God on the sidelines


God on the sidelines

Lectionary blog for Nov. 18, 2012
25th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25;
Psalm 16; Mark 13:1-8

Morgan Wooten was a basketball coach. He coached at DeMatha High School in the Washington, D.C., area. His teams won 1,274 games while losing only 192 times. He was considered by everyone who knew him to be one of the great ones. Well, everyone except his grandson.

Wooten is one of only three high school coaches in the Basketball Hall of Fame. At his induction, he told a story about his grandson's first day of school. The teacher asked Nick, "What's your favorite sport?" "Baseball," he said. The teacher knew who Nick's grandfather was. She was surprised, "Not basketball?” Nick said, "Nope. I don't know anybody who knows anything about basketball.”

The teacher was even more surprised, "But Nick, a lot of people think your Grandfather Wooten knows a lot about basketball." Nick snorted and laughed, "Oh no! He doesn’t know anything about basketball. I go to all his games and he never gets to play."

Sometimes we see God the way Nick saw his grandfather. Because we see the game of life going on and have a hard time seeing the hand of God anywhere in it, we think, "God knows nothing about it," or "God cares nothing about it," or "God can't do anything about it," because, after all, we never see God get in the game.

The Scripture readings today talk about the art of having faith in a world gone mad, of seeing God's hand in the wild whirlwind of life around us. Each is an example of apocalyptic literature. Though many use these types of writings to try to make predictions about the future and to frighten people in the present, that is not what these Bible readings are about. They are intended to bring us reassurance of God's love when we go through hard times and God seems to be very far away.

Daniel was written at a time when the Hebrew people and the Jewish faith were in a tough spot. They were in exile, they were oppressed, they were persecuted. Daniel was written to give hope to a people who had lost all hope, to give faith to those who were losing touch with God.

Chapter 13 of Mark's Gospel was written about 30 years after the death of Jesus, to the early Christians, a community of faith that was also in a tough spot. They were a people who were fearful and hesitant about the future. These words were written to give them hope and faith in the God of the future.

Hebrews was written to the Jewish Christian community in Rome. They were struggling with the Romans on the one hand and their Jewish brothers and sisters on the other. They needed a word of hope in a time of distress.

Each of these communities was like Morgan Wooten's grandson. They saw the activity in front of them, but they couldn't see the hand of the one running the show, and so they were afraid, they were anxious, they were losing hope.

Have you ever seen the Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks skit called "The 2,000-year-old Man"? Reiner plays a TV reporter and Brooks plays, well, a 2,000-year-old man.

Newsman: "Well, did you worship God 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? -- PLEASE, PHIL, NO! PLEASE, PHIL, NO!"
Newsman: "OK. 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 lightning struck and killed Phil. We all gathered around and stared at Phil awhile and then we realized: There's something bigger than Phil."

That is the ultimate message of apocalyptic literature: There’s something bigger than Phil; there's something bigger than the bad stuff that happens in our lives. And that something bigger is God. That something bigger is faith in God's tomorrow overcoming our yesterdays and todays.

That something bigger is the faith that God is indeed very much in the game. God is involved in all our pain and sorrow, our suffering and disappointment. God is bigger, much bigger than all those things that frighten and haunt us.

Almost every congregation sings the hymn "Now Thank We All Our God" around Thanksgiving. As you sing it this year, reflect upon this: Martin Rinkhart, a pastor, wrote that hymn in the early 1600s, in the midst of the Thirty Years War. About 6,000 to 8,000 people in his village and territory died in an epidemic, including the other two clergymen in town. For weeks at a time he buried as many as 50 people a day, including his own wife and children.

Either Rinkhart was heartless and a bit crazy, or he was in touch with a deep, deep spiritual truth about a God whose promises are ever sure and whose love never fails. If Rinkhart was right, if our Bible readings are telling us the truth -- that in the midst of this world's trouble and sorrow, pain and disappointment we can hold fast to the assurance of God's concern and involvement in our lives -- what are we to do? How are we called to live our lives?

There's a fascinating line in our Hebrews lesson, verse 24: "And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds," Usually the word provoke is used in a negative sense; as in "Honest officer, I didn't aim to hit him, but he, he provoked me!" But here it is used positively, as encouragement, as stirring up, as prodding and pushing and being active in love.

We are called into a world full of scared, lonely, hurting people, and we are called to provoke one another into acts of love and works of mercy, into commitments to compassion, into doing the right thing for all the right reasons. We are called to be the hand of God in the world, touching all with the gentle and healing caress of divine love.

Amen and amen.

Talk back:

• Can you think of a way to "provoke" someone to love?
• Do you remember a time where you saw God as a coach rather than a player?


Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

You might also want to read:

Be still and know that I am God
Spreading God's love
Yes, Dad, God is with us

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