are just a prelude to a glorious and never-ending tomorrow.

The gospel story of the raising of Lazarus is part of a larger and very important story which takes up the whole of Chapter 11 in John and actually carries over into Chapter 12.  It goes like this.

Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, about whom we have heard much before.  Lazarus is a good friend of Jesus – he is described to Jesus as “he whom you love.” Lazarus is very sick and his sisters send word to Jesus to come and help him. But Jesus doesn’t go.  He says something about this illness not being one that leads to death and that it will glorify God, and then he sits around for two days and does nothing.

Then suddenly he gets up and says, “Let’s go to Judea.”  His disciples are startled and not just by his sudden movements.  They remind him that there are people looking to kill him (and them) in Judea, and that this might not be a really smart move.  Jesus again says something enigmatic, this time about daylight and darkness and those with the light not stumbling.  Then he says, besides we’re going to find Lazarus and wake him up.  The disciples, as usual, don’t get it and say, “Well if he’s asleep he’ll be fine.”  Jesus then speaks plainly, “Lazarus is dead, so let’s go.”  Then the one who is later called the doubter makes a great act of faith, or at least of courage.  Thomas says, “Okay, let’s go with him, so we can die with him.”  He still doesn’t get what Jesus’ is doing, but he’s with Jesus anyway.  Kind of how I feel, most days.

So Jesus goes to Bethany and meets people who tell him that Lazarus is dead and that he’s been in the tomb four days, and Martha finds Jesus and takes out her grief on him, blaming Jesus that her brother has died, blaming Jesus for not coming right away.  And when Jesus starts talking about resurrection, she blows him off, saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know about resurrection in the last days, yada, yada, yada.  My brother’s dead NOW!” And Jesus says, “I’m talking about now, right now. Those who believe in me will live.  Do you believe,” And she says, “I believe.”

So then, Martha goes and gets her sister Mary, who also comes to see Jesus.  And now we come to the part of the story we read today.  Mary is weeping, her friends are weeping, and Jesus becomes “greatly disturbed,” and for the first time begins to weep, begins to show the first signs of grief over the loss of his friend, the friend “whom he loved.”

Why now?  Why did Jesus not cry before this?  What has “greatly disturbed” him?  The Greek verb translated “disturbed” here has to do with emotions and implies anger.  Could it be that Jesus is weeping with anger at the power that death has over our lives?  I think so.  I think John wants us to see the great compassion Jesus has for the suffering and pain and loss people go through; compassion which in this case shows itself as anger and tears.

Jesus goes to the tomb, still angry, still disturbed.  He decides to act and to act dramatically.  As we listen to the story, we have to remember that for the people John wrote this book for, the events of Jesus own death and resurrection are already well known.  They will know about and think about that first Easter morning when they hear Jesus say, “Take away the stone.”  They will know about and think about Jesus bound corpse as they hear Jesus command, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

As the story moves on, this act of compassion by Jesus, this raising from death a man who had already begun to stink, was an act that had major repercussions – for Jesus and for us. As soon as Lazarus walked out of the tomb, the plot to put Jesus in a tomb was hatched and set in motion.  Lazarus coming out of the tomb sealed Jesus’ fate – Lazarus coming out of the tomb meant that Jesus would be going in.

The message today is one of remembrance and hope.  We are called upon today to remember all the saints who have gone before us – both those who were great and shining examples of Christian character and virtue and those who were known only to a few and whose greatest virtue may have been only that they clung tenaciously to the promise of God in Christ to love them no matter what.

Like so many through the years we look back with fondness and forward with desire and anticipation.  We are invited to trust that God in Christ will do for us what Jesus did for Lazarus; that in the last days on God’s most holy mountain, we will file into a great banquet of people from all times and all places and that “death will have been swallowed up forever” as Isaiah says, that God will, in the words of Revelation, “wipe away every tear, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

On this All Saints Day, we are invited to put ourselves in the place of Mary and Martha, and trust that a weeping and compassionate God can and will make all things new, for us and for all creation.

Amen and amen.

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

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

(Encore version, reprinted with permission from The Lectionary Lab Commentary for Year B)

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
What is the best we can hope for out of life? Job’s epitaph is, “And Job died, old and full of days.”

Beyond numerical substance, the context indicates that Job’s days (yom, in Hebrew) were full — full of joy, full of sorrow, full of exhilaration, full of frustration.

We often describe someone who is undergoing a particularly trying time — and somehow managing to find grace and peace in the midst of it — as having “the patience of Job.” Certainly, that patience was hard-earned in Job’s instance.

There is something to be said for simply never giving up; I am reminded of Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and prominent psychotherapist who became a proponent of Kierkegaard’s “will to meaning.”

Beyond the simple will to live, there is the ultimate human urge for life to have meaning. (A nice, ultra-brief review of Frankl’s classic text, Man’s Search for Meaning, may be found here.)

Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)
Why should I bless the Lord at all times?

Psalm 34 acknowledges that “many are the afflictions of the righteous.” There’s no sense in pretending that life is all A-OK, peachy keen, no problemo, etc.,  just because one has placed one’s trust in God. Life is difficult, as M. Scott Peck (among others) has reminded us.

The kicker comes with the other half of the psalm’s message: “…the LORD delivers them from them all.” Most especially, v.4 gives the operative phrase, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is over-quoted, but he defined the paucity of fear’s power over us when addressing a distraught nation in 1933: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
In the presence of the LORD, our fears may be named, our reason restored, our terror replaced with calm assurance.
THAT is why I bless the Lord at all times!
Jeremiah 31:7-9
The path of return to the Lord — to the safety and sanity of God’s refuge — is quite often through weeping and consolations. But God is the God who, like a father, walks alongside his children and leads them so that they will not stumble.
Psalm 126
Weeping to laughter, tears to joy. God sure does good work!
Hebrews 7:23-28
I remember the conversation with an older (in those days, as a young “preacher boy,” older was probably anyone over 40 from my perspective) church member who wryly commented, “I appreciate all you’re doing, but remember: preachers come and go. Some of us have to stay here all our lives.”The writer of Hebrews reminds us that God has always had to have a steady supply of priests and preachers in order to minister among God’s people — for one very simple reason: preachers come and go. Or, at least, they eventually die.

But, Jesus is not like any mere human priest. He is the Great High Priest, and he will never die again. His priesthood, his ministry, is forever. It has been given to him by God, and he is now and ever will be doing what priests do — interceding on our behalf.

Mark 10:46-52

Blind Bart. What a great character!

Several points come to mind when I read this story:

  • Don’t let other people discourage you or shout you down when you know what it is that you need
  • Never give up — keep praying — in fact, don’t be afraid to shout at the Lord!
  • When Jesus invites you to come, jump at the chance
  • When Jesus asks you what you need, tell him (no need for hem-hawing, eh?)
  • Faith is awfully strong

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” – Mark 10:52

On one level, the story of blind Bartimaeus is very simple and straightforward. Bartimaeus has heard of Jesus. There has been much talk in his village of the new rabbi’s preaching and teaching and especially his healing. Based on what Bartimaeus has heard, he has come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the “Son of David.” When he hears that Jesus has come to his town, Bart makes sure he is in a position to meet him.

As Jesus comes near, Bart makes his presence known, shouting out his belief that Jesus is the Chosen One, and asking for mercy. The usual group of “protocol police” try to get the unruly beggar to hush – but he simply will not be quiet. Bart continues to shout. Jesus hears him and tells the people to let him through. When Bartimaeus comes, Jesus commends his faith and heals him.

It’s a simple story, one that follows a pattern we have seen so many times in the stories of Jesus. Except for the fact that Mark gives the blind beggar a name, and that the name is a Hebrew-Greek combination (bar-Timaeus, or “son of Timaeus”), there is nothing very unusual or noteworthy about this story.

Well, nothing except a life that is changed forever. I’m not talking about Bartimaeus being healed of blindness, though that is, in and of itself, quite spectacular. No, I’m talking about a person finding something to give his life to. I’m talking about a person who begins to see, not only physically, but also spiritually. I’m talking about a person who has found a cause to which he can give his life. For, not only did “blind Bartimaeus” become “seeing Bartimaeus,” but inert and stationary Bartimaeus became active and purposeful Bartimaeus, following Jesus “on the way,” the way of the cross.

Realizing that there are no real throw-away lines in the Gospel stories, knowing that everything was included by the evangelist to make a theological point, to have a spiritual impact – we must listen carefully to verse 50: “So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”

“Throwing off his cloak” – what might that mean? Remember how frequently in the Bible clothing represents one’s life, one’s character or one’s spirituality. Not just Paul’s “helmet of salvation” and “breastplate of righteousness” but references to “unshrunk cloth on an old cloak” and or arriving at the feast wearing the wrong wedding garments. “Throwing off his cloak” is an image of the radical repentance that leads to new life in Christ. Throwing off one’s old life, shedding an old skin, leaving safety behind, realizing that there is something greater and more important than our own simple survival, all that is tied up in those few words, “throwing off his cloak.”

Then there is “sprang up.” Mark’s Gospel begins not with a Christmas story but with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. By verse 10 we have Jesus coming up out of the water. Baptism by immersion is an image of being buried with Christ and rising with Christ – coming up out of the water as one will come up out of the grave. “Dying and rising with Christ” is Mark’s primary image of the Christian life. Over and over we hear Jesus tell the disciples, “the Son of Man will suffer and die and rise again” and “any who will come after me must take up a cross and follow.” It is in that light that we must listen carefully to the words in verse 50 – “Throwing off his cloak he sprang up and came to Jesus.” Blind Bartimaeus not only regained his sight, he found his life, his way, his meaning, his purpose, to which he could give himself – mind, body and soul.

The Rev. Michael Curry was recently elected the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. He is the first African American to hold that office. He tells this story about a childhood conversation with his father, a Baptist minister:

“When my siblings and I were little children, my father sat us down one evening to talk. We knew something was up. My father and other clergy had led some local efforts for civil rights. That night, Daddy told us he might have to go to jail the next day because he was going to be a part of a protest. Then he told us something I still remember: “You must always be willing to give yourself for a higher cause. Our lives are part of something greater than ourselves.” (“Crazy Christians,” p. 14)

Too often we, like Bartimaeus, are both blind and faithful, sick unto death and yearning for life, full of hope and dread in almost equal measure. We are indeed “saint and sinner at the same time,” and yet, there is hope, real hope, true hope. For there is Christ.

And though there may be many things that hold us back, Jesus hears our hearts and invites us to come. We are invited to throw off the cloak of our old lives, our old fears, our old regrets, our old hesitations and limitations. We are invited to spring up, lifting both our hands and our hearts to God. We are invited to give our lives to something more, something higher, something greater than mere survival. We are invited to take up our cross and join Bartimaeus and millions of others in following Jesus on the way – on the way of love and compassion and self-sacrifice, the way of serving our neighbor and our world.

Amen and amen.

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (October 18, 2015)

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

Job 38:1-7, (34-41)

How often are our prayers — and/or our statements and complaints about God — composed mainly of “words without knowledge?” A little heavenly perspective is a powerful thing.

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c

“O, Worship the King” is just one of my all-time favs when it comes to hymnody. This psalm text works so well in leading us into worship! I am always struck, not only by the majesty of this language, but by its precision, as well. God creates all of the earth, setting it upon what must surely be a massive foundation — but then takes the time to fit a garment with the deep (the oceans.) They are measured to the nth degree: “You set a boundary that they may not pass….” (v.9)

Isaiah 53:4-12

We do well to remember that this is a significant portion out of the “Servant Song” cycle in Isaiah. It’s ultimate purpose is to describe the nature of the one who would serve God with his/her life. It is a total commitment, as evidenced by these somber words. Later, the church would look to Isaiah’s prophecy and see these same characteristics fulfilled in the life of Jesus. That’s why they subsequently proclaimed him as “The Christ.”

Psalm 91:9-16

The never-failing presence of God with us is a powerful thing. Lions, adders, serpents, evil, scourge, and even flying rocks — no problem! God will lift up God’s servant in the time of trouble.

Hebrews 5:1-10

Even the Son of Man — an apocalyptic title applied to Jesus, bearing great Hebrew scripture significance — learned obedience through suffering. Why, then, should it be different for Jesus’ church?

Mark 10:35-45

In our Lectionary Lab Live podcast for today, Bubba quotes the inimitable Fred Craddock on this passage: “The church in the time of Mark had not accepted the cross as a necessary component of Messiahship; nor had they accepted it as an integral part of discipleship.”

It’s a hard lesson for us to learn.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The story is, Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist and mathematician, had a dog that he loved very much. Wherever Newton went, the dog went with him. One time he had worked for months and months on a theory about the nature of the universe, working late into the night by candlelight, his worktable covered with papers, which were in turn covered with formulas and theorems and conclusions. Late one night, Newton got up from the table to leave the room and the dog jumped up and bumped the table, turning over the candle, which set Newton’s papers on fire. Newton returned to the room to find years of work gone up in flames. He put out the fire, then sat on the floor and wept. The dog nuzzled up to him and licked his face and Newton hugged his dog and said, “You will never, ever know what you have done.” (Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods, p. 36)
The story is, when Eve took the fruit from the tree and when Adam took the fruit from Eve; things fell apart. And God looked at Adam and Eve with great sadness and said, “You will never ever know what you have done.”

The story is, what began in Adam and Eve keeps showing up in the Bible. Time and time again, God’s people play out a personal little Garden of Eden in which they discover their all too common capacity for doing things that tear God’s creation apart. And God kept on weeping and shaking his head and telling the people, “You have no idea what you have done.”

The story is, no matter how hard Jesus tried to explain that to follow him meant following the way of the cross somebody didn’t get it.  Somebody’s personal little Garden of Eden came into play and they began to look after only themselves and their needs and interests and pleasures and desires.  This time it is the sons of Zebedee, who totally missed the message of servanthood and instead sought to establish themselves in positions of power and privilege.  And God in Christ shook his head sadly, saying, “You have no idea what you are doing, do you?”
Back when I was young and knew everything and had not had either the time or inventiveness to really mess things up in life, I was really rough on James and John.  In those days I didn’t worry too much about the sinfulness of humanity in general and my own sinfulness in particular. But I’m older now and I don’t even like to think about the ways that I have been less than I meant or hoped to be.

I have not just failed to do good, I have on occasion done bad; and knew I was doing bad when I did it, and I did it anyway. And I don’t know why. And I have no excuse other than the fact that I am human and that is what humans do sometimes. I don’t blame any one or any thing else; not my mama or my daddy or my environment or anything else. It was just me and my life and an occasional fit of general “sorry-ness.” And I’m sorry. And I’m sure that I have no idea how badly I have disappointed God and harmed others.  I don’t even know what I have done.
Just like Adam and Eve, and James and John, and millions of others, I have a deep, deep need for a voice from outside myself who will neither condone nor condemn; but will rather love and me and amend my life. And we meet that voice, that God, in Jesus, in the one “in the days of his flesh . . .  offered up supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission . . .he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7-9)
My daddy’s sister, Aunt Mildred, never, ever really threw anything away. When her nieces’ and nephews complained to her about this, she would say, “You just never know when you might need it.”  Our protests that you had to be able to find “it” in order to use “it” when you needed “it,” fell on deaf ears. She was confident that she knew where all her “its” were. And I think she did. I would ask her about a bill or a letter or a magazine and she would say something like, “It’s in the back bedroom, in the left hand corner of the closet, third shoebox from the bottom, in a plastic bag.” And she’d be right.
God is, I think, a bit like Aunt Mildred; if not southern then at least eccentric. God shares her passion for saving everything and her awareness of everything she had saved. God doesn’t do the expected and normal thing and condemn useless and unholy trash to Gehenna, the fiery garbage heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. Instead, where others may see worthlessness, God sees something worth saving, something worth hanging on to, something worth taking a risk for, something worth making a great effort for, something worth dying for. And God knows where all that saved stuff is. God cares about that which God has saved. And it is God’s will that it all be saved, because God made it all, and God loves it all, no matter what it has done.
The Gospel is that it is because of our great need and God’s great sorrow and anguish over our great need that Christ came into the world. The words in our text from Isaiah were written many years before Christ.  They were written about the Suffering Servant of God. After the suffering and death of Christ, the early Christians remembered these words from the Hebrew Scriptures and realized how perfectly they described what Jesus had suffered and what God had done through Jesus, for them and for the whole world.   “. . . he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruise we are healed.” (Isiah 53:5)
The question of whether or not God loves us and cares about us has been answered once and for all by Christ upon the cross. A more important question is this; are we being obedient to our call to take up our cross and follow? The Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville was for a long time the home of the Grand Ole Opry. It was originally a church, built as a preaching place for a famous evangelist named Sam Jones. The story is that Jones was holding what the holiness folks called a  “quitting meeting,” during which people confessed their sins and swore off drinking, and smoking and cussing and running around with people they weren’t married to and such like misbehavior. The meeting had reached an emotional high point when Jones called on one ultra-righteous woman in the congregation and asked her what she was going to quit. She said, “I ain’t been doing nothing, and I’m going to quit that too.”
God calls upon us today to “quit doing nothing,” in response to the Gospel. God calls upon us to stop seeking greatness and to start seeking to serve. We are called to give ourselves for others as Jesus gave himself for us. We are called to care about the hurts and pains of others as Jesus cared about our hurts and pains. We are called to live lives of obedience to Jesus’ call to us to take up a cross and follow him into the world with hope in our hearts, with acts of love in our hands and with words of grace and promise on our lips.

Amen and amen.

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (October 11, 2015)

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

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

I love Job’s honesty: “Today, my complaint is bitter….”

It’s like that some days. What else can you say? It really doesn’t do anybody — neither you nor God — any good to pretend, when the skubala has done hit the fan, that things don’t smell! That’s no basis for an honest and open relationship, which is what God desires. Go ahead — tell God what you feel. God already knows it, anyhow!

Psalm 22:1-15

The psalmist certainly gets what Job is saying; he has a bit of a complaint to lodge, himself. Not only do some of our days stink, they become really difficult to bear. It feels — sometimes — like God has left us alone!

But has God abandoned us? Jesus, of course, lays into this psalm on the cross — most likely too weak to speak all of its words, but also just as likely holding on to the psalm’s eventual words of hope. Real praise often comes in the midst of lament.

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Amos, the farmer-prophet, wastes few words. Today is a good day to seek the Lord — pretty much everyday is. But, be assured, if you don’t really want to seek the Lord and follow God’s way, you open yourself up to the consequences when God does decide to “break out” against what is evil in the world.

Taking bribes and pushing the needy aside in the gate and all such as that — those are not things that make God happy (just in case you were wondering!) Get on the side of good; get out of the way of what is evil. And, should you ever be momentarily confused and find yourself on the wrong side of said gate, remember that you can always turn back!

Psalm 90:12-17

Verse 12 is a great prayer. “Lord, I know I’ve only got so many days — though I might tend to waste too many of them on foolish and fleeting pursuits. Would you please help me get a grip before they all fly away and I’m left with a pile of empty promises and a bucket full of broken dreams?”

Hebrews 4:12-16

Sharp, I tell you! God’s word is a precision instrument when it comes to exposing the “thoughts and intentions” of our hearts.

Jesus, the Living Word, knows all about our trials and temptations. Basically, he has been there and done that. So don’t go trying to tell him how hard it all is, and why you shouldn’t be held accountable for your weak moments. Instead, admit it when you need some help, and look for mercy and grace. They tend to hang around where Jesus is involved.

Mark 10:17-31

When you stop and think about it, the man’s question at the opening of this passage is misguided from the first moment. There’s not really anything you can do to inherit a fortune. It’s much more about who you are in relationship to the one granting the fortune!

Jesus knows the gentleman has tried awfully hard, and Jesus can see that he’s real, real close to the whole kingdom of God thing. But, like most of us, there is something that’s holding him back. Maybe just one little thing that, if we were asked by Jesus to give it up, we might well go away sad, too.

Oh, shoot…now this passage is going to “quit preaching” and is going to “go to meddling” in all our lives!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My grandfather Reid Chilton was treasurer of the Baptist church in our neighborhood from the late 30s into the mid-50s.  He used to tell this story about the perils of raising money.  As to whether it’s true or not – all I can say is – it’s true that he told it to me.

“There was this one time, back in the depression, that we was having trouble getting up the preacher’s salary.  The deacons decided that a free-will offering wasn’t going to work, ‘cause as brother Arvid said, “They mighty free with their will, just not with their cash.”  So, they decided I should go and visit people and ask for a donation.  So I did.  It was rough work.  People really didn’t have much cash money available and they really didn’t like me asking for it.  One time I was talking to this fella, we’ll call him Brother Bill, and he said he would love to give but he just didn’t have no money.  I said, “Brother Bill, if’n you had a mule would you sell that mule and give half of what you got to the church?” “He looked at me and said, “Why of course, Brother Reid.  I would do it in a heartbeat.”  So I says; “That’s good, that’s good, Brother Bill.  Let me ask you another question.  If’n you had a sheep, would you sell that sheep and give half to the church?” “Brother Reid, I am a little hurt that you would ask me that.  You know my heart, you know I would, if’n I had a sheep.”  And then I says, “Bear with me Brother Bill, just one more question.  If’n you had a hog, would you sell that hog and give half to the church?”  At that Brother Bill’s face got red and he stomped his foot and said, “Now see here Brother Reid, that ain’t no fair question.  You knows I got a hog.”

“When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Mark 10:22

Two of today’s scripture lessons push us to think about and me to talk about a subject that most people really don’t like to discuss; money.  At least they don’t like to discuss why some people have a lot of it and other people have so little of it.  And they especially don’t like to discuss the idea that their money is getting in the way of their relationship with God and that perhaps they should give some of it to the poor. Yet we have all of this in Amos’ preaching and in Jesus’ conversation with the man who had many possessions.

The lesson from Amos is pretty straightforward and is much more overtly political than then the Mark story.  Amos was a prophet during the time that the country had split into two kingdoms; Judah in the south and Israel in the north.  He was not a trained preacher, he was a herdsman from the southern kingdom, yet God called him to preach to the leaders and the people of the Northern Kingdom.  And he did.  He especially called them out on their treatment of the poor; “You trample on the poor,” vs. 11 and “You afflict the righteous . . . and push aside the needy in the gate.” vs. 12. Amos thunders out judgement against those in power, “. . . he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire.” and “devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.” vs. 6

And as usual, the powerful didn’t like being told they were misusing their power and the King sent the High Priest to send Amos away, to deport him, he was an illegal after all, an immigrant who didn’t belong there; he was taking work away from legitimate prophets and teachers, ones who would not be so rude about the people in power, who had earned their place in the Northern Kingdom.

No, people don’t like to be told that there can be a problem with having wealth.  In the Gospel lesson, a man comes to Jesus and asks a serious religious question.  Unlike many conversations Jesus has along the way, he is not facing a secret antagonist, posing a trick question for political gain. This is a serious question from a serious and devout believer.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Notice, Jesus didn’t say, “Accept me as your personal savior.” or “Repent of your sins and be baptized and join my community, and while you’re at it – sign up for a small group and here are your offering envelopes.”  No, not so much. What Jesus actually did was to first remind the man, and us, that life is a gift from God, it is not something any of us earns or can put ourselves in the position to inherit. It’s all of God.  He then started talking out of their shared Judaic tradition of the commandments.  The one’s he asks about are interesting.  He did not ask the man what he believed about God; he asked him how he treated his neighbor. “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal,” etc. He also throws in one that isn’t in the Ten Commandments, You shall not defraud.”  I wonder if Jesus knew something about the man’s business dealings that we’re not privy to.  Anyway, the man profess to have kept them all “since his youth,” which means, “Since I’ve been old enough to know better,” as we say in the south.

Then, in a remarkably succinct line, Mark paints a picture of tough love, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing. . .”  That is true Gospel love, to look at the other, to see exactly who they are, both their virtues and their faults and to tell them the truth about what they need to change about themselves.  Jesus looked at the young man and immediately recognized that the man possessions were getting in the way of spiritual life.  Taking care of his stuff was interfering with taking care of his soul and taking care of his neighbors, which are very often the same thing.

We, as Americans, as Christians in a developed country, all stand in one degree or another under the judgement of these texts.  Compared to billions and billions of people in this world, we all have “many possessions.” I know it doesn’t feel like it, but that is because we compare ourselves to the super rich, instead of comparing ourselves to the billion people in this world who still live without electricity.  We do have many possessions and Jesus is speaking to us today as much as he is talking to the man in the story.  As people with the privilege to vote, to speak our minds, to call our congressmen and complain, we are the powerful to whom Amos preaches today, calling upon us to change policies and procedures that oppress the needy and trample the poor.

And here’s the good word.  We don’t know what the man did.  Mark says he, “went away grieving because he had many possession,” but he could have just needed some time to decide what to do. We don’t know about him, he may have decided to follow Jesus’ advice.  What we do know is that the possibility of change is offered to us, we have options. Amos begins and ends with a grace note.  Verse 6: “Seek the Lord and live, or.”  “Or” he said.  There’s an option to change.  Verse 15 “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord                     . . . will be gracious.”  “It may be.”  Amos says.  The story’s not over.  God is not finished with us. What will we do?

Amen and amen.