The Second Sunday in Advent, Year A

For December 4, 2016

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And a brand new book by Delmer Chilton, with John Fairless, The Gospel According to Aunt Mildred: Stories of Family and Faith  has already hit the shelf ( to purchase the paperback, click here) and by December 8 (Kindle version.)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One day in Nashville I went to the YMCA to pick up my son. As I approached the entrance, a very angry mother barged out the door followed by a girl of about four and a boy about seven. The boy was saying, “I told you I was sorry.” Suddenly his mother stopped, and turned, and bent down, and looked him in the eye and said, hissing between her teeth, “Sorry doesn’t get it anymore. I want you to stop doing it!”

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. 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.

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 – a) being sorry you’re going the wrong way, and b) turning around and going in the right direction.

None of us goes the wrong way on purpose. Nobody in Chicago would go out and get on the interstate highway and intentionally head east with the goal of going to San Francisco; that would be silly. And if, when you realize you’re going toward New York when you want to go to the Bay area, you just shrug and say “Oh well, I’m only human,” and then you cry and gnash your teeth about the fact that you are getting farther and farther from your goal, while still purposely going the wrong way, well, that would simply 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, the moral way to go. And if we then realize that we’re in the wrong; to confess without amendment of life, without changing our ways, would be as inane as continuing on to New York, all the while 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 must come 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. Mama called to me from the back-porch. She sent me into the field with a quart jar full of ice water for Daddy. As I started out across the field, Daddy stopped the tractor and got off and started yelling at me. “STOP! STOP! GO BACK! GO AROUND! STOP!”

Now, even as a four-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 stood in the field 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 was 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 Savior who are calling us to turn from the path of self-destruction. John’s call to repent is a call to look to our lives and change direction, so that when Christ comes, we will be ready.

Amen and Amen

The First Sunday in Advent, Year A

For November 27, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

WHEW!

I don’t know about you but, now that Thanksgiving is over, I’m ready for some Christmas.

It’s been a tough year. We’ve had some nasty, nasty politics. There has been a lot of racial conflict;

an uptick in violence; violence related to racial conflict; war, war, and more war; terrorism and fear of terrorism; a difficult economy; bad weather.

I live in western North Carolina – we have been ravaged with forest fires, one of which raged less than 20 miles from my house. And on the home front, we’ve been fighting cancer. I could go on, but I won’t. I am so ready for some Christmas.

You know – sweet baby Jesus; kind, gentle, understanding Joseph; beautiful, meek Mary; Holy Family – all huddled up in the barn – poor but proud. There they are, surrounded by humble kings and worshipping shepherds; dumb but loving animals huddling nearby; choirs of angels singing; the whole world rejoicing; “JOY TO THE WORLD!” off-key and at the top of our lungs. Yep! Christmas! That’s what I need, right now. Some calming Good News.

But – that’s not what we heard in our Gospel lesson is it? “As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Lord.” The days of Noah? That can’t be good. A flood came and swept everything away. What’s going on here? This Gospel lesson is a startling reminder that God always refuses to play by our rules. While we yearn for the comfort of Christmas past, Advent calls us to anticipate the discomforting possibilities of Christmas future. Advent is the season of hope. It is a time when we are called to look to the future with confidence. It is a time to prepare ourselves for the new miracles God will work in our world today and tomorrow. It is a time to get ready for new movements the Sprit in our lives.

Jesus uses three images to help us come to grips with the suddenness and unpredictability of God’s activity in the world to come. First, he reminds us of the familiar story of Noah and the flood – pointing out how everyone but Noah and his family went about their normal business, ignoring God and godliness until it was too late. Second, he gives twin examples of how some will, in the midst of the normal daily-ness of their lives, be ready to drop everything and follow when “the Lord comes.” Third, he refers to the age-old experience of burglary, making the common-sense observation that if you know when the bad guys are coming you can be ready for them. But you don’t know when they’re coming – so you must be ready for them all the time.

That’s the way it is with God, Jesus says; you never know when the God-moment is going to show up in your life so you must be ready all the time. And this readiness is not a matter of hanging decorations, and baking cookies, and sending Christmas cards, and going to office parties. This readiness is primarily a nurtured tenderness in our hearts, a willingness to listen for God’s word and to go God’s way. To be ready for Christ to come into our lives, we must begin work beating our personal swords into plowshares and our private spears into pruning hooks. We must work at making peace in our families and in our congregations and in our workplaces and in our schools before we can make peace in our world. For us to be ready for Christ to come, we must lay aside all the works of darkness, we must put on the armor of light. We are called to examine our lives, repent of our sins, commit ourselves to acts of charity and goodness, fill our lives with hope and generosity.

All our texts today remind us that God is sneaky, that God makes appearances in our lives and in our world when and where we least expect it. God comes to us in unusual ways, through unlikely people, in unexpected places. 2000 years ago – it was a little baby, the child of an unwed mother, in a spare room, of the other side of nowhere.

Who knows who, or when, or where it will be next?

Could it be you? Now? Here?

Get Ready! Wake Up! God is coming!

Amen and amen.

The Reign of Christ (Christ, the King) for Year C (Proper 29)

For November 20, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Jesus, the supposed Son of God, Lord of Lord, King of Kings – was executed like a common criminal with a couple of petty criminals. Not very kingly, is it? And then, to add more indignity, more shame; the soldiers knelt at his feet while he was still alive. Not to worship, but to gamble for his clothes.

And the people mocked him, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.” It amused them to see this carpenter; this rustic preacher wrapped in purple, claiming to be the king of the Jews, the rightful king, the representative of God on earth. They knew what a real king looked like, and this was definitely not it. A real king had power and arrogance and a hint of cruelty, and this Jesus had none of that.

There it is, the crux of the matter for the people then, and if we’re honest, for people now, including many of us. We don’t want a suffering and dying God. We want a strong and powerful one. We want a Savior who can not only forgive our sins, but who will make us richer and prettier and more popular and help insure that all our plans work out for the best. Yes, we want a powerful savior, a helpful God, a conquering messiah, a king who conquers. The Scripture shows us a man who is not anything like what anyone believes a king should be; not then and not now.

A Lutheran pastor I knew had been chaplain in Vietnam. One night he 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. The chaplain said, “Look soldier, there’s nothing I can do to prevent you from getting killed on patrol tomorrow, there is no way I can promise you it won’t happen. There’s only one thing I can do. I’ll go with you.” (Personal story)

The chaplain walked into the jungle unarmed and unprotected to be with the soldier in his fearful world. That’s what Christ did for us, leaving the kingdom of heaven to live with us in the kingdom of this world; 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.”

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

Yes, we live in two worlds, and the struggle is to not 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 Jeremiah, and the Psalmist, the thief upon the cross, we may grab onto hope in the midst of desperate times!

Amen and amen.

Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 28)

For November 13, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

It was during Lent many years ago. I was the pastor of a very old church in rural North Carolina. On the wall of the apse, above the altar, there was a stained-glass window in the shape of a cross, lit by light bulbs. One Wednesday afternoon I was putzing around the altar getting things ready for mid-week service when I noticed that one of the bulbs illuminating the cross had gone out.  I resolved to change it, but, as often happens with me, I got distracted and forgot about it until the middle of the pre-service Lenten supper.  I excused myself and went across the parking lot to the church and then upstairs and down the Sunday School Hall and opening a little door into the back of the cross, I got down on my knees to change the bulb. This is when I looked through the stained glass and saw Seth. 

Seth wasn’t a bad kid; he was just six, and mischievous; he got into things. This night Seth had wandered over from the Fellowship Hall into the church and he was pulling the big, heavy pulpit chair over to the front of the altar. It was set for communion, with a plate full of wafers, a stack of trays, and a cup of wine already set out under the veil. Suddenly I realized what Seth was doing; he wanted to get a look at that table. I visualized him pulling everything down on his head, and falling out of the chair and getting hurt, etc. etc. So, without thinking, I barked out; “Seth, get down from there, you’re going to hurt yourself!” I will never forget the look of pure terror that washed over Seth’s face as he jerked his head up and looked into the face of Jesus staring down at him from above the altar. He started crying and yelling “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” and ran out of the room. I left what I was doing and followed Seth out of the Church, across the parking lot into the Fellowship Hall, where he was weeping into his grandmother’s large and welcoming lap. “Grandma, Grandma, Grandma; Jesus yelled at me. I want to go home NOW!”

Most of the time, I find church to be a pleasant and happy place. A place where, like Seth I am comfortable wandering around, a place where I feel safe and welcome and at home. But, every once in a while, church can become a frightening, indeed a scary place, a place I would just as soon not be. Like today while I was reading that Gospel lesson.

  That’s pretty scary stuff. All that talk about war and destruction and earthquakes and famines and pestilence and terror and persecution. Well, it scares me to death; and like Seth; I’m ready to go screaming out of the room, looking for my Grandma’s lap.

Before we go too far down this scary road, I think it important that we read this text carefully.

  What Jesus is getting at here is something we all know both from history and personal experience: the world is indeed a scary and dangerous place; full of danger, trouble and heartache. Jesus’ point throughout this text is to remind us where to look for our salvation; for grace, for hope, for love, when trouble inevitably comes.

We are not to look to big buildings and institutions, we are not to look to governments (nations and kingdoms) we are not to look to kings and governors and multinational corporations.

 All these things will fail you; indeed, will turn against you. When trouble comes, the one thing you can count on is God. 

Prof. Marty Saarinen taught at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC.
He frequently told the story his first call in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Pretty remote and rugged; then and now. Not too long after Pastor Marty got there he learned of an elderly couple who lived way back in the woods and who seldom got to church anymore and he resolved to go visit them. He borrowed a jeep and drove the paved road as far as it went, then he drove the dirt road as far as it went, then he drove along in two ruts as far as they went, then he drove along a creek bed as far as that went, then he parked the jeep, and climbed up a hill, and pushed through a bramble of wild bushes, and finally found a cabin with a tiny wisp of smoke wafting into the sky from the chimney.

Young Pastor Marty walked onto the porch and knocked on the door and waited, and waited and waited. He knocked again and waited some more. Eventually he heard a noise. The door opened and a little old man stared at Marty for a long time, then he recognized the collar and turned around to shout to his wife in her rocker: “Anna, God has not forgotten us!”

In our hectic, secular, modern world; in the midst of divisive political campaigns, wars, natural disasters, economic uncertainty, and all the other more mundane trials and tribulations of ordinary life; Jesus reminds us of God’s love, concern, and presence. We are called this day to remember that the one who loves us has not forgotten us, and to share that good news with all the “Annas” in our lives.

Amen and amen.

 

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All Saints Day/Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 27)

For November 6, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Mother Teresa, laboring all those years amongst the poor and dying in Calcutta.  Saint Francis, abandoning his riches to become a beggar for the poor.  Albert Schweitzer, leaving behind great careers as a world-renowned New Testament Scholar and Church organist to study medicine and go live in the jungle, serving those with no other hope of health care. A man in a small town in North Carolina, spending the last 15 years of his life tenderly taking care of his wife of over 60 years.  A woman in Nashville who, after her pastor husband died of cancer in his 40’s, raised her four children by giving music lessons and serving her church as organist/choir director/education director, and social conscience.  The list could on and on.

When I look back at “these saints,” both those I have known personally and those I have only heard or read about, I don’t feel very saintly myself. I feel like the little boy Lois Wilson wrote about meeting at her door on Halloween. He was about four and he was wearing a Superman outfit. He reached out his hand as he said trick or treat. Ms. Wilson couldn’t resist teasing him a bit, “Where’s your bag?” she said. He replied, “My Mom’s carrying it. It’s too heavy for me.”  Ms. Wilson smiled and said, “But you’re Superman!” He looked down at the S on his chest and looked back at Ms. Wilson and whispered, “Not really, these are just pajamas.”

Though the Scriptures tell us that because we’re Christians, we’re also saints; most of us don’t believe it. We look down at the S on our chest and then plead with God, “Not really, I’m only human.”

This is the great mystery of All Saints Day. We are indeed only human, but we are also “The saints who gather” at Such-and-Such church, as Paul put it in many of his letters. We are, Martin Luther said, saint and sinner at the same time. While we do not go around in Christian pajamas, with a big haloed S on our chest, we do have an invisible cross on our foreheads, put there at our baptism with the words; “Delmer Lowell Chilton, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever.”

Each of us has that mark on our lives; a mark which calls us forward into saintliness. We are called to continual efforts at living into our name as “child of God,” a baptized saint. And, we never quite make it. We are always aware of falling short, of not measuring up.

We are also always aware that the other people in our family seldom measure up either. Unfortunately, we are sometimes more aware of the failures of others that we are of our own. Someone sent me a little poem a few years ago. It’s one of those things that got tucked away in a file. I ran across it the other day;

“Oh, to live above, with Saints we love, Oh, that will be Glory.

Oh, to live below, with Saints we know, Well, that’s a different story!”

The struggle of the Christian life is to remember that we are saints despite our failures, and to remember that the other people in our church family are Saints as well, despite their imperfections.

I am a Southerner and this means I have been to many family reunions; those of the various families I am a member of, and those of church members who graciously invited the pastor along to their family reunion for some good food and fellowship.  One of the things I love about family reunions is that they are often the most grace-filled moments we share. It is a time when we look beyond the surface to see the mark of the family on everyone. More than once I’ve been told, “You sure do look like your mother.”  And I have also been reminded, “You must be a guest or an in-law; you don’t look like a Beaver.”

The church is the family of faith, and we all bear, to some degree, the mark of our family, the mark of Christ. Regulars and irregulars, the faithful and the wandering, the staunch believers and “barely hanging on to their faith by the skin of their teeth,” doubters, those close at hand and those who came from far off; all together in one place, celebrating and enjoying their relatedness to each other and to God.

Our invitation this All Saints Sunday is to remember our saintliness, our blessedness, our holiness; which is a gift from God, a gift we were given for the benefit of the world. It is also a day to remember the saintliness, the blessedness, the holiness of others. To remember that they too are the beloved Children of God and that we are to treat them that way.

Amen and Amen.

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

For October 30, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost. (Luke 19:10)

Have you ever been lost? I don’t mean just a little dislocated. Not “I know they live around here somewhere,” lost. I mean “really, truly” lost; “no real idea where you are and how to get to safety” lost; “afraid to move anymore, because to move might get you deeper and deeper in trouble” lost. Have you ever been that lost? I have and I will never forget it.

I was 8 years old and it was in the middle of the summer and we were at my Grandmother Hubbard’s cabin in the Appalachian Mountains. Grandma had ten children, and those ten children had lots of children, and because my mother was the youngest of the ten, my siblings and I were the youngest grandchildren.

On this day, the older cousins had all decided to going hiking, specifically to climb “Joe’s Knob,” a very high mountain some miles from her cabin. And the cousins had decided that “the little kids” were too young to go along. This did not sit well with me, and after a while I got myself a canteen of water and a peanut butter sandwich and snuck off to follow them. And I got lost. Completely, totally, “no idea which end is up” lost. And it was getting dark, and I was very much alone and farm from anything. This was deep woods, miles of nothing but trees and hills for miles in all directions.

Eventually I sat down on a log and just cried, and cried, and cried. I did not know what to do, or which way to go. I thought I was going to die out there – I really did.

Unlike me, Zacchaeus in our Gospel lesson doesn’t look lost, does he.? He’s got a very important job – he’s a “chief tax collector.” And he’s rich, very, very rich it would seem. He’s not very popular, not at all respected – otherwise people would let him through, let him see Jesus. But he is in an unpopular profession – legal but disreputable, like selling pornography or running a strip club or something like that.

So, there is a crowd on the streets of Jericho and Zacchaeus can’t see who it is that is causing all the commotion. Though we have learned the song that says “Zacchaeus was a wee, little man,” that might not be so. It could be that Jesus was the little man in this story. Both the Greek and the English translations allow for that understanding. Many in the early church read it that way as further confirmation that Jesus was not the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Rescuer, that most people expected. Rather than being a tall, strong, mighty warrior of God, maybe he was a short man, a “wee, little man,” who surprised everyone.

Either way, Zacchaeus could not see who was causing such a crowd in the streets, so he went ahead a bit and climbed up in a sycamore tree. Jesus got to that point and looked up into the tree and pronounced to Zacchaeus a word of Grace. “Hi there Zack, get on down out of that tree. I’m staying at your house tonight.”

I imagine Zacchaeus being so startled by this that he almost fell out of the tree. He knows who he is, he knows that he is a bad man, an immoral person, a traitor to his people. He has no illusions about himself. And yet this rabbi, this prophet, this faith-healer, this unique and holy man, has blessed him. By going to his house, Jesus has announced to Zacchaeus and to the world that he accepts and loves Zacchaeus. And Zack could not be more thrilled. He was “happy to welcome him.”

Zacchaeus was happy, his neighbors were not. Again with the judgement and criticism of Jesus, “He has gone to eat with one who is a sinner.” Over, and over, and over again we see this is the gospels. Jesus reaches out in love and acceptance to someone whom the regular “good people” of society would not be seen dead in the presence of – and the regular “good people” get all mad about it. Like it’s any of their business in the first place who Jesus hangs out with. They don’t care that Zacchaeus is lost, they don’t care that his life and his life choices have cut him loose – not only from his God but also from his people. Even though he, like them, is a son of Abraham, a person of the Covenant, a member of the Jewish community – he does not feel like it and they do not treat him like it. He has had everything he wanted and nothing he needed. He is a person without a place, a people, or a purpose.

And Jesus changed all that by stopping underneath the sycamore tree and calling Zacchaeus by name. Because, even though Zack did not know Jesus; Jesus knew Zack. And Jesus knows us. And Jesus knows those around us who feel themselves cut-off from God and from God’s people. Jesus knows who we are better than we know ourselves and Jesus loves us more and better than we love ourselves. Jesus is “the Son of Man” who has come into our midst to seek us and save us and show us the way to love one another, the way to come home. Just as Zacchaeus responded to the unexpected love of God by giving to others and making reparations for his sins, we are called to lived changed lives full of grace for others in response to the grace we have received.

I did, by the way, find my way out of those woods. Or rather someone came to seek and save a lost little boy. As I sank down in despair beside my log, grasping my empty canteen in my hand as a weapon to fend off critters – I first heard a voice and then I saw a light. I heard my Daddy call my name; over and over and over again. And then I saw a flashlight bobbing up and down through the woods, coming my way. And I stood and shouted “Over here, over here!” And in that moment, I knew what it felt like to be saved.

Amen and amen.

 

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Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 25)

For October 23, 2016

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Life, alas, has intervened in the fate of the Lec Lab Live podcast again. Between us, we have had four family medical procedures in the past week, and just enough time to get all our “normal” stuff done. As best as we can tell, we’ll be back next week.

Remember, you can use the “Search” feature to the left to look for previous commentary and sermons on any of the lectionary scriptures on any day of the three-year cycle!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I like to check out a variety of English translations of the Bible when I first read through the lessons for Sunday. Sometimes it helps me get a fresh perspective on something I’ve read many times before. This week, it made me sit up and think. In Psalm 84, verse 6 we have the words, “those who go through the balsam valley.” “What is a balsam valley?” I thought. So I tried the old Revised Standard Version: it says “the valley of Baca.” So does the King James, the Common English Bible and the English Standard Bible. But what’s a Baca. This is getting me nowhere. So I dug deeper, into the original language. Turns out it’s an obscure Hebrew word that probably means “the valley of the weeper.”

What an image! “The valley of the weeper.” A place of sadness and spiritual dryness. A place where one feels the pain of being separate from others, from one’s better self, from God. A place to weep bitter tears of contrition and remorse.

It is in a personal “valley of the weeper” that we find the tax collector in today’s Gospel lesson. We can’t know why he is standing apart from the rest of the community, why he beats his chest, why he hangs his head and chokes out a sobbing confession of sinfulness and sorrow. But he does.

Part of it is that to be a tax collector at that time and that place was to make one’s money cheating other people, or at least strong arming them. A tax collector was at the bottom of the Roman Empire’s exploitation scheme. The Emperor made financial demands of the Governors and kings under him; they in turn made financial demands of regional officials, and so it went down the line to the tax collector, who was given a certain amount he had to collect and turn in. anything he got above that was his salary. It was a system that led inevitably to corruption and resentment. So perhaps he had woken up to the evil of which he was a part. Not just the evil of his own personal actions in coercing money from others, but the evil of participating in a system of governance that abused and oppressed his own people.

And perhaps he was confessing the greed and avarice that had pulled him further and further away from his God and his own true self as a person of faith and morality. So perhaps he woke up one day with the realization of what he had done and of who he had become – or perhaps it was a gradual realization over time, and he had been struggling with this confession for a while, working up his nerve to come into a holy place before a holy God and admit his sorrow and his sorry-ness. And so he stands apart, in his own private little valley of Baca, valley of the weeper, and sobs out his misery and remorse.

And standing across the room, as far from him as he can get, there is a man in the first century equivalent of a Brooks Brothers suit. He looks over his designer glasses at the tax collector, he straightens his silk tie and pulls his cuff-linked collars straight, rolls his eyes and throws his head back as he looks up to heaven and begins to speak, “O God, thank you for making me such a fine fellow, with such a fine character and such a fine life. I especially thank you that I am not like one of the little, insignificant people; especially not like that awful tax collector over there. Your Humble Servant, George M. Farasee, Esquire.” Or something like that.

Luke ends the story there telling us that the tax collector went to his home “justified.” That is, he went home right with God and at peace with himself. He came through the valley of Baca, of weeping and sorrow and found there springs of God’s mercy and pools of God’s love. He found his soul washed and cleansed and made right and ready to go forward. On the other hand, the Pharisee walked away empty handed. Or more correctly, empty-hearted. His prayer left no room for God to come in; it was full of self, indeed the Pharisee pretty much addressed it to himself.

The question for us today is; “Who am I in this story?” Am I the repentant sinner or the self-righteous Pharisee? I suspect that most of us, most of the time, are a little bit of both. As Dr. Luther said, we’re all saint and sinner at the same time.

All of us have a little bit of Pharisee in us. We want to think that we are good people doing good things. And most of the time we are. And all of us look with contempt on some other people sometimes. It’s a part of being human. As one of my country preacher mentors told me once, “Son, if people was perfect they wouldn’t need you or Jesus.”

And all of us have taken a trip or two through the valley of Baca, the place of sorrow and remorse. All of us have those dark places and dark times we’d rather not admit to or revisit.

And yet we must; because we are pilgrims and the only highway to Zion goes that way. The only route to Christ leads by the foot of the cross, his and ours.

And so we come to this place on this day to pray, to open up our hearts and lives to the one who already knows all there is to know about us. So we stand, not apart but together; and first we bow our heads and then we lift our hearts, knowing that our God loves us with a perfect love and sends us out to lead other pilgrims through the valley of Baca to the spring of God’s grace.

Amen and amen.

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 24)

For October 16, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Our gospel lesson about the widow pestering the judge reminds me of the TV show “Big Bang Theory.” It’s about a group of socially inept scientists and their friends. Like all sit-coms, it has several running gags. My favorite is the way Sheldon knocks on his neighbor’s door.

Sheldon doesn’t just go to the door and knock, then wait for Penny to answer. No, Sheldon goes to the door and knocks, hard and fast, several times. Then he says “Penny!” Then he knocks some more: Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” On and on and on until Penny wearily answers the door. Penny doesn’t answer the door because she wants to see Sheldon. Far from it. Penny answers the door so that he will stop knocking.

In the parable, Jesus has set for us a scene in which a poor, helpless person has nowhere else to turn but to a judge. And the judge does not seem to care about her. The only one who can help her is totally unwilling. She has no money to bribe him, no power to coerce him, no important relatives to influence him; what is she to do?

Well she has two choices:  1) she can quit, give up, crawl away in despair and frustration. Or 2) she can continue to beat upon his door, accost him in the streets, stand in his yard with a sign demanding justice, tell her neighbors and friends about his unwillingness to help; in short

– she can refuse to go away. Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!”

And it worked. In verse 5 the judge says ” . . .because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  The judge gives her what she wants so she will go away. He is tired of her calling his name and beating on his door. He wants to get rid of her. But why does Jesus say this is like our need to pray always and not lose heart? Does God “grant us justice,” simply to get rid of us? Or because we disturb the divine repose? Or to avoid embarrassment? How is God like the unfair judge?

Jesus’ point is tied to the fact God works on a different time schedule than we do and therefore it is easy for us to get discouraged if our prayers seems never seem to be answered, if the “Son of Man” appears unlikely ever to come. This story isn’t really about courtrooms and judges and poor widows; it is about persistence in prayer and faithfulness in living. This a story about not losing faith in the face of difficult times.

Because, for most of us, there does come a time when it feels as though our prayers are ascending no higher than the ceiling. Writer and Professor C.S. Lewis, the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” among many other things, wrote eloquently and honestly about his feeling abandoned and left alone by God after the death of his wife:

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy,

so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” (“A Grief Observed” pp.2,3)

Yet, despite feeling abandoned by the Holy One, somehow Lewis persisted in praying and believing, trusting and relying on God. Eventually, he came to be at peace with God and with the loss of his wife – not pleased, but at peace.

And eventually he could say about prayer, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”

That running joke on “The Big Bang” theory doesn’t always turn out the same way because the reason Sheldon is banging on Penny’s door is always different. In the midst of the humor there is the underlying fact the Penny genuinely cares about Sheldon, despite how annoying he can be. She listens to his request, which is usually somewhat bizarre, tells him no and closes the door. But Sheldon does not give up. Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” “No, Sheldon!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “NO! Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Somewhere along the way, Penny finds a way to help Sheldon with his problem, to help him resolve whatever dilemma is driving him, and her, to distraction. And most of the time – the answer comes from Sheldon, not from her.

So it is with us. As Lewis said. “Prayer doesn’t change God – it changes me.” We are called to persist in prayer, “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable,” (2 Timothy 4:2), we are encouraged to struggle with our needs and with our God, employing “the utmost patience,” (2 Timothy 4:2), like Jacob in his all night wrestling match with the Holy One.

It is in those moments of deepest need and darkest difficulty that our illusions about our self-sufficiency and our presumed ability to make it through life unscathed and on our own are wiped away; and we discover our need, our trust, indeed our faith, in the love God shown to us in the cross of Christ. We will not come through such times unhurt and unafraid, but we will emerge from them with a deeper faith, with a kinder heart, and with arms opened wide to embrace a hurting world with a gentler love.

Amen and amen

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 23)

For October 9, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

We have before us today two interesting stories: the story of Namaan and the story of the ten lepers.
Both are stories about people healed of a skin disease. Both are stories in which main characters are outsiders, aliens, foreigners. Both are stories about trusting God in our journey of faith.

Namaan was a powerful and important man with a problem. He was a leper who desperately wanted to be healed, but no one in his country could help him. Namaan had an Israeli slave who told his wife that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure Leprosy. Namaan’s wife told her husband who goes to see the king, prompting the king to write a letter to the king of Israel. The letter says, in short, “This is Namaan. Cure him of leprosy.”

Well, the king started tearing his clothes, which was the biblical equivalent of throwing things. He said, “This is impossible. I’m not God. What is he trying to do, start a war, pick a quarrel with me?”
At this point the man of God, the prophet Elisha entered the scene. He sent a messenger to the king, with a very pointed question: “Why have you torn your clothes?” In other words, “ Why are you so upset?” The answer is simple; the king is so fixated with what he cannot do that he was lost sight of what God can do.

When we look at the world and its troubles; when we survey our personal lives that are so often hindered with difficult relationships and situations; when we look at the size of our problems and the smallness of our resources; it’s easy to be like the king and become discouraged if we focus on what we cannot do rather than keeping our hearts and minds centered on what God has done in the past and has promised to do in the future.

So Elisha sent word to the king to calm down and to Namaan, inviting him to come to his house to be healed. Namaan comes. As he approached the house, and a servant came out and said, “Elisha says for you to go wash in the Jordan river seven times.” Like the King, Namaan went ballistic. He fumed, “Why is he showing me this disrespect? I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God and would wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprosy.” Namaan had an entire scenario in his mind about how this healing would go, and it was all tied to his sense of importance. And, though he received the promise of healing, he was not satisfied, for it was not grand enough, not personal enough, not “special.” The prophet didn’t even come out, I must not be very important, humph!”

We will be dissatisfied with God as long as we focus on what we want and not on what God provides. This is a very difficult lesson for us to learn. We are so accustomed to the idea that, “The customer is always right,” and to our primary self-identity as a customer, a consumer, a recipient of the bountiful abundance that is America, that for me has become the defining mantra of our lives. The idea that we should trust God for what we need and stop worrying about what we want is so foreign to us as to be unintelligible nonsense. We will be regularly disappointed as long as we focus on what we want and fail to recognize the goodness God provides.

But Namaan’s entourage did not let him down. They said to him, “Listen, this prophet really didn’t ask you to do much, just wash in their little river a few times. If it works, good. If it doesn’t; then you can be angry.” And he calms down, he washes in the river, he is healed, and he graciously goes back to thank Elisha and worship God.

Our Gospel lesson is another story of lepers and healing. It, too, is a simple story. Like Namaan, the ten men had leprosy. Like Namaan, they wanted to be healed. Like Namaan, one of them was a foreigner. Unlike Namaan, they weren’t famous, or powerful or important. They didn’t have armies to command, or kings to influence. All they had was each other and their disease.

So, they stood on the side of the road, “keeping their distance,” the Bible says. They stood there because they had heard that the man Jesus, the faith-healer from Galilee, was in the neighborhood, and would be coming by. They called out to him for healing, and Jesus responded by telling them to go to the priest and show themselves to be clean.

Not one of them says, “But, I’m not clean.” Not one of them says, “But you didn’t do anything.”
Not one of them says, “But I’ve still got leprosy.” Not one of them refused to go. They just took Jesus at his word and did what he said and launched out on the journey of faith, trusting what he had promised would become true, and it did. The text says, “as they went,” they were made whole.

The ten started on the road to see the priest no different than when they asked Jesus for healing. It was in the midst of their journey that they discovered themselves healed. So it is with us. Perhaps we came to church seeking a difference in our lives, looking for the healing of a hurt, the changing of a habit, the forgiveness of a sin. Maybe we have come looking for a new way to be in the world, a new direction and a new purpose for our lives. Why ever we are here, whatever our motivation for being in the church, no matter the reason we are standing on the road asking Jesus for help – we will be like the lepers; our help will not come before we start out, nor at the end of the road. Our help and healing will come to us as we go along the way.

After they realized they were healed, nine went on to see the priest; only one came back to thank Jesus. The other nine were focused on their pretty new skin, on the exciting experience of being “normal,” and “acceptable,” and “cured.” They were focused on themselves and what had happened to them. The one who came back to thank Jesus remembered the one who made it happen.  The nine thought about the cure, the one thought about the cause.

We are all always in the midst of spiritual journeys, road trips of the soul. We are all always in the middle of “as they went.” We are all always rehearing the promise and setting out on the trail. And, we are all always experiencing healing as we go, a little here and a little there. And the question of faith is this, will we notice? Will we notice our healing? Will we notice that we are closer to God and to each other? Will we notice our growth in grace?  Will we notice our deepening love affair with the holy? And when we notice: will we focus on ourselves, on our experience itself? Or will we remember the cause, and give thanks to God?

Amen and amen.

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 22)

Try as we might (and we DID try,) we have not been able to produce a recording for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast this week. We’ll see about getting ‘er done again next week, fans; sorry!

Fortunately, Delmer’s keyboard is still working.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In her autobiography, Broadway actress Helen Hayes tells about her first attempt to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. Before bringing it out of the kitchen to the dining room table, Hayes announced to her husband and son: “Now, you know this is the first turkey I’ve ever cooked. If it isn’t any good, I don’t want anybody to say a word. We’ll just get up from the table without comment, and go to a restaurant to eat.” She then went back to the kitchen to get the tray. When she came into the dining room with the turkey; she found her husband and her son seated at the table with their coats, hats and gloves on; ready to go out to eat. They did not have much faith in her ability to cook a turkey.

In today’s gospel the disciples also suffer from a lack of faith.  Jesus said to them, “If you had even the faith of a mustard seed. . . “ and the seed of a mustard plant is very tiny indeed, like the head of a pin, really. The message seems to be that the disciples just don’t have enough faith. This is what Jesus meant. Jesus knew the disciples have all the faith they need. What they don’t have is an understanding of what it means to have faith.

In verse 1-4; Jesus has said to the disciples that they should forgive a sinner who repents. Then he adds, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  No wonder the disciples cry out “INCREASE OUR FAITH!” How can Jesus expect any normal human being to forgive someone for treating them badly that many times?

If a person sins against me – treats me badly, sticks it to me – seven times in a row and seven times in a row they say they’re sorry; is Jesus saying he expects me to forgive the jerk every time? Really! Enough is enough. I want to know when it’s going to stop!  And yet; Jesus says forgive. So with the disciples, we  cry out, “INCREASE OUR FAITH! WE CAN’T DO THIS.” The gap between what Jesus asks us to do and our ability to do it is enormous.

And that is just the point of this lesson. We are thinking of faith as something human, something that we do, some especially intense sort of believing, or some really focused positive thinking that results in good things happening for us and ours. We think of faith from the human point of view and Jesus thinks of faith from God’s side of things. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the ocean because it’s not our faith that does it – it’s God.

The disciples are worried about their ability to forgive as much as Jesus demands. So they ask for an increase in faith so that they will be able to perform this superhuman feat of humility and generosity and compassion. And Jesus tells them they don’t need a bigger faith. With the God of Israel just a little bit of faith is plenty because God does the work.

The disciples are fretting about the quality of their performance as disciples and followers of Jesus. They are worried about how “spiritual” and “faithful” and “religious” they will appear to their LORD and not incidentally, to their community. But Jesus carefully reminds them that in the life of faith it is not the believer who performs the act of power or receives the praise for it. Both the act and the credit belong to God.

Jesus’ parable about the master and the slave reminds us of the proper relationship between God and a person of faith. If we perform our acts of love and service to God out of a desire to earn praise on earth in this life or a secure spot in heaven in the next; we are missing the point; not only of this parable but also of the life of faith.

There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. God’s love has been ours since before we were born; it washes over us every day, unbidden and unearned. It fills our lives, melts our hearts, softens our eyes, tenderizes our spirits and turns us away from our preoccupation with ourselves to a fascination with loving and caring for Christ by loving and caring for those whom God has placed in our midst for us to love.

The reality is this: we have all the faith we need to do great things for God. Or, to be more biblically and theologically correct; we have all the faith we need to allow God to do great things in, with and through us. Faith the size of a mustard seed is all that is necessary for God to put God’s power to work in our lives and in our world.

Today we are invited to humbly ask God to increase, not our faith, but rather our willingness to be used by God in any way God chooses.  Today we are invited to use what little faith we have to stay at the table – hat, coat and gloves off and put away – waiting patiently to receive whatever God has in store for us.

Amen and amen.