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

Thursday, September 14, 2006

PENTECOST 15: RCL Texts for September 17, 2006

Two related things struck me in the first two lessons (Isaiah 50:4-9a and James 3:1-12): The importance of what we say to each other: Verse 4 of Isaiah says, "that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word," I used to want to be a fiery prophet, challenging the ways of the world with the ways of God. I used to want to be an inspiring preacher, filling people with enthusiasm for causes like world hunger and AIDS relief and peace with justice; but now, but now; well I still want to do and be those things, but they're not at the forefront of who I feel myself called to be. Now, I want what Isaiah wanted, "to know how to sustain the weary with a word." That would be the greatest homiletic gift of all.

James reminds of us of how dangerous a thing the tongue is, how untameable and full of poison and deceit. I don't have to say much about current politics in this country to make the point here; turn on the TV, listen to the Radio, read the newspaper, think about the last few years, especially the years since 9/11 and the beginning of the War. Lies, damned Lies, Statistics, insinuations, outright slander, and on and on. And to be fair, it causes me to think of and repent of the dozens of hurtful and harmful and unfair things I say every day, mostly to people I like, no, mostly to people I love. And I know James is right and I trust that the Gospel is true and I will be, no, AM forgiven. But I do wish I didn't do it so often.

When I read the Gospel lesson (Mark 8:27-38), I got to thinking about the many years I spent in small evangelistic churches, where the first part of this story, "Who do you say that I am?" was used as an evangelistic hook to browbeat us with the idea that our eternal salvation was dependent on what we "thought" about Jesus, on thinking, on believing the right thing. And I never got saved because, apparently, I never thought the right thing about Jesus, so He never deigned to come into my heart.

The next part of this text, about Jesus' prediction of his own suffering and Peter's unwillingness to accept it, and Jesus saying get thee behind me Satan, was used to talk about how much Jesus did suffer for us. These descriptions were pretty vivid and seemed to imply that the perfect, sinless Son of God had to die because of my 12-year old boy hormone driven naughtiness, at least that's the way I heard it. More importantly, never did they talk about Peter's failure to understand Jesus' style or type of Messiahship, nor did they talk about how Jesus must have been genuinely tempted, or he would not have used the Satan term with Peter (Shakespeare, "Methinks (s)he doth protest too much!) And they really botched the whole "Deny self, pick-up cross and follow Jesus" mandate. Denying self equated to "Quit your meanness and join the church," take up a cross was "put up with whatever less than ideal conditions you find yourself in, it may be bad but it's not as bad as what Jesus went through to save your sorry self fromn Hell, so quit complaining," and following Jesus apparently consisted of being in church twice on Sunday and Wednesday night and giving enough to the church to raise the preacher's salary.

I went to an National Inter-Varsity Campus Ministry Rally when I was in college. It was at Urbana, Illinois in Late December. It was cold, and I was definitely out of my element among 15,000 evangelicals, but I had a good reason for being there. I came with a girl. (Hope springs eternal, you know). Anyway, there was this big rally and Somebody important preached on this text and they got it closer to right in that they moved it from salvation to service; challenging us with what was God calling us to do with our lives. And again they supplied the answer, since God was being silent as usual and they only had 5 days to get this done. Apparently, the answer to denying self, taking up a cross and following Jesus was something deemed "full-time Christian service" preferably outside the United States, among people who were presumably going to Hell if we, those of us in Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois, didn't do something about it and quick. And then they asked us to fill out 3x5 commitment cards and to pass them to the usher in the aisle with the KFC bucket wrapped in construction paper.

And so it goes. I read something Fred Craddock said that made the most sense to me lately, now that I've spent most of my pastoring years among the middle class Christians of the United States. He said something about how most of us think that the call to deny self, take up a cross, and follow Christ will come in a startling moment of moral and existential clarity, in which we will wholly give up all of one life, perhaps our very life, to embrace totally and completely another life, in this world or the next, for the sake of the Gospel. Craddock says that for most of us, most of the time, it doesn't work that way. His analogy is that we think we have a million dollars and we have to spend it all at once on something big, while the reality is we give it away, a quarter at a time, all day long, every day of our lives, in little acts of kindness to others and devotion to God. I think of it this way: We go through our lives shedding little pieces of the old self, tiny bits at a time; and we pick up little splinters and pieces of our cross along the way, as we attempt to follow a Christ who is just out of sight over the horizon, until, near the end of our journey, we look back and realize we're not who we were, and the change is due to following Him. Amen.

And now for something totally different: Help me out. As you can see, I no longer work at Hinton, I've become a full-time pastor again, so it's not appropriate to keep on calling this Hinton Homiletics. I've tried to think of a new name, but my brain is tired, so the floor is open to suggestions. Seriously. You people are smart. Tell me what you think. You can submit your idea either on the COMMENT section below, or by emailing me at