The Reign of Christ for Year B

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

2 Samuel 23:1-7
David speaks the words to which we all, as preachers, aspire every time we stand and deliver: “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.” N‘est–ce pas?

This word outlines the character of the righteous ruler: one who rules justly, in the fear of God. This ruler brings light and life to the land.

In true Hebrew literary form, there follows a contrasting vision of the godless: thorns that prick and tear, worth nothing but to be piled together and burned.

Let us pray for righteous rulers!

Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18)
The psalmist remembers David’s passion for the worship of God, for a place to serve as God’s dwelling place. Rooted in that same passion and commitment, the psalm prays for God’s blessing on the “sons of David” that will follow as God’s righteous rulers over God’s people in Zion.

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Daniel’s apocalyptic vision is of God, the Ancient One, on the exalted throne of heaven. God is joined by “one like a human being” who is given the authority to rule over all peoples, nations, and languages on earth.

This imagery is picked up by John, in the opening chapters of Revelation, and reworked brilliantly into the theme of God’s great power and authority over even sin and death — made known to all of creation in the Lamb of God (and a slaughtered lamb, at that.)

The power and might of the Ancient One, the King of heaven, the ruler of an eternal dominion — in the end will lay claim to the throne through nothing other than sacrifice and love.

Psalm 93
It is the LORD who is robed with majesty, who has acted in strength to establish the world.

While the image of floodwaters roaring through our neighborhoods is not a particularly comfortable one (just ask those affected by the recent Superstorm Sandy, the Christmas tsunami of 2004, or the still-memorable Hurricane Katrina in 2006) — there is no denying the power and awe of the metaphor.

Revelation 1:4b-8
Jesus rules the kings of the earth, by virtue of his rule over death itself (a power that conquers even the most venerable kings — cf. King Tut, King Nebuchadnezzar, King Henry VIII, and so on.)

One of the connections with the Daniel passage (see above) appears here as Jesus Christ is envisioned “coming with clouds.”

Not insignificant is the appointment of Christ’s followers as “kings and priests” in his name. What import does this have for the church’s ministry on this Sunday of Christ, the King?

John 18:33-37
Pilate senses that something is up with this Jesus fellow. He seems to be more than the local rulers have cracked him up to be. Pilate’s questions are probing, intense.

“Are you the King of the Jews? What have you done? Tell me, are you a king?”

Those are questions that we are still answering to this day, I think. What does it mean for me to offer my allegiance to a king whose kingdom, by his own admission, is “not of this world?”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My father was a very smart man.  Well, he was very smart about most things; some things, not so much.  Like fashion and modern music and movie stars and what a teen-ager would think matters. And since he had at least one teenager in the house from 1964 until 1978 – and most of that time he had two or three, well, this blind spot caused him no end of grief.  But, as I said, he was a very smart man.

And the way he got so smart was by asking questions. Up until his death at the age of 80, he never stopped asking questions about things that interested him.  This was a habit that irritated my very active mother and frightened his children.  Sometimes Mama told him he thought too much and we children just tried to avoid one of his Socratic “teachable moments” at the dinner table. There we would be, happily digging into our usual meat and potatoes when he would say, “Delmer, have you ever wondered why a car leans over to the side when you go around a curve too fast.”  Well, no, I hadn’t.  I was 8 years old.  Centrifugal force as a scientific concept had not intruded into my peaceful and playtime filled existence, until now.  From this opening he went around the table, questioning and teaching his five little Chiltons. For him, it was fun, for us, it was agony.  It was also very formative of our characters.  We are all question askers to this day, which is a good thing.  Questions are important.

The Gospel reading is full of questions.  It is only five verses long.  In English, only a hundred and forty-seven words.  Yet there are five questions in those five verses.  Sixty-one of those one hundred and forty-seven verses are tied up in those questions; the rest in the answers.  And the text leaves us with more questions – which only we can answer.

The setting is the trial of Jesus, the characters are Pilate and Jesus, the question is the nature of kingship.  This really is a question about power and its use and abuse.  It is striking to note that the person in this story who should be confident and full of power, Pilate, is the one who is hesitant and almost comical in his desperate maneuverings while the one who should be anxious and afraid, Jesus, is the person who is cool, calm, and collected.

Pilate is trying to figure out what level of security risk Jesus represents.  Is this just a little squabble amongst these annoying Hebrews; or is there a terrorist cell lurking behind this mild-mannered rabbi?  Is he the head of a group which might erupt into a fighting unit, leading a rebellion against the power and prestige of Rome; or is he just another wingnut, spouting off about some eccentric political and spiritual philosophy?  What’s the true level of danger here?

Pilate is worried about the power that comes from force; that results from having more soldiers and spears and battering rams than the other guy.  In modern terms, Pilate is worried about the kind of power that comes from the barrel of a gun.  When Jesus says “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over,” he is trying to tell Pilate “That’s not the kind of power I have, nor is it the kind of power I want or need.”

But Pilate can’t hear him.  Trying to talk to Pilate about Jesus’ type of power is like talking to an eight year old farm boy about centrifugal force.  Went right by him.  Pilate responds to this with, “Okay, so you are a king, or, you’re not a king? What?’

Jesus tries again. “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  And as we know from the fact that Jesus was crucified, Pilate still didn’t get it.  He never saw Jesus as a threat, but, politics won out. He thinks, “It makes the Hebrew leaders happy for him to be dead so, I’ll make that happen.  But just in case there is a terrorist group ready to pounce, I’ll make sure the Hebrew leaders get the blame.”

Pilate never did understand what sort of king Jesus claimed to be.  The question for us today is this – do we?  What sort of king is Christ for us?  We don’t have kings in the modern world, not really?  A few ceremonial heads of state, flitting about the world and getting their pictures in the papers – but no one with any substance or real power or authority.  So what does it mean for us to call Christ our King?

Jonathan Sacks was once the head rabbi of Great Britain.  He says that the world was caught off-guard by the rise of ISIS, the Islamic state, because the world believes that secularism will eventually prevail over religion.  He says that science, technology, free market economics, even liberal democracy have failed to recognize that humans are meaning-seeking creatures who ask basic questions of identity: Who am I?  Why am I here?  How should I live?” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2)

The young people of ISIS have found an answer to those questions.  It is a horrific answer, a violent and short-sighted answer, but it is an answer – forged in a world which offered them nothing else but meaning free progress.

The world forgot that underneath our façade of seeking power and possessions, most people really are trying to find out two basic things: what is the nature of life and where do I fit in.  In religious terms these questions are:  “What is God like?” and “What is godlike?”  Christ is our king because in Christ, God has answered both our questions.

What is God like? God is like Jesus.  God is like Jesus loving, healing, and teaching.  God is like Jesus suffering.  God is like Jesus dying on the cross for us.  God is like Jesus being raised again.

What is godlike? How should we live because of what God is like?  We should live like Jesus.  We are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, to go where Jesus went, to do what Jesus did, to become, as the people of God knit together across time and geography, the Body of Christ; loving, healing, teaching, suffering, dying and being raised again.

And that love of God in Christ is a force that will not only cause the powers of the world to teeter over as they careen through life; it is a force that will throw the powers of the world off the tracks, so that all God’s people can stand together and sing with the Psalmist “The Lord is King.” (Ps. 93:1)

Alleluia and amen.

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost for Year B (November 15, 2015)

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

Reprinted with permission from The Lectionary Lab Commentary: Stories and Sermons for Year B

1 Samuel 1:4-20
Some of the most effective praying that is done may be with “wordless prayers,” such as that of Hannah. Nothing audible, no profundity of phrasing. Just straight up “pouring out my soul before the Lord.” (v.15)

1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah’s response to God’s goodness in answering her prayer (see above) functions as the psalm text for those using these readings. She certainly does as well as anything David or any other psalmist ever wrote!

One of my favorite questions to ask when the scripture is laid out before me — during those moments when I am simply seeking to let the text speak — is, “What do I learn about God from this text?”

  • There is no Holy One like the LORD
  • God is a God of knowledge
  • God weighs God’s every action
  • God holds the power of both death and life
  • God is in the midst of both poverty and wealth
  • God may be found at the ash heaps of life, as well as in the seats of power
  • God guards the feet of those who are faithful; God’s adversaries will be shattered (ouch!)

Daniel 12:1-3
An apocalyptic portion from Daniel; in chapter 11, he has told us that the vision speaks of “the time of the end.” We have one of the Bible’s four mentions of Michael, the archangel of God (there is a second in Daniel,  as well as others in Jude and Revelation.) Michael is one of seven angels of this rank according to some Jewish and Orthodox Christian sources (a pretty decent article from Wikipedia here.)

Whatever one’s views of end times and angelology might be, we certainly have a text of hope and comfort in the midst of great anguish here. Daniel’s vision has a formative influence on the eschatology of the early church, which knew its share of suffering, persecution, and anguish.

Psalm 16
Another passage with the theme of God’s protection. Notice that faith in God affects the whole person — physically, mentally/emotionally, and spiritually: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.” (v. 9)

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
The preacher of Hebrews places his assurance and hope squarely on the success of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. Jesus has opened a “new and living way” for us to approach God — and we may now do so boldly and with great confidence.

With our eternal destiny secured, the preacher would have us turn to love and good deeds — “provoking” one another in these endeavors. What a different take on our usual impression of the word “provoke!”

Instead of provoking one another with political jabs, insults, taunts, and mocking — can you imagine what public discourse would be like if we substituted encouragement to love and good deeds, instead?

“Yeah, well your mother was so nice, she used to bake cookies for the whole neighborhood!”

“Aw, that’s nothing — yo’ momma was so generous, she used to give us all a quarter for picking up the sticks on Old Man Johnson’s yard!”

“Yeah, well if you don’t stop it, I’m gonna have to go over and help your little brother with his homework.”

“You better watch out; if you do that — I’ll be forced to fix your sister’s bike!

Mark 13:1-8
The prognosticators of doom and gloom are quick to arise whenever there is a major tragedy. In recent memory, there have been all sorts of predictions and pronouncements of the judgment of God attached to everything from the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001 — to Hurricane Katrina in 2006 — and the recent Superstorm Sandy that affected millions on the East Coast of the U.S.

Worldwide, wars and famine and struggles for justice drag on day after day, year after year. Many people are prone to ask the question, “Is this the end of the world?”

Well, I admit that one does have to wonder — just as the disciples in Jesus time wondered. We are there when Peter, James, John, and Andrew (notice the addition of Andy to the usual inner circle of the Big Three) pop the question to Jesus : “When will this be, and what will be the sign?”

I do like Jesus’ response, though it isn’t designed to answer the question directly: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and will say, ‘blah, blah, blah, blah….’”

Provides a nice filter for the talking heads and non-stop purveyors of agony that fill the airwaves. They don’t know any more than you or I; whatever is going on around us, it’s all like birth pangs. Expectant parents all have to learn the same lesson: the baby will come when the baby is ready to come.

So it is with the final chapter of the coming kingdom of God….

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

At various times in the history of the church, dire circumstances have been interpreted as a punishment from God and a sign that Angry Jesus is about to put in an appearance, accompanied by the Archangel Michael.

May 19, 1780 was a strange day all across New England.  An “eerie, smoky pall” covered much of the region.  “The gloom was apparently quite stark, as birds returned to their roosts early, thinking it was night. Forest fires in Canada likely produced the darkness, but many in New England interpreted it as a sign from God.” (Kidd and Hankins, “Baptists in America.” Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 53)

Not only did many interpret it as a sign from God, they interpreted it as a bad sign, a sign that God was angry, that God was not only coming soon, God was coming full of judgement and anger.  Many of the churches in New England, especially the more evangelical Baptists and Congregationalists, experienced a major uptick in both attendance and conversions and people fled the wrath to come and hurried to “get right with God.”

One of the standard numbers sung by the Gospel Quartets who appeared at homecomings, revivals and such in the evangelical churches of my youth was “Jesus is Coming Soon.”  It had a strange mixture of upbeat tempo and beatdown lyrics in four part harmony:

“Jesus is coming soon;

Morning, or night, or noon;

Many will meet their doom,

Trumpets will sound,

trumpets will surely sound!”

As someone said to me recently, “I’m not sure what Episcopalians mean when they say ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead,’ but I’m pretty sure they don’t mean THAT.” Well, if we don’t mean that, what do we mean?  What are we to make of these lessons we read today?  While it may be easy to slide by Daniel without paying much attention, ignoring Jesus is a bit more difficult, we have to give him a careful listen.

The first time we read through or listen to these texts, we are likely to hear violence and judgement and discord.  We will recoil from words like anguish and shame and contempt in Daniel.  We will pull away from images of disagreement and discord, of natural disasters like earthquakes and the wanton human destruction of war in the gospel.  We especially dislike thinking about them as something necessary, something God is doing in the world.

But this is one of those times when the message of hope is a still, small, voice straining to be heard in the midst of a lot of bombastic noise. The real message here is that, as inevitable as those things are in a fallen world, God is in the midst of them, and us, with another message and another work going on.  God’s hand, God’s word, is working “in, with, and under,” the harsh realities of the world to bring us the message and the reality of our deliverance.

Look at Daniel.  Michael arises, there is a time of anguish but – listen: “at that time your people shall be delivered,” and “those who sleep in the dust shall awake.”  The Psalm contains two of my favorite lines in the Bible, lines I want carved into my gravestone; “My body also shall rest in hope, for you will not abandon me to the grave.” (Psalm 16:9b-10a) Hebrews rehearses the story of Christ as both our Great High Priest and the ultimate sacrifice and then says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (10:23) And finally, in the midst of talking about all the bad things that will happen, Jesus says, “do not be alarmed,” (vs.7) and reminds us that these are “birth pangs,” (vs. 8) which means God is in the midst of all of this, bringing something new into the world.

The message today is one of hope and promise in the midst of doom and gloom.  Which fits the way our lives tend to work out. We live each day in the already but not yet hope of God’s new kingdom of love and grace.  Though we know about God’s love in Christ, though we have felt that love, both in the world and in the church – we also spend a lot of time in the midst of confusing difficulty and occasional despair – both in the world and in the church. These scriptures call us back to a fundamental trust in and reliance upon God as the cornerstone of our life and our life together – they remind us over and over that “the one who has promised is faithful.”

I have a Baptist minister friend who went to Vanderbilt Divinity School.  He often reminds me that one of his professors there, Liston Mills, frequently said that every religious or theological question really boils down to just one, “Can God be trusted?”

In the midst of trials and tribulations, distress and destruction, can God be trusted to still care about us?

When we have failed to be good, failed to be the people God wants us to be, failed to be the people we know we should be; can God be trusted to forgive us and love us still?

When we come to the end of our days, when we close our eyes in death, can God be trusted to be there when we open them again in that undiscovered country? Will we go to sleep in death and wake up in Christ?  Can the promises of God be trusted?

The message today is yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  The one who has promised is faithful, we need not be alarmed.

Amen and amen.

The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (November 8, 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

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Naomi and Ruth, two women in desperate straits, were not unfamiliar with anxiety about where their next meal might be coming from. In the world of their day, women “without a man” just weren’t accounted for much. Some people say the more things change, the more they say the same.

Boaz plays the role of “kinsman-redeemer” — one who brings hope from a hopeless situation. It’s a great story, gender bias issues aside. Ultimately, it is the Lord who provides. Don’t forget that we are also given a glimpse into the “greater story” of the gospel here, as the offspring of Ruth and Boaz will lead to the line of David, King of Israel and, ultimately, to the story of Jesus.

Psalm 127

Psalm 127 perfectly complements the story of Ruth and Boaz; again, it is the Lord who is building this house. We all need God in charge of our construction projects!

1 Kings 17:8-16

Another widow, more hunger; we may be seeing a theme developing in the texts for this day! God provides by means of the prophet, but only after the widow of Zarephath is challenged to release her hold on the only source of sustenance she possesses — her last “dab” of meal and oil.

What can God do with the little that we have, when we are willing to let it go?

Psalm 146

Hey, who do you trust? The prince? The president? The congress? Your bank account (whether meager or much?)

The psalm calls us to trust in the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth (and the sea and all that is in them and a few other cool things in creation.) God looks after the lowly — here, the hungry and the oppressed, the widows and the orphans. One assumes that God is perfectly willing to look after the high and mighty, as well — it’s just that when you have more, it may be a little harder to “let God and let God.”

Hebrews 9:24-28

Two trips for Jesus are mentioned here in Hebrews — once, Jesus came to deal with sin — and did so quite effectively, we might add! For his second time on earth, Jesus will complete the salvation of those who are eagerly waiting for him. We are being saved, my friends!

Mark 12:38-44

And finally, here in the gospel, more widows!

There are few people meaner than those who would “devour” a widow’s house — i.e., who would take legal advantage of someone who has no standing with regard to property rights. What is our response to the oppressed and disenfranchised of our day? Who are the widows in need of protecting?

In the end, it is once again the least who often become greatest in the kingdom of heaven. A widow — literally penniless after giving her offering at the temple — is lifted up by Jesus as a worthy example of surrender. When you give God everything you have, you discover that God gives you everything you need!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

As I sit down to write this sermon on Oct. 28, 2015, USATODAY has on the front page what it calls “GOP Power Rankings,” accompanied by a picture of candidate Ben Carson and the headline “Carson now on top.” A millionaire taking over the lead from a billionaire. Over in Section B there is a long story about “Wealthy CEOS.”  It says that the largest 100 CEO retirement packages have about $4.9 billion dollars in them, equal to the combined retirement funds of 41% of the American people.

This picture of wealth and power is in sharp contrast to the two widows we read about this morning.  The widow of Zarephath is down to her last bit of food, intending to feed it to her son before preparing to die.  Jesus says the widow in the Temple “gave all that she had,” “two small copper coins.”  In modern terms – enough for a cup of coffee and some fries, maybe a small burger at a fast food restaurant.  Just enough to get by.

Most of us have heard stewardship sermons about the widow’s mite.  These sermons lifted her up as an example of true giving.  We’ve been told that it’s not the size of the gift that matters, it’s what’s in the giver’s heart that counts.  “Have you given your all?” we’re asked.  “Have you done everything you could?  Did you give until it hurt your pocketbook, or just until it didn’t tweak your conscience anymore?”  And then we’re told to look at the widow, giving all she can, all she has, because she cares that much.

Well, those sermons are somewhat effective with some people, and there even some truth in them.  But they do not truly get to the heart of the text, not to the core of the story we have before us. In this story, the emotion that matters is not one’s devotion to the cause, but one’s ability to trust completely in God and God’s future.  Jesus does not belittle large gifts as being unworthy – he simply points out that the big givers gave out of their abundance while the widow gave out of her poverty.  They still had plenty left to depend on – like the 100 CEOs depend on their plush retirement accounts.  The widow had put in all she has, everything, and Jesus applauds her because her action shows what faith really is – it is placing our faith and our future completely in the hands of God.

This is what the widow of Zarephath did. After she told Elijah how little she had, he told her to give it to him anyway, promising that God would provide for her and her son throughout the drought, that they would have meal and oil and water with which to make bread as long as they needed it.  And she believed the promise of the prophet, she entrusted her future to a God who was not even her own God, to the prophet of a people who were not even her own people. With absolutely nothing else to fall back on, she risked all, trusting in the word and love of God.

My Mother died a year ago; she lived the last eleven years of her life as a widow, and a relatively poor one at that – she got by on less money than many people waste in a year.  And yet she was a generous person.  I used to call her once or twice a week.  One time I called and she was out and I left a message.  She called back and said, “Sorry I wasn’t here when you called.  I was out taking food to the old people in the church.”  I said, “Mama, you’re 83.  Who are the “old people”?  She said, “Well Owie for one, she’s a hundred and four.”  I ceded her point.  Then she added, “I also had to take some soup to that Jones girl and her baby.  They’ve been coming to church.  She don’t have hardly nothing.”

I knew who Mama was talking about.  She had more than Mama, and by some people’s standards was not at all worthy of my mother’s efforts – but none of that mattered to Mama.  When I said, “Mama, you really can’t afford to be giving food away to people,” she said, “Well, somebody has to.  And people give me food and money.  What kind of person would I be if I didn’t pass it on?  Son, you know what Jesus said about “the least of these.”  The Bible don’t set no age limit on that, does it?” “No Mama, it doesn’t.”

Pastor Tim Smith recently became the bishop of the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  He tells a story about something that happened while he was a parish pastor.  “These widows . . . . remind me of a dear African woman in our parish.   . . . Whenever I would visit, she would shuffle over to the drawer and produce an envelope full of one-dollar bills to send back to the church as her tithe.  When once I suggested that she might keep a portion for her own needs, she sternly chastised me, “Pastor! You know this is the Lord’s money.  The first fruits always go to Christ’s church!” . . . .I took her out to get a gourmet burger, but when it came, she ate the fries and an order of hot peppers, but had the burger boxed up for a treat she could savor at home that evening.  On the way out of the restaurant, a homeless man on the curb called to her, “Mama, pray for me!”  She laid hands on him, prayed, and asked him when he last ate. “Yesterday morning, Mama.” Without hesitation, she gave him her precious burger. When she died, she left a large percentage of her meager estate to the church. . . . As Mother Teresa often said, “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” (Sundays and Seasons, PREACHING, Year B, 2015, p. 282)

“You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”  Recently the state of Georgia executed Kelly Gissander.  She was guilty of plotting with her then boyfriend to kill her husband.  During her stay in prison, Kelly turned her life around, not only becoming a Christian but also studying theology through a program of the Atlanta Theological Seminaries. She said of her crime and her past, “I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil, but I have learned that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”  (Christian Century, Oct. 18, 2015, p. 19)

Though many people, including the pope ask for clemency for her, it was denied and she was killed by lethal injection.  In its report of this story, the Christian Century quoted Tara Tragesser, who works at the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center in Chattanooga: “She found transformation, she bloomed in a place where there is no sunshine, no love, no nurture – no one except the very real God in whom she placed all her trust.” (CT, 10/28/2015, p. 19)

The Psalmist reminds us, we should not “put our trust in rulers, in mortals in whom there is no help.”  We cannot rely upon presidential candidates or political parties or bank accounts or retirement plans or anything else but God.

The voice of God comes to us through the voices of these women today: “The first fruits always go to Christ’s Church.”  “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”

“I have learned that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”  “She found transformation in a place where there is no sunshine, no love, no nurture – no one except the very real God in who she placed all her trust.”

The very real God invites us this day to let go of everything else and place our trust in completely in the love and grace of God, revealed to us in Jesus, the Christ.  AMEN AND AMEN.