Thursday, December 29, 2005

THE NAME OF JESUS: TCL texts for January 1, 2006

FIRST READING: Numbers 6:22-27
Verse 27: If they pronounce my name as a blessing . . .”
What might it mean to pronounce God’s name as a blessing? More particularly, what might it mean to pronounce God’s name as a curse? Though many churches use verses 24-26 as the closing Blessing or Benediction for worship, and though this is probably a good thing, this is, of course not ALL the author had in mind, nor should we attribute magical qualities to the words like some sort of White Magic Incantation. No, the issue of pronouncing blessings goes much deeper than that.

I remember a clergy retreat, a group of suburban Lutherans from Atlanta. We spent a couple of days at the monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, studying Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD with Dr. Ficken from the Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta. One night as part of Evening Prayer we were asked to think about the first time something happened in parish ministry that let us know that this was a mysterious profession. We were to think about it over night.

At morning prayer, one pastor talked about the first time he celebrated Communion and a woman came to see him the next day, demanding to know why he thought she was going to hell. He was “bumfuzzled” until she pointed out he had given her the wafer with the
“little Jesus” upside down. She took it as a sign; a bad sign.

Most of the time, most of us don’t mean to “damn” in the name of the LORD, but sometimes we do. More importantly, we sometimes go through life and our ministries, blithely unaware of the power people give to our words and actions. We must consciously attempt to pronounce Blessing in the name of the LORD.

SECOND READING: Philippians 2: 5-11
“did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped.” The TEV renders this verse,
“did not think that by force he should try to become equal with God.”

We are so often a grabbing, grasping, position claiming people. We live in a competitive world, from sports to schools, to jobs, to our politics, everything. We don not often notice it any more than we notice air or a fish notices water. Everything with us is to be grabbed, grasped, striven after, competed for, we attempt by force to get not just equality but superiority. Not usually by dint of physical force, but by force of personality, or intellect or hard work, etc.

The people we resent are the ones whom we perceive to have acquired their jobs, their positions, their wealth by relationships and inheritance rather than by the “sweat of their brows”. Which is why the Gospel is so often so foreign to us. We continually try to figure out what it is we must do to be saved, and the thing we must do is let go of trying to save ourselves. We must imitate Christ and release ourselves from all striving, and let God love us. As a non-recovering workaholic, let me be the first to say, I get this in my head, getting it in my heart and soul has been only occasionally realized.

GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 2:15-21
“And He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel . . . “
When I was kid, like 3 or 4, I had serious trouble pronouncing L’s and W’s. I got them backwards. My mother says she has tried for almost 50 years to recreate the sounds I made when trying to say “pickle” and “pillow”.

My father’s name was Lowell, Lowell Chilton. You can see the potential disaster looming. There was a man at our church who loved to ask me who my Daddy was, just so he could hear me mangle “Lowell Chilton’s boy.” He would ask me several times, so I would get exasperated, put my hands on my hips and exclaim, “I said, I’m Woleww Chiwton’s boy.” (or something like that.)

I grew up in the country outside Mt. Airy NC. In many ways, it is the quintessential
American small town. Though not really Mayberry, it was where Andy Griffith grew up and I’m sure it fed his creative imagination. Anyway, after I went off to college and then to seminary and ministry in far off places like Charlotte and Atlanta and Nashville, places where I had difficulty getting businesses in sight of my house of church to take a personal check, in Mt. Airy, things were different. No, they didn’t remember me, but they did know my Daddy.

Daddy was not a wealthy man, or a prominent man, or an important man, just a small time farmer and mill-worker. But he was an honest man, a good man, a good neighbor and friend who always paid his debts, which was enough for them. At the right places, all I had to do was say I was “Lowell Chilton’s boy,” and they took my out-of-town, indeed, out-of-state (may as well be out of the country) check, no questions asked.
Well, they did ask how Mama and Aunt Mildred and them were getting along, but not financial questions asked.

Just wondering, what is the power of Jesus’ name in our lives. Can we be proud to say we are a child of God? Thinking back to the first lesson, ha so much damning and hurting been done in the LORD’s name that it no longer carries implications of goodness and trustworthiness in the world. Is it our calling to restore the good name of Jesus, rescuing it from the clutches of those who use it to bludgeon others with their vision of a righteous America? I think so.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

CHRISTMAS: RCL Texts for Dec. 24

FIRST LESSON: Isaiah 9:2-7: verse 2 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them the light has shined.”

I grew up on a farm and I used to know what true darkness was, but then I went off to college and eventually spent years living in small towns, suburbs and cities and forgot.
Too many street lights and well-lit parking lots for true darkness to exist.

Then I moved to Clay County, North Carolina. We are, the saying goes, “two hours from anything and darned glad of it.” I have become reacquainted with true darkness, a dark so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Believe you me, walking in such darkness is frightening and genuinely dangerous.

We have motion detector lights on the house, ready to come on when you drive up and to go off a few minutes later. One night I arrived home and discovered the lights would not come on and I had no flashlight in the car. I turned on the headlights to see my way to the house, then flipped the porch light switch. Nothing. Well, I couldn’t let the car lights burn all night and run down the battery. I went and turned them off and felt my way into the house and over to the couch. Complete and total darkness, I was a afraid to move, afraid of misunderstanding where I was and falling down the steps to the basement, of tripping over furniture. And then the lights came on. The power had been restored.
And I was safe again.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them the light had shined.” Without the light of Holy Love, our world is dark indeed.

SECOND LESSON: Titus 2:11-14: “For the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” There is an interesting textual footnote in the Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV edition. After “all” there is a footnote indicator and the note says “Or has appeared to all, bringing salvation.”

It’s an interesting difference and may delineate the world of Christianity as well as any other dividing line. It all depends on where you put the “to all.” Did the Grace of God appear to all, saving some; or did the Grace of God appear, saving all?

It is a revealing template to place on top of our differences of theology in the Christian world. Its not just about limited versus universal atonement; its about how genuinely inclusive is God’s grace? At Christmas time, at least, most of us are universalists, proclaiming God’s grace appeared to all, saving all. The rest of the year, some of us hedge our bets, trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out; and even if God’s Grace did appear to all, maybe some have rejected it, or been rejected by it; etc. etc.

Just for the sake of simplicity of thought, I’ve decided to go with the “appeared, bringing salvation to all.” I have enough trouble deciding what kind of toothpaste to buy without the added pressure of figuring out who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. I’ll just assume they’re all going to heaven and treat them accordingly and let God worry about it.

GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 21-20 – After twenty-five Christmas Eve’s, I don’t know that I have any fresh new ideas left. I’ve preached this thing from Mary’s point of view, Joseph’s point of view, the Inn keeper’s point of view, even the donkey’s version. After a while, it’s hard to think of a new angle. So I won’t. I’ll just tell you a story.

When I was a little kid, we lived in a four-room house: Living room, Kitchen, Parent’s Bedroom, Children’s bedroom, outhouse in the woods. On Christmas Eve, we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s for dinner, then we came home and went to bed by 9 o’clock, the four of us in one room, all of us under ten.

Daddy always reminded us that if we heard noise in the night we should stay in bed, because Santa would take our presents back if he caught us peeking.

Early on Christmas morning, long before dawn, we slipped from our bedroom to the living room next door. We opened our presents and squealed with delight, our mouths full of candy we found in our stockings. Suddenly we were aware of a presence in the room, then we heard a loud noise, like a cow stuck in a barbed wire fence.

We turned a saw upon the couch a large man with white hair and a beard, tall black boots sitting on the floor, he was asleep snoring loudly, his huge belly going u and down in fretful rhythm. We were, to use a Biblical phrase, “sore afraid”, for we were sure we knew who this visitor was. We did the only thing we could do:

We gathered up all the toys and candy and hid them in our beds, then we retired there too, cowering in the dark and cold, waiting for him to leave.

A couple of hours later our parents came to see why we were not around the tree. “Is he gone?” we asked. “Is who gone?” they said. “You know, Him. Santa,” we said. I thought my mother would die laughing, I really did.

Our visitor was her Uncle James, her mother’s brother, a man once described by her own brother as “the most worthless human being God ever devised.” James had showed up around midnight, on foot and a bit tipsy, on Christmas Eve with nowhere to go. And my parents put him to bed in the only place they had, the living Room couch in front of the Christmas Tree.

I have seen many Christmas plays and movies, I have heard and preached many Christmas Eve sermons, but none has taught me more than the night my parents made sure there was room for one in need, even if he didn’t deserve it.

Merry Christmas,


Thursday, December 15, 2005

ADVENT IV: RCL Texts for Dec. 18, 2005

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 "Vs. 2" . . .the king (David) said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."

The standard understanding of this text and its connection with Advent is pretty simple. It plays on the usages of the word HOUSE. David lives in a house of cedar and offfers to build God a House (TEMPLE) of cedar or stone, but God counter-offers with the promise of making of David a great house (DYNASTY, heriditary kingdom). The people of Israel remembered this promise in the post-exilic time and it became a part of the messianic hope. Okay.

But when I read the verse above, I thought of my days working for my future father in law on his farm in Eastern North Carolina, down between Raleigh and the coast. I'm from the Northwest mountains, an area which had no plantations and subsequently had few African-Americans. The North Carolina Coastal plain was Plantation country, mostly tobacco, and had a large African-American population. My work on the farm during college was my introduction to the southern, rural, African-American subculture.

One of my duties was to pick up the day laborers around 6 AM and take them back home at the end of the day. Whenever I asked a rider for directions I would say, "Where do you LIVE?" and they would reply, "I STAY on Oak Street." or "I STAY at Mr. Willie Thomas' place." None of them LIVED anywhere, they all STAYED places.

I pondered this language often. It was, of course, a result of slavery and then share-cropping and lack of home ownership and frequent change of rental properties and tenant arrangements.
I noticed that middle-class African-Americans did not use the term referencing their own homes, but still used it in relation to various ancestors or relatives living in the country.

So the phrase "I LIVE in a house made of cedar, while the ark of God STAYS in a tent," really grabbed me. It cast me back to the days of hauling around day-laborers and poor folks, people who didn't count for much in the culture in which they lived, and it made me think of our Gospel lesson for Christ the King, just a month ago, where Jesus reminded us of our duty to ". . . .the least of these my brethren," and it made me think of the ARK of God and where does it stay?, and it does, of course, stay with the poor and the needy, those housed in tents and under bridges and those who get kicked out of houses, and those who don't count in the society and culture in which they exist, those who do not LIVE here, they just STAY here, in America. And it made me think of a little boy born so many years ago, who stayed in an open lean-to shed because there was no room for him to live inside the house.

And what kind of HOUSE are we called to build for those who are forced to STAY out in the cold in America? Well, we are called to the simple task, the concrete job, of finding ways to house these folks, through Habitat for Humanity, or Hinton Center's Affordable Housing Program, or hundreds of other hands-on projects around the country.

But we are also called to help in building another kind of house, a DYNASTY if you will. I believe we are called to be a part of the political process and to find a way to reverse the trends of recent years which have allowed the rich to grow richer while the poor grow poorer. In America, we the people are the Government, we are the rulers of this land, and we have a moral, ethical obligation to tend to the needs of those who are being sytematically pushed out of
a living place in this society, those who are being forced to a life of staying here and there and living, really living, nowhere. (And No, I'm not a Democrat, or a Republican, I'm a Christian.)

GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 1:26-38 Vs. 29 " . . .But she was much PERPLEXED by his words and PONDERED what sort of greeting this might be."

I love Biblical understatement. If an angel showed up in my room and and made thinly veiled intimations of Divine, er, intervention, in my life, I would be a bit more than perplexed; I would be down right terrified and seriously concerned about my sanity. I would be pondering a visit to my friendly neighbourhood psychiatrist.

There are other things about the first noel which give me cause to pause, which perplex me and provoke me to pondering. Every year, I find myself perplexed once again by the very good question often posed to me by a dear Jewish friend. I will put it in his irrreverent form;
"If Jesus was the Messiah, why does the world still suck?"

You have to admit, it's a good question. If Jesus was the Messiah, why all the wars and violence and evil and heartache etc. etc. The Messianic promise was for someone to come and set things aright. Well, things are not right, they are still horribly awry. Millions died in the 20th century in two world wars and in the holocaust and brutal annilation and genocide campaigns and epidemics, etc. You get the picture, you read the news.

If Jesus was, is, our savior, why doesn't the world look more saved? Can we make do with the answer that its not about changing the world, its about saving our souls? An internal, not external salvation? Do you really think that explanation is sufficient for the woman dying of aids in Africa or the child starving to death in Bangladesh?

If you are going to preach that Jesus is the saviour of the world, realize the world doesn't look very saved and define how the Christ has come and does save, or keep your mouth shut. The last thing the world needs is a bunch of sentimental blather about "the Christmas Spirit".

As I said, it's a perplexing question, and the only way out is not an answer but a commitment.
The PSALMODY for today is the MAGNIFICAT, the song of Mary in Luke 1:47-55.
If we are to say that Jesus is the Saviour of the world, we are called to join with Jesus in his saving activity which means being a part of the work of God described in vs. 52-53; "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

If the Baby born in Bethlehem is the saviour of the world, the Kings of kings and Lord of lords,
then it behooves us to be about our Saviour's business.



Wednesday, December 07, 2005

ADVENT III: RCL texts for Dec. 11

FIRST READING: Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
Verse 1: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. . . “

Every time I read this lesson, I think of Jesus first sermon in the synagogue in Nazereth, how he read this text and then said, “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.” I also think of how this text and those words were the theme of his ministry for the time he had left.

This time, when I read this text I thought of my first sermon. I was 22, a recent UNC-chapel Hill graduate, preparing to enter seminary in September. It was a hot August day in Eastern North Carolina, Asbury United Methodist, Washington NC. I wore a seersucker suit, what I later took to calling a “Matlock” suit.

I don’t know if the sermon was any good. It was the best I could do with no training and no experience. I found the one page outline the other day, (yes, I’m a pack-rat, but only of academic and theological stuff) one page, typed on onion skin paper, marginal notes in my ever present fountain pen scrawl.

It was on faith in the midst of doubt, of hanging on to faith in God in the midst of evidence to the contrary.

What is interesting to me is how that has been the theme of my preaching and my ministry for over almost 30 years; almost every time I look at a text I think, how can I believe that, why should I believe that; even if its true, why does it matter NOW, to ME?
Those are my eternal questions, the questions which drive my preaching and my life.

Here’s question for you: what is YOUR question? What inquiry keeps you going? What do you seek to know that keeps you going, looking, seeking? And where does God fit in to that? Those are the bedrock questions of the spiritual life, without which there is no life, only existence. I guess I would say “The spirit of the Lord God has anointed me TO ASK QUESTIONS . . .”

SECOND READING: I Thessalonians 5:16-24
I got nothing. When Paul gets all exuberant with the exhortations, I just zone out. I’ve read this over four or five times this week, I understand the words, I get the drift, it just leaves me flat. All I can say is, some people like religious talk and others don’t. I don’t .

GOSPEL READING: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Verse 8: “He (John) himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light . . “

Back in the early 80’s, I spent a year doing post-M.Div. studies at the Lutheran Seminary in Columbia SC. One Sunday I was scheduled to preach in Pomaria SC. If you’re not familiar with the area, the Dutch Fork is the area the German Lutherans settled in the 1700’s and its just full of Lutheran churches just west and north west of Columbia.

I couldn’t find the town or the church. Every road had a couple of brick Lutheran Churches. It was less than 15 minutes before the service and I still couldn’t find the church.

My moment of ultimate frustration came at a T crossroads. Their were two signs facing me, pointing in opposite directions, each saying Pomaria 5 miles. There was a farmer in the corner of the field, working on his tractor. I rolled down the window and asked,
“Does it matter which may I go to Pomaria?” He looked at me, he looked at the signs, he spat on the ground and looked back at me, “Not to me it don’t.”

One thing you can say about John, it mattered to him which way people went; he was a sign pointing to Christ. That was is role and he knew it, and he was constantly deflecting attention from himself to Christ, pointing to Christ as the light.

Put another way, John was an icon. I have recently been doing some reading in Orthodox spirituality. In LIGHT THROUGH DARKNESS, John Chryssavgis says, “In the Orthodox tradition, doctrines are merely signposts (otherwise known as icons) in our journey towards God, pointers to (and never propositions about) the divine reality.” P. 58.

We preachers are icons, all Christians are called to be icons, really. We are all pointers to Christ, and the way we point is by the way we live, living out our faith in the world in such a way that people see the light in us and on us and through us.

In his book, THE GREAT GIVEAWAY, David E. Fitch takes on the culture of church growth which has sold out to modernity. He says, in part, “Postmoderns, however, suspect the machinations of consumer oriented messages to have power over them to make “buying” decisions. Instead, postmoderns recognize truth most where it is lived day-to-day one with another.” P.54

It is not our calling to say who Christ is definitively. It is our role to point to the story and to live out the story in our lives. The rest is up to God.



Tuesday, November 29, 2005

ADVENT II: RCL texts for Dec. 4, 2005

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11: Verse 4: "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain."

I have lived in and around the Appalachian mountains about half my life; the first 20 years or so and now the last 4. A lot of things happened in the intervening 25 years, to me and to the mountains.

If you ask most North Carolinians they will tell you that the next thing after Asheville going West is the Tennessee line. This is true is you're going due West, but if you go Southwest, there's another 2 hour drive before you leave NC.

I remember the first time I came out to Hinton, in the "Far West" as it is called. It was in the late 1970's and it took forever. Up and down hills, along creek bottoms, following "old 64" a paved, two lane road. I think we left Lake Junaluska west of Asheville about 1 PM and got to Hinton Center just in time for dinner at 5:30.

Now, in 2005, I can be to Lake Junaluska in about an hour and a half. Most of it is four lane, the worst of it is ten times better than the best of it 30 years ago.

In order to do it, they had to follow the directions of our text; they lifted up the valleys,
made low the hills and mountains, leveled out the rough places.

While I have my doubts about the long term good of opening up the Great Smokies to more and more cars and pollution, one thing is certain; it provided ease of travel for the people who live here and those who want to come here.

Of course, the text has to do not with road-grading, but with the preparattion of the heart, of making it easy, or easier, for the Holy to come in. Sometimes we act as though Spirituality should be difficult, arduous, a trek. Well, maybe our journey should be hard, but our journey is the process of clearing the road, of getting things out of the way, of removing the stumbling blocks to God, so that when God comes, God easily can get to us, hopefully in time for dinner.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a - verese 9 "The LORD is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."

What does it mean to repent? Does it mean to feel sorry, or does it mean to be really, really sorry that you got caught? Well, neither really. Those things are signified by feeling remorse, by being rueful but repentance is not a feeling, it is an action. And it is not a one time, took care of that mistake type of action; rather it is a complete reorientation change of life type of action.

Repentance means to turn from one thing to another, in this case to turn from sin to God. As such, it is not a matter of looking back on the past and feeling sorry for screwing up.
It is more a looking to the future and seeing oneself as a changed person, living fully and honestly in and with God. The only thing it has to do with the past is the turning away from the past in order to embrace God's future.

GOSPEL: Mark 1:1-8 - Verse 1: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

My oldest son has always been something of a cryptic writer. He hates to waste words, which is a good thing, most of the time. All through High School I read and edited his papers and continually had to goad him into unpacking his dense prose to make it more understandable. He wrote like the mathematician he is, using words as symbols and sentences as equations.

I was reminded of this tendency over the Thanksgiving break when he asked me to read his Departmental Honors paper. It's about computer science and physics and math and astronomy and radio satalite data and . . . well, you get the idea. He really has improved his writing. I was able to understand those parts an educated amateur should have understood, but he did have a few lapses into sentence as equation, but not too bad.

This first line of Mark's Gospel reminded me a bit of David's writing, a whole lot crammed into a few words, a formula, an equation almost. It's not even a sentence, there's no verb. It's more like a title or a sulatation.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Very first line and Mark lays it all out there. Good News, Christ, Son of God. These are not idle words, throwaway lines, Mark is not a good writer, but he is not a careless one either. Let me restate that. Mark is a good writer with a limited Greek vocabulary and he uses that vocabulary pointedly to make his case plain.

As we move into the Advent/pre-Christmas time, Mark's words are a good reminder to us that we are about serious business. About gospel business. It's not just time to trim the tree and give presents and parties. It's time to remember about the one who came as a baby with a threat of death over his head, the one who left heaven's comfort to muck around down here with us, the one who is our LORD, but who chose to be our servant.

It is a mysterious time in which we have an opportunity to play round with the meanings of God's obscure equations in our lives.



Wednesday, November 23, 2005

ADVENT I: RCL Texts for Nov. 27, 2005

I decided this week to publish my sermon for Sunday, a sermon which will be delivered to 15 to 20 people in a "house church" in a retirement community in the mountains of NC. Like Tip O'Neill famously sai of politics, "All preaching is local."

Advent 1
November 27, 2005
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9
I Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37
Title: Of Waiting and Watching

My Mother-in-law, flat out, makes the best biscuits I ever ate. That is no exaggeration. I could have the sworn affidavits of 25 men who lived in my Dorm at Guilford College at a moment’s notice. Those biscuits are good.

Back when I was a freshman in college, Deborah was still in High School, and I used to go to see her every week-end, a 200 mile round-trip. And every week-end her mother would make me a huge batch of ham biscuits on Sunday afternoon, to take back to college with me.
She was afraid I was starving to death on the College food plan.

I had one of those big Tupperware bowls, I mean big, like a dish-pan. And she would fry up country ham and bake biscuits, and put the ham in the biscuits and pack that Tupperware Bowl full. I kept it on the seat of my 1966 Rambler American as I drove through the North Carolina countryside, eating as many as I could hold during the two-hour trip, because I knew those were all I would get; for I had made the mistake of sharing them with my room-mate once,
and now every Sunday night, ravenous 18 and 19 year old men/boys gathered in my room,
waiting to descend upon that Tupperware Bowl.

I was a very popular fellow at Guilford College, and I owed it all to my girlfriend’s mother’s ham biscuits.

They were terribly unhealthy, I’m sure. Bleached white flour and lard and buttermilk; mixed in a carved wooden bowl that was kept under the sink.But my goodness, they were good.
Even today, just thinking about them makes my mouth water. In the years since Deborah and I married, the frequency with which we visit the farm in Goldsboro NC has dwindled,
from once a month to our current once a year. But, through the years, every time I went,
those biscuits were a constant fixture in the visit.

We would arrive, and there would be a table laden with food, and Jean would say, "Good, you’re here. I can put the biscuits in now." I never told her that the biscuits alone would have been enough for me.

A few years ago, we drove over, arriving deep into the night, so of course, there was no dinner waiting for us. We had told them we would eat on the way. For the last 200 miles, all I could think about was those biscuits. I was sure we would get there, and pile into our beds,
and sleep late the next morning, only to be awakened by the sounds and smells of coffee perking and ham frying and biscuits baking. My mouth watered, my tongue played around my lips. While my family slept, I kept myself awake through the Carolina countryside by thinking of all the ways I would eat Jean’s biscuits; buttered, with jelly, with apple butter, with red-eye gravy, with country ham, with sausage, etc.

The next morning, I awoke, and indeed I smelled the coffee, and the ham frying and I heard the oven door opening and shutting. I got up, washed my face and wandered into the kitchen. I walked over to the table.

Why, there was my old Tupperware bowl, covered with a clean dishtowel, filled with ham biscuits. I smiled at Jean, closed my eyes, reached my hand under that dish towel and grabbed a ham biscuit and put it in my mouth and .......

argh, what is this? This is not one of your biscuits. What is this?

My mother-in-law looked at me blankly and said, "Oh, I don’t make them from scratch anymore. I used the canned ones. They’re so much easier."

I had waited, anticipated, planned, prepared, visioned, this moment; and suddenly, it was wrenched away from me in the blink of an eye. All I had hoped for; gone in the name of progress and convenience. It was, for me, a heart-breaking moment.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the time when we begin to wait, to watch, to prepare and plan and anticipate, to envision; God’s future in our midst. It is a time in which our vision of the future can be clouded by our memories of the past.

Indeed, our entire vison of the future can be simply a recreation of what was, so much so that we are unwilling and unable to receive the future God has in store for us.

For many of us, Advent is the time to get ready for Christmas, and our vision of what Christmas will be like has been shaped by our "fuzzy memories" of Christmas past. We have a tendency to forget the uncomfortable moments, the faux paus, the loneliness and the bad parties; those things fade away, and all we remember is the good stuff. And in the glow of the ever present Christmas publicity machine, a Vision of this years Christmas grows, and we do all within our power to make that Vision a reality; and. . . .argh, it almost never happens. Someone, unwittingly, slips some canned biscuits in on us. Things go wrong, we spend too much money, some relative or the other makes an uncomfortable scene about something we didn’t think was important. And so it goes. And somehow, Christmas isn’t as special as we had hoped it would be.

Which is what happens when we build our dreams for the future on fractured and fuzzy memories of the past. We create a hope for a world`that will never be out of the pieces of a world that never was.

All three of our Scripture lessons are about being ready; about being ready for God to act and act decisively in the world and in our lives. And, there is nothing in these texts about building that vision of the future on the recovery of some past Glory of our own. In our texts; God is doing totally new and unprecedented and unexpected things because God is loving and merciful.
In Isaiah, the prophet is speaking to people in exile, people whose nation does not exist anymore. Isreal has been conquered and wiped out, erased from the political map.
Yet Isaiah says something new, and impossible and unheard of is getting ready to happen.

Paul writes to the church in Corinth to remind them not to build their hopes for the future on their past. Indeed, he calls them to break with their past, to continue to wait for the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of the future.

And in our Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us that we cannot know when or how
God will act; so, we must always be ready, and being ready means being about the Lord’s business TODAY, with our eyes on the future, not on the past.

So, what does that mean for us here, today, at Holy Family. Well, it means a number of things.
1)It means we must enjoy our Christmas; but not lay more weight on it than it can bear. We must realize that our memories of the past are filtered through a lens of time and desire, and that no Christmas was ever as good or as bad as we remember it, so we should go easy on the anticipation and smile when somebody hands us some "canned biscuits".

2) We must take time this Advent season to watch and pray and seek a new vision,
a vision of the new thing God is doing in our midst, God is building a new church, a new community of faith.

3) We must commit ourselves to that new vision. We must commit ourselves to this new thing God is doing in, with and through us. For we are fulfilling Isaiah’s vision,
we are building the Lord’s house on the mountain,
we are creating a place where many people shall come to worship.
God is acting in us to create a house of the God of Jacob
in which we can teach God’s ways,
in which people shall learn to walk in God’s path.
We are building our Vision for all God’s children,
and it will be like nothing we have ever seen or heard before.



Tuesday, November 15, 2005

CHRIST THE KING: RCL texts for Nov. 20, 2005

FIRST READING: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
“I will search for my sheep…” My oldest son, David, is a big boy now; 22 years old, a 6’8” student and member of the Crew at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. But he was a little boy once; little and vulnerable and in need of protection. And we lost him once, in the Mall on I-85 in Concord, North Carolina.
We were in a shop, his mother and I. It was in late November or early December, a Christmas shopping expedition. There was a crowd. I don’t remember for sure, but it may have been a day when there was a concert by the High School Band and I came to see kids from the youth group at Church. Anyway, one minute he was there, the next minute neither his mother not I knew where he was.

We were frantic, up and down the mall, looking in stores, calling his name, trying to find security, focused on one thing and one thing only; finding our boy and taking him home. After what seemed like forever, he turned up. He too was scared, he knew he was lost, and he wanted his Mommy most of all.

Every time I wonder how God feels about me, or you, or anybody, I remember this text from Ezekiel, and the story of the 90 and 9 and the one lost sheep and the Prodigal Son, and I remember how I felt when my son slipped out of my grasp and my sight; and then I remember how I felt when he was found again, and I know, oh I know, how God feels about me, and about you and about all of us.

SECOND READING: Ephesians 1:15-23
“having the eyes of your heart enlightened . . .” I’ve always loved that phrase. I’ve never been real sure what it means, but I have always loved it.

I am pretty sure it has to do with changing the way one looks at things, with having a paradigm shift of the soul, like the one I had with the church back when I was in college.

I always had a love/hate (no make that a hate/love, I hated more than I loved) relationship with the church. Or as I put it then, I loved Jesus and hated so-called Christians. (I was 19-20 years old. Consistent theology is for old folks ;-) )

I hated them for being smug and bigoted and racist and middle-class and less than heroic in following the radical gospel. And, of course, I knew myself to be none of those things.

I took an Old Testament Course in my Junior Year at UNC, because it filled a Humanities requirement. The Professor was a Presbyterian Minister, Dr. Bernard Boyd. I had the eyes of my heart enlightened in that fall semester.

I’m not sure what happened, but I started the semester with no use for the church and I ended it ready to go to seminary. I had had the eyes of my heart enlightened about God’s love for all of us, about God’s love for “those people” in spite of their inadequacies and most especially, God’s love for me in spite of MY inadequacies.

GOSPEL: Matthew 25:31-46
“the least of these . . . “
Sometime in the early 90’s, I went to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in downtown Atlanta for a “Chrism Mass” with my Bishop and my fellow Lutheran Clergy from North Georgia. A Chrism Mass is a renewal of Ordination vows and is usually done in the Lenten season.

Lutherans in the US don’t have Cathedrals, but if we did, Redeemer would fit the bill for Atlanta. It is quite a place. Very traditional, dark, High Altar, stone, dark wood, Gothic accoutrements. At 7:00 Am, we Lutheran Clergy felt a bit like medieval monks gathered for Matins as we stumbled into the choir stalls, listened to the Bishop’s sermon, repeated our promises of faithfulness to the Scriptures, the Confessions and our appointed duties. We took Communion, we sang, we prayed, and then we retired to a Dining Room for breakfast.

This was no church basement “donuts on a napkin and coffee in Styrofoam cups”
Repast. This was a meal. A group of “Church Ladies” had set out a feast of eggs and grits and sausage balls and fruit cups and fruit juices and strong coffee on tables covered with starched and ironed table cloths, fine china and sterling silver knives and forks.
We lowly preachers were having a high old time.

I left early and tried to find my way to the back parking lot, but I got turned around and found myself on the sidewalk on the East side of the church. The door clicked shut and locked behind me as I looked down Fourth street toward Peachtree and saw a gathering of Atlanta’s homeless, huddled against the outside stone wall of the church, trying to block the early morning mist with newspapers and cardboard boxes. They were waiting for the soup kitchen in the basement to open.

I walked down the sidewalk, feeling conspicuous in my black suit and collar and gold cross around my neck. As I got to the corner and turned left, I glanced up and if I held my head just right, I could see into the dining room where the Lutheran Clergy, warm and well-fed, supped in luxury while also seeing the poor and homeless of Atlanta, stretched out in the cold and damp, waiting for a bowl of soup in a dank basement.

And I had to think? Which crowd would Jesus eat with? And what’s he going to say to me about all this? Remember, the least of these . . .



Friday, November 11, 2005

PENTECOST 26: RCL Texts for November 13, 2005

Note to readers: Sorry about the late post this week. I've been out rambling, doing my day job duties. Someone said they didn't know how to comment without setting up their own blog. I think all you do is click on the "0 comments" after my name at the end and it takes you to a response place. You do have to give a name and create a password.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; I Thess. 5:1-11, Matthew 25: 14-30
Today's lessons deal with themes of judgement, particularly the coming Grand, Final, Apocalypic, Set Everything Straight kind of Judgement of God. Rather than comment on the texts themselves this week, I am going to share a couple of personal stories and one from Church History that might spark something for you.

Story 1: When I was a kid, we have week-long revivals in the Spring and the Fall at Slate Mountain Missionary Baptist Church where was Grandfather was Head Deacon and Treasurer for 10-20 years ( not a little power hoarding there). The "Evangelist" generally centered on
issues of Jesus coming again in judgement, spent a lot of time on the lake of fire, and most time on the rapture and how the Christians would be taken up to heaven and the evil people left behind (hence the title of the book series).

When I was 12 or 13, I was mighty shy and mighty scared of going to Hell. If there was any way to get saved and accept Christ and avoid Hellfire other than going down to the front of the church during the "invitation", I would have done it. But I was too shy. So I prayed each night in my bed for forgiveness and please, please Jesus, don't leave me behind.

One morning during the Fall Revival; I awaoke at down to a completely empty house. My parents and my 4 siblings weren't there. Even the dog was nowhere to be seen. The electricity wouldn't work. I immediately jumped to conclusions. Oh My God. Jesus came back, and took everybody else and left me behind. I'm going to Hell.

It sounds funny now, but I assure you, it wasn't funny then. Imagine a 12 year old boy, down on his knees in the frost covered backyard, in his underwear, tears streaming down his face, pleading with Jesus to spare him. It was an awful few minutes.

Then I heard a familiar sound, Putt, Putt, Putt. Our farm tractor. Then our dog burst over the hill behind the house followed by the tractor pulling a trailer load of cured tobacco, my family riding along. They had gone to get cured tobacco out of the barn and transfer it to the pack house, and decided since I had the sniffles to leave me in bed. And, the power had gone out, which happend once or twice a month, for no known reason. Instead of the Devil coming to devour me, it was just my parents coming to fuss at me for being outside in my underwear and my siblings to laugh at me for being afraid.

Story 2: I was in Canton Ohio this week. and got to go by the Pro Footbal Hall of fame late one afternoon, I barely had 45 minutes before closing time, but I was determined to get it in. It was a coll, overcast rainy Wednesday afternoon, there was almost no one there. I went from room to room alone, I had gotten used to my solitude when I rounded a corner into a room and there stood a familier face, At first I thought it was a manikin, but it had on a Blue Balzer and slacks, not a unifrom. Then it, he, moved, and I realized it really was Franco Harris, one of my heroes from years ago. (Pittsburg Steelers, running back, the Immaculate Reception, ask a football fan)
I couldn't believe it, walked away (still shy), then came up and said, "You're Franco Harris".
He said, "Yes, I know." I shook his hand and walked away.

Judgement will come like a thief in the night, unexpectedly, when you least expect it. When you're busy doing something else, the moment or moments of truth will sneak up on you.
That's why there are no small moments, no insignificant actions. Every moment and every action calls for behavior that is consistent with who we are as children of God.

Story 3: John A Broadus was the first Professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, back in 1850. He was a Classics and New Testament Scholar who had taught at the University of Va. and was well respected in all academic circles. When the Civil War erupted, the school closed and Broadus served as a military Chaplain. After the War, in the fall of 1865, the school reopened with one student, and he was blind. But Broadus soldiered on, lecturing on a regular schedule to this one student, on Theology and Bible and Preaching. He carefully prepared his lectures for his one student, and in 1870 those lectures became a book called A TREATISE ON THE PREPARATTION AND DELIVERY OF SERMONS.

It is still in print, it was THE standard preaching textbook in American seminaries well into the 1960's. And all because one man did not bury his talents, but decided to use what he had to the best of his ability and to leave the ultimate outcome up to God. Broadus did not prepare his lectures expecting to write a book. He prepared his lectures with an eye to teaching his one blind student to preach.

That's it for this week. Peace.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

ALL SAINTS SUNDAY: Readings for Nov. 6, 2005

FIRST READING: Revelation 7:9-17.
I'm not much on the"Book of Revelations" as they call it here in Western NC. I'm with Luther on this one, who said that a Revelation ought to reveal something, and he had never been able to make head nor tails out of it. (Well, he said something in German that meant what I just said,
the peasant idioms being different).

But on All Saints Sunday, this text is a good place to begin in terms of the "faithful departed" part of the day's theme. I have to confess that the "robed in white, chanting around the throne of God image" leaves me cold. I can't sing and I get white stuff dirty immediately. But, then I remember it's poetic [thanks Bruggermann(?) ] and I relax and realize the message is intended as one of "hold on" in the midst of persecution and those suffering for God's Kingdom will triumph in the end.

Unfortunately, we have dropped the FAITHFUL part of "faithful departed" and replaced it with the undertakers oily "dear departed". That is to say, we have totally eliminiated any understanding that the suffering implied is "martyr" related, received as a result of being a "witness" in the world to the Gospel.

We have applied the text's language about those who have sufffered for the faith to those who have suffered at all. We have begun to define life as suffering, so all get rewarded. I don't think that's what was meant by this passage, and we, as preachers, need to reclaim the issue of suffering "for the faith", of being persecuted because one is a Christian, because one takes a stand and acts on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the neglected, "the least of these".

To do anything else cheapens God's Grace to the point that it is, well, pointless.

"Beloved, we are God's Children now; ..." What does it mean to be a child of God?
When I was a kid, I couldn't say my L's and W's, I got them backwards. My mother still laughs at my early attempts to say Pillow and Pickle.

There was a man at church who liked to ask me who I was, because he knew I would sputter and say "Im Woleww Chiwton's boy! (Lowell Chilton's boy) He did it every Sunday, and laughed every Sunday. The main thing I remember about that is I knew who I was, and who I was was related directly to family and parentage.

Most people in the modern American world do not thinkof their identity as being a "Child of God". This is an image which has been culturally lost. We are independent, individual, adult, mature, makers of our own destiny, creators of our own future, we are "self-made," we are children of no one. If we have any thought of our relation to God, it is as Co-creators, or as
partners, God is my CO-pilot, which of course puts us in the driver's seat and God along for the ride.

Recovery of the image of ourselves as "children of God" is important to our spiritual health. It is a key to a restoration of wonder and awe and mystery as a vital part of the way we look at the world. We have told ourselves that we are in charge of our fate; Katrina and Rita and Wilma and Tsunamis and Earthquakes have reminded us just how far from the truth that is.

To have a healthy relationship with the world and with the Holy, we must return to the place of wide-eyed observors and learners, ready to learn and relate, not subdue and conquer.

GOSPEL READING: Matthew 5:1-12 (the Beatitudes)
I think the low point for the Beatitudes came when Robert Schuller reduced tham to Pop Psychology with his early 80's book on the "BE HAPPY ATTITUDES". I bet his New Testament Professor at the Reformed Church seminary was rolling over in his grave at that one!

They have been accused of being a sop to the underclass, along the lines of Marx's Religion As the OPIATE of the People, of the "pie in the sky, by and by" variety. They have been read as part of an eschatological ethic, imposssible for real people in the real world to achieve.

The really interesting thing is not that Jesus talks about the coming rewards of the Kingdom of Heaven. This was pretty standard stuff in those days of Messianic Hope.

The surprising thing is to whom Jesus says these rewards will come: the blessed, the sainted are not the Good, the Devout, those obviously favored by God because of their wealth and their position. No, Jesus says that God favors the poor, the sad, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted and suffer for doing the right thing and for caring for those in need.

I was thinking about a line from Flannery O'Connors novel "Wise Blood". There, her anti-hero,
the very strange Hazel Motes, replies to a question of his salvation, "Any man with a good car don't need redemption." And most of us agree with him. Anyone with a good job, a good marriage, good health, and good insurance don't need redemption. Which is why the church has stopped preaching the Gospel and started preaching self-help, relationship guidelines and politics from left to right. We're going to get a "good car" and to heck with redemption.

at least that's what I think.



Friday, October 28, 2005

REFORMATION SUNDAY: Lutheran Texts for Oct. 30, 2005

FIRST READING: Jeremiah 31-34
". . .for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more."

When I was a kid, I said "I'm sorry" a lot. So much so that my mother, in pure exasperation, once shouted at me, "I know you're sorry, you're always sorry. I don't want to hear how sorry you are. I want you to stop doing it."

I have to say that most of my "sorry-ness" was not true repentance seeking a genuine forgiveness, not when I was a kid, not even much later in life. It was not motivated by an awareness of true guilt for having acted wrongly. Rather it was an attempt to stave off punishment after getting caught doing things "powerful" others (parents, teachers, residence advisors, spouse, parishioners, bishops) didn't want me to do.

I developed a genuine need for forgivenenss only when I recognized that the failures with those folks were not failures of action, but of relationship. In a true relationship, a balanced and loving relationship, one acts faithfully not of of fear of punishment but in response to trust and love.
To sin, either before God or our neighbor, is to break that trust, to act against it, to step outside the circle of love. And when you find yourself outside the love which is as essential to real life as air is to breathing, then the plea for forgiveness is a plea to be restored to the relationship of trust.

When that happens, when you need that kind of forgiveness from God or wife or parent or children or significant other; then the words of Jeremiah remind us that God can give that kind of forgiveness, not a petty little "Oh, it's okay, don't worry about it,' but a hearty, "I know you have failed, but I love you and will treat you as if it never happened."

It is in that kind of forgiveness that our sorry-ness is transformed into holiness, and the greatest Reformation of all.

SECOND READING: Romans 3:19-28
"For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by law."
For most of us, most of the time, the Gospel is just a little too good to believe. There's got to be a catch, a hidden clause, something that we have to do so that we can be sure that we're saved.
We just have trouble putting our full weight down on the promise of this text.

My Aunt Mildred died this past spring. She was in her 80's. In August, my siblings and I got together to work on settling her estate. As we were walking though the house, I noticed a machine attached to the back of her Laz-y-boy. My brother, who is an architect and builder and lives close by and took care of her, identified it as an auxiliary generator. The "why?" question was all over my face. He said,

Well, it's an electric chair with a motor to lift the seat up slowly so that it was easy for her to get out. A few years ago I dropped by to see her and
she said, "I'm having trouble getting out of my chair lately."
I said, "Is there something wrong with the motor? I'll take a look."
She said, "There's nothing wrong with the motor. I don't ever plug it in.
I said, "Well, why not?" and
she said, "Well, what if I was laying back in it and the power went out. I wouldn't be able to get out of it.

Hence the auxiliary power pack.

Many of us are like Aunt Mildred. Kind of afraid to fully trust the Gospel, to trust God's promise to be with us, to save us. So we get a little auxiliary power pack of good deeds, just in case.
Money given, offices filled, good deeds done. We don't flaunt them, but we keep them around, just in case.

The Gospel is, we are accepted on the strength of God's love for us. And those things we do are done in response to God's love; not in order to win God's love. But it's a hard truth to live into.
I don't really trust it myself sometimes, except when I'm preaching it, which is why I love to preach so much, I think.

GOSPEL: JOhn 8:31-36
". . . and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." Jesus Christ
". . .but first, it will make you miserable." The late Rev. Dr. Benny Bedenbaugh, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary

A few year ago I was in a bookstore in Nashville and happened upon two books I had never seen before. I bought them both on the spot.

One was "The Optimist's Guide to History"
The other was "The Pessimist's Guide to History"
While I was writing the check, the clerk looked at me quizically and said, "I've sold a lot of these books, but nobody's ever bought both of them at the same time."

I said, "well, I guess most people are either optimists or pessimists, but I'm just a preacher looking for sermon illustrations."

As I thought more about it, I realized that it was likely that optimists bought the optimist's version and the pessismists bought the pessimist's version, which means they weren't really looking for the truth, they were looking for evidence to bolster their already established opinions.

And most of us are like that, most of the time. Most of what we refer to as "the truth" or "just the facts" are those tidbits of data which bolster our world view. Good enough. There's really nothing wrong with that; our human-ness hardly allows us to do anything else.

The problem comes when we treat the Truth of the Gospel like a factoid to be marshalled in defense of our various time limited political positions.

The Truth spoken of here is a living, active, moving Word of God, which breaks through our Optimism and our Pessimism and rearranges our head and our heart in ways we never imagined. It is a Truth that smashes all our preconceptions and ideas and reconstructs them on the basis of God's Love and Grace.

That kind of God, bringing that kind of truth, is not really interested in whether or not we are optimist or pessimists, doesn't really care what we make of the various denominational difference, could care less about whether we pray standing up, sitting or kneeling, etc. etc.

That kind of God doesn't want our spare time or our spare change. The God of Truth wants us.

Henry R. Rust writes of a visit ot a tiny Christian Congregation in a village in Kenya. It met in the open air beneath a thatched roof. When it came time for the offering, a round, flat basket was passed up and down the rows of benches as people placed coins and bills in it.

The basket came to a young woman with two small children. She took the basket and laid it on the ground in front of her. She took off her sandals and then stood in the basket, head bowed, praying silently for a full minute, then she stepped out of the basket and passed it on.

That's what the God of real Truth wants.



Wednesday, October 19, 2005

PENTECOST 23: RCL Texts for October 23, 2005

FIRST READING: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
"You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Huh? What's that doing in Leviticus? Everytime I hear the word Leviticus I think of my many failed attempts to read the Bible through from cover-to-cover.

Genesis was a breeze. Exodus was good too, all that fighting it out with Pharoh stuff, then we get to Leviticus, somewhere in there is where I usually gave it up for a bad job; and went back to my usual state of ignorance, (though I finally did pull it off during seminary, just so I could say I had you understand.) Anyway, what's "love your neighbor" doing in the Old Testament? Didn't Jesus say that?

All right, so I'm not an OT scholar! But I'm not really that bad. I did know that Jesus was quoting the Ot when he said this (and a lot of other things too). But, still, it messes with our easy system, doesn't it? Old Testament is all about Law and Judgement; New Testament is about Gospel and Mercy. Too often that translates into Old is Bad and New is good. (Have to watch that Marcionism. It'll sneak up on you, and its tricky.)

We tend to forget that Jesus was Jewish, and not just ethnically or racially Jewish. His whole Theological, Biblical, Spiritual, Religious identity was Jewish. Jewish thought and ritual shaped and formed his awareness of who he was and who God was. Way too often, we allow some of the anti-leader rhetoric of the Gospels to distort our remembrance that Jesus was a Jew's Jew, an obervant Jew, a synagogue-on-the-Sabbath Jew. Sometimes it feels like we think of Jesus as a chronologically misplaced, modern American, mainline Protestant. (A lot like us, in other words) Not so. A good antidote is reading some good recent works on Jesus which will remind one of just how Jewish Jesus really was, and how much we have strayed from it.

Pick up one of these relatively short books: Who Was Jesus? by NT Wright; The Historical Figure of Jesus or Jesus and Judaism by EP Sanders; and Living Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson.

Or read the OT yourself and then the Gospels. It's amazing what you'll pick up.

SECOND READING: I Thessalonians 2:1-8
". . . even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts."

Back in the summer of 1977, I was a freshly minted Methodist preacher boy, serving my first congregation in rural NC. My Grandmother Hubbard, who was then in her late 80's, came to visit me in my home for a week or two. Grandma was a staunch Baptist who had for years sung loudly and off key in the choir of her local Baptist Church. She was also a loving and wise woman. Whenever I hear the line "Hail Mary, full of grace," I have to confess, I think not of Mary but of Grandma.

Anyway, a friend at the Conference office had phoned me that the Bishop was going to the NC mountains on Sunday and had decided to stop by my church on his way and hear me preach.
I was frantic, sitting in my little study in the parsonage, reading and rereading, typing and retyping, my pitiful little attempt at a sermon.

I felt a presence in the room, and looked up to see Grandma in the doorway, leaning on her walker. "What's the matter with you boy," she said, "you act like the world's coming to an end."
"The Bishop's coming to hear me preach tomorrow," I croaked, almost crying.
She snorted, "Pshaw, You preach in front of Almighty God every Sunday. What's a little bishop compared to that?"

I still get nervous about preaching. But not about my human hearers. I haven't been able to go in the pulpit since without hearing her voice and reminding myself that I preach before God, to God and really on behalf of God.

Thankfully, God is a lot more forgiving than most Bishops I've known.

Two illustrations and I'm done. If you can't preach on this text, well, you just can't preach.

1) Jane Vajner took her 4 young boys to church every Sunday. She seldom believed that the boys listened to much of the sermon, but one Sunday she found out different. On that Sunday the Pastor really came on strong with a sermon on turning the other cheek.

That afternoon, the youngest boy came into the house crying. Between sobs, he told his mother that he had kicked one of his brothers, who had kicked him back.

Mom said, "I'm sorry that you're hurt, but you shouldn't go around kicking people.

The boy sniffed and complained, "But the Pastor said he wan't SUPPOSED TO kick me back!"

2) GK Chesterton said something like, "The Bible tells us to love our neighbours. It also tells us to love our enemies. This is because they are quite generally the same people."



Monday, October 10, 2005

Pentecost 22, RCL texts for Oct. 16, 2005

First Lesson; Isaiah 45:1-7
"Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus(?)" My sons (both in college now) sometimes call me "Dr. Half-right". A couple of weeks ago, while lecturing at Earlham School of Religion, I did it again, showing why. I was trying to reference Judy Garland, but I said Judy Holliday, remembering that Judy Garland played Billie Holliday. Thus, "Dr. Half-right." I do it all the time and I did it again in thinking about this text. I said to myself, "Cyrus? Cyrus? Didn't Cyrus Vance invent some farm implement, back in the 1800' s, in Virginia? Well, not exactly, Cyrus MCCORMICK invented a reaper, Cyrus Vance was in the Jimmy Carter administrarion as secretary of Something like War or State. Dr. Half-right strikes again.

Anyway, the whole Cyrus, the Anointed One thing is about as jarring as some of my half-right references are to those who really know. It sounds as wrong as "King Ralph", that goofy John Goodman movie of a few years back.

We're just not used to an ordinary name like Cyrus being tied up with God and power and sweet-sounding phrases like "the Lord's Anointed." Jesus is the Lord's Anointed, as was King David. But not Cyrus, it just doesn't sound right.

And, well he wasn't Jewish, or even a fellow-traveler, proselyte type. He was a king, a tyrant, a dictator, a conqueror. Why does Isaiah call him "The Lord's Anointed?"

Well, acouple of thoughts come to mind, one of which is along the "God's ways are not my ways and God's thoughts are not my thoughts" vein. God is using Cyrus even if Cyrus doesn't know it. God is accomplishing God's purposes thorugh Cyrus, with or without Cyrus' cooperation. I have to admit that in its full flush, that thought is a little too Predestinarian for me, but I also have to admit its got Biblical precedent all over it; so, I must at least recognize that, as with Joseph's brothers (Genesis 20:19-20), God works good out of evil, and uses people who are cooperating to do the Divine Will.

Secondly, it ill behooves a person with a name like Delmer to be making cuts on anybody's name. And, God does use the ordinary, all the time, to do the extraordinary. Put another way, not only is Cyrus the Lord's Anointed, but so are we all. We just don't have a religously named chronicler like Isiah to pronounce to the world, in rich and fulsome phrases, the significance of our daily doings.

Second Lesson: I Thessalonians 1:1-10
". . .your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope."

All preachers have their "set pieces", their regular phrases that crop up over and over in their sermons. ML King Jr.'s was a bit on the three Greek words for love; eros, philia and agape. It was an old horse, but he kept it in good shape and rode it well. Faith, hope and love has the feel of such a tried and true formula for Paul. It occurs also in I Cor. 13:13, Col 1:3-5, and again in I Thess, at 5:8.

What strikes a good Lutheran about Paul's use of the phrase this time is the way he uncharacteristically ties together "work" and "faith". Lutherans, of course, are death on anything that smacks of works righteousness. So, the phrase has taken me aback, somewhat.

The Concordia Self-Study Bible, produced by the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, says in a footnote that it means works are prompted by faith. Well, that's consistent Lutheran theology, but its' not what the text says.

Leader Keck, in the Interpreter's One Volume Commentary was helpful here. He says, "The famous triad of I Cor. 13:13 appears here in a different order. All three phrases must be taken together and in all three the word "of" is important. Rather than work inspired by faith, etc., Paul speaks of work as a form of faith, labor as the shape of love, steadfastness as the manifestation of hope. " (p.867)

All this reminds me of how frequently we read our Denominational Theology into the Bible.
I was just reading in Peter Day's Denominational History book again (see mammalarians on Sept. 22) and there was a short bit about Two-Seed-in-The-Spirit-Predestinarian-Baptists.
They were started by an 1840's Baptist preacher who read the text in Genensis where God throws Adam and Eve out of the Garden and says to Eve and the Serpent that there would be enmity between her seed and the seed of the serpent. In this, the preacher saw pure Predestinationism: each of us born with either the seed of salvation or the seed of the serpent. And since this seed was in the spirit and not in the flesh, nothing could be done about it. We are fated for Heaven or Hell from conception. My point is, "Does anybody else really see predestination in that text?" Probably not. The preacher brought it to the text.

It is difficult for us to really, really listen for God's voice in the Scriptures. There are so many filters we bring to the equation. And so much we miss because we have filtered it out. And so much that's not there that we think we hear because we are looking for it.

I may well preach on this text. It has a nice tripartite construction: Work, Labor, Steadfastness. Faith, Love, Hope. Faith in the past, love in the present, hope for the future. etc. etc.
And it will do a Lutheran good to talks about "Work of Faith" without choking on it. If you're a Methodist, try preaching on a predestination text: it'll do you good and surprise your congregation.

GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 22:15-22
"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's"

Boy, isn't it great that the Lectionary Committee finally got with the program and tied a text to the REAL Church year. I'm as liturgical as the next person, but every once in a while you long for a text that ties in with what's really going on in the church at the time. Like Jesus as a boy in the temple, studying the Scriptures. That would be good around Rally Day. And that Paul text about obeying the Civilian authorities; would it kill them to slide that in around the Fourth of July? And I Corinthians 13 on the Sunday closest to Valentine's Day. C'mon, let's get real about what's important in the real church.

So here it is Stewardship Campaign time, and woohoo, we get the text we need, and we didn't pick it. Funds are tight, budgets are getting made, (pastoral salaries contemplated!) And there it is, big as life, just dying to be preached.

Just one problem. This text isn't really about money, is it? It's about about identity and commitments and relationships. When those things become clear, its about money, sort of.

This was a trick question and the Pharisees knew it. If Jesus says Yes, he could be accused of a religous fault, worshiping a god other than the LORD God of Israel. If he says no, he could be accused of fostering a revolt against the emperor. Either way, they figure they've got him.

Jesus answere slips the noose by making the Pharisees answer. Whose picture is on the coin? Then give the coin back to its maker. Neat Trick.

Then Jesus goes further. Give to God the things that are God's.

Too often, we have heard (and preached) this text as : Give the money you owe to Caesar to Caesar and the money you owe to God to God. Or more directly: Pay taxes to the government and give a tithe to the church.

Makes a good stewardship sermon. Too bad it's not what Jesus said or meant.

The key word is IMAGE. The emperor's image was on the coin, give the coin back to the emperor.

God's image is on your life, give your life to God. Give to God that which belongs to God.
Human beings bear the mark of our maker, we will return to our maker, and in the meantime we are to imitate and serve our maker. That's what Jesus said.

It is not a question of what percentage of our income, or our goods or our time or our talent belongs to God, not a matter of apportioning it out. It's all God's, as are we. We are made in the image of God, the mark of Christ, given to us in Baptism, is on our lives now and forever.

In whose image are you made? Jesus asks us. If the answer is God, then it is clear tht we are being asked to give ourselves totally to God. We are the things that are God's.

I read a story somewhere about a kid named Benji. When he was little, his very devout evangelical Mama asked him if he was ready to ask Jesus to live in his heart?

He thought about it a minute and said, "I don't know Mama. I don't think I want the responsibility."

I know how you feel kid. But want it our not, we've got it.



Thursday, September 22, 2005

PENTECOST 19: RCL texts for September 25, 2005

FIRST READING: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
verses 3 and 4: "As I live, says the LORD GOD this proverb shall no longer be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die."

The proverb in question says that the Parents eat sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge. In another place in Scripture the same thought is stated even more deterministicly and theologically: The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children and the children's children to the seventh generation.

Here in Ezekiel we have one of the first hints of individual responsibility before God. Luther put it this way, "We are born alone, we die alone, we face God alone." and that is true. But between being born; and dying and facing God, we (for good or ill) live in some sort of human community.
And that human community plays a part in shaping us into people who understand that our actions in life have implications for others as well as ourselves and as much as possible attempt to take actions which benefit others as well as benefit ourselves. And some people are raised in communities which shape, or bend, them in the opposite direction, a direction filled with admontions that "it's every (person) for his/her self", "look out for number one", and"what's in it for me."

So, once again we find ourselves in the midst of ambiguity and paradox. On the one hand, as the poet and preacher John Donne said, "no man is an island," we are always in the midst of community, are shaped by community and are responsible to and for community. On the other hand, as the spiritual says, "you have to walk that lonesome valley" by yourself. WE are individuals, responsible for our own actions, accountable for our own behaviour.

And this text reminds us of this paradox and calls us to keep it in tension. May God help us.

SECOND READING: Phillipians 2:1-13
verses 6-7: " . .who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. etc."

Here's an idea: use this lesson, in particular verses 5-11, as the Creed or Affirmation of Faith this Sunday. It is, of course, an early hymn or liturgical worship piece, and using it with congregational participation would remind the congregation of this. Perhaps it could be broken into "half-verses" and read like a Psalm or "Responsive Reading".

This text is one of the best remedies to what I call "the abusive Father theory of the Atonement", otherwise called Substitutionary Atonement. In this theory God's Justice is pure and has been violated by each and every human being, which has aroused God's wrath and God's judgement must be "satisified" and God's wrath "appeased." Not not just any sacrifice will foot the bill here, the sacrifice must be "pure" and "perfect" and "without blemish." Ta Da, here's Jesus; the perfect, sinless human being, willing to be sacrificed to appease God's wrath, fulfill God's implacable judgement and justice, to stand in our place and accept our punishment.
Once Jesus dies, God's wrath is apparently spent and he now can love us. Thus, the "Abusive Father theory of the Atonemant." Everytime I hear this preached, I see an angry, abusive Father bent on beating the problematic children and just as he has worked himself up into a fit, the elder brother steps in and the Father beats the "Hell" out of him, and then he is so sorry and I love you all, etc. etc. (I know the technical theory is much more sophisticated than this, but...)

Philippians provides us with an alternative vison. A priviledged son of God, who was indeed "in the form of God' who voluntarily came into the midst of our troubled human lives to be with us and to serve us as a "humble slave", who sufffered what we suffer, and came not to assuage an angry God, but to show us the way through Death. To show to us that lives lived in fear of death are half lives, that the only way to live is to live each day fully and morally, trusting God with what happens after death.

And no, my father wasn't abusive. In fact, we preferred his spankings to those of my mother. He was a big man and I think he was afraid of hurting us.

GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 21:23-32
verse 31: "Which of these two did the will of his father?"
That aforementioned Daddy of mine was a somewhat old-fashioned guy. He really didn't understand the concept of disobedience. We lived on a farm and everybody worked in some capacity from the time they were 5 or 6 years old. And Daddy was the Foreman of this Motley Crew of children. When it came to the work, which was our livelihood, he brooked no opposition, he gave orders and expected them to be obeyed.

Thus, when he told you to do something, and he came back later and discovered it not to have been done, he was well, flabbergasted, and he said, "Didn't you hear me?" For to Daddy, no other explanation made any sense, the only way one of his children would not do something he told them to do was that they had not heard him.

In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus gets into a dialogue with the "chief priests and elders" about
religious authority and God's will and sinful people, etc. and Jesus makes the point that it is obedience in action rather than verbal assent that makes for faithfulness.

The chief priests and elders are the ones who have said to the LORD, "oh yes LORD, this which you command, we will do." and then gone about their business without doing it.
The "tax collectors and prostitutes" are those who have seemingly ignored God's commands, but after their encounters with Jesus, have begun to live lives of generosity and love.

And the Lord says to the hearers/non-doers, "Didn't you hear me?"
And the Lord says to the non-hearers/doers, "Well done, good and faithful servants."


I'm been trying to work this in, but I can't, so I'll just share it with you, under the category of "who says Church History is boring". While perusing Peter Day's A DICTIONARY OF CHRISTIAN DENOMINATIONS, I ran accross this item:

An ANABAPTIST sect of uncertain date, but whose origin was at Haarlem, in the Netherlands. The name derived from a young man's indiscreet and affectionate touching of his bride-to-be's breast, an act of tenderness that became voiced abroad among members of the sect. This elicted great disapproval amongst some of the members and they urged in favour of excommunication, while others took a more tolerant view. A split occured in the sect, with those who were willing to overlook the display of affection, who subsequently became known as MAMMILLARIANS,
separating from the hardliners. (Day, p.293)

I've read a lot of church history. I'd say that is probably the most legitimate reason for a denominational split I have ever run across ;-)



Friday, September 16, 2005

Pentecost 18

To those of you (and there are a few) who regularly check this site for sermonic musings, I apologize that there will not be much this week. I am in Houston, at The Hospice where my good friend Barbara is dying.
Her husband Jack and I were room-mates at Guilford College back in the early 70's. We were in each others' weddings, godparents to the kids, etc. etc. Jack and Barbara have been married almost thirty years.

Today's Gospel lesson is about fairness, God's fairness, our fairness with each other. And the difference between fairness and God's Grace.

When I was a kid, fairness was very important to me. I grew up poor in a family with 5 children. Life was full of adults with power making decisions for me. Parents, Teachers, Grand-parents, Pastors, etc.
The only defence a kid has is to appeal to fairness, to justice.

The thing that is important to me about my relationship with Jack is that it was in that friendship that I learned that while fairness was an important thing, it wasn't the only thing.

I suppose he had more money than me. But it seemed natural to him that we just shared what we had with each other. We kept a change bowl and ate out when there was enough money in it. We pooled our resources and bought extra snacks for the room. Etc. It's no big thing, but the subject of who put in what or how much never arose. It was about the relationship.

The has held true for his marriage to Barbara. Share and share alike. No calculations or concerns about "fairness".

Which leads me to think that its about relationships, this kingdom of God thing. And wherever we can find a way to trust, really trust, a relationship, then the contracts and fairness fade in importance.

Which is why the judicial image of God's saving acts toward us is not very compelling for me. We don't owe God anything and God doesn't owe us anything.

God loves us, and because God loves us, God bestows on us goodness.
In response we bestow goodness on others, not because they deserve it, but because they need it, and we are brothers and sisters in Christ with all creation, and so we are in "relationship" to all creation.

And, no it's not fair that a wonderful person and flamboyant artist like Barbara is going to die at 51, leaving a devastated husband and many heartbroken friends. But life isn't fair. Neither is the kingdom. As Mark Twain said, "Heaven doesn't go on merit. It goes on Grace. If it went on merit, your dog would get in and you would stay out."



Friday, September 09, 2005

Pentecost 11, RCL texts for Sept. 11, 2005

FIRST READING: Genesis 50:15-21

Verse 20: Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.

So said Joseph to his brothers at the end of that cycle of stories. His brothers sold him into slavery, where he was in prison and in danger of losing his life, when a series of events propeled him into the office of "Prime Minister", Pharoh's right hand man. And, when a famine struck his homeland, Jospeh was positioned to help his family and his country in its time of need.

I wonder, how often does God manipulate my evil into good? Well, maybe not my "evil", but my indifferent, selfish, lacksaidaisical, non-directive, not-intentional behaviour into benefiting others and furthering his kingdom.

More to the point, how often does God turn my ordinary and not very inspired performance of my daily duties into a lifeline for someone in need? More often than I would think, I tink.

We often feel ourselves called to heroic measures for Christ and Kngdom, and, more often than not, our efforts prove to be less than heroic. But teh story of Grace is this: God is at work in us and through us, even when we're just skidding, sometimes even when we are consciously acting against it. God's hand is at work in us, through us and around us.

Martin Luther, in his small Catechism, said that when we pray "thy kingdom come," in the Lord's Prayer, we should be aware that God's Kingdom comes without our prayer or our effort. Our prayer here is that when it comes, we will be a part of it.

GOSPEL READING: Matthew 18:21-35

I knew two brothers. They're dead now. They grew up hard in rual NC during the depression. Tried their hand at a few things, truck-driving, tobacco farming, served in the Army in WWII. Not failures at any of it, but stilll just getting by.

After the War, they decided to start a dairy. They pooled their resources. They had the old family farm. One of them had a some cows, the other bought some. It was an unequal amount, but they never mentioned it again. 50 years went by. The dairy was a success. They each married, neither had any children. Their wives were difficult women, always feuding with each other or others in the community, but the brothers ignored them and worked on, made a success of their dairy.

After they turned 70, they decided to retire. Leased the dairy to a young farmer for a few years. Then they decided to let the young farmer buy them out. It was a half million dollar deal.

One night they got together to iron out some details. And the subject of the uneven amount of cows from when they started came up. A difference of about 15 cows in the original herd.
Harsh words were said, other hurts arose. After an hour, the older brother stormed out of the house. The next day he left for Florida to visit relatives. While there he got sick and was in the hospital for 3 weeks. And while he was in the hospital, his younger brother died. And they never had a chance to reconcile. And their widows kept it going after the older one died.
Emotional hurt, financial loss, lack of love, all over 15 cows. All because no one was willing to forgive the other.



Wednesday, August 31, 2005

PENTECOST 16; The RCL Texts for Sept. 4, 2005

FIRST LESSON: Ezekiel 33:7-11
verse 9-10: "If I say to the wicked, "Wicked man, wicked woman, you're on the fast track to death!" and you don't speak up and warn the wicked to change their ways, the wicked will die unwarned in their sins and I'll hold you responsible for their bloodshed. But if you warn the wicked to change their ways and they don't do it, they'll die in their sins well-warned and at least you will have saved your own life" (Eugene Peterson's THE MESSAGE translation)

This text has done a lot of damage in the last couple of hundred years, especially amongst the "pure and righteous" who do not hesitate to point out to the lowly sinners their faults. the problem comes in a failure to recognize the difference between sins of power and sins of weakness. Sins of power must be pointed out vigorously and must be opposed strongly. Standing up for the oppressed and against the oppresser is THE TRUE prophetic call.

Sins of weakness call for a priest, not a prophet; for tender loving care, not harch recriminition.

Too often in American Christianity, we ignore or prop up the sins of power while castigating and pointing the finger at those caught in the web of the sins of weakness. And too often, we feel good doing it.

C.S. Lewis, in MERE CHRISTIANITY, referred to them as sins of the flesh and sins of the spirit and went on to say: "The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing, . . . the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute."

SECOND LESSON: Romans 13: 8-14
Some lines from Peterson's translation:
"Don't run up debts, except the debt of love you owe each other."
"The law code - . . . , finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can't go wrong when you love others."
"When you add everything up in the law code, the sum total is love."

That's all very well and good, except we have a tendency to forget what LOVE really means or is.

In our culture we confuse it with either SEX or AFFECTION. (In Biblical terms EROS or PHILEA) when what the text calls for is AGAPE, selfless concern and action for the other.

In Christian communites, the major problem is confusing AGAPE with AFFECTION.
We think when Jesus and then Paul tell us to Love one another, they mean we must make ourselves like each other a lot. That's impossible. The affections are not responsive to nor controllable by the will. You can't make yourself like someone or something you don't like.
I hate hot dogs. Always have. Always will. (Apparently. I'm 51, not many years left to change)
I like Pinto Beans and Corn Bread. A lot. Always have. Probably always will. Neither of those likes and dislikes did I decide upon.

But loving one another is different. It is an act of the will. A choice to behave in the other's best interest whether we feel like it or not. To act loving toward them before the feeling of affection arises.

And the paradoxical thing is, one will eventually find oneself liking, perhaps liking a lot, those persons one has treated with respect and compassion. And, even if the one loved continues to be a pinhead, neither Jesus not Paul said anything about moving in with them or loaning them money!

Verse 15: "If another member of the church sins against you, go point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one." (NRSV)

John Ortberg devotes one whole chapter in his book EVERYBODY'S NORMAL TILL YOU GET TO KNOW THEM to this one verse. The chapter's title is: Community is Worth Fighting For: Conflict.

There's the nub, isn't it. We make nice in order to avoid conflict; meanwhile carrying around grudges and talking to those who will be sympathetic instead of to the one who has hurt or wronged us. Our lack of emotional courage robs us of the true community to which God calls us.

Ortberg deals with this short text under seven headings:

1 - If there is conflict. We must acknowledge that conflict exists, something many of us are
unwilling to do, for if there is conflict we must deal with it. We would much rather keep
on playing nice like good little boys and girls.

2 - You. I must own my responsibility for the problem. Sitting around waiting for someone else
to figure out that they wronged you and how and need to give you an apology is a fool's
errand. The oblivious, who didn't mean to wrong you will never figure it out; and the
guilty, who meant to hurt you, will seldom acknowledge the need to apologize without
being confronted.

3. Go. Approach, don't avoid, the person you are in conflict with. Take action. So something.

4. To the Person. No third parties. Oftentimes at the office or at school or at home or at church
everybody else knows we're angry and why before the person we're in conflict with knows.
This is not only wrong, it's useless. The only people who can fix the problem are the people
involved, not everyone else on the planet.

5. In private. Use sensitivity. Don't call somebody out in front of a crowd. Give them a chance
to explain or apologize without the embarassment of everybody else knowing.

6. And Discuss the Problem. Use direct communication. Talk about the issue, not the other
person. But don't use euphemism and indirect. Say exactly what happened and exactly
how it hurt you.

7. For the purpose of reconciliation, or regaining a relationship. What happens when we don't
follow this type of procedure is that relationships wither and die for lack of warmth, or get
scorched from too much heat. Instead of practicing reconciliation; we give cold shoulders
or hot words; neither of which is calculated to achive peace and concord.

And now a true but funny story. Near here I grew up was a Pentecostal Holiness Church. I used to attend there sometimes with my friend Ricky. I especially liked the part where women got excited and danced and rolled in the aisles, but that's another anecdote.

Anyway, Daddy dais that back in the 20's and 30's the Pastor and Deacons of that church enforced the Church Rules which prohibited "trafficking in tobacco". So every spring, when the famers set out the tobacco crop, the Preacher would go personally and privately to each one, invoking Mt. 18:15-20, and tell them they were sinning. The farmers would thank the Preacher for coming and say they were going to "traffic in tobacco" anyway.

Next, following the text, the deacons would go with the same result, then one Sunday, the Preacher would read out all the men's names in church (about 80% of the male membership)
and their wives and children and Mothers would vote them out of the church.

In the fall, after the crop was sold, the men would recommit their lives to the LORD at the Fall revival and be reinstated to membership, just in time to make a big contribution to balance the budget.

I'm pretty sure that was not what Jeus had in mine. I'm also pretty sure he thought it was mostly harmless and a clever way to get around the rules.



Friday, August 26, 2005

Pentecost 15: RCL Gospel Lesson for August 28, 2005

THE GOSPEL: Matthew 16:21-28 "Get Thee Behind Me Satan."
Those of us of a certain generation can never forget Flip Wilson's comic character Geraldine.
One day Geraldine came home with a new dress. Geraldine's husband/boyfriend/whatever KILLER, asked, "Why did you get a new dress? You know we can't afford it?" Geraldine replied with her comic catchphrase, "The Devil made me do it." Killer said, "Why didn't you say, Get behind me Satan?" Geraldine replied, "I did, but he said it looked good from back there, too."

I'm not sure that's usable in a sermon, but it is funny.

In our Gospel lesson, Peter is not ready to hear the hard part of the Good News, Peter is not ready to participate in the downside of building up the kingdom of God. He's ready to do the part he likes: the preaching, the teaching, the healing, the adulation of the crowds.

He's not ready to do the part he doesn't like; the rejection, the fear, the abuse, the sheer terror and loneliness and threat of death.

In spite of his confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Peter is not ready to deny himself, take us his cross and follow wherever the Messiah, The LORD, the Son of the Living God may lead.

Like Peter, all too often we give lip service to high ideals without really being willing to follow through. And the thing that stops us is the same thing that stopped Peter; we want the gain without the pain, the glory without the cross.

We are addicted to our own enjoyments and pleasures and are unwilling to risk giving them up for the sake of others. That which keeps millions of the people in the world in poverty and hunger is not their laziness or incompetence; it is the rich people, the rich nations (that's us)
being unwilling to give up some of what we have for those in need, for equality and fairness.

The Rev. Mark Buchanan calls it a contest between God and the pig-God. He says that most of us are captive to the Cult of the Next Thing and the pig-God is our God. We want what we want more than we want God.

The only way out is through conversion, through turning our lives around and away from the tempting allure of the pursuit of happiness and placing our lives and our futures at the service of the pursuit of holiness.

Jesus has laid before us a simple clear choice in his words to Peter. No, I don't mean the famous three-part line: deny self, take up cross and follow."

I mean the blunt GET BEHIND ME SATAN!

Jesus did not say to Peter - get out of the way.

Jesus did not say - stop bothering me.

Jesus did not say - you're evil and I cast you into outer darkness.

He said, Get Behind Me. Follow me, follow me in serving the poor, follow me in tending the sick, follow me in telling the truth, follow me in serving the world, ifnecessary, follow me into death. Get behind me Satan, and if you do, follow me into selfless service, you, too, will have been saved.


Delmo Dorite

Friday, August 19, 2005

PENTECOST 14: RCL texts for August 21, 2005

FIRST READING: Isaiah 51:1-6
"Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug."

i grew up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Besides being the hometown of Andy Griffith and the supposed model for the town of Mayerry, Mt. Airy is also barely famous as "the home of the world's largest open-air granite quarry." No lie, they really do keep track of stuff like that and no lie Mt. Airy's is the world's largest. "Open Air" that is. Because there are bigger one's underground, deep in the earth.

This rock is so big, they call the neighborhoos's it's in "Flatrock." I finished 8th grade at Flatrock Elementary, which had been Flatrock High when my Daddy got his diploma there. Mt. Aiy High School's team are the "Granite Bears", though I'm not sure there is such a thing.

Anyway, when I read this this text, I thought of how big that Quarry really is. It's one huge, flat, rock of Granite and the 100 plus years of sawing off chunks has not diminished it much.
when I was in high school, a girl and I slipped in the gate and walked around on a full moon night. We walked for a long time and didn't get over much of it.

The text calls us to remember the immenisty of the rock from which we came, the quarry from which we were dug. I'm not sure if that means our ancestry of faith, kind of like Hebrew's "great cloud of witnesses" or if it refers to God; either way it reminds us that to be in touch with the holy is to be involved with something bigger than ourselves, something which goes beond our personal needs and preferences to encompass all of humanity and the creator's dealings with us.

It does not preclude the personal though. As a certain, nameless and no longer young lady could attest, kissing in the moonlight on a faux moonscape is kinda cool.

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds."
I spent many many years thinking religion was about conforming. Conforming to the social mores and tought patterns of a rural, fundamentalist church. I had difficulty separating the liberating word of the Gospel from the confining and limiting word of "do this" and "don't do that"

I thought to be Christian was to cut your hair short, wear conservative clothes, never say cuss words, never think about girls, never drink, never get angry . . .in other words, to act just like my little old lady, semi-victorian Sunday School teachers thought nicde little boys should act.
Believe it or not, I was a proto-feminist; I believed God was a woman; the problem was I had the wrong God, or the wrong woman, or both.

The whole woman, sexuality thing is not a bad metaphor here. Failed romances are based in the attempt to conform to what another person wants you to be so that you can "win" their love.
Frankly, that never works, not really. Oh, sometimes you will speand a lifetime connected to the person won this way, a lifetime unhappily pretending to be something you're not in order to have a relationship with someone you think you want to be with.

On the other hand, true love is transformative. People in love do change in the relationship, but they change as a result of the relationship, not in order to create the relationship. One changes in response to the love of that special someone, one 's life unfolds like a beautiful flower in the warm sunshine of the other's love. (any similarity between the author's own 31 year marriage and the above dscription is purely accidental. This is poetics, not real life, after all. Or is it. ;-)

Anyway, God does not seek for us to conform to the world, but to have a different sort of love, a love in which the amazing Grace of God transforms who we are into who we could be as naturally as the sun brings blants out of the ground and nto full bloom.

GOSPEL: Matthew 16:13-20
" . . .you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church."
I have oftened wondered why Jesus decided to tag "Simon Bar Jona" with the nickname Rocky.
Most of the Rocky's I've known have been like Rocky Marciano of Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion. Rocky doen't seem to fit Simon Bar Jona, to me.

For this Rocky, this Peter, is, to put it very bluntly, not very dependable. He was hot one minute, cold the next.

Help Me!!! I'm Sinking!"

Jesus?, Never heard of him.

Hm. Jesus is dead? I think I'll go fishing.

In picking someone like Simon bar Jona to be the cornerstone of the church, Jesus picked someone remarkably like us. For we are probably more like Peter than we would like to admit. We grow hot and cold in our enthusiasm for God, we are often confused as to what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and we continually stumble on the way to Jerusalem.

We usually think of faith as the faith we have in God. As I think about God trusting a bunch of Rocky's like us with the keys to the Kingdom, I am overwehlmed at the faith God has in us, his little flock, his church, his fallen creatures.


Delmo Dorite