Friday, June 29, 2007


Sorry folks. I'm taking a (short) break. I'm on vacation in the NC mountains for about two weeks. the next time I post sermonically will be for Sunday, July 15, 2007. peace. Delmer

Friday, June 22, 2007

June 24, The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
June 24, 2007
Texts: Malachi 3:1-4, Acts 13:13-26, Luke 1:57-67 (68-80)
Well, did you get all your “Nativity of St. John the Baptist” shopping done on time? Did you get your Nativity cards out? Did your Nativity office party go well? Boy, wasn’t it a pain doing all that decorating and putting lights on the house, particularly this time of year when its so hot and all?

What? You didn’t do any of those things for “the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist?” You didn’t even KNOW we were celebrating the Nativity of St. John the Baptist until you got here this morning? Tsk, tsk. What kind of Lutherans are you?

Well, apparently you’re the same kind as our esteemed Dean, Pastor Brady Faggart, long-time pastor of First Lutheran in Greensboro. Brady showed up at our Bible study this week with the wrong texts, had not even heard of the “Nativity of St. John the Baptist”.

Well the reason we don’t know much about it is that it is a FIXED date festival, always June 24, so it only occasionally falls on a Sunday.And because of leap years, we sometimes go 14 years between celebrations. It’s easy to forget a festival when you acknowledge it so seldom.

So Pastor Beaver attempted to enlighten us at our Pastor’s Bible Study on Tuesday. He had researched the John the Baptist day and I learned several interesting things.
I learned that it was placed on the calendar where it is to reflect bit of scripture. John said of Jesus, “I must decrease that he may increase.” Well according to the calendar in use when the date was set, June 24 when the days started getting shorter, decreasing; just as the Nativity of our Lord, Dec. 25, was when the days began getting longer, increasing.

I also learned that it is extensively celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church; besides June 24, they also celebrate:
January 7: The Commemoration of St. John the Forerunner
February 24: First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Forerunner.
May 25: Third Finding of the Head St. John the Forerunner.
August 29: The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner
September 23: Conception of St. John the Forerunner.
Here’s my question: Why can’t they keep up with his head? I mean John only lost it once, and they had to find it three times. I tried to find out more about that but came up empty. I’ll keep looking, maybe something will turn up.

One thing is for certain: all this celebrating points to the importance of John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer as some say, or John the Forerunner as the Orthodox call him, or John the Cousin of Jesus as he was probably know around Nazareth; for the Bible tells us that his mother Elizabeth was a cousin of Mary, the Mother of our Lord.

And the question for us today is a simple one: so what? Or as my son used to say, “And why should I care?” Why should we care about and celebrate the people involved in the Nativity of St. John the Baptist? And what about their journey can help us as we move through our journey of faith?

THE ANSWER A lack of faith leads to a failure of voice, faith itself loosens our tongue.

In order to understand today’s Gospel lesson, you have to know what happened 9 months before. Zechariah and Elizabeth were, like Abraham and Sarah, quite old and childless. He was one of the priests who served in the temple in Jerusalem. He was serving on the altar one day. He was in the Holy of Holies, in the Sanctuary of the Lord, where no one but the appointed priest went, he was standing at the altar of incense when suddenly an angel appeared beside him, and scared the daylights out of him. The angel told him that he and Elizabeth would have a child, but frankly, Zechariah didn’t believe him, and said so. “We’re too old. Its not gonna happen.” So the angel Gabriel said to him, “But now, because you did not believe my words, . . . you will become mute, unable to speak, until the days these things occur.”

A few years ago I heard Pastor Jack Hayford of the Church of the Way in Van Nuys CA tell a story about his grandson Kyle. At the time Kyle was 9 years old.
Kyle had recently lost a baby tooth. In the Hayford household, the tooth fairy pays a dollar per tooth. That night, when the Tooth Fairy reached under Kyle’s pillow to recover the tooth and leave a dollar, he found not the tooth but a note from Kyle.

The note read:
Dear Tooth Fairy,
I am holding my tooth for ransom. The fee will be $20. I am doing this for three reasons:
1) I have had this tooth longer than any other and I am very fond of it.
2) It is bigger than the other teeth.
3) It has silver in it.
Signed Kyle

In the morning Kyle reached under his pillow for the hoped for $20 and found instead a reply to his note.
It read:
Dear Kyle,
Enjoy your tooth.
the Tooth Fairy

Zechariah was like Kyle, he wanted a relationship with God, but he wanted it on his own terms. He wanted to tell God what was and was not possible, just as Kyle wanted to negotiate the terms of the release of his tooth with the tooth fairy.
The Tooth Fairy said, “I’m not playing. Keep your tooth.” God said to Zechariah, “I’m not arguing with you over what I can and can’t do. I’ll just show you while you have to stand silently by and watch.” And so it was, Zechariah was unable to speak for 9 months. And Elizabeth indeed got pregnant, and Zechariah could say nothing.

I know when Deborah was pregnant with our children, I was filled with awe and joy and excitement and I couldn’t stop talking about the wonder of it all; so it must have been torture on poor Zechariah.

But finally the day came, and the baby was born, and they go through the naming argument, and when Zechariah made a statement of faith, writing down the name the angel had told him, at that moment his tongue was loosed and he was able to give voice and words to the miracle of God that had happened in his life.

Unless we believe, deep in our souls, deep in our hearts, that God can and will love and redeem all humanity; unless we trust to the very core of our being in the steadfast and endless grace and mercy of God, we have nothing to say to the world which cannot be better said by any number of secular, non-profit, benevolent organizations.

Without that gut level willingness to throw ourselves into the arms of the divine, we are just playing church, dancing around the edges of the holy.
This issue of trusting God is at the very core of the faith. There are many of us, myself included, who have no trouble believing the Bible and the great miracles of the faith; the Creation, the Incarnation, the Resurrection. We accept this with little trouble. Our problem comes in believing that God not only loves the whole world, but that God also loves us.

We are like John Wesley who reported that one night in a little Chapel on Aldersgate street in London, that
“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I knew that Christ died for the world, but in that moment, I knew he had died FOR ME. I had known the sins of the world were forgiven, but in that moment I knew my own sins were forgiven.”

To really believe is to make it personal, to move from ideas about God to a relationship with God, to quit just discussing God to begin talking things over with God.

Zechariah knew a lot about God, but he didn’t know God, not until that day at the Altar. And until he put aside the terms by which he would be able to relate to God, he had nothing to say.

But when he laid aside all his defenses and trusted God completely, his long unused voice burst forth in song.

So it is with us. We as individuals and as a community are called upon to trust the promise of God. God has promised to love us, to forgive us, to support and sustain us through all life’s difficulties and troubles.

Do you trust God? Do you trust God’s love? Do you trust God’s care? Do you trust God’s compassion? Do you trust God’s mercy? Do You? Do You?

Because if you do, these thing are great Good News and you should tell somebody. Particularly, these things are great Good News to the millions of hurting, frightened, lonely, anxious, directionless people looking everywhere for meaning.
Like the Orthodox looking for the lost head of John the Forerunner, they keep finding something, get all excited about it, then they discover that’s not the answer, and they discard it and start looking again.

And all along, we have here, in this book and on this table, that which they are all looking for. And the shameful thing is we are too often like old Zechariah. We’ve got a zipped lip; we don’t have enough confidence in the gift God has given us to speak out to the world about the love that lives within us.

I invite you today to join in the Song of Zechariah. I invite you to feel deep within yourself the Joy of knowing that you are a beloved Child of God, of knowing that your sins are forgiven, that God cares about you, even you, and as that Joy wells up within you, let your tongue be loosed and your voice heard.
Amen and Amen.

Hymn ELW # 552 “Blessed be the God of Israel”


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pentecost 3, Lessons for June 17, 2007

June 17, 2007
Texts: 2 Samuel 11:26 -12:10, 13-15; Luke 7:36-8:3
Title: “I’m Talking to YOU, yeah, YOU!”

My preaching class at Duke, which is a Methodist Seminary, was taught by a Southern Baptist; which my sons say explains a lot about my preaching. I never took a course in "Lutheran preaching" whatever that is.

This Professor started his career teaching at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY. He liked to tell the story about a young Baptist man from “up north somewhere,” who came to Louisville to study at the Baptist Seminary. It wasn’t long before he secured a regular job preaching at a little Baptist Church over near Lexington.

On his first Sunday he lit into Tobacco pretty hard, smoking it, chewing it, growing it, etc. it was all the same to him, and it was all sin. After service, the head of the deacons stopped him at his car and told him that though, like all good Baptists they were, of course, opposed to tobacco, it was important to know that quite a few of the church members raised tobacco for a living and it might be well to avoid that topic in future sermons.

The next week he lit into alcohol. He did it up pretty good, with all the statistics about drunk driving and broken homes and illness, etc. etc. And again the head of the Deacons met him at his car and after admiring the sermon for a few minutes allowed as how quite a few folks in the church were employed at the local distillery and it might be best to let up on the alcohol issue as well.

The third week the preacher opened up with both barrels on gambling. He outdid himself this time. It was a scorcher. And the Deacon met him at the car one more time. Before he opened his mouth, the Preacher shook his head and said, “What this time?” Well Preacher, you see, a lot of folks, including me, work on the horse farms and we all know those horses are for racing which means gambling, so if you could . . . “

The young Pastor had about had it. “All right then. What can I preach on?” The deacon thought for a few minutes and said, “Why don’t you try Chinese Communism. There ain’t a Chinese Communist anywhere around here.”

In today’s Scripture Lessons we find three preachers who are very pointed in their preaching. Nathan takes on the King of Israel, the Great King David and points directly at him while saying “Thou art the man!” which is another way of saying, “I’m talking to you, yeah you!”

Paul holds nothing back in condemning Peter for being two-faced while Jesus directs sharp words at the rich and supposedly Holy Pharisee, saying you, you, you, over and over, making sure that the man knows that these words are pointed directly at him.
These three stories all turn on issues of human failure and Divine Forgiveness.

The Great David; a man after God’s own heart, the scriptures call him; gets himself all tangled up in a sorry mess of adultery and murder. It sounds more like something from the Jerry Springer Show than the pages of the Bible.

In Galatians, Paul tells how Cephas, the great Peter, fell victim to peer pressure and acted like a hypocrite, treating the Gentiles one way when there are no Jews around but Paul; but changing his tune when there are Observant Jews watching.

In the Gospel, Jesus is invited to dine at the home of one Simon, a Pharisee, that is, a Jewish person who is highly particular about following the Jewish religious rules and regulations, a person for whom purity in relation to God was most important.

Now Simon the Pharisee was interested in Jesus; he had heard about this self-taught country preacher and faith healer and he was intrigued and curious, but also skeptical and dismissive.

The word had gotten out that Jesus was there, at Simon’s house and people had begun to gather nearby. The dinner itself was probably outdoors, on the patio, in the backyard. It was a simple matter for uninvited guests to edge their way into the fringes of the banquet crowd. They too were intrigued and curious; they wanted to see Jesus; they wanted to hear him say something unusual, they hoped he might perform a miracle.

Suddenly a woman, traditionally, a woman of the street, a woman of the night, a working girl, but all the text tells us is that she was a “sinner”; this woman pushed herself through the crowd to Jesus.

She came to where he reclined at table, she stretched herself out at his feet, she covered them with oil, she bathed them with her tears, she dried them with her hair.
And, of course, all this sensuality, all this sexiness, all this touching was too much for Simon, who would never touch any woman but his wife, much less a woman like this, a sinner, a woman of ill-repute.

HOW COULD YOU? Simon snarled to himself, HOW COULD YOU, A RABBI, ALLOW THIS, THIS, THIS WOMAN TO TOUCH YOU? Much less all this bathing and oiling and wiping and kissing?

There are some commentators who find it extraordinary that Jesus was able to know what Simon was thinking. C’mon now. I mean, if looks could kill, the one Simon gave Jesus would have wiped out a neighborhood. You didn’t have to be divine to know what Simon was thinking. It was written all over his face.

Jesus looked at Simon and must have chuckled a little to himself as he told a story that put Simon in his place. Two men owed the loan shark money. One owed $500, the other $50. Neither could pay. The shark forgave the debt of both. Who will love him more, Simon, who will have more gratitude, more devotion? Of course Simon said the one who was forgiven much.

Jesus then calmly pointed out to Simon that the woman had simply done for him, for Jesus, what Simon himself, as the host, SHOULD have done.

She was not a good woman and she knew it. She knew she needed a lot of love and forgiveness. Unlike Simon, she had no lifetime of doing the right thing to cling to, she knew she was in trouble and needed help.

When she heard Jesus tell of repentance and acceptance into the Kingdom of God, when she heard his stories of love and forgiveness, when she saw him touch the untouchable and love the unlovely; it struck a chord deep within her soul. She really heard his words, not as ideas but as truth; not as religious concepts but as spiritual realities.

She really heard it and believed it and knew herself to be loved and forgiven by God. Only one who knew that she had been forgiven much could respond with such great gratitude and love.

Simon couldn’t hear it because he didn’t think it applied to him. My mother tells a story from the time she only had three children and I was the “baby.” I was about three. We had the “red measles.” Mama says the old family doctor saw us in the examining room, which was the front half of his house in Ararat, VA. He grunted a few times, and then prepared his needle. When I saw him come at us with that needle, I started yelling out while holding up two fingers, “Just them two’s sick. Just them two’s sick!”

Not me, Jesus. What you’re saying doesn’t apply to me. I’m not sick. I’m not a sinner. I don’t have hurt and pain and incompleteness. I’m a good person. What you’re saying applies to other people, not to me. That’s what Simon thought. Until Nathan pointed the finger at him, and shouted out Thou art the man, that’s what King David thought. Until Paul confronted him, that’s what Peter thought. Not me Lord. Only them people are sick. Not me. Go save the Chinese Communists and leave me alone.

Our capacity to forgive others comes only when we recognize how very much we have been forgiven by God.

Our capacity to love others comes only when we realize how very much we have been loved by God.

Our capacity to live fully comes only when we realize how very much Christ living in us is what true life is.

This woman, this sinner, this one who washed Jesus’ feet; she loved much because she was aware of her need and of God’s healing. She loved much because she knew she was much loved.

We too have been much loved and much forgiven. It is our duty, it our calling, it is most of all, our extreme pleasure, To spread into all the world, the love and forgiveness of God, and the joy to be found in Jesus.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Pentecost 2: June 10, 2007

PENTECOST 2 June 10, 2007
TEXTS: I Kings 17:17-24, Luke 7:11-17 TITLE: He Had Compassion
My Grandpa Reid Chilton was a great storyteller. A lot of his stories were about his Uncle Green Arrington, a farmer and Primitive Baptist preacher up in Surry County. Grandpa told a story once that went like this:

I recollect once, when I was living with Uncle Green Arrington that this lady died that had real bad arthritis, you know like your Grandma’s got, the kind that doubles you up. Well, we didn’t have no undertaker around, so they just laid her out in a pine box and tied her down with twine and had the funeral the next day with Uncle Green preaching.

Now Uncle Green, he was mighty big on that Second Coming stuff, you know the trumpets blowing and the dead rising up out of their graves and floating off into the sky to meet Jesus. I never did put much stock in it myself, but Uncle Green was big on it.

Anyway, he was preaching this woman’s funeral, over to the Holiness Church in Ararat, and he was getting pretty hot about the trumpets blowing and bodies coming up out of the ground and all, when this young’un who was waiting out side for his folks went up to this car there, first car this child had ever seen, and it had one of them horns on it like you squeeze and it blares out, and the boy squeezed it and it blared out real loud and about that time the corpse’ strings broke and that woman sat right up in the coffin and well, there was general mayhem in that church after that, people running for the door and diving out the windows, and some crying out their sins, which most of their neighbors were surprised to hear about, especially right there in the HOLINESS church.

About that time in the story, grandpa would stop and look at me and wink and say, “Which just goes to show that folk ain’t no where near as anxious to meet Jesus as they say they are.”

Two of today’s Scripture lessons deal with miraculous returns from the dead, with unbelievable, incredible stories of corpses being brought back to life through the power of God. Each story has a widow, an only son, and an act of compassion by a man of God.

It is difficult to know what to make of such stories. While Grandpa’s story was just that, a story, and the Elijah text is a bit open-ended, never really saying the young man was dead, only that “the breath had gone out of him,” Luke is very clear and straight-forward: the man was dead. So dead, in fact, that the people were on their way out of the city to bury him. Coming out of the gates of the town, the body is preceded by a group of professional mourners, playing on cymbals and wailing like Banshees.

Jesus and his followers would have been expected to step aside, to clear the way, like we pull off the road when we meet a funeral procession, one last act of respect for the dead and for those who mourn them. But they didn’t, because something happened inside of Jesus, something Luke tells us about in a few spare words:
He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; . . .when the Lord saw her, He had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

A sonless widow in First Century Palestine was very likely doomed to a life of poverty. With no man to provide for her and no social security or life insurance or inheritance or employability she was like Blanch Dubose in A Streetcar Named Desire; dependent upon the kindness of strangers. Her future looked desperate, perhaps hopeless.


and so Jesus reached out and breaking a religious and societal rule, and shocking all those around, he touched the funeral bier, the platform on which the dead man was being carried.

Then he broke the rules of science and common sense and commanded the young man to get up, to come to life, to return from the dead; and miracle of miracles, he did.

After Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit drove him into the Wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. One of those temptations was to feed the world by turning stone into bread. There in the wilderness, Jesus realized that fixing every human hurt was not to be his mission; indeed that miracle working and signs and wonders would be a diversion from his primary calling; which was to proclaim the Kingdom of God. So, he purposely held in his power, restrained himself.

Throughout his ministry opportunities for healings came to Jesus, but he didn’t go looking for them. Every time he worked a miracle it happened because of those three little words:


It’s interesting to me how many people don’t believe that, don’t believe that God is love, that God is forgiving and kind and merciful. Too many people in the world believe that God is anxious to send us all to Hell, that God has plans to send Holy Warriors to Earth in to wipe out the evil doers in a grand final battle. And if you don’t think a lot of people believe that, check out the popularity of the Left Behind series of novels.

In the story about Elijah, the woman turns on the prophet with the assumption that God has come to her house with judgment and punishment:

Verse 18: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!”

In the Gospel lesson, when Jesus worked his miracle, the immediate response of the crowd is FEAR, like the people in grandpa’s story who, when the thing they had prayed for and preached about happened, fled in terror and distress.
That HE HAD COMPASSION, is the most important thing we can say about Jesus, and about God. In the midst of a world in which everyone is afraid of their own shadows, and, if they believe in God at all they believe God to be either remote and uncaring, or cruel and vindictive; we in the church have been called to witness to the fact that HE HAD COMPASSION.

Brothers and Sisters, we live today in a world full of fear and war. We are afraid of rising gas prices, we are afraid of failing health care systems, we are afraid of immigration and disease and forest fires and drought and drugs, and, and, and . . .
It has been a long time since I have seen this country, and indeed the world, so depressed and sad and frightened and on edge about the future.

And into this bog of sadness and sorrow, we the church are called to imitate our Lord and find ways to break into the cycle of fear and violence with words and acts of hope and assurance, words and acts of compassion and healing.

Now, that is a mighty tall order isn’t it? What can one little church do? What can one little Christian do? In the face of all this hurt and pain, who am I? Those must have been the sorts of questions a little Albanian nun asked herself over 50 years ago when she found herself in Calcutta, one of the worst and most hopeless places in the world.

And what she decided to do was to do what Jesus did in our story, she had compassion on the one right in front of her. She dealt with the need she was given and did what she could.

She began to pick up the dying beggars off the streets of Calcutta and to give them a decent place to die. That was it.

She washed their wounds and their bottoms, she cleaned their sheets and their latrines. She fed them, and bathed them and turned them on their pallets when no one else would touch them. She had compassion, one dying person at a time.

We are called to have compassion, to preach compassion, to teach compassion, to live compassion. We are called to break whatever rules and taboos and cultural barriers necessary to let the world know that God is not harsh, God is not out to get them, God is not punishing them for their sins, God is Love, God is steadfast, everlasting, never-ending love. God is reaching out into the midst of our fear of death with an offer of life, of life eternal.


He had compassion then, and he has compassion now.

Open up your hearts.

Let God love you.

Open up your arms.

And show God’s love to the world. AMEN AND AMEN.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

June 3, 2007: Holy Trinity; Friedens Homecoming

This is pretty late because I have been at Synod Assembly, and because tomorrow is Friedens' Annual Homecoming Service. For those unfamiliar with this Southern, Rural church Custom it is pretty much a Family Reunion of all those who grew up in the church and moved away with those who grew up and never left with those of us who are just here now participating. It also has the feel of a Celebration fo the church's history, etc. Huge worship service and potluck dinner. And, because I'm the new pastor, I'm the "guest" preacher this year. So here's the sermon, but it's pretty localized in some ways. Peace, Delmo

Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
Title: God’s Covenant of Grace
Week before last I went to Nashville for a Conference called the Festival of Homiletics. Homiletics is the technical/academic term for preaching. Most Protestants refer to what I doing right now as a sermon. Catholics, Episcopalians and some Lutherans call it a homily. I asked my preaching professor at Duke what the difference between a sermon and a homily was and he said, “About 10 minutes.” That’s why I preach homilies on Communion Sundays and Sermons the rest of the time.
Anyway, when I was in Nashville, I heard Dr. James Forbes preach. Forbes is Pastor of the Riverside Church in New York, and grew up in eastern North Carolina, the son of the Bishop of a small Pentecostal group called the United Holy Church of America, Inc. Dr. Forbes came to Duke while I was a student there and taught a special short course on preaching. He taught us that in preaching one has to take last things first. That is to say, you have to figure out where you want to end up in order to take people there.
He had us compose a one or two sentence summary of the POINT of the sermon before we started writing the rest of it. So here goes, last things first. Here’s the point:
This is the golden thread, the red line, the recurring theme, the constant refrain, that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. God has chosen us to be God’s beloved people. God has spoken this relationship into being, God is love and has told us both that we are loved and that we are to love one another.
I first became aware of the idea of covenants when I was a little boy reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In the second chapter, entitles, “Our Gang’s Dark Oath,” Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and some of the other boys sneak off in the night to a cave by the Mississippi River where by candlelight they follow foolish rituals Tom Sawyer had gotten from reading adventure novels and they signed a pact in blood to keep the existence and name and ceremonies of the club secret.
After I read that, I gathered my little brother, two cousins and a neighbor boy in the old chicken house; where we stripped to the waist and covered ourselves with war paint and signed a covenant in blood. (Well actually, we used red magic marker, I can’t stand the sight of blood.) We also put a sign on the door that said, NO GIRLS ALOUD, spelled A-L-O-U-D.
The Bible is full of Covenants, each of which is a variation on God’s original I WILL BE YOUR GOD AND YOU WILL BE MY PEOPLE covenant. It began in Genesis, when God spoke the world into existence, God said, LET THERE BE LIGHT, and there was light. God said,
And because God said it, it happened.
God spoke Adam and Eve into existence, and then God spoke the First Covenant, the first agreement of love, into being. God gave them the run of the Garden, with one condition, a condition which they broke when they ate of the tree of the knowledge of God and Evil.
Covenants run through the Old Testament. God proclaims covenants with Noah and Abraham and Moses. The prophets continually remind the people of their Covenants, their agreements with God, and God’s agreement with them.
And the people continually imitate Adam and Eve and break the covenants. And God continually punishes, then forgives, then renews the Covenant of Grace, the Agreement of Love.
One of the great, but seldom read, books of the Bible is a parable, a short story, about the making and breaking of covenants. It is the book of HOSEA.
Hosea is a prophet, a preacher, a man of God, who does a very strange thing. He marries a prostitute named Gomer. You will not be surprised to learn that Gomer is not a particularly good or faithful wife. She really doesn’t get this marriage thing; especially the part about one woman /ONE MAN! She runs around on Hosea constantly.
And Hosea always forgives her and takes her back. This is not intended as instruction on being a long-suffering, emotionally abused spouse. It is a story about our unfaithfulness to God, about our failure to keep up our end of our Covenant of Grace with God, and about how God continues to love us in spite of our failures.
I knew a Methodist Minister in the Nashville area who got moved one year at Annual Conference. (That’s what they say, “GOT moved”, because the Bishop tells them to move, they have no real choice.) He was moved from a church he loved to a church he didn’t particularly care for, and which did not particularly care for him.
I used to see him occasionally at the Cokesbury store downtown, and every time I saw him he was griping about the church. (Ya’ll don’t gripe about the preacher do you? Of course not!) Anyway, one time I saw him he was happy and smiling and had a spring in his step, so I said, “Things must be better at the church.” He said, “Not really, they’re still the same mean old bunch, but I’ve just gotten reconciled to their sorriness!”
Well, over the years, God has put up with a lot of sorriness from the human race, but instead of just resigning himself to our constant state of sinfulness, God decided it was time for a New Covenant, a New Testament, a New Relationship.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis for this New Covenant of Grace, this New Agreement of Love , signed in the Blood of the Cross. Paul says in our Second Reading from Romans:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand . . .
And from the time that Jesus came forth from the tomb and the Holy Spirit descended upon the gathered people of God in the Upper Room, God’s people have bound themselves to each other in Covenant Communities called Churches. They have responded to God’s New Covenant by saying to one another and God,
We accept God’s invitation and call to be the people of God. Before God and this company, we bind ourselves together as children of God, pledged to love and serve God, to love and serve one another and most especially to love and serve the world.
Now, I know of NO Christian Religious Community which has ever been able to perfectly keep and obey this Covenant. I also know of no Christian Religious Community which does not base its life together on some such agreement.
I grew up going to Slate Mountain Missionary Baptist Church. When I heard the word Homecoming, that’s the first place I think about. It was a simple one room building, cinder block painted white. Inside it had plain white walls, clear glass windows, bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling.
In the front there was a pulpit, a communion table, a piano and three large wooden chairs. (I thought they were for the Father, the Son and The Holy Spirit. Turns out they were for the Preacher, the Deacon and the Song Leader.)
There was only one decoration on the walls. Behind the pulpit, above the taller middle chair, inside a wooden frame and covered with glass, hung what looked like a large version of the Declaration of Independence. It was the Church Covenant, first signed by the founding members in 1903 when they started the church. Using a lot of religious words, it basically said:
Because God has loved us, we bind ourselves together as a community of love in a Covenant of Grace. We are called to be a place where everyone is loved because they are a child of God. To attain this end, we pledge our prayers, our possessions and our presence to Almighty God and to each other.
Some 262 years ago, a group of German immigrants found their way from the war-ravaged lands along the Rhine River across the Atlantic to Pennsylvania and then down the Great Wagon Road across Maryland and Virginia to this very spot. They came more for economic and political opportunities than for religious reasons, but that does not mean that their faith was not important to them.
Though they were used to a world in which the State Church had existed for hundreds of year, and where University educated ministers were lined up waiting for a call; they adapted to their circumstance of being in a new land with no state church and no preachers.
They banded together in Communities of Lutherans, electing lay elders and deacons to care for their spiritual and practical needs, and though we have no copy of it, we can be sure they wrote themselves a Covenant of Grace with each other, committing themselves to the worship of God, the Proclamation of the Gospel, the Celebration of the Sacraments and the love and care of one another.
They had no building, no organ, no property, no Sunday School rooms or Fellowship Hall or Church Office. What they did have was a promise from God, I WILL BE YOUR GOD, AND YOU WILL BE MY PEOPLE.
Believing God’s promise, they bound themselves together as a Covenant Community of Grace. And everything we see around us today, not just the buildings but the ongoing community which has sustained 262 years of mission and ministry, was built on that promise and from that covenant.
So, I started this sermon with the question, “How do we go about the task of being God’s people?”
And the answer is: Believing God’s promise, we covenant together to seek and follow God’s Will, to listen to and obey God’s Word and to love and care for God’s People.
I invite you today to renew your commitment to that covenant, God’s Covenant of Grace, revealing God’s undying love for each and every one of us. Amen and amen.