Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Pentecost 7; RCL Readings for July 3, 2005

FIRST READING: Zechariah 9:9-12
verse 12: "prisoners of hope" : Prisnoners of Hope; what a wonderfully oxymoronic phrase. Prisoners are, for the most part, people without hope. Or they are people whose hopes are more like wishful thinking. Prisoners are, of all people, most likely to be considered hopeless. And remember, Hell is the ultimate prison, and Dante wrote over the Gates of Hell, Abandon HOPE, all ye who enter here.

So, what does it mean to be a prisoner of hope?
To move outside the strictly theological framework for a minute; I think of my mother and father back in 1950 when they got married. They had both had a small taste of the world outside rural NC, she in Washington DC during the War, he in Oklahoma and France during the same time period. They both knew that an education was the key to their children's future. They began to make choices then based on their indistinct hope for this future. They way in which the 5 of us were raised was a product of their HOPE, a hope which once committed to, they could not turn their backs upon. As a child, we owned no books except the World Book Encyclopedia, Reader's Digest Condensed books and the Bible. The World Book was a major investment for them, for the "children's education". They never kept us out of school to work on the farm, and this was very unusual for a time and place in which many farm kids did not start school in the fall until the crop was in. They never owned more than one car, or a color TV, or a multitude of other things.
They had at least one child in college from 1970 until 1983. Amongst the 5 of us, there is one Associate's degree, 4 BA's, 4 Masters and 1 Doctorate. And the point is that for 30+ years my parents lives were primarily shaped by their hope for their children's future. They were the prisoners of that hope.

We are, I believe, prisoners to hope in the coming of God's Kingdom of Justice.
It is not an optional thing to be wished for; it is rather the desired outcome of human history. While we are not responsible for making it happen; neither are we innocent bystanders, observors of the process. We are active participants in the Coming Kingdom, making our choices and living our lives in anticipation of it.

We are prisoners in the sense that once one is captured by the vision and beauty of the coming Kingdom of God, one cannot escape. Nor does one want to.

SECOND LESSON: Romans 7:15-25a
verse 15: I do not understand:
Well Paul, that makes two of us. Who don't understand, I mean. I don't know about the rest of you, but sometimes Paul gets a little thick for me. He reminds me of something Carl F.H. Henry said. In his book The Chrisitan Mindset in a Secular Society, Henry tells about the anxiety he and other doctoral candidates at Northern Baptist Seminary felt as they anticipated their oral exams. They kept pestering those who had already been through the orals to tell them what the questions were like, to give them a hint. Finally one post-graduate looked up from his dissertation research and said, It's like this: Explain the universe. Give 2 or 3 examples.

It was when I read that line that Paul began to make sense to me. He's explaining the universe, I thought, and sin and the cross are his 2 or 3 examples.

In today's text, Paul is using his personal inability to live up toeither God's or even his own standards as an example of the pervasiveness of Sin, the inadequacy of the Law as an antidote to Sin and our need for a Saviour. And he ends with a Rhetorical question and a Liturgical answer:
Who will rescue me from this body of Death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our LORD!

In a recent conversation with one of my oldest friends, I was pushed to define my basic Christian assumptions without using traditional theological terms or methods. I said there were three things I could affirm without recourse to either philosophy or revealed truth, but simply through empirical observation. (I recognize that there are those who would quibble philosopically on each of these, but to them I say, get a life, we have to trust our basic senses sometime).
1) the world is. 2) there is human evil in the world. 3) People want to do and be better. Christianity says to these assumptions that God made the world, sin is the name for human evil, and God in Christ seeks intervenes in our desire to do and be better. This, I think is what Paul is talking about in Romans.

GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
verse 28: ...I will give you rest. . .
The best thing I can do here is refer you to another blog; that of Dr John Fairless, occasional Hinton Lecturer and Baptist Pastor in Florida. His post of June 20, 2005 is the best thing I've seen in a while on Rest and Sabbath. see


Dr. Delmo DoRite

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

PENTECOST 6; RCL Texts for June 26, 2005

FIRST READING: Jeremiah 28:5-9
Verse 7: But listen now...
In this reading, Jeremiah is on his best behavior, he is trying his best not to lose his cool with either Hananiah or the people. But . . . it's hard not to, because the people want good news and Hananiah is willing to give it to them. They are having hard times and their ears are tuned to hear something good for a change. Jeremiah has been telling them what they consider to be bad news, the fact that they have brought a lot of their suffering upon themselves and that God is not amused. Jermiah has been telling them that repentance is a necessary prelude to forgiveness and they don't want to hear that.
A recent book God Is Not . . . Religious, Nice, "one of Us", an American, a Capitalist, addresses this by pointing out ". . .we have made God nice, preferring the facile banality of a celestially sanctoned "have a nice day" to the unpredicatability of God's lovingkindness." (Craig Harvey in The Christian Century, May 17, 2005, p.57) Exactly! We want God to be nice and like us, no matter what we do, and the holy Hananiah's of this world are willing to say that it is so, while the Jeremiah's say, "But . . But . . .But!" It is our calling to speak a prophetic BUT to the world's assumptions about God's positive regard toward all our doings.

SECOND READING: Romans 6:12-23
Slave (various verses) I am a Southerner, and as a Southerner, the slave word is definetely loaded, (with both barrels as my Uncle Lass would have said). Here in my world, the word means "persons of African descent who were brought to this country as property by white people." They were treated as sub-human both during slavery and long after the Civil War which ended it. And I have to face the fact that, though I have no record of it, it is more than probable that my ancestors owned slaves, that I have a personal, biological legacy of participation in this particular evil. I had long thought this might not be so. I had never met an Chilton of African descent. Then one day last year, I was perusing Div. III College Basketball rosters and there he was; J. Chilton, front row, third from left, a young Black man from Lynchburg Virginia. Well, what do you know? My heart sank and I faced the slave word in my heart.

So you see, no matter how much we try to talk around it, the use of the word SLAVE in this text is loaded for many of us in the US; I am sure especially so for African-Americans whose lives are still shaped daily by this country's racism.

And the thing is, I think this is what Paul means by being a slave to sin. It is a power beyond the power to make us act badly. A sin does not simply effect the one who performs it; the ripple effects spread out into the world. To be a slave to sin is to be hampered and hemmed in and pushed around by the continuing effects of a great evil; and all of us, whaite and black, are still slaves to the evils of race.

But the Gospel promises a way out: being a slave to God. Yeah, part of me wants to be a partner of God, or a co-creator, or something. But the only antidote strong enough to fight the evil of slavery to sin is slavery to God, giving oneself over completely to the effects of goodness in the world; for goodness is not done in isolation either. As Bob Dylan said, "You gotta serve somebody", and Paul says in verse 16 "you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death; or of obedience, which leads to righteousness, . . " Since you have to chose, I chose God.

GOSPEL: Matthew 10:40-42
Verse 40: whoever welcomes you welcomes me. On the one hand, I always found that stuff about "entertaining angels unawares" kind of creepy. It also bothered me that it said that the flesh and blood human being in front of you might not be worth worrying about but it could be a special angel able to grant you three wishes if you rub it's angel harp, (no wait, I'm confused; that's a genie and a lamp or someting. Oh, well, you get the idea) On the other hand, the idea that one should treat everyone you meet the same way you would treat the Son of God has always appealed to me. First, the world would be a much nicer and safer place, don'y you think? And even tough "nice" is not the same thing as godliness and holiness and righteousness; it's not a bad thing; and personally, I could a little more nice in my day-to day-existence. In the second place, there are a lot of people who are treated rudely and badly because they are less than good looking, or they are less than well-dressed, or less than well-mamnered or less than well-washed or just less than in the eyes of others in general. Now, if people decided to treat everyone as if they were the Messiah, then all those people being treated like s--t would be treated nicely for a change. It would probably be worth the trouble, to them, if to nobody else.

And the reward? Well, pardon me while I get trite and sentimental. The doing of the good thing, the right thing, the moral thing; is its own reward. But you know what? Those who start welcoming because it's like welcoming Jesus will get the big reward of finding out that these people really are like Jesus in one important respect: welcoming them into you heart will change your life, whether you want it to or not.


Delmo DoRite

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

PENTECOST 5 RCL Texts for June 19, 2005

FIRST READING: Jeremish 20:7-13
verse 9 - "within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding if in, and I cannot."

Thinking theologically is at times a burden (and, when one is younger, a serious handicap in the pursuit of the opposite sex.) I have often wondered what it would be like "not to know". What if I had taken a business degree at Appalachian State and returned to Mount Airy as a Mill Manager, obliviously attending the "First Church of the Miscellaneous", taking my kids to good old middle-class Sundry School, where they mostly learned to be middle-class patriotic consumers. Tuesday lunch with the Civitans, Saturday cook-outs with the neighbors, discussing real estate and investments and the Braves and nothing else? Would I have been happier?
Not knowing I mean, not having bottled up inside me the awareness that the world is out of kilter and that somebody needs to say something and at least one of those somebodies is me.

Jeremiah felt that burden, and he also discovered that, in terms of worldly happiness, speaking what he saw and knew did NOT make him either happier or more popular with his friends and neighbors. He spoke his truth, God's truth really, and what did it get him? Beaten, placed in the stocks, laughed at , reviled and ignored, that's what.

But Jeremiah realizes that just keeping quiet is not an option. For better or worse, one has to tell one's truth, speak one's mind, live honestly if not pleasantly.

But I would like to try "not knowing" for week or two, just to see how it feels.

SECOND READING: Romans 6:1b-11
Verse 4: "Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life."
For years I have carried on a genial argument with my Baptist friends about Infant Baptism versus Believer's Baptism. None of their arguments about baptizo meaning immersion in Greek, or the necessity of decision to become a Christian really swayed me, then or now. But I have to confess that immersion, particularly that of an adult, is the best visual, liturgical, ritual representation of what Paul means by Baptism in this text. Baptism as DEATH and BURIAL; Baptism as REBIRTH, bursting forth out of the ground like Jesus came bursting out of the grave. That's a reality that a good Appalachain Mountains Creek Baptism does justice to in a way a clean, sanitary church sprinkling just can't touch.

Of course, sometimes it cuts it a little close. I remember when Aunt Mildred got baptized. She weighed somewhere around 300 lbs. The Rev. Tex long was about 5'2"
and weighed about 115 lbs. (Mama always wondered why a man so short couldn't buy pants that were long enough. He always wore "high waders".) Anyway, at Slate Mountain Missionary Baptist we always held our baptisms in the Dan River, at the Highway 103 bridge. We stood on the bridge and on the shore singing "Shall we Gather at the River" while the preacher and the deacons and the soon to be saved waded out into the river. Now one of the cardinal rules of river baptisms is you always baptize head upstream; that way the current helps you pull the person back up to a standing position. I guess Brother Long was kind of overwhelmed by Sister Mildred's size and got distracted and put her down the wrong way, head downstream. He got her down and couldn't get her up. She reached up out of the water and pulled on the Reverend, he lost his balance and they began to float downstream; her flailing, kicking and yelling; him trying to extricate himself from her iron-like grip; the choir changing from one side of the bridge to the other without missing a beat, still singing "Shall we gather..." ; her teen-age nephews rolling in the grass dying of laughter; Mama swatting at us with her pocketbook while Daddy and the deacons jumped in to rescue; um, whom? Well, Mildred from the water and the preacher from Mildred.

Now there's a scene that does justice to language about baptism as dying and rising with Christ. Well, it does for me anyhow.

GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 24-39
Verses 34-35: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a duaghter against her mother . . . etc"

This verse, and much of this text, belongs in the category that I call, "THINGS I WISH JESUS NEVER SAID, BUT I KNOW HE DID."

I mean, how do you explain this as somehow supportive of "family values', which, as we all know, is THE Christian issue.

And I'm at least theoretically a pacifist. I see war as a sinful necessity at best. How can I square that with Jesus talking about coming to bring a sword?

All things considered, the proclaimers job would be a lot simpler if Jesus had stayed with simple moralisms designed to buttress hard-work, obeying the law and respecting your elders and stuff like that.

Which is probably why we tend to do that for Him, seeing as how Jesus was probably mis-quoted by his biographers, and besides translating this stuff from Aramaic to Greek, to English, with the difference in cultures from the Middle East of 2000 years ago to America in the 21st Century; well, we know he probably meant something like

"I came to bring a sword to the large, good countries so that they can wipe out the bad little countries and protect our consumer life style with its dependence on oil and other cheap energy. And "taking up your cross" isn't so hard, it really only means going to church every Sunday and giving the church a tithe plus something extra for the building campaign so you can have that Christian Family Life Center so that you can exercise and play with other nice Christians and not have to put yourself at risk
using public facilities with "those" people."

Now, that's what Jesus really meant to say, isn't it!
Delmo Dorite

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Monday, June 06, 2005

PENTECOST 4 RCL texts for June 12, 2005

First Reading: Exodus 19:2-8a: Verse 8a:"Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do."
I had to laugh when I read that line, because I, we, know how the story comes out, don't we? The Isrealites do everything else but what the Lord has spoken. You know, the thing is, I'm sure they believed that they would do it when they said it. I'm sure they gave it their best shot. It's just so hard to be good, all the time, 24/7. Well, maybe not for you, but it is for me.

But that doesn't mean that commitments to obedience and fidelity should be avoided. Back in the day, while in Divinity School, I was a United Methodist student pastor, authorized to do weddings in my parish. The Methodist marriage service ended the vows with the words,
"as long as we both shall live" (less gloomy than "till death do us part," I guess.) Many couples wanted me to change that line to "as long as we both shall love", on the grounds that they might not always love the person they were marrying and they didn't want to be trapped in a loveless marriage. (It was the 70's; what can I say?).

That totally missed the point. We don't need to promise and vow to do a thing we feel like doing. The problem is, we don't always "feel like" doing the right thing. Promises are an attempt to hold our own feet to the fire, to help us point our lives in the direction of doing the right thing regardless of changing circumstances and shifting emotions.

And what if we fail, do we go to Hell? (Only if you have a Southern accent does that couplet rhyme.) Of course not. This is not a win/lose test. Commitments, promises, vows are about
direction in life, not destination. And if we get off course, the promises of our past; to family, to country, to self, to God; help us get back on the right path.

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-8
justified, faith, peace, grace, glory, hope, while, still, yet, weak, ungodly, righteous, sinners, Christ.

I laugh happily everytime this text comes up. It is a pleasant memory. This is the text of what I call my $3000 sermon. I was at the Lutheran Seminary in Columbia, SC, doing what I called "remedial Lutheranism", or "penance" for having gone to a Methodist seminary. It was a post-MDiv year. I was in a class on Romans with the legendary Dr. Benny Bedenbaugh. Benny did not assign papers, Benny assigned the writing of sermons, on the theory that most of us would never do another exegesis paper, but we would spend our lives writing sermons. I wrote my sermon on this text.

The SC Lutheran Bishop found out that I had pastoral experience and I was called upon often to go out and supply preach. I kept count. I preached in 39 different Lutheran churches in a little over a year, and in most of them I preached my Romans Sermon. I would just replace the Second Lesson with this text from Romans and fire away.

The interesting thing about it was that it was unlike any other sermon I had ever written. After a brief introduction tailored to the congregation and the times, I launched into a word study on all the wonderful words that pop-up in this text. What does justified mean? Or the Greek word used for sinner? And the verses 6-8 beautifully summarizes the free gift that is the Gospel.

I discovered two things in this exercise: 1) People hear a lot of words in church that they don't understand. and they don't even know they don't understand them. And they are grateful to learn what they mean. 2) I didn't have to be anywhere near as clever and entertaining as I thought I did in order to preach well. Stand and deliver a simple explanation of the text with application to people's lives and you've done your job. Excitement and cleverness are just icing on the cake (or gravy on the biscuit, depending on your taste)

GOSPEL: Matthew 9:35-10-23 Verse 8: "Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons."

I recently spoke to a couple of Methodist ministers I know about their upcoming Annual Conferences. They are from different areas, and each told me that their conference is dismissing folks for being "ineffective". For years, disciplinary action has been taken against people for misbehaving, (sex, money, alcohol, etc) but this "ineffectiveness" is a new one on me.

I mean, how do you measure that? If verse 8 is the standard, most of us (clergy and lay, pastors and people) are pretty ineffective disciples of Jesus. I might of helped cure somebody once through pastoral care; cheering them up or giving them strength, but I have no possible claim on the rest of it. (I started to say I had cast out a demon, but then I remembered it was a deacon I threw out of that meeting. Some people would say its hard to tell the difference.)

The reality is, we are all ineffective to the extent that we try to do it on our own, setting human standards for success. And we can all be effective servants of Jesus,
if we turn our work over to God and allow God to work through us. As verse 20 says,
"for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you."

The place in which we confess Christ and proclaim the Kingdom is no less pagan than the one into which Jesus sent the twelve. It is just more polite and much less likely to stone you. Our calling is to do our best to speak the truth about God, and leave it to God to make it "effective". AMEN

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