Saturday, December 23, 2006

Another one for Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve Dec. 24, 2006
Text: Luke

Several years ago, I saw a cartoon in a religious magazine that showed a young boy talking to his
little sister. He was saying:

Now the Shepherds were busy
Washing their socks by night.

It’s an interesting picture, isn’t it?
Several tired and dirty shepherds who,
after a long day watching their flocks,
have finally gotten the sheep settled down for the night.

They have finished their simple supper,
eaten standing up around the fire.
Now they boil a kettle of water
and after removing their work boots,
peel off their dirty, stinking socks.

I imagine them wearing long, white, tube socks,
with reinforced heel and toe,
you know, the ones with a little band of red
or orange around the top.

The shepherds sit back
and stretch their feet out to the fire,
wiggling their toes and massaging their insteps.

Ah, what a relief after a 16 hour day chasing sheep
up rocky hillsides and down dusty roads.
So, they wash and rinse and wring out their socks, propping them on little sticks near the fire to dry
before they stretch out on their blankets
to catch a little sleep.

Just another day - just another night
on a boring job in which every day is
Pretty much like the day that went before.

Suddenly, the sky is filled with a blinding light
and an angel is hovering in the air above them. They quake and shake and hug the ground.
“They were sore afraid.” is one of the great understatements of the Bible.

The angel talks about the Messiah
and a baby and the city of David.
Then a whole choir of angels appears,
singing about peace and love.

And then, the shepherds get up and put on their damp socks and cold shoes and tramp off to Bethlehem to see what all the fuss is about. At least, that’s what I think about when I hear the words Washing their socks by night.

Now, this whole business of thinking about shepherds washing out tube socks by the fire was very helpful for me, because it helped me remember that they were, after all, real, ordinary people like you and me.

Yes, they were ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives in ordinary ways, when something truly extraordinary, extra - ordinary, suddenly intruded and changed their lives forever.

All too often, we fail to remember that most of the people in the Bible were more like us than otherwise. They didn’t spend their days waiting for a prophet to come to town or scanning the horizon for angels.

No, most of them spent most of their time going about the ordinariness of life; going to work, paying bills, cleaning house, gossiping with neighbors, quarreling with the in-laws, worrying about taxes and the girl Junior’s been dating. They went to the Synagogue on the Sabbath and then went home and talked about the Rabbi being long-winded and the sanctuary being too hot. They were a lot like us.

And, just like us, while they were hopeful that next year would be better than last year, or the year before that, they weren’t really expecting things to change, not really. In their heart of hearts they weren’t looking for God to do anything dramatic any time soon.

And yet tonight we gather to celebrate and remember that there came a time when God did act, when God did do something totally unordinary.

God came calling, with trumpets blaring and angels singing and stars in the night. While the shepherds were washing their socks by night, God showed up with a gift.

It was a gift of God’s self, a gift of love and joy and forgiveness, all wrapped up in a very surprising package, a little baby, born in a spare room, sleeping in a feed trough.

Back in the 1870's, the Canadian Pacific Railroad was attempting to build a Transcontinental Railroad across Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In order to get through the area between the towns of Medicine Hat and Calgary in Southern Alberta, the railroad had to negotiate with Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

At the end of the negotiations, the CPR gave Chief Crowfoot a lifetime pass to ride the train. He was very proud of his gift. He put the pass in a leather case around his neck and wore it the rest of his life. He showed it to all the important visitors who came to his village. It is reported that he even used it as collateral for a loan.

There is one thing Chief Crowfoot never used his pass for. He never once used it to ride a train.

We have been given a great gift, the greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s Son, the Christ, Our Savior.
It would be a shame if, after all the effort we go to to celebrate the gift, we failed to properly receive it by letting God’s love and peace and forgiveness go to work in our lives.

It would be sheer folly to celebrate Jesus as the Son of God and yet fail to obey Him when he invites us to take up our Cross and follow.

Yes, God has shown up in the midst of our ordinary lives, shattering our timid normality with his own brazen originality. God has exploded into our lives, and the question is: What are we going to do with this gift?


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Advent IV and Christmas Eve

ADVENT IV Dec. 24, 2006
Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55

True story. Margaret was having a tough Christmas season. Her husband was out of town on business for most of December. Her kids were sick half the time, work was driving her crazy with year-end deadlines. Nothing was going right.

About a week before Christmas she did some shopping at the Mall during her lunch owner. She darted into a card store and bought a box of 50 Christmas Cards, already on sale because it was so late.

That night she printed some labels using the computer and put the kids to work. One signed the cards with the family’s last name, a second stuffed the cards into the envelope, a third put on the address lapels and the youngest stuck on the stamps, mostly upside down or sideways; but it got done, just in time.

The day after Christmas, Margaret was cleaning up and found a stray card between the couch cushions. She realized she had been so busy she never even read the card.
And after she did, she wished she hadn’t. She sat down on the couch and cried after she read:

We’re sending this card
just to say,
A little gift
is on its way.

A little gift is on its way. That is the message of the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s the message Elizabeth and Zechariah got about John.
It’s the message Joseph and Mary got about Jesus.
And it’s the message we are getting about the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior.

In the midst of our running around and gift-buying and card-sending and house-decorating; we need to pause and remember why we’re doing all this. We’re doing it because God has sent us a message that a little gift is on the way, a little bundle of Joy is coming, a Word of Hope and Peace is just around the corner.

It is a gift and a word that the world needs now as much as ever. A glance at the daily paper, or 30 minutes of watching the news is enough to remind us that the world is all too often a dark, scary and lonely place run by the proud, the rich and the powerful.

And we, like Mary, have been called to carry the gift that is Christ into the midst of that hurting world.

The lowly still need lifting up.
The hungry still need to be fed.
The poor still need a chance to live.
The world still hungers in its heart for true goodness
to reign supreme.

Caroline Hodges lives in Atlanta. She is an active member of an Episcopal Church there, serves on the Vestry and Altar Guild and teaches Sunday School.

A couple of years ago, her Priest asked her to do something more, something extra. The churches in the area were opening a Homeless shelter and they needed a director - would she help?

Although she was already quite busy -she agreed. She went into it with great enthusiasm and high commitment, she wanted to help, she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.
By Christmas Eve, she was quite tired of the whole thing, a little bit jaded and burned out. She had come to see her job as Director of the Shelter as a thankless chore.

When she had begun, she had thought: Give these people a little love and they’ll turn around and soon become useful and productive citizens.

But her high hopes and great expectations had soon turned into impatient resignation and resentment.
These people will never change. They’re all the same. TAKE! TAKE! TAKE! And never give anything.

It was in this mood that she encountered a young man named Christopher. She had gotten everyone bedded down for the night that Christmas Eve, which was a lot like every other night, except that they ha Turkey for dinner instead of soup; and everyone received a Christmas package of soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes from the ladies Auxiliary of Greater Hope Baptist Church.

Caroline had turned out the lights and retreated to the kitchen for a cup of coffee when Christopher came in, wanting to talk. She agreed, nodding her head, but not really interested.

He told her the usual story - the kind of story you hear a hundred times a year if you work with the homeless. His father drank and beat him, his mother slept around. He dropped out at 14 and did a lot of drugs, married at 19 to a woman 36 who was already pregnant. She left him and the baby a little while later, so he gave the baby up for adoption and hit the road.

By this time Caroline was looking at her watch, ready to send the young man back to bed, when suddenly Christopher said,

Caroline jerked her head up. How can he say that? She thought. After all he’s gone through, how can he say that?

YES, Christopher said, God has really blessed me. He let me see the darkness, so I’d recognize the light.
CHRISTOPHER - The name means carrier of Christ. That night, Christopher lived up to his name. He brought the light of Christ to a tired and bitter woman. A woman who learned one more time that God specializes in surprise packages, in coming to us in unlikely places, in speaking to us through unlikely voices.

As Caroline thought about Christopher’s words about light and darkness, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small, worn Bible and from it he took a dried and pressed Monarch butterfly with radiant colors.

Here, he said, Merry Christmas. This is for you. Put it in your Bible and remember that on one cold Christmas Eve you took the time to let your light shine on some tired and lonely people.

The mystery and miracle that is Christmas is just around the corner. Our little gift is on its way. We are called to receive the gift of Christ with glad and joyful hearts and to share the gift of Christ with all the world.

Amen and Amen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Advent III, December 17, 2006

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3: 7-18

A few years ago I was in Hickory Hollow Mall in Nashville. I had just stepped into the second level elevator when I saw a harried young family coming my way. I held the doors open as they struggled to et in. There was a young man pushing a baby stroller, the child almost hidden in the midst of precariously balanced packages. Mother was struggling with a “wild child” 4 year old.
She practically drug him into the elevator by the arm as he screamed and twisted and cried and kicked and . . .well, you know. As they got in the glass elevator, she put her hand on the back of his head and directed his gaze to santa in the atrium below. She said, “Santa is watching you. Do you want him to see you acting like this?”

The young boy grew very still as he contemplated Santa, then he turned to his mother and said, “I’ll be good as long as he can see me.” And he was. They got out of the elevator and he was a perfect angel. He even nodded and smiled in Santa’s direction. Then, when they got about fifteen feet past Santa, he looked up at his mother, grinned and kicked her in the shin.

So it is with us. Repentance and amendment of life based on fear and punishment are always insincere and short-lived. We have a disease which the LAW (Santa is watching you!) Cannot cure. Our disease goes under many names: self-will, narcissism, hubris, pride, greed, selfishness, sin. It is not so much a matter of the things we do. Those are only the symptoms, the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual lack of grace.

And any remedy which treats only the symptoms will, in the end, fail to cure us and bring us to wholeness and new life. When the Mom made her appeal to Santa, she placed within her son a fear of losing his Christmas presents. So, he responded appropriately, in a manner calculated to protect his own self-interest. He did not repent, he did not “bear fruit worthy of repentance” He merely changed his behavior in an attempt to fool Santa Claus.

And that’s the way religious Law always works.

Thou Shalt Not Kill may keep us from strangling our enemies, but it does nothing to remove from our hearts the hatred and resentment of others which all too often burns there.

Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor May keep us from telling outright lies and slanders about the people next door, or in the next office, or sitting in the next pew, but it won’t keep us from thinking and believing the worst about them in our most private thoughts.

Law fails because it goes about its work backwards. It treats the symptoms, it changes the behavior, without going to the source, without healing the disease, without changing the heart.

This is why Luke dares to call John’s preaching against insincere and incomplete repentance GOOD NEWS. Did you hear that jarring note at the end of the Gospel Lesson?

After quoting John the Baptist saying harsh things like:

You Brood of vipers, and
The axe is at the root of the tree, and
every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into
the fire. and
His winnowing fork is in his hand and
the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.

Luke then says quietly, And so, with many other exhortations,
he proclaimed the Good News to the people.

Gee whiz, if that’s the Good News, what’s the Bad News? We think. Where’s the Good News in all that stuff about repentance and burning in endless fires?

Well, it is Good News, it is the Gospel of the LORD.” It is a message to be joyful about. It is good news because John has revealed to us the purpose for all this preparation, John has announced to us WHY CHRIST CAME.

CHRIST CAME to stop the cycle of inco0mplete repentance and temporary solutions to the deepest needs of the human heart.

CHRIST CAME to cut through our feeble attempts to change our own behavior to meet some external standard.

CHRIST CAME to treat the disease, not the symptoms.

CHRIST CAME to break our hearts and change our lives.

CHRIST CAME to show us a new way of dealing with our God, ourselves and each other.

The old way, the way of fear and intimidation, of trying to adjust our live’s to meet external demands rooted in a fear of judgement and reprisal, does not work.

The New Way is God’s Way of Love and Intimacy, of having our hearts broken by the depth and totality of God’s love for us, having our hearts broken so deeply and completely that God can move in and change us from within, from the very core of our being, emptying us of our selfishness and pride and filling us with the gifts of the Spirit and the fire of God’s love.

When THAT happens, our behavior changes without our having to think about it.

Back to that bearing fruit worthy of repentance: just as our sins and misdeeds grew out of the disease of self-will rooted deep in our hearts, as new creatures in Christ, acts of love and kindness will flow from us as naturally as water flows from a spring, or as apples grow on apple trees.

An Apple tree doesn’t have to think about or decide what kind of fruit to have. It doesn’t say to itself, “Should I do pears this year, or maybe go a little tropical and exotic and try oranges or limes.” NO. There is nothing to think about. It’s an apple tree. Apple trees grow apples. End of discussion.

Just so with us, Christians whose hearts have been broken and filled with the Spirit of the Living God. We don’t have to think about doing good, about bearing fruit worthy of repentance. We’re Christians. Doing acts of love and kindness is what we do, it is who we are. It’s nothing to worry about or to brag about; it is simply that which flows out of a heart filled with God.

When my son David, who is now 23, was about 3, he was getting excited about Christmas for the first time. He jabbered about Santa and his Christmas list and about elves and reindeer. Ever the Pastor, I didn’t want him to miss the religious importance of the holiday, so one night, as I was putting him to bed, after going over the Christmas list one more time, and reading “The Night before Christmas” one more time, I said, “Okay David, who’s birthday are we celebrating at Christmas?” And he said, “JESUS” Good,, I thought. “And who is Jesus?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he shrugged, burrowing into his pillow, ready to sleep.

What are we celebrating at Christmas? The birth of Jesus. And who is Jesus, why did he come?

Christ came to turn our lives around, to show us a new way to live, to open up to us the possibility of living our lives in complete freedom, bound only by the constraints of selfless love.

It is not a simple or easy proposition. After all, it cost the Babe of Bethlehem his very life.
That was what was necessary and that is why he came, and that is very Good News indeed.

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Second Sunday in Advent: December10, 2006

ADVENT II December10, 2006
Text: Malachi 3: 1-4, Luke 1:68-69, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Dr. Carlyle Marney was Pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Marney was a very well-known writer and Bible study teacher in the 1960's and 70's.

One time he was teaching at Ridgecrest, the Baptist Assembly up near Asheville. During the question and answer period, one woman asked him, “Dr. Marney, exactly where is the Garden of Eden?” With a twinkle in his eye, Marney replied, “312 Elm Street, Knoxville, TN.”

She said, “Why, that can’t be right, it would have to be somewhere in the Middle East, Iraq or Iran, wouldn’t it?”

He shrugged and said, “Maybe for you, but for me it was 312 Elm Street, Knoxville TN. That’s where I found my mother’s purse open on the kitchen table and took a quarter out of it and walked down to the corner and bought a candy bar and some chewing gum and some hard candy, and I came back up the street and sat on the wall of the cemetery and ate and chewed to my hearts content. And then, as I got home, I heard my mother calling out my name, CARLYLE, CARLYLE WHERE ARE YOU? And instead of answering her, I ran and hid in the closet under the stairs. So, you see, for me, the Garden of Eden was at 312 Elm Street.”
(I don’t have a written source on this story, he told it in class at Duke. I made up the street #)

Our Gospel lesson for today centers on John the Baptist’s call to repentance. Repentance begins in the recognition of personal involvement in and responsibility for the Evil which surrounds us.

In a sermon on this text; the Rev. Will Willimon, former Duke University Chaplain and current Methodist Bishop of Alabama,makes an interesting observation about some of the most popular movies of the 90's. Movies like Armageddon and Independence Day and Aliens I, II, III; show a world in which the evil which threatens us comes from outside ourselves, from completely outside, from outer space. In their vision, we are totally not responsible for the evil which threatens the world. It’s not our fault.

John’s call to repentance is a call for us to look at ourselves and to see in ourselves and our attitudes and our actions the things which lead to evil in the world.

John’s call to repentance is a call to look at our way of being in the world and in relationship to one another and to repent of those things which cause harm to ourselves and others.

John’s call is a call to confession and repentance. All too often, we make it as far as confession, and then stop. Confession is the admission that there are indeed things we do in life that are wrong. We confess that, and go no further.

One day in Nashville I went to the Y to pick up my son. As I approached the entrance, a very angry mother barged out the door followed by a girl about 4 and a boy about 7. The boy was saying, I told you I was sorry.
And the mother turned and said, hissing between her teeth,
Sorry doesn’t get it anymore.
I want you to stop doing it!

True repentance combines confession, I’m sorry, with what the old prayer books referred to as amendment of life.

The Greek word translated here repentance is not really a religious or theological word. It is metanoia, which is an ordinary, everyday word in Greek. It simply means to turn around and go the other way. To stop going one direction and to start going in the opposite direction. It means to realize you’re going the wrong way and to start going the right way.

The Gospel, the Good News, is rooted in this simple act of repentance, because we can only stop going the wrong way if we have shown to us the right way.

None of us goes the wrong way on purpose. Nobody here would go out and get on I-40 and intentionally head East with the goal of going to Winston-Salem, that would be silly.

And to realize you’re going toward Durham when you want to go to Winston, and then just shrugging and saying “Oh well, I’m only human.” and then, continuing to go the wrong way while crying about it , would be ludicrous.

Just so, few of us choose to do bad things just because they’re bad things. We follow the paths we take in life because they seem to us the right, the best, way to go. And if we then realize that we’re in the wrong, to confess without amendment of life would be as inane as continuing
on to Durham, knowing we’re going the wrong way.

The Gospel comes to turn us around, to show us the way, to warn us of the danger in the path we are taking, and to provide for us a route to safety.

The Gospel is that Jesus came into the world to open for us the way to God. To unblock the path and to call us to follow Jesus on the way.

For us to turn from the way we have been going, we have to see that we are being called to turn from danger to security, from evil to good, from wrong to right, from our way to God’s way.

One of my very earliest memories is of a bright summer day on the farm.I was playing in the backyard, under the apple trees. My Daddy was mowing hay in a field next to the house. Aunt Mildred called to me from the back-porch. She sent me into the field with a quart jar full of ice and water for Daddy.

As I started out across the field, Daddy stopped the tractor and got off and started yelling at me.


Now, even as a 4 year old, I knew that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so Daddy’s instructions made no sense to me.But I stopped and thought about it a minute. Though I could see no reason
to stop and go back and go around, it was my Daddy telling me this, so I backed up and followed his instructions.

When I got to the tractor, I discovered that he had run over a yellow jacket’s nest in the ground and had stirred them up. The angry swarm lay directly in the path I was following.

So it is with us. We may not be able to see the destruction which lies upon the path we have chosen, but we have a loving God and a caring Saviour who are calling us to turn from the path of self-deception.

The way is being made straight, the opportunity is here. John’s call is ringing in our ears. REPENT, REPENT! Turn Back! Go the Other Way!

John’s call to REPENT is a call to look to our lives and change direction, so that when Christ comes in the flesh, we will be ready to receive our salvation. Amen and Amen

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

ADVENT 1, RCL texts for Dec. 3, 2006

December 3, 2006

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16, I Thess. 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
Title: Looking for a Sign

A few years ago on Thanksgiving weekend, my son David and I sat at the Kitchen table and listened to my Daddy talk about his experiences in Europe during WWII. He told us about an incident late in the war, when his company spent a night in an abandoned village. The squad had bedded down in a large, two-story house. The Lieutenant had posted guards in the doorways. About 3:00 AM the guard at the front door had walked away from his post, down a central hall to the back to get a light from the other guard. Just as he reached the kitchen, a shell exploded in the doorway where he had been standing 5 seconds before. Only 5 seconds between life and death.

Be On Guard! Jesus says, watch out, that “your hearts are not weighed down” with the “worries of this life, and THAT DAY catch you unexpectedly.” Like a trap, or a bomb.

What is THAT DAY? There is a great deal of speculation and debate about that question. Lutherans don’t dive into it too often, but many of our Protestant neighbors spend a lot of time and energy arguing between pre-trib and post-trib and pre-millennial and post-millennial and what dispensation are we in, etc, etc.
Preaching Professor Fred Craddock says that there is no need to get tied up in knots about when Jesus is coming back; that’s not the issue. The reality is,

“There will be an end to life as it now is, an end that comes as both judgement and redemption. Whether WE GO or HE COMES . . . .(life ends).

The question we face is not, when will Jesus come back?
The question is, how does the fact that none of us lives forever alter our behavior?

The Scriptures continually remind us that one day God will:
Execute justice and righteousness . . (Jeremiah)

And that we must:
Be on guard, so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and worry . . .Be alert at all times, praying that you may have strength . . to escape . .and to stand.” (Luke)

In short, we are called upon to take our God and ourselves seriously. We are called upon to recognize that life can be snuffed out in an instant and to live accordingly.

We are to BE ALERT, to stay awake, to watch out for signs of God’s activity in the world. This is a difficult thing to do in the midst of modern, secular, consumerist Christmas.

After 2000 years, we’ve sort of stopped looking for Christ to come, and we’ve settled for a pale, weak, neon lit imitation. We schedule office Christmas parties and celebrate family dinners. We buy presents for our husbands and wives and children and significant others. We decorate our homes with lights and trees and ornaments. We send out Greeting cards to people over the country and we hope that our sanity and our bank account will hold out until New Years.

The Church’s plea is that in the midst of all the Holiday Hoopla we will remember to look for Christ, to seek signs of his coming, to be alert for His presence “in, with and under” all the gifting and decorating and partying.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree. We live in a land where most of the trees die in winter and come back to life in the spring. In Palestine, the opposite is true. Most of the tress and scrubs there are evergreens. The fig tree is an exception; it alone dies in winter.

That is why it was so significant to Jesus. The fact that it died and came back to life was a symbol of faith. Even though it appeared to be dead; in the spring it sprouted new leave, proving that it had been not dead but dormant; gathering strength for a new explosion of life and fruitfulness.

Sometimes in the midst of our very modern, secular, materialistic world it’s hard to find signs of life in an old faith. Sometimes it feels like God is either dead or sleeping.

It is at such times that we need to remember the lesson of the fig tree; that it is in the middle of a world filled with physical and spiritual death that we must hold on most fiercely to God’s promise of hope and life and salvation. We must stare hard at the “dead wood,” seeking there some sign of life.

Seeing the signs of the times is a difficult task, and sometimes we see the signs, but think they are intended for someone else. A few years ago Readers Digest reported this true incident:

A man called the Maine Wildlife and Fisheries Department with a request that a DEER CROSSING sign on the road near his home be taken down. It seems that a large number of deer near his home had been killed at that crossing and the man felt that if the sign were taken down; THE DEER WOULD CROSS SOMEWHERE ELSE.

What is it Bill Engvald says?, “Here’s Your Sign.”

Advent is the time to watch for the signs of God’s presence in our lives. Once you start looking, the signs are not really that hard to see. Like the DEER CROSSING sign, they call upon us to slow down and look around, to proceed with eyes wide open to see what God has placed in front of us.

So as we enter this season of Advent, let me make a few modest suggestions, humble proposals:

Do you want to have the best Christmas ever?

Do you want to feel and experience Christ in a new and exciting way?

Do you want to wake up on December 25th renewed and full of joy and excitement at the Advent of our God?

Then, I suggest we try a few simple things:

1) Take five minutes every morning and make a Christmas list.
Not a list of things to buy, or things to do, or things you want; but a list of blessings in your life, a list of people you love and who love you in spite of yourself, a list of the signs of God’s presence in your life. After you’ve made your list, pray a prayer of thanks.

2) Take another 10 minutes and read a chapter of the Gospel of Mark. There are 21 days til Christmas and 16 chapters in Mark, so you should be able to finish it. By Christmas morning, you will e reminded of why Jesus came and of what he did for us. By Christmas morning, you will be ready to celebrate with thankfulness and praise the Coming of the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us.

3) Pick out 5 names from your Christmas list. Pick out 5 people that you have almost lost touch with, 5 people you seldom see or speak to. Call them up or write them a personal letter or send them an email and tell them how much they mean to you and why. Thank them for being a sign of God’s presence and love in your life.

4) Perform a totally new act of charity this year. Reach out and surprise someone with the unexpected love of God. Give a part of yourself to someone in gratitude for the fact that Christ gave himself for you.

5) And finally, spend the last 5 minutes of every day asking God to come into your life in a fresh, new, unpredictable way this year.

But I must warn you to be careful. Watch out! God just might explode into your life at a time and in a way you would never expect!

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Christ the King, Nov. 26, 2006

CHRIST THE KING Nov. 26, 2006
Texts: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Rev. 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

In his book THE CANADIANS, Andrew Malcolm writes about Cecille Bechard. She is, “a Canadian who visits the United States several dozen times a day - - when she goes to the refrigerator or to the backdoor or to make tea, for instance. To read and sleep, she stays in Canada. And she eats there too, is she sits at the North end of her kitchen table.
Mrs. Bechard’s home is in (the province of ) Quebec and (the state of) Maine at the same time.” This is because her house was already there in 1842 when English and American diplomats sat down in London to create the official boundary line.

A citizen of one country who spends most of her time in another country, all the while staying in the same place. So it is for us as Christians. We are citizens of the United States of America. Most of our life is lived in the urgent NOW of eating and sleeping and working and playing. Most of our thinking is governed by the culture in which we live; indeed most of our opinions are shaped by being citizens and participants in the secular world.

But to be a religious person is to perceive another reality besides the one that is easily and readily apparent. To be a person of faith is to live in two worlds at the same time; to perceive the reality everyone else sees but also to see a reality which can only be seen with the eyes of faith.

Our Gospel lesson for today is the trial of Jesus before Pilate. It seems a bit strange, coming at this moment, jammed in between Thanksgiving and the Advent season run-up to Christmas. And Christ the King is a strange holy day in our modern world, in which Kings and Queens are marginal and somewhat comic figures. It is hard for us to understand what it means to call Christ a King. For us it is a difficult image because it does not evoke feelings of reverence or awe or obedience. It Justus sounds odd and antiquated.

The people of Jesus’ day had a different problem. They knew what a king was. The only Political and Social reality they knew was a world run by kings, all-powerful persons revered as gods and backed up by crushingly cruel armies. They knew what a king was.

And that was their problem. Jesus didn’t look much like a king to them, not to Pilate or to anyone else. When they looked at Jesus they didn’t see a person of power and authority; they saw a redneck carpenter who claimed to be some sort of rabbi. A man wandering around the country with no visible means of support and a bunch of loser friends.

But he had a certain charisma which inflamed the wrong sort of people, so the political and social leaders conspired with the Romans to have him executed, just to be on the safe side. And the Romans, for their part, saw no need to allow another rabble rouser to stir people up for no good reason.

So it was that he came to stand before Pilate, accused of being, of all things, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Pilate is a bit amused and annoyed by the whole thing. He can’t figure out why this guy is standing here, “What have you done?” he says. He also can’t figure out what Jesus’ answers mean. “So, you are a king. Or not. What are you talking about.”

The problem is that Pilate, and the social and political leaders of Judea, and most of the people who had been following Jesus around and listening to him preach, were aware of only one world, and Jesus was living in two. “My kingdom is not of THIS world,” he says, and in that moment he is like Mrs. Bechard, looking across her kitchen table to the “other country” where her refrigerator sits.

We are called to live each day in two worlds, two realities, two kingdoms. We cannot permanently retreat from the real world which surrounds us with its pain and suffering, its hunger and disease, its wars and violences of all shapes and sizes. We are called by God to imitate Christ and to put ourselves into the midst of the world’s need.

True story. Lutheran Chaplain in Vietnam. One night the Chaplain was in his tent when a young private came to see him. The private was newly arrived from the States and was scared , very scared, scared to death. The next day, he was going on patrol for the first time. And he was afraid to die.

He cried, he moaned, he cursed, he prayed. He wanted the Chaplain to give him a saint’s medal, a New Testament, some charm or talisman that would keep him safe. He wanted the chaplain to tell him a prayer to pray, a good deed to do, anything to keep from dying.

Finally the chaplain said,
“Look soldier, there’s nothing I can do to prevent you from getting killed on patrol tomorrow, there is no was I can promise you it won’t happen. There’s only one thing I can do. I’ll go with you

It’s important to know that Chaplains were not permitted to carry guns. And the North Vietnamese did not take American Chaplains prisoner; they executed them on the spot to demoralize American troops. He walked into the jungle unarmed and unprotected to be with the soldier in his fearful world.

That’s what Christ did for us, leaving that other kingdom to live with us in ours, unarmed and unprotected, sharing with us in our trials and temptations, our dangers and defeats. That’s why we use the Nicene Creed on this day. To remind us that “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” And we are called to follow our King into that place of service and suffering.

We are called of God to struggle with the world we see all around us, to be active participants in making this world a better place for everyone. We are called to plunge into the secular now, the world, to get in it up to our necks.

But we are also called to look beyond the obvious to the real, to look past the daily to see the eternal, to look within the moment to see the mystery, to stare into the face of the truly human in order to perceive there the truly divine.
For we live in two worlds at the same time, and the trick is not to become so enamored of the one that we lose sight of the other. With Christ the King as our guide, we are called to see the hand of God moving in our midst, holding us up with divine love, pointing and gently nudging us in the direction of doing right, holding us back from danger and harm, filling the ordinary with mystery, so that like Daniel and the Psalmist and St. John the Divine, We may grab onto hope in the midst of desperate times! Amen and amen.

Peace, Delmo

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Pentecost 24, Nov. 19, 2006

PENTECOST 24 November 19, 2006
Texts: Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25, Mark 13:1-8
Title: Faith in Something Bigger

Do you know who Morgan Wooten is? Morgan Wooten is one of the best High School Basketball coaches ever. In 50+ years at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, MD, he was won about 1300 games and lost only a couple of hundred. More than 250 of his players have played college ball on scholarship, 12 of his former students have played in the NBA. When he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, he told this story:

His Grandson Nick, was asked in nursery school to name
his favorite sport.
Nick said, Baseball.
The teacher was surprised, Not basketball?
Nick said, I don’t know anybody who knows anything
about basketball.
Still a bit confused, the teacher said, But Nick, what
About your Grandfather Wooten?
Nick snorted and laughed. Oh no! Not him! I go to all
his and he NEVER gets to play!

Sometimes, we are like that about the presence of God in our lives. We see the game of life going on, and we think God knows nothing about it, or God cares nothing about it, or God can DO NOTHING about it, because, after all, we never see God get in the game.

Our Old Testament and Gospel lessons today are about the art of having faith in a world gone mad, they area bout seeing God’s steady hand in the midst of the wild whirlwind of life.

Each is an example of APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE. Many times, people misinterpret and misuse this material to make predictions about the future and to frighten people about the present.
APOCALYPTIC is intended to be a reassurance to us when we go through hard times and God seems so very far away.

Daniel was written at a time when the Jewish people and the Jewish faith were in a difficult position, a tough spot. They were being oppressed and persecuted, and they were asking serious questions about why was God doing this to us. Was God dead, or did he simply not care? The book of Daniel was written to give hope to nearly hopeless people, to give faith to a people who had almost lost touch with God.

The Apocalyptic section of Mark was written a number of years after the death of Jesus. It too was written to a people who were in a bit of a spot,
a community of faith which was being oppressed and persecuted. It too was written to give them hope and faith in God and the future.

I talked to a pastor friend recently who is in a bad space in her life. Her marriage fell apart, her best friend is dying of cancer, she’s having trouble getting a building program started in her church. Then last week, she found a lump; it could be cancer, she doesn’t know. AS we talked on the phone, she said to me:

I’m still preaching faith, I’m still believing faith.
I’m just not FEELING it.

For her, and for many of us, it’s hard to feel that God knows anything about the stressful game of life, as far as we can tell, God just sits of the bench and never gets in!

No wonder the disciples look at the magnificent and beautiful temple and get excited about it’s size and beauty. Here’s something you can bank on, they think. Here’s an institution that’s solid as a rock (pun intended). This monument to man’s ingenuity and power can assure us that we have things under control, that we are large and in charge.

Sometimes now when I’m watching a movie set in NY City, I’ll see the Twin Towers in the skyline shot. It’s a jarring moment. They were a symbol; of Beauty and Architectural and engineering ability and financial strength, and none of us could imagine anything happening to them; but something did, something awful and frightening.

All of us can remember where we were when it did. I was in the pastor’s office at Brook Hollow Baptist Church in Nashville. The secretary alerted us that something was going on and we scooted down the hall to the Youth Room and the big-screen TV. And watched the scene unfold in the surreal surroundings of mural-covered walls and a ping pong table.

The Disciples could not imagine the Temple being destroyed, but it was and only a few years after Jesus talked about it. They looked to the Temple for strength, and Jesus reminded them that the Temple was just a building.

Back in the late 50's, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks did a skit on television called the 2000 year old man. Reiner played a newsman interviewing Brooks, playing the old man.

NEWSMAN: Well, did you always worship THE LORD in your village?
OLD MAN: No, at first we worshiped this guy in our village named Phil.
NEWSMAN: You worshiped a guy named Phil? Why?
OLD MAN: Well, he was bigger than us, and faster than us, and he was mean, and he could hurt you, break your arm or leg right in two; so we worshiped Phil.
NEWSMAN: I SEE. Did you have any prayers in this religion?
OLD MAN: Yeah. Want to hear one?
NEWSMAN: When did you stop worshiping Phil?
OLD MAN: Well one day we were having a religious festival. Phil was chasing us and we were praying (PLEASE PHIL NO! PLEASE PHIL NO!) AND SUDDENLY A THUNDERSTORM CAME UP AND A BOLT OF LIGHTENING STRUCK AND KILLED Phil. We all gathered around and stared at Phil for a while, then we realized:

That is the message of Apocalyptic literature: there is something bigger than Phil, bigger than the evil in our lives.

And that something bigger is God. That something bigger is Grace, that something bigger is Love, that something bigger is Faith, that something bigger is coming, that something bigger is coming soon, that something bigger and better awaits us in God’s tomorrow.

For God is in the game, very much in the way Morgan Wooten is in every game his players play. God is involved in the pain and suffering in our lives, God is bigger than those things which haunt and frighten us, God IS and that is enough, more than enough.

One of the most popular Thanksgiving hymns is Now Thank We All Our God LBW#534. It was written by a man named Martin Rinkhart in 1607.

Read (sing) with me the first line:

Now thank we all our God,
with hearts and souls and voices.
Who wondrous things has done,
in whom his world rejoices.
Who, from our mothers’ arms
has blest us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

As you contemplate those words, think about this:
that very year, 1607, more than 6000 people in Rinkhart’s
village and territory had died in an epidemic,
including Rinkhart’s wife and children.

Either Rinkhart was heartless and a bit crazy, or he was in touch with a deep sense of faith in the God of the future, the God whose promises are ever sure, the God who will awaken us and bring us safely into the heavenly places.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Pentecost 23, November 12, 2006

PENTECOST 23 November 12, 2006

Texts: I Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

Several Years ago, this story was on the Paul Harvey Radio program. The Butterball Turkey Company had established a “hotline for the holidays” for people to call in with their questions about preparing Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys.

One woman called in and asked,
"I have a turkey in my freezer that’s almost 20 years old. Is it still safe to eat?"

After a long pause, the hot-line operator said,
"IF, and this is a very important IF, if the turkey has been kept continuously frozen at or below 0 for the entire time, it will be safe. BUT, after all that time, it will also be tough and tasteless."

The caller replied,
"That’s what I thought, I’ll just give it to the church."

Too often, too many of us are guilty of a similar attitude toward our stewardship, giving God our leftovers and those things which we no longer want. Today, we have read Bible lessons about two widows, both of whom were poor, and both of whom were generous with what they had.

The Gospel lesson, the story we4 know as the widow’s mite, was a little tough on Pastors and other official church folk.

-Beware of scribes, who like to walk around in long robes
Well, I wear them during service, but I don’t walk around in them, much.

-and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
Okay, I do like it when people in grocery stores and restaurants call me Father or Reverend or Padre and treat me a little extra nice.

And to have the best seats in the synagogue -
well, I don’t know if it’s the best, but its bigger and its

And places of honor at banquets -
What can I say, I like to eat!

They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of
appearance say long prayers,
Okay, I’m clean on these two, I’ve never tricked a widow out of her house, and I’m infamous for short prayers, not long ones, so perhaps I’ve escaped the “greater condemnation” by a narrow margin.

Whenever we contemplate a biblical story, one of the most important things we can ask ourselves is, "With whom do I identify, who in this story feels like me?"

Of course, none of us would like to think we’re like the scribes, making a big, loud public display of our religion; in particular, none of us wants to look like a hypocrite.

And we all want to believe that we’re like the widow, doing all we can with what little we have. Most of us, most of the time, hear the Widow’s Mite story and think it means something like this:
"See, it’s not HOW MUCH you give that matters, it’s the spirit with which you give that counts. A little bit is just as important as a lot."

That is true, as far as it goes. But most of us miss an important point here, Jesus did not say that the widow gave all she could afford; Jesus said she gave all she had.

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. Far all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Truth be told, most of us, myself included, most of the time, give out of our abundance.

We give what we think we can afford to give without seriously affecting our standard of living.

What Jesus points to in the widow is another thing entirely; her total commitment of everything she has, all her resources, “all she had to live on” to the Kingdom of God.

At root, this story is not so much about giving and generosity as it is about TRUST IN GOD.

That is why the Hebrew story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath is read with the story of the Widow’s Mite in the appointed readings for today.

These two stories are not only about widows,
they are about putting your complete trust in God.

The Widow of Zarephath also gave all she had. She shared with the Prophet of the LORD the last of her food in a time of famine. Yet, when she did, she discovered she had enough,enough at least to keep going, day by day; the jar of meal and the jug of oil having in them each day enough for that day’s needs.

This is the way God operates. This is the way God provides for God’s people. Remember the manna from Heaven, the bread upon the ground provided to the Israelites as the went from Egypt to the Promised Land?

If they took more than they needed for the day, the extra would rot before the next morning. It was a lesson in trusting God to provide each day’s needs.

What Jesus notices and comments upon with the Widow is not the size of her gift, but the fact that she gave her all, trusting that God would provide for the next day.

This is the Biblical Principle of God’s economy, this is the way God always works.

God’s promise if not:
If you return to me a tithe, I will make you rich.

God’s promise is:
If you commit to me your all, I will provide for your needs.

These stories are not so much about finances as they are about the relationship of trust we are called upon to have with God. We are called to abandon all and cling to Christ and the Cross. And, we must admit, this is hard for us, we like to hedge our bets, hold a little something back, play it safe.

A couple of years ago, a college student went into a camera store to have a picture enlarged. It was a framed 8x10 of the young man and his girlfriend. When the clerk took the picture out of the frame, he read the writing on the back:

My dearest Tommy, I love you with all my heart. I love
you more and more each day. I will love you forever and
ever. I am yours for all eternity. With all my love, Diane
PS - If we ever break up, I want this picture back!

Our Bible stories today call us toward making a complete and total commitment of ourselves to Christ and the Kingdom of God. We are called upon to make all that we are and all that we have available to the work of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ into all the World.

And the Gospel, the Good News, for us today is that we can make that leap, that commitment, with full confidence in God’s promise to provide our every need, from here to eternity.

Amen and amen.

Friday, November 03, 2006

All Saints Sunday

Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6, John 11:32-44

Well, as you may have guessed after my last post, things went very badly very quickly for Jean Hollowell, my mother-in-law. She died on Monday afternoon, Oct. 23.
Her funeral was last Thursday, which is why I didn't post last week.


I have in my thirty years as a pastor lost count of the number of funerals I have conducted, probably in the range of three or four hundred. And at every one I have assured the family of the promise of the resurrection, I have preached it, I have counseled it, I have prayed it, I have believed it.

Three years ago, when my Daddy died, I walked up to the coffin and saw him there, waxy and still, cold and formally attired in white shirt, tie and dark suit; and I
stood there a moment and all I could think was "I sure hope it's true, this resurrection business I've been preaching all these years. I really hope it's true."

That's where I found myself again last week, hoping it is true. There is a vast difference when the "dear departed" is one of your own, connected with you through blood or marriage or other deep commitments in ways that mean "until death do us part" to a degree the law can't impose or disentangle.

What I knew in the moments that I stood before those coffins, knew for a hard, cold fact, was that my Daddy was dead, my wife's mother was dead. Their bodies have ceased functioning. They will be encased in the ground to slowly, oh so slowly, rot away, and I will never see them again. These are the facts. The hard, cold, empirical facts.

The hope of the Gospel is that God has somehow reversed that, temporarily with Lazarus, permanently with Jesus, and, so the story goes, permanently with all of us.
And I believe that promise. I don't know what it means, I don't know how it works, I can't hold forth on what a resurrection body will be made of, or what the streets of heaven are paved with, but I believe the promise that beyond this life, there is another existence with God, and that the way to that existence has been cleared by Christ.

In the meantime, the life of faith is lived in that space, that emotional space, before the coffin of a loved one. We carry on between what we know and what we hope; poised between the cold hard facts of death and the bright shining promise of eternal life. We live out our trust in God in the ambiguous territory between what can be proven and what can be believed. All the most important words: freedom, love, compassion, sacrifice; are no more provable than resurrection. In a purely rational world, none of them make sense.

So we carry on, each day creating a faithful balance between what we know and what we hope. We know people die, we hope in the Resurrection; we know people sin, we hope for redemption; we know people get sick, we hope for healing; we know the world teeters on the edge of destruction, we hope for a new heaven and a new earth. Amen.
peace, Delmo

Here's the sermon I came up with, it reflects none of the above explicitly.


TEXTS: Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44


Today is All Saints Sunday. An interesting Holy Day on the Church’s Calendar. It is the Christian equivalent of the Ancient Greek “Altar to an Unknown God” to which Paul referred in Acts.

The Greeks had altars to 100's of gods. They were afraid they might have left one out, so they built an altar to an “Unknown God” just to make sure they didn’t make some minor, obscure god mad, and thus get punished for failing to worship a god they didn’t know about.

In the early days of the church, people began to remember those who had been especially devout and holy and who had died as martyrs for the faith as “Saints,” persons already in heaven and able to hear prayers and help out those still living.

By medieval times, the church calendar was filled with Saint’s Days honoring all the offici8al Saints of the Church. And ALL Saints Day was an attempt to cover their bets, like the ancient Greeks, by giving a day to ALL SAINTS, to make sure no one was left out.

After the Reformation, the Protestant Churches (the Lutherans, the Church of England, the Reformed, The Presbyterians, etc) changed it to a remembrance and celebration of all Christians, ALL SAINTS, past, present, and future with whom we share communion in the universal, “catholic” church. It is especially a day to remember those in the local parish who have died in the last year.

For me, All Saints is a reminder that; as important as the future is; and as all consuming as present problems can be; the past is important too. In many important ways, William Faulkner was right when he said, ”The past is not dead. It is not even past.” Or as Dr. Bernard Boyd said in New Testament Class at UNC,
“Christianity and Judaism acknowledge the ISNESS of the WAS.”

I am an acknowledged Luddite. Technology befuddles me. I still carry a fountain pen, my watch has a dial with numbers and a big hand and a little hand. I can’t program a VCR or anything else. To me, a computer is a fancy typewriter and I treat it like one. Often times even simple technology defeats me.

For instance, passenger-side rear-view mirrors. I am sure someone will explain this to me after service, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why they put mirrors there designed to deceive us.

It happened again last week. I was rushing up and down I-40, three limes last week, shuttling between here and Goldsboro. I looked in the outside mirror, plenty of room to move into the right lane. I slide over, horns blare, brakes screech, and I glance back over my right shoulder. Even with my rear bumper in the right lane. Looking in the mirror, it seemed far behind me.

Then I read the fine print, the fateful words. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. Why do they do that? I fumed.

Since I am stumped by technology I, of course, could not come up with an answer, so I commenced thinking about thinks I do understand, philosophy and theology and such.

“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”
“The Past is not dead, it is not even past.”
“The ISNESS of the WAS.”

A few years ago, I went to my 30 year High School reunion. There I ran into my old running-around-with buddy. Red.Our lives took different paths after High School. We hadn’t seen each other in 25 or thirty years. He was drunk, he is a drunk. He’s divorced after many years, his wife got everything, etc. etc.
He put his arm on my shoulder and cursed God and said, What kind of God makes old men pay for young men’s mistakes? He was still living with his past, all of it, and was unwilling to let God redeem it or heal it. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

On All Saints Day, we celebrate the positive side of this truth.

In Spirit, we are as close to the Cross as the Disciples.

In Faith, we are as connected to Jesus as his friends.

In Christ, we are as much a part of the Resurrection as Mary and Martha and Peter and John.

Christianity is an historic religion, rooted in a true story that happened at a particular time in a particular place involving a real Jesus who suffered real torment and died a real death on a real cross.

But Christianity is not just History, it is not yesterday’s news. The Study of Scripture is not the study of Ancient Wisemen in order to learn the wisdom of the past and apply it to the problems of the present. It is partially that, but it is so much more. Christ and the Cross transcend time and place in such a way that when the Bible is read in the midst of believers, Jesus is here speaking to us.

When we celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar, participate in the Eucharistic Assembly, receive the Bread and Wine as his Body and Blood, Christ is really present here with us, and we are really present in the Upper Room at the Last Supper and at the Mountaintop feast where every tear is wiped away and death is swallowed up. We are in Old Palestine and the New Heaven, all at the same time.

Objects in Mirror are closer than they appear.

The Christ of the past is not dead, he is not even past.

He lives, and because he lives, Ray and Jean and May all the Saints live also,

“And he will destroy on this mountain,
The shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations,
he will swallow up death forever.”

Amen and amen.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Pentecost 20, Oct. 22, 2006

A personal word: A few weeks ago I wrote about the health problems of my wife’s mother (Jean) and uncle (“Grits”). Things have not gotten better. Indeed in Jean’s case, they have gotten much worse. Grits, (it’s a silly nickname he got in the army because he wouldn’t eat them. He’s not a redneck, far from it. He’s a globe-trotting chemical engineering consultant with tours in China and Argentina and Russia among other places) had surgery to remove his tumor. They got most of it, and he has been sent home. He is engaged in a treatment regimen.

Jean has been diagnosed with widespread cancer and there are no treatment options, no surgery, no chemo. We are awaiting a hospice bed. No real predictions of course, but time is relatively short.

Compared to that, my troubles are minor. We came to Gibsonville on Sept. 20.
I had my first Sunday on September 24. We got the call about Jean on the 25th. Deborah has been at her side at the hospital ever since. I have been looking for us a place to stay, we still have a house somewhere else to look after and I’m staying in an extended stay hotel, waiting for the condo I’m renting to open up.

So pray for us. I’m not able to help much with this week’s texts. I was struck by the line in the Hebrews lesson which say, “in the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard.” He was heard, and yet he died.

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I was in the Boy Scouts. (I was a lousy Boy Scout. I knew one knot, I never earned a merit badge, and I got caught smoking on camp outs). Our troop was sponsored by the Red Bank Ruritan Club, of which my Daddy was a member. One night at Scouts, we were running a race and I tripped. I fell face down in the gravel on the side of the road. I lodged a piece of gravel in the skin on my forehead. The local Doctor was also our assistant Scoutmaster, so he took me to his office a quarter mile down the road. Daddy was there that night helping out and went with us.

I laid there on that cold table, hurting and scared. Dr. Tullidge was a good doctor but his bed-side manner ran a bit to the brusque side. He came at me with a huge needle . I was and still am deathly afraid of needles. I looked at Daddy standing in the corner and started crying and yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, don’t let him hurt me, please Daddy. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.

Dr. Tullidge threw a huge leg over me to hold me down , put his left arm down on my chest and proceeded to insert the needle. I continued to cry and beg Daddy to make him stop. And just as the needle entered, I saw my Daddy’s knuckles turn white as he clutched my jacket. I looked up at his face and saw a tear in the corner of his eye. It was the only time in my youth that I saw him cry.
DADDY, DADDY, DADDY! I WAS heard, and I was denied.

Jesus cried to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard, and yet he was denied. This is the mystery of our faith, the mystery of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, the mystery of the Cup of wrath and the Baptism of Death of our Gospel lesson. It is in the contemplation of this mystery that we find both our God and our calling.



Saturday 5 PM Here's ther sermon I came up with:
PENTECOST 20 October 22, 2006

Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

Title: “And He Was Heard?”

Father Ed was pastor of a tidy little Catholic Church on the strip in North Myrtle Beach. A few years ago on Good Friday morning, he removed the purple Lent banners from the three wooden crosses in the churchyard and carefully draped the crosses with long black shrouds.

He took a few minutes to pray and enjoy the spring sunshine, then he went back to the office to write sermons and prepare bulletins for the Great Three Days ahead.Early on that Good Friday afternoon, Father Ed received a phone call from the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. A tense and angry voice said,

Look Preacher, we’ve been getting some complaints about those black crosses out in your churchyard. Now inside the church, who cares? But out front, where everybody can see them, they’re offensive.
The retired people here don’t like them–they’re depressing! And the tourists don’t like them either. People come down here to get happy and have a good time, not to get depressed. IT WILL BE BAD FOR BUSINESS!

The Cross was, and still is, Offensive, Depressing and Bad for Business.

All three of our Scripture lessons make reference in one way or another to the offense of the cross, the suffering and death of Jesus offered as a sacrifice to Gad and a ransom for our souls.

In Isaiah 53, we read of the person whom the scholars called
“The Suffering Servant”. (Point out and read verses 4 and 5)Though it is doubtful that the prophet Isaiah clearly foresaw a person like Jesus fulfilling this role far into the future, it is clear that Jewish religious thinking had made a connection between one or a few suffering and dying to spare and free the many. And it is no surprise that the early Christians, all Jews and all familiar with the Prophetic writings, immediately recognized in Isaiah’s description of the Suffering One the life and death of Jesus.

The verses in Mark which occur immediately before our Gospel lesson have Jesus clearly explaining to the disciples what is going to happen to him. Listen:

The son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.

And almost as soon as these words were out of his mouth,
James and John said,
Can we be the #1 and #2 power people in your Administration?

Obviously, they didn’t get what he was talking about. So Jesus tries again. The talk about Cup and Baptism refer to the Cup of God’s Wrath and the Baptism of Death. Jesus refers to the cup again in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays that the Cup might pass over him.

They still don’t get it, so Jesus just shakes his head and says,
You will suffer and die, but honors are up to God not me.

Verses 7, 8 and 9 from Hebrews point again to the cross:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all....

The Rabbis taught that there were three levels of prayer
1) verbal: outloud or silent, it is thought out and controlled
2) Loud cries: shouting at God
3) Tears: pure emotion and pain

Notice our text, in an obvious reference to the Garden, says that Jesus engaged in all three: Prayers and supplications, loud cries and tears pouring out his fear and pain to God. The Chamber of Commerce man from North Myrtle Beach said the Cross was offensive and depressing. Well, if we feel like that just thinking about it, this text lets us know how Jesus felt when he stared it in the face and knew it was his fate.

Jesus was not suicidal, not a “willing martyr,” happily going to his death with visions of grandeur in his mind, he was not deluded. He was very much aware of what this meant and he fought against it, crying out as the text says:

"to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard."

This cuts to the very heart of the issue. Jesus knew that his path led to death. Jesus knew that God could save him from this fate. And Jesus was not ashamed to let his fears and feelings be known.

What agony! You could save me if you would! But you won’t!
Why won’t you? Why won’t you?
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!

He was heard . . . the text says, and yet he died. And yet he died.

When I was about 12 or 13, I was in the Boy Scouts. Our troop was sponsored by the Red Bank Ruritan Club. My Daddy was a member and was one of the Dads who helped out. One night we were playing around in the parking lot after out meeting and fell while racing some other boys, I het squarely on my forehead in the gravel, and a piece of gravel got lodged under the skin against my skull. You can still see the scar.

Our Scoutmaster was also the local Doctor and his clinic was across the road, so he and Daddy took me in there to tend to my wound. I was scared and hurting as I shivered on the cold examining table. Dr. Tullidge was a good doctor, but he had a lousy bedside manner, more appropriate for crusty farmers than little boys.

He washed his hands and then made some instruments ready, all the while chatting with Daddy about the deer he had killed on his last hunting trip. Suddenly he turned toward me with a needle the size of a baseball bat, or so it seemed to me. I never did like needles. I looked at Daddy and started crying and yelling
DADDY, DADDY, DADDY don’t let him hurt me1 please, please, DADDY, DADDY, DADDY.

Dr. Tullidge threw a huge leg over me to hold me down and put his left arm across my chest and swabbed my wound with alcohol, then approached with that needle. I continued to cry and beg Daddy to make him stop. And just as the needle entered my forehead, I saw my Daddy’s hands, clutching my jacket. The knuckles had turned white. I looked up at his face and saw a tear in the corner of his eye, the only time I ever saw him cry.

DADDY, DADDY, DADDY! I was heard, Oh yes, I was heard. And I was denied.

Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation . . .

That is the great mystery of our faith. That where we are,
in the midst of sin and suffering, decay and death;
Christ has been, fully completely, totally.

Whatever is the worst that you have been through, no matter how scared, lonely, lost and forsaken you have been, Jesus has been there!

Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Jesus has been there!

Have you ever wondered how you were going to make it one more day? Jesus has been there!

And the promise of the Gospel is that where Jesus is now, we are going. The Gospel is that God brought Jesus through to the other side of the Cross. The Gospel is, God can and will carry YOU through as well.

God calls us to follow Him. It is not an easy way, it is not a painless path, it is not smooth sailing. Jesus’ way is the Way of the Cross. But the joyous paradox and mystery of the Gospel is:


For all of us, from the greatest to the least, from the oldest to the youngest,
from the power brokers to the powerless, from the first to the last,
all roads lead to, and through and beyond the Cross to Christ.

"Who was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities,
upon him was the punishment which made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed."

Amen and amen

Friday, October 13, 2006

PENTECOST 19: RCL Texts for Ovt. 15, 2006

Pentecost 19 October 15, 2006
Texts: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

Title: The Rich Young Ruler and Us

I have a question for you. How rich are you? The story in our gospel lesson is often called the story of the Rich Young Ruler because Matthew calls him young and Luke calls him a ruler and all three call him rich. So we know he’s rich. The question is, do we think his story applies to us? How rich are we?

Economist Robert Heilbroner suggests a little mental exercise that will help us to see what daily life is like for more than a billion people in the world. Close your eyes and imagine your home.

1 - Take all the furniture out of your home, except for one table and a couple of chairs. Use a blanket and pads for beds.

2 - Take away all of your clothing except your oldest outfit and only one shirt or blouse. Leave only one pair of shoes.

3 - Empty the pantry and the refrigerator except for a small
bag of flour, some sugar and salt, and a few potatoes, some onions and some dried beans.

4 - Dismantle the bathroom, shut off the running water, and
remove all the electrical wiring in your house.

5 - Take away the house itself and move the family into the tool shed.

6 - Move out of your current neighborhood into a ghetto of
makeshift buildings and mud streets.

7 - Cancel all subscriptions to all magazines and newspapers
and get rid of all books.

8 - Leave only one radio for the whole community.

9 - Move the nearest hospital ten miles away and replace the doctor with a mid-wife.

10 - Throw away all your bankbooks, stock certificates, pension plans and insurance policies. Leave the family a cash hoard of $10.

11 - Give yourself a few acres outside the ghetto on which you can grow cash crops. On this land you earn $300 a year,of which one third will go to the landowner, and one tenth to the loan shark.

12 - Lop 25 years off your life expectancy.

Now, sit and think about it, what it would feel like. And now, realize that one BILLION people in this world live like that.

Here’s the question again; how rich are you?

And the answer is, Pretty Darn Rich in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Keep that in mind as we listen again to the story in our Gospel lesson: (read again Mark 10: 17-22)

If we don’t think we’re rich, we might hear that story and think to ourselves, “How sad for that young man. He just couldn’t let go of all that money and accept Jesus.” And we shake our heads and feel sorry for him.

BUT, if we realize that in comparison with billions around the world, we are the rich; then we will hear this story differently and we will begin to challenge ourselves as to how we have responded to Jesus’ call, especially in respect to our use of our belongings.

In our story , the man comes to Jesus with a question. Though it looks like a personal question, it really isn’t. When he asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he is simply trying to find out where Jesus stands on questions of Jewish faith and practice. He has heard of Jesus, has seen the crowds and wants to find out what Jesus’ basic teaching is.

When I was a kid, all the people of my Grandparents generation divided time between before the depression and after the War. My generation divides time between before the Sixties and after the Sixties. I’m sure many will begin to divide time between before 9/11 and after 9/11.

The Jewish Community of 2000 years ago divided time between the Present Time and the Time to Come; or the Current Age versus the Kingdom of God. They believed the Present Time to be corrupt and evil and were anticipating a time when God would come and make everything right, a time of justice and peace, right here on earth, not pie in the sky, by and by.

So, the Rich Man was a seeker, trying to find out Jesus’ take on what it took to be included in God’s future. And two things are clear: he was a genuinely good man and Jesus genuinely liked him. Jesus also recognized that the man was holding something back in his commitment to God, he “lacked one thing,” so Jesus hit him with it, “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”

Then Jesus says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples are shocked, for despite the teachings of the prophets, like our First Lesson from Amos, most of the people of Jesus' time believed wealth to be a sign of God’s blessing.

That’s why they said, “Who then can be saved?” “If the rich can’t make it, there’s no chance for a poor man like me.”

Here’s the real important question: Why is wealth,(riches, filthy lucre, mammon), such a spiritual problem? What is it about possessions that makes it difficult for ”those who have wealth” to enter the Kingdom?

It is not wrong or evil for a Christian to be wealthy. It is not an automatic injustice for there to be an imbalance of the world’s resources. Poverty is not a particularly virtuous condition. So why did Jesus say this? And, did it apply only to this one man, or do his words apply to all of us?

The problem with wealth is that it leads people to be dependent upon, to rely upon, to put their trust in something other than God. The trouble with money can be summed up as the idolatry factor. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, said,

"A “god” is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. . .Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God."

Jesus looked at the rich young ruler and loved him. Loved him because he was a good man seeking to follow after God’s will and way in his life. Jesus also looked at him and realized that the man’s stuff was getting in the way of his relationship with God. Jesus’ command, GO, SELL, GIVE! Cut to the quick of the man’s spiritual problem; his heart relied upon and trusted his stuff more than it trusted and relied upon God.

Now, here’s an important point: people always assume that the man didn’t do what Jesus said, but the Bible doesn’t say that. It says he went away grieving. It’s entirely possible he was grieving the loss of his stuff, not the loss of his soul.

Not everybody who gives in to God is happy about it. CS Lewis, who gave us the wonderful Children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia and many other books on Christianity for adults, called himself the most reluctant convert in history, claiming he came kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of God.

We, like the rich young ruler, are confronted with a question today. We know we’re rich, and Jesus wants to know if our riches are getting in the way of our relationship with God?

Do we trust our bank accounts and our retirement plans and our stock holdings and our land values and job potential, etc. etc. more than we trust God?

What are we to do? Sell all and give it to the poor? But I have obligations, responsibilities. Should I and my family and my mother and my mother-in-law and my dog become impoverished for the sake of my soul? Does my becoming poor really help the poor?

Our calling today is two-fold. Step one is to examine our hearts and minds and souls and discover there where our true allegiance lies. Is there anything that comes before God in our lives? Anything at all.

In the movie Chariots of Fire, devout Christian runner Eric Liddel refuses to run on the Sabbath in the Paris Olympics.The powers that be just don’t understand. He is called in for a chat with the British Olympic Committee. He says that his loyalty to God comes first. And the old, aristocratic head of the committee snarls, “In my day, it was country first, then God.” Finding out if there’s anything more important in our life than God. That’s step one.

Step two is deceptively simple. If there is anything that is more important to you than God, get rid of it. Like I said, deceptively simple. Simple to say. Hard to do. Eliminating those things in our life which draw us away from God will take us, quite literally, the rest of our lives. That’s why they call it “practicing a religion.” We never get it exactly right.

Which is why the most important words in this text are these

With mortals it is impossible, but not for God.
For God, all things are possible.

You are invited today to turn loose of those things you cling to which are not God so that you will be free to grab onto God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.



Saturday, October 07, 2006

Pentecost 18, October 8, 2006

Pentecost 18 October 8, 2006
Texts: Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-112, Mark 10:2-16
Title: This Here Battle . . .

If you’ve ever been through Chattanooga, TN, you know that Lookout Mountain looms over the city. On Nov. 24, 1863 one of the most interesting battles of the Civil War took place on that mountain. Many mornings, as the sun comes up, a ring of fog hangs about halfway up the cliffs above the Tennessee River, with the sun shining brightly on the mountaintop above and the city below.

On the fated day, the Confederates had artillery on top of the mountain, preventing the Union from using the river for supply shipments and troop movements. The Federals were determined to silence those cannon. The fighting centered in the foggy area. Between the fog and the peculiar terrain and the general confusion of war,
things were a mess.

The story is told that a Confederate General happened upon a severely wounded private and ordered him to “get to the rear,” out of harm’s way. The Private saluted and replied “Yes Sir.”
A bit later, the general happened upon the private again,
“Son, I thought I told you to get to the rear!” The Private drew himself up, saluted and said, “Begging the General’s pardon Sir, I been trying, but this here battle ain’t got no rear!”

We all know how he feels. Since 9/11, 5 years ago, it seems like there has been a continuous worsening of the state of the world and the human condition.

War, Terrorism, the Economy, nasty politics, disease, basic human values ignored, a coarsening of our culture, families falling apart, we could go on and on with how its not like it used to be. And things that used to be urban, city problems have invaded the country. Is there nowhere safe?

This week, we learned more about a Congressman preying on vulnerable teenagers and on Tuesday a seriously disturbed man walked into an Amish schoolhouse in PA and did the unimaginable and we learned for certain that NO, there is no safe place; THIS HERE BATTLE AIN’T GOT NO REAR! All week long the image of Jesus protecting/blessing little children competed in my mind with the terrifying thoughts of those little girls in their long dresses and bonnets, lined up in a row. And you have to ask yourself: How did things get this way?

Surely this is not what God intended for the world and for the children of God, the people of the world.. What went wrong? And what can we do about it? What must we, the followers and disciples of Jesus, do in response to a world that is dangerous and out of control?

How did we get in this mess?
For our First Lesson, we read one of the Creation stories
in Genesis. It is a charming little vignette about God trying to find a fit companion for Adam. It’s kind of funny as God acts like a shoe salesman trying to fit a finicky customer. God brings out animals big and small, sleek and furry, ferocious and tame, clean and nasty, everything in the store.

And Adam looks at them and says, “Well, it’s nice, it’s interesting, it’s a . . .a raccoon. But it’s just not what I’m looking for.” And God brings out another and Adam says, “Well, its , its, its BIG, very BIG, and shiny, very SHINY. It’s an, uh, an uh, Hippopotamus. But its just not for me.”

And so it goes through all the animals, and still nothing seems to work. So God decides to do a custom job, just for Adam, to his particular specifications.
It’s a good story. And it’s an important story, for it reminds us of a couple of things. It reminds us that we, all of us, are God’s special and beloved creations. It also reminds us that we are all, male and female, equal partners in life, that the point of marriage is companionship and shared life journeys. That is God’s intention.

Now, fast forward several thousand years to the time of Jesus and the story told in our Gospel lesson. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into saying something that would get him into trouble with the King. King Herod had married his brother’s ex-wife. Worse than that, he had forced his brother into divorcing her so he could marry her. Worse than that, he had killed John the Baptist for preaching about it.

So they asked Jesus, in front of the crowds, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus turned it back on them, “What did Moses say?” (continue from verse 4 -9)

For us this morning, the key words are in verse 6,
“Because of your hardness of heart” , another way to put it is; because of your inability to live in accordance with God’s plans and intentions.

At the time of Jesus, many men used the divorce laws as a way to escape familial responsibility. Without a husband, women were often in quite dire straits, and many men tossed aside wives for quite trivial reasons. The law said you could divorce your wife if you found anything “unseemly” in her. Some Rabbis interpreted that in terms of sexual immorality, but many said it could be anything the husband didn’t like, such as burning his dinner.

For Jesus, tightening up the attitude toward divorce was a matter of justice for woman, and a call to taking God’s intentions for married life seriously. When Jesus says “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” this is holding men accountable for their behavior in a very provocative way,
for adultery was not a minor accusation and it carried with it the death penalty.

Now I know that Jesus strict words here are painful to persons who have been through divorce, and are difficult for many to hear. I have two siblings who are divorced and two others who are married to divorced people, so I am not insensitive to this. It is important to note that Jesus was very forgiving of divorced persons. I think particularly of the woman at the well, who had had many husbands and was living outside of marriage with another man. Jesus was not condemnatory toward her, but rather was pastoral and kind.

It is not Jesus intent to condemn those who have suffered through a difficult marriage and decided to end it before causing more pain to themselves or others. His intent is to recall people to the purpose of committed relationships, which is the completion of our created humanity in companionship and partnership. His intent is to call us away from relationships which are hurtful and abusive and unequal.

Now just as God created human committed companionship as a good thing, but because of Human Hardness of Heart, this good thing became a bent and ruptured and incomplete thing; so it is with all of God’s creation.

Humanity has taken the good things God made and gave into our care and we have messed them up. That is the basic story. Psalm 8 says that God made us little lower than the angels, and that he gave us mastery over the world. How have we done, taking care of things?

Not very well, I’m afraid. And it is getting frighteningly worse, and we are constantly reminded, that this here battle ain’t got no rear. There’s no place to hide. We must stand forth and be a part of the solution. If not, we must count ourselves as part of the problem.

What are we to do? How can we become a part of the solution? What is our calling today? As always, it is to be imitators of Christ, followers in the footsteps of our Lord.

In Hebrews, the writer traces a scenario in which we are reminded that Jesus gave up privilege and power with God to come to earth as one of us, to suffer with us, and to show us what true humanity was intended to be. Jesus
was God in our midst, in our presence, in our bodies and circumstances, God on our level, God with the same temptations and problems and hurts and wants and needs as any of us, and he suffered loss and rejection and fear just like we do. And he managed to stay the course of love and forgiveness to the end.

And we are called to do the same. We are called to raise our heads above the fog and confusion of daily life and look to the bright Sun of God’s love burning above us.
We are called to lift our hearts above our fear and to step forward with love and forgiveness for those who frighten us. In the end, it is the only way.
Aq few years ago, Harrison Ford starred in a movie called WITNESS. It was about a little Amish boy who accidentally witnessed a murder. Policeman Ford hid with the little boy in Amish country. The title had a double meaning. It referred to the little boy who saw the violence. It also referred to the effect, the witness, the Amish life had on the Policeman character Ford played.

Movie life has become real life this week. I have been deeply moved by the Witness the Amish community has made in the wake of the killings. The way they have reached out to the family of the killer has been extraordinary. They have literally and spiritually embraced them. They have spoken sincere words of forgiveness and reconciliation. When money began pouring in, they asked the Mennonite Disaster Relief team to set aside funds for Roberts’ wife and children. They have witnessed to us what ruly Christlike behavior is.

And the question for us today is this. Will we embrace the way of the cross as the only truly safe place in this world? Amen and amen.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

October 1, 2006- Pentecost 17 - World Communion Sunday

I'm very late this week and I apologise. I am in a hotel room in Greeneville NC, near the University Hospital where my wife's uncle has just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Weeks they say. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law is in the rehab wing of a nursing center across the street, having lost so much strength since an operatinon in April that she she can't turn herself in bed.

Isn't it ironic that all this illness keeps me from commenting on texts related to healing?. My my. This will be short but a few thoughts.

Healing and a return to shalom or wholeness seems to me to be a theme of all of today's texts. In Numbers, there is a community dysfuncition, a societal rift as the children of Israel turn on their leader, Moses, and Moses in turn, shifts the blame to God. God responds quite cleverly (if you can call God clever) The bestowal of the Spirit on the Seventy is a democratization of the Leadership. Early on, Isarel moved away from a Authoritarian Charismatic Spirit-filled leader model to a Spirit dispersed on the people model of leadership. The Eldad and Medad episode takes the point further by showing that God can work outside the established lines. An episode in community healing.

James is about both physical healing and spiritual healing, and ultimately about the need for the community to take care of each other. While many may stress the charismatic gift of healing (which I have witnessed and do not eny) I think it is more important to think about how this passage deals with community cohesion and compassion. This is especially evident in the language about the reconciliation of sinners.

The opening of the Gospel passage reminds us of the Eldad and Medad episode, then Jesus launches into the plucking and gouging stuff. This is, of course, hyperbole, exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, and is a call to the disciples and to us, to take following Jesus seriously, to commit ourselves wholly and holy to cross-bearing.
The question is not What did Jesus mean by this extreme imagery? but, What do I need to cut out of my life that keeps me from being the complete and whole person God made and means me to be?

I wish I had a story, but I don't. If you have Huston's Smith's The Soul of Christianity there is a good story in there about an atheist Doctor who believes he has proven that prayer works, he just doesn't know how.



Friday, September 22, 2006

PENTECOST 16 : A Sermon


TEXTS: Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

TITLE: “I Am the Greatest”

I am a big fan of Church Signs. Oak Forest Methodist Church in Hayesville had a message up for a week that said,


Sounds like good advice to me.

Across the street from Tennessee State University in Nashville there is a Church which has the longest Church name I’ve ever seen on a sign.
I pulled in the parking lot to copy it down:

The House of the Lord,
Which is the Church of the Living God,
The Pillar and Ground of the Truth,
Without Controversy, Incorporated.

Without controversy. Whoever heard of a church without controversy?

Today’s Scripture lessons are all about controversy.

This section of Jeremiah has a heading in the American Bible Society’s Version that says “Jeremiah’s life threatened.”

And that’s exactly what is going on here. He is the lamb led to the slaughter, the tree destroyed with its fruits, Jeremiah is the one they want to cut off from the living.

From the OT, through the NT, through most of Church History,
the Community of faith has often been caught up
in dispute and disagreement about
what it means to be a true believer.

In light of religion’s history of fighting, instead of the Nashville church’s claim to be “Without Controversy,” perhaps a church sign I saw in Atlanta is more to the point. It read:


Now I know they meant their name to convey a religious truth,
that the Grace, Love and Forgiveness of God are “free for all.”

But, when I saw the sign, all I could think of is how we call a small riot, a bar fight, a baseball fracas, any kind of wild, no rules confrontation,
a “free for all.” And every time I drove by that church, I imagined 65-year-old deacons in their Sunday suits, wrestling and throwing Bibles at each other.

The truth is, the people of God have always been, and probably always will be, a contentious lot, given to fussing with each other about all sorts of things, some of which matter and most of which don’t.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus catches his disciples arguing about one of those things that don’t matter, at least not in the Family of God, the Body of Christ. They have been fussing about which one is the greatest.

It is particularly ironic and disappointing that they are arguing about this right after Jesus has told them that as the Messiah, he will have to suffer and die to save the world.

He presents them with a model of complete helplessness and weakness and they respond by contending for positions of greatness and power.
In other words, they don’t get it.

Tom Wright is a NT scholar and the Bishop of Durham Eng. He says,

“Probably not all Jews of the time
believed God would send a Messiah,
but nobody at all believed that,
if and when God did send one,
that Messiah would have to suffer,
still less have to die.” (Mark for Everyone)

They believed that the one to come and save Israel would come in power and might and strength. They believed the Messiah would come as a Military Leader, smiting the Romans and their evil, pagan allies, conquering the world in the name of Truth, Justice and the Israeli Way.

So Jesus’ disciples probably didn’t really hear Jesus when he said,

The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands,
and they will kill him, and three days after being killed,
he will rise again.

They heard his words, but they didn’t hear his meaning. So, they walked along talking about greatness. They believed he was the Messiah and the Saviour, they believed he was THE ONE sent by God, they just thought that meant taking over the world, and they were arguing about who would be Jesus’ second-in-command in the coming new regime.

When Jesus calls them on it, they are stunned into silence, ashamed to have been caught arguing about something so dishonorable.

I imagine Jesus taking a deep breath and looking at them, and sighing, and saying, “Come here guys, sit down, let’s talk. Let me see if I can find a better way to explain this to you.”

Then he says, here’s the deal, whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

We’ve heard this before:
the first shall be last,
if you want to save your life, lose it,
the least of these my brethren,
brother come up higher,

go out into the hedges and byways and compel them to come in,
the Rich man’s offering and the widow’s mite,
the Rich Pharisee’s prayer and the poor man’s lament, Lazarus and the beggar in Heaven and Hell,
hm, I think I’m detecting a pattern here.

It’s called the Great Reversal. Jesus turns the world’s expectations and standards on their heads and proclaims that a new set of values will
operate in the Kingdom he has been sent to create.

Then Jesus does an amazing thing,
He invents the children’s sermon,
using an actual child as the object.

Realizing that they still aren’t getting him, Jesus reaches into the crowd around the house; those people standing in the doorway and leaning in the windows, and pulls out a child, probably a toddler and says,

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.

It is obvious here that Jesus is comparing himself to a child, but what is not obvious to us is what that comparison meant to his disciples.

To us, a child is primarily a symbol of innocence. We value children and protect and care for them and are horrified at things like the 12-year-old girl abducted in SC and the baby stolen in MO.

But in the ancient world, children were symbols of powerlessness.
Outside of normal parental affection, little children were literally nothing. In the Greco-Roman world a father could, “punish, sell, pawn off, or even kill his own child” (Peter Marty, The Lectionary Commentary)

It’s interesting to note that the Greek words for child and servant have the same root, and that Jesus uses both these images as symbols of who the Messiah is and who we, the followers of Jesus, are called to be in the world. Children and servants, powerless and dependent ones.

Our world, no less than the ancient world, honors and respects and lusts after power and authority and importance.

People in our world, no less than people in the ancient world,
seek positions of strength from which they can control and manage others.

And the call of the Gospel to us today is this,
it may be that way in the world,
but it must not be that way among my followers.

GK Chesterton is one of my favorite writers. He wrote and was famous in England from about 1900 into the 1930's. He wrote mystery stories and religious biographies and books of theology, etc. etc.

He was a very eccentric man, over 6 feet, 350 pounds plus, wearing a cape and a black broad brimmed hat everywhere he went.

One time he was on a radio talk show. They had a panel of important people talking about religion and literature. The moderator asked this question:

If you were on a desert island, what one book would you want to have?

George Bernard Shaw said the Complete Works of Shakespeare.
The President of the Baptist Union said Pilgrim’s Progress
The Moderator of the Methodist Church said The Bible
The Anglican Bishop of London said, The Book of Common Prayer
Chesterton pursed his lips and said nothing. The Moderator prompted him: Mr. Chesterton, what book on a desert island?
Chesterton: I believe Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding

I believe that in today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus has provided us with the key to Practical Soul-Building and to Practical Church Building

If we will remember who Jesus is and remember that we are called to follow in his footsteps, we will begin to find ways to be childlike servants to one another, and to the world. We will discover that taking up our cross is as simple and as practical and as difficult as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and visiting the sick and suffering.

And through our actions and our words, we proclaim to the world that God’s love is kind without being vague, it is not without controversy but it is, without a shadow of a doubt, free for all. Amen and Amen.

Peace Delmo