The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 21)

For September 25, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the movie The Princess Bride, one of the running gags has to do with a scheming con-man who continually says things are “inconceivable.”  The problem is – everything he says is inconceivable ends up happening.  Finally, his huge and supposedly dim-witted henchman looks at him and says, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

To my father, the idea that his children could hear him tell them to do something and then not do it was truly “inconceivable.”  He would tell one of us to do something and if, after a few minutes the child did not begin doing as requested, he would bark, “Didn’t you hear me?”  For my daddy, not hearing him was the only possible explanation for our not doing as he requested. Hearing without obeying was “inconceivable,” simply not possible, something he could not understand or imagine.

Our Gospel lesson today turns on a question of hearing without obeying.  In verse 29 Abraham says to the rich man “(Your five brothers) have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” For Abraham in the text, and for Jesus as the storyteller, it was “inconceivable” that people could actually hear what Moses and the prophets said and yet not obey, not do what was commanded.  In good Jewish tradition, to listen to the word of God is more than simple hearing, it is also doing what the word of God commands.

In this parable, Jesus creatively retells a story that was part of popular folk-lore of his day.  It is not a story we should use to try to figure out what the life after death is like – that is not the point of the story.  Jesus is using this ordinary folk-tale about rewards and punishments in exactly the same way a modern preacher might use a joke about someone going to heaven and talking to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.  “Did you hear the one about the woman who, when St. Peter asked her for proof that she was a Lutheran, she looked in her huge handback, muttering ‘I know there’s a hot dish or a Jell-O mold in here somewhere?’”

So Jesus tells this story, and he tells it well.  Short, quick lines create images that stick in your mind.  A self-indulgent rich man, wearing expensive clothes and eating vast quantities of gourmet foods – all day, every day; while at the gate of his mansion there is poor Lazarus, starving, hoping for a hand-out, licked by dogs. And then they die.  Rich man is buried and descends into hell; Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.

This great reversal of fortune becomes even more stark when the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a mere drop of water to cool his tongue and Abraham says “No, it can’t be done, it is too late.  Nobody can cross the distance between us. You made your bed, now sleep in it.”

Resigning himself to his own fate, the rich man tries to save his family.  “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers, so that they will not wind up here too.”  In reply Jesus drives the rhetorical dagger home – Abraham says, “You and they have both already been told.  You and they have Moses and the prophet.  You and they have chosen not to listen.  It is inconceivable that you really listened, because you have shown no evidence of having heard in the way you have lived your life.”

When the man pleads that someone coming from the place of the dead, a spirit or a ghost, would surely convince his brothers, Jesus does not back down.  He insists they have already been told all they need to know: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  Jesus is adamant that the problem is not that we do not know what we are called by God to do; the problem is that we have not listened, we have not been willing to do as we have been asked, we have not taken God seriously.

There is a scene in the comic movie My Cousin Vinny in which Brooklyn lawyer Vinny is instructed by a very serious small-town judge in Alabama “Do not appear in my court without appropriate attire.”  The next day Vinny shows up dressed in his usual black leather jacket. When the judge reminds him that he was ordered to wear a suit and fines him for being in contempt of court, Vinny is astonished and says, “You were serious about that?”

The rich man has discovered that God, speaking through Moses and the wrophets, was quite serious when he said things like this, which fill the Hebrew Scriptures.

Deuteronomy 15:7 – “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your own community in any of your towns . . . do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.” That’s Moses.

Isaiah 58:7 – “Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house . . .”

That’s a prophet.

The rich man could not say he did not know what he was called of God to do for his poor neighbor, nor could claim not to know Lazarus, or that Lazarus was starving at his gate. The rich man called Lazarus by name – he knew him, he knew his situation, and he did not care.  Even in the afterlife he continued to look down on Lazarus, attempting to treat him as a servant at his beck and call.  “Send Lazarus to me,” he says.  “Send Lazarus to my brothers,” he adds. Even when he has lost everything else he has not lost the sense of place and privilege which kept him from really hearing, really listening to, really conceiving of, and really obeying the truth God was telling him in the Scriptures. He just didn’t believe God was serious about that.

Albert Schweitzer is best known as a missionary doctor in Africa. Did you know it was his third career?  He was also an accomplished church musician, an organist; plus, he was a world renowned New Testament Scholar who wrote one of the foundational books for 20th century studies on the life of Jesus, and, in his spare time, a Lutheran pastor. When he was asked why he became a doctor and moved to what was then French Equatorial Africa, he cited this parable.  He noted that the rich man, for him representing Europe, had medical care and Lazarus, representing Africa, did not. Albert Schweitzer heard this story and decided that it was inconceivable that he not do something because it was obvious that God was serious about that.

By world standards most of us are rich, some of us very rich.  None of us does not know that God has called us to love and serve our neighbors in need.  Are we listening?  Can we conceive of ways to make that happen? Do we know that God is serious about that?

Amen and amen.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 20)

For September 18, 2016

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

As baseball season is winding down and the pennant races are heating up, I have been reminded of a kerfuffle from back in 2007.  The New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays were in a tight pennant race. Derek Jeter was the batter.  Tampa Bay’s pitcher threw a pitch that bounced off Jeter’s bat, and Jeter shook his left arm, and screwed up his face in pain, and grabbed his elbow. The umpire decided the ball had hit Jeter and awarded him first base.

Now, nobody but the home plate umpire thought Jeter had been hit, and after the game, when Jeter was asked about it, he admitted that he had put a fast one over on the umpire. And, the newspapers and the sports talk shows had a field day, arguing over whether or not Jeter was a cheater, or just a smart ballplayer.

It seems to me that Derek Jeter and the unjust office manager in our Gospel lesson have a lot in common; both of them pulled a fast one, and the man in charge rewarded them for it.  It’s a difficult story is a hard one to understand, isn’t it? Okay, let’s be honest.  The story is not that difficult to understand. It is the way the world works and we all know it. Both our candidates for President have been accused of pulling fast ones that are very similar to what the manager did.  My baseball story is the sort of thing that happens all the time in life, just usually outside the prying eyes of television cameras and sports reporters.

We understand the story.  So, actually, it’s what Jesus says about the story that’s hard to take. It looks for all the world like Jesus is praising someone who cheats, someone who, like Derek Jeter, does something dishonest in order to win.

A business owner finds out that his office manager is guilty of mismanagement. He calls in the manager and says “You’ve got two weeks to get ready for an audit. Now get out of here.” The manager knows he’s in deep trouble. Too proud to beg; too weak to work; what to do? What to do?

Suddenly, he has an idea. He calls in some of the company’s biggest customers. “Have I got a deal for you?” he says. The plan is simple. He cuts their bills in half, destroys the paper trail and writes new invoices.  Now when the audit happens, no one can prove that he cheated and all the richest man in town will owe him a favor. His future is secure. Of course, when the owner looks at the doctored books he knows what has happened but there is nothing he can do about it. He knows he has been conned. And here’s the surprise. He says to the man: “I have to admit it; you were pretty smart. You got me. Now get out of here.” As I said, up to this point the story makes perfect sense to us. What doesn’t make sense is the fact that Jesus seems to join the owner in praising the manager for his dishonesty.

But a careful reading of the text shows that Jesus is not praising the man for being dishonest. Rather, he is pointing to the man as an example of someone with single-minded devotion to a cause – which in this case, happens to be himself. Jesus’ point turns out to be pretty simple. “Here,” he says, “is someone who knows how to give his entire heart mind and soul to the service of his god.” And  Jesus wonders, “What if the citizens of the Kingdom of God, were to give this sort of  single-minded and complete devotion to the cause of the one and only true God!”  Martin Luther, in the Large Catechism, says: “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.”

This story of the unjust steward confronts me with some serious questions I have to ask ourselves, the first one being “What really is my God?”

Is it my #1 concern in life to share Good News with the poor? Or am I like the people Amos ranted about – those who “trample on the needy and bring ruin to the land?” (Amos 8:4)

Look at the Psalm. Do I give some time each week to help the Lord “raise the poor from the dust?”  Do I contribute to and pray for organizations dedicated to participating with God in “healing the sick?”  (Psalm 113:7)

How well do I heed the words written to Timothy? How much of my valuable time do I spend each week in “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings?” (1 Timothy 2:1)

Jesus points to the manager and says, “This man is shrewd and devoted his serving his god –his god being wealth and money.”  Can I be as smart and devoted in serving the Living God?

This is the real question Jesus puts before us in his story of the con-man office manager.  Because it has to be one or the other – it can’t be both.  You cannot be fully, completely, and totally devoted to the care and feeding of your bank account – while also being fully, completely, and totally devoted to the care and feeding of your soul. “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

This is not an admonition –  as in “You shouldn’t try to do that, it’s too difficult.” No, this is a stern statement of spiritual fact – “You cannot serve the Lord your God and the Lord your money.  It’s not possible, it can’t be done.”

The underlying issue here is trust; do we really, fully, completely, and totally trust God with our life and our future?  Or do we hedge our bets – trusting our own wits, and our own efforts, and our own accumulation of things, to keep us safe in a dangerous world?

Jesus invites us to trust in God.  And the only way for that to happen is for us to learn to obey the first commandment: “You shall have other gods before me.”  If there is anything “to which our heart clings” more than it clings to God; if there is anything that we trust more than we trust God, that thing is, Luther says, truly oor God. Today Jesus invites us to trust and serve God above all other things. Can we?  Will we?

Amen and amen.

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 19)

For September 11, 2016

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Is God a grown-up or a parent?”  Writing in the Catholic Digest, Kathleen Chesto says she was confused by her daughter’s question. “I’m not sure what you mean. What’s the difference between a grown-up and a parent?” “Well,” her daughter said, “Grown-ups love you when you’re good and parents love you anyway.”

“Is God a grown-up or a parent?” It’s a good question. Does God love only when you’re good? Or does God love you anyway? What is the nature of God’s love? Is it really complete and total and unconditional? Really? And, if that’s the nature of God’s love; what does that mean for us?  Do we have to love everybody too? Or, are there some people we’re allowed to dislike because we’re pretty certain God doesn’t like them either?

Throughout Luke’s Gospel the “Pharisees and the scribes” are consistently portrayed as the grown-ups, as the people who spend a lot of time figuring out all the dos and don’ts of life; all the nuances of good and bad behavior.

And these Pharisees and scribes are mighty unhappy when Jesus acts more like a parent than a grown-up, loving people even when they’re bad.  Even though he knows that the people he is partying with are not acceptable and nice and “good” people; well, he’s going to party with them anyway.

And the official good people can’t stand it. They thought Jesus was one of them, they thought he was on their side.  They thought this because he knew so much scripture, and because he talked so much about giving your all for the Kingdom of God, and because he was so obviously such a good man – he must be a Pharisee or a scribe or someone acceptable to Pharisees and scribes and . . . well, they just could not figure his behavior out. What is he thinking – eating with those people? Doesn’t he know who they are, where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing?

The Pharisees and scribes had decided that the people Jesus was hanging out with were bad people who violated the rules of good behavior and should be avoided and shunned and in general treated badly; both by God and by us – the official good people in the world. Therefore, when they saw Jesus eating and drinking and partying with these “tax collectors and sinners,” they were appalled and disgusted and decided that Jesus could not possibly be the “good person” they had presumed him to be.

And like a good parent, Jesus responded to their distress not with argument or protest – but by telling them stories. These stories have two “God figures,” people who, according to Jesus, act the way God acts. One is a shepherd, the other is a woman. These are interesting choices. Shepherds were nomads. They slept, bathed, ate and lived outdoors. Because of this they were unable to keep most of the purity laws that were so important to the Pharisees. And women were a problem for Pharisees, who preferred to neither see them nor speak to them any more than was absolutely necessary.

Jesus uses these two stories to make the same two points: One – God loves every single human being extravagantly.  Just as the shepherd cared about his lost sheep enough to spare no effort in looking for it, God cares about all people enough to spare no effort in looking for us. God values us the way the woman values her piece of money and God will ransack the universe getting us back the way the woman ransacked her house hunting that coin. These are incarnational stories; stories about God coming into the world to seek out and save God’s lost creation. Jesus is the shepherd looking high and low for those not in the fold; Jesus is the woman sweeping through the house, turning over chairs and pulling out couch cushions, looking high and low for a valuable possession.

Two – In telling about the parties given by the shepherd and the woman; Jesus is pointedly chastising the Pharisees and scribes for their hard-heartedness in grouching about the time Jesus with spending with the so-called sinners. “Look,” Jesus says, “God is elated that these people are thinking about God and their life and about what it means to be a good person. That is something to celebrate.”
As one of my Mother’s childhood preachers in the Virginia mountains said about this text, “Instead of being happy the sinners came in for a bath – those old sourpusses are sitting around complaining about the smell.” It seems clear that for Jesus, God is a parent, not a grown-up – God does not  love us only when we’re good, God loves us anyway.  The question for us today is do we know that God loves us anyway?

Dr. William McElvaney was president of the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. One day he was driving to the airport to pick up a person who was giving a speech at the seminary. To get there he had to drive over the Missouri River on the Paseo Bridge. About a half mile from the bridge he got stuck in traffic. Nothing moved. After about fifteen minutes, traffic moved again. There was no indication of why traffic had stopped, no road work, no accident, nothing.

The next morning Dr. McElvaney read in his morning paper about a depressed man who stopped his car on the bridge, got out and crawled over the rail and got ready to jump. People saw him and called the police. Officers leaned over the rail and talked to him, trying to get him to come back to safety. Meanwhile another officer fitted himself with a harness and a long rope. He secured the rope and crawled over the rail, inching toward the man. Just when he got close enough to reach out and touch him, the man jumped off the bridge. And the patrolman jumped after him, wrapping his arms and legs around him in a tight embrace. They fell together until the rope was tight, and they swung above the river. Up above, on the bridge, people could hear the policeman yelling in the ear of the jumper, “If you go, I go! Because I’m going to hold onto you until hell freezes over!”  Tex Sample, The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World p. 117

The gospel for us today is this – God is not a grown-up, God is a parent?  God does not love us only when we’re good, God loves us anyway, all the time, until hell freezes over. God has clearly been revealed in the life death and resurrection of Jesus as a loving parent who will never stop loving us, ever. Christ left the safety of heaven and leapt into the world to seek and save us. Christ has grabbed onto our souls and has promised to hold onto us until the fires of hell burn out. Amen

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)

For September 4, 2016

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I grew up attending a congregation somewhat loosely affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.  The youth ministry of most Baptist churches in those days was divided into two groups; Royal Ambassadors (RAs) for boys and the Girls Auxiliary (GA) for, well, girls. (They later changed that to Girls in Action.)

Anyway, somebody had the bright idea that all the RA groups in the local association should go camping together at a campground along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It was really a pretty good outing – not particularly religious, but a lot of fun.  We slept in a motley collection of tents, ate food we burned ourselves over open fires, and played baseball and volleyball with groups from other churches.  About the middle of the afternoon of Saturday one of the pastors decided we should all hike to the top of a nearby mountain.  Pastor “Bob” was an ex-military chaplain and was very gung-ho about what he called “manly Christianity.”  The rest of the pastors, well, not so much.  They persuaded him it should be a voluntary activity, only for those who really wanted to go – like him and not them.

So he called all the kids together; there were probably about a hundred of us.  He said, “Who wants to go climb the mountain?”  And we all cried out, “We do! We do!” — while waving our hands in the air.  Pastor Bob smiled a really big smile and then looked at his ministerial colleagues and then back at us and said, “Okay just so you know, it’ll be about a five mile hike.”  About half the hands came down.  “Both ways – so that’s ten miles.”  Another half of the hands came down.  “It’s really steep.”  More hands came down.  “We’ll need to carry backpacks with food and emergency equipment.”  At this point only the somewhat intimidated kids from Pastor Bob’s church still had their hands in the air.  Suddenly Pastor Bob’s young associate pastor stepped forward and shouted out “Who wants S’mores?” and everybody cheered and followed him to the nearest camp-fire – leaving a crestfallen Pastor Bob to trudge into the wilderness alone.

“Now large crowds were traveling with him, and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not” – turn their back on their family, does not take up a cross, does not follow me in a life of witness, service and suffering for others, does not drop everything and go with me up Mount Calvary – well, you cannot be my disciple. Man – that’s harsh.

Every time I read this lesson, especially the parts about hating your family and selling ALL your possessions, I think to myself – did he really mean that?  Was Jesus serious about that?  I mean, does this belong in the category of hyperbole and exaggeration to make a point?  Like that other stuff he said about “cutting off your hand,” and “gouging out your eye.”  If you’re of a literalist frame of mind, well this is some hard, hard stuff.  I think I’d rather go eat some s’mores and play some baseball and leave the spiritual mountain-climbing to someone else.

But Jesus did mean it.  He didn’t mean it literally, but he meant it.  The Greek word used is a comparative word.  We use the word “hate” in the same way occasionally.  “Honey, I’ve getting ready to cook dinner.  Would you rather have steamed broccoli or cooked cabbage?” “Oh, no contest!  I hate cooked cabbage – let’s have the steamed broccoli.”

Jesus is really saying, “If it comes to a choice between me and your father and mother, or your wife and children, or between brothers and sisters, or even your own life unless you can choose me, you are not my disciple.”

Those are indeed hard words, but they are not about hating those whom you are called to love – they are about counting the cost of loving and following Jesus. Like building a house or going to war – there is a price to be paid – and the one who does not count the cost lives to regret it.

This is what Dietrich Bonheoffer was getting at in his most well-known book, “The Cost of Discipleship.”

In it he identified what one of my professors called “The Protestant Problem” – cheap grace.  We preach the God’s forgiveness of our sins so strongly that, if we’re not careful, we will begin to believe that it doesn’t matter what we do – God will forgive us, so why worry about doing the right thing.  As one skeptic put it, “God likes to forgive.  I like to sin.  It’s a nice arrangement.”

To this Pastor Bonheoffer offered a resounding “No!” – both with his words and with his life.  Echoing Jesus  in today’s gospel, he called people to count the cost, to realize that accepting God’s grace also meant accepting a life of service and sacrifice.  Not only did Bonheoffer say this, he lived it.  Leaving behind the security and safety a teaching job in New York City, he returned to Germany to spy and plot against Hitler, dying by a hangman’s noose before his fortieth birthday, grieved by his family, friends and fiancé.  He did not hate or detest these folks, but he loved Christ and Christ’s world more.

We are also invited to count the cost of following Jesus.  Like Pastor “Bob,” Jesus stands before us telling us what it will take to go with him up the mountain.  But Jesus offers something more.  Christ will not only lead us. Christ will not only go with us – Christ will fill us with the Holy Spirit, Christ will provide us with the strength and the will to continue, Christ will even carry us in those places where we cannot carry ourselves.  Though Jesus does indeed invite us, also in the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer, to come and die – Christ also promises to raise us to new life – in this world and the next.

Amen and amen.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)

For August 28, 2016

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When you’re pastor of the Lutheran Church in Athens, Ga, where the population of the town is 115,000 and the capacity of the college football stadium is 93,000 (which means everybody is town is there on game days – 93,000 in the stadium and the rest cooking out in the parking lot), and it’s the week before your alma mater, the UNC Tar Heels, will play the UGA Bulldogs – well it’s time to ease the tension with a probably not true football story.

I heard this story from a football coach over in Alabama.  He said that when Shug Jordan was coach at Auburn, he called up a former player and asked him to go to a high school game in his town and see if there were any players that Coach Jordan should recruit. Mike said, “I’d love to help, but what kind of player are you looking for?” Jordan replied, “Mike, you know when you go to a game, there’s always that fellow that gets knocked down and stays down?” Mike said, “We don’t want that fellow, do we coach?” Coach said, “That’s right Mike, we don’t. And Mike, you know there’s that fellow that gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and stays down?” And Mike said, a little hesitantly, “We don’t want that fellow either, do we coach?”  “No, Mike we don’t. Then there’s that fellow that always gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up . . .’ Mike got excited, “I know, I know. That’s the fellow we want, ain’t it coach?” Coach Jordan sighed and said, “No Mike.  We don’t want that fellow.”  Now Mike was really confused, “Well, who do we want Coach?”  And the Coach Jordan shouted over the phone – “Mike we want the fellow who’s been knocking everybody down!

 

Today’s Gospel lesson is about the question, “Which fellows do we want?” At one level it’s about which fellows we want at our table, in our home, as our friends, on our social calendar. On another level it’s about which fellows does God want us to want – not only in our personal lives but also in our communities.  Put another way, it’s about who is included in God’s love and therefore should be included in our love and in our community of faith.

First, let’s look at verses 7-11: When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This echoes our reading from Proverbs 25: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’, than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Luke’s Jesus turns our assumptions about God and goodness upside down and inside out. Over and over again, Luke shows us Jesus proclaiming that most people are totally mistaken about who’s in and who’s out; who’s acceptable and who’s expendable; who’s good and who’s bad; who’s a saint and who’s a sinner, who’s saved and who’s damned. Jesus teaches that what it means to be a “Child of God,” has nothing to do with our pedigree and everything to do with God’s gracious propensity for love. Over and over again Jesus teaches us this; we are servants, not masters; we are to wash one another’s feet; we are to take the last place, not the first; we are to see in the least and most despised the real face of Jesus our Lord, our Christ.

It is only when we recognize that all places at God’s table are places of honor that we become willing to accept and enjoy whatever place God has chosen as the right place for us. We are all God’s chosen people, serving God in the place where God has placed us. If we sit around wishing we were someone else, doing something else, in some other place; we can miss the joy of being who we are, doing what we’re doing, where we are.

In verses 12-14 we move on to Jesus second parable; this one aimed at the host of the dinner:
“He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

The importance of this story is not so much about who we invite into our homes, though it wouldn’t hurt most of us to invite some folks from outside our comfort zones once in a while. Jesus is really addressing the issue of who is to be welcomed into the presence of God, who is to be considered acceptable in the church. When Jesus says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind,” his Jewish audience would have remembered that Leviticus 21:17-20 makes clear that those who “have a blemish” are not to “draw near” to God. No one who is “blind, or lame, or has a limb too long, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or an itching disease or scabs.” Jesus message is this: “This is a totally different community than you thought it was, and the standards for admission are completely the opposite of what you thought they were.”

The question for us today is simple: Are we ready to follow Jesus’ lead? Are we ready to be humble servants and are we ready to be radically inclusive in admitting people to God’s church and to God’s table? These two sayings of Jesus are held together by the fact that all of us in the church are both hosts and guests at the banquet of the Lord.

We are all of us poor, lame, blind, undeserving strangers, sinners whom God has invited in. And we are also all of us hosts at this banquet; those who have the duty of inviting and welcoming other poor, lame, blind, undeserving strangers and sinners to the feast.
I have a file full of little notes and quotes people have given me over my forty years of ministry.  Here’s one a teenager gave me at a youth retreat twenty years ago. “The greatest joy any Christian will ever receive will be when we all sit together at God’s great Messianic banquet and someone looks across the table at us and smiles and says, ‘Thank you for inviting me.’”

 

Amen and amen.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)

For August 21, 2016

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As a graduate of a non-Lutheran seminary, I spent a year at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC.  My Daddy told his Baptist sister I was being “Lutheranized.”  One Sunday I had been out in the country to “supply preach” in Prosperity, or Pomaria, or Pelion, I don’t remember which – it was one of the P towns.  Anyway, my old college room-mate was coming through Columbia on business and dropping by our apartment for a late lunch.  My wife walked to church near the campus and then to buy pizza.  My job was to buy beer on my way home.  So there I stood on a Sunday afternoon, in a suburban grocery store in Columbia SC; gray suit, black shirt, clerical collar, wooden pectoral cross hanging around my neck, a six pack in hand, while a surprised and befuddled teen-age clerk stared at me.  The following conversation ensued.

 

“Uh, sir, I can’t sell that to you?”

I was also befuddled.  I was completely caught off guard. “Oh, sorry, here’s my ID.”

She said, “No, that’s not it.  I can’t sell beer on Sunday.”

I hate to admit how genuinely thick I was at that moment.  “Why ever not?”

“Well,” she said, “it’s the ‘blue laws.’”

I was still being incredibly thick.  Preaching exhaustion? “What are blue laws?”

She looked directly at my cross and collar and bit her lip and said.  “Well, uh, well, the religious people, uh, think certain things, uh, shouldn’t be sold on Sunday, uh, well it’s the law.”

Then my brain kicked in. Sabbath observance laws, now I get it. Pizza with sweet iced tea wasn’t as bad as I remembered.

 

In our Gospel lesson Jesus is at worship on the Sabbath day. A woman with a chronic crippling illness is there to worship.  Jesus reaches out to her and heals her. Notice – she does not approach Jesus, she does not ask to be healed, she does not make any demonstration of faith in Jesus’ healing ability.  This is all Jesus; this is all grace.  At once, the leader of the synagogue attacks. Though he is “indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath,” he doesn’t attack Jesus; he goes after the crowd for having the wrong standard of Sabbath behavior, for coloring outside the lines, for not following the exact letter of the law.

Jesus responds by pointing out that even the strictest interpretation of the Law allows people to untie their cows and horses and donkeys and lead them to water on the Sabbath in order to prevent unnecessary cruelty. Jesus uses a bit of word play in his rhetorical question.  The same Greek word can be translated either “untie” or “set free,” depending on the context.  So Jesus says, “You untie (or set free) your animals so that they can get water – shouldn’t this woman also be set free (or untied) from her bondage?”  Jesus’ argument from the lesser (the tied up animals) to the greater (the woman tied up in knots with her illness) is unanswerable.

We will lose the point of this story for us if we think it’s about Sabbath observance; either the buying of beer or healing of diseases –  that battle has already been won or lost, depending on your point of view. Very few of us would really hesitate to do anything on Sunday that we would do any other day of the week. About the only thing that Jesus could have done in this situation that would have shocked us would have been to not heal the woman because it was the Sabbath. For us, we must instead consider ways in which our understanding of religious rules and regulations block us from showing genuine, heartfelt compassion to those in need.

I doubt any of us can think of anything. No one sets out to be a cruel and unjust person. Nobody thinks that their way of following God stops them from being kind, caring and compassionate. The leader of the synagogue was evidently considered by his friends and neighbors to be good man, a true man, a generous and helpful sort of fellow – this was why they made him the leader.  He’s not a rabbi or religious scholar – he’s just a regular guy –  a fisherman or a cobbler or a farmer or a tentmaker.  Just a normal person who has accepted a volunteer leadership role. He’s just trying to remind people of the rules as they have always been practiced. He says, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, but not on the Sabbath Day.” If he were given an opportunity to explain himself, he would probably say something like this, “I think Jesus was a little hard on me –  I’m just an unpaid leader of a tiny congregation. I spend countless hours aiding the poor and the widows and the sick in our community. All I was trying to do was keep order, make sure everybody followed the rules; after all, that’s my job.
Just like this “leader of the synagogue,” we may think we are a friendly and caring and compassionate religious community, while outside eyes may be able to see us more clearly as we are, may be able to see who it is we are not being good, and kind, and generous to; who it is that is the stranger who ends up not feeling welcomed and loved within our doors. This is why we need Jesus to look at us and speak to us about ourselves. Just as Jesus broke into the insular world of first century Palestinian Judaism with a new set of eyes and a fresh voice; we need to let Jesus look us over and tell us what he sees. We need to hear and heed the call of Christ to break out of our old comfortable way of seeing things and doing things; we need to look at the world with the fresh eyes of Jesus, we need to look at the world as a place filled with opportunities to bend the rules in the name of love.

 

Amen and amen.

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 15)

For August 14, 2016

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Some years ago a man I knew in one of my churches had a badly bent arm that pained him greatly. He went to several doctors, none of whom could help him. Finally, he went to a specialist, who told him good news, he could help him, he could fix his arm.  It was good news, but it was not pleasant News. He could fix his arm, but first he would have to break it.

Jesus comes to us today with Gospel, with good news, but it is not necessarily pleasant or welcome news. Do you know the old expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”  The Rev. Woodie White, one time United Methodist bishop of Indianapolis, tells of being a bookstore and seeing a book titled, “If It Ain’t Broke, Break It!” It was a business leadership book by a couple of corporate types, but the book got the bishop to thinking about the world, about the church. What needs to be broken in this world? What needs to be changed in the church? Break it!

It’s a different message than we’re used to hearing, but it is an important one. Jesus came into this world with a message and a mission, both of which were good, but neither of which was pleasant.
His message was a message of love, and as we all know, love can be very, very unpleasant at times. You see, the opposite of love is not hate, not anger, not unpleasantness.  The opposite of love is apathy, uncaring, being uninvolved; which can often be very quiet and pleasant.

Love, on the other hand, is often noisy, and nosy, and very involved. Love will get up in your face and in your business and will not let you slip away unchallenged into nice failure. Love will confront you with unpleasant facts about yourself, love will sometimes break you in order to heal you.  Jesus had a message of love, a message of love that disturbed communities and families because it refused to allow people to coast along in a pleasantly unhealthy and unhappy slide into death.  Jesus, the living word of God, broke into the world demanding that we to get beyond the roles handed to us by our society and its norms “I’m the father and this is what I do, and you’re the son and this is what you do, and this is the Mother and this is what she does, and you’re the sister and this is what you’re allowed to do.”

Jesus has called us to get beyond roles and to get into relationships; real, messy, involved relationships.  And the sometimes unpleasant but ultimately good truth is –  that kind of love is disruptive, it breaks what isn’t really working in order to create a new family, a new community of truth and love – to bring into the world the realm of God.

Jesus came with the message that’s God’s kingdom, God’s realm, God’s new community, was coming – indeed was, in Christ, already here.  And he came with a mission.  His mission was to break the power of the evil one through the power of selfless love. When Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” (Luke 12:50) it is this mission that he refers, the cross is the thing that must be completed. Jesus came to complete what was begun many years ago in the parting of the Red Sea; Jesus came to rescue God’s people, Jesus came to fight the good fight of faith and to break us free from our bondage to sin, death and the devil. Jesus came to be the capstone, the final chapter, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

After talking about how his message and his mission are disruptive to the world as it is – Jesus encourages us to “read the signs of the times.” Pastor John Ortberg told this story in a recent book, “A man is being tailgated by a woman in a hurry. He comes to an intersection, and when the light turns yellow, he hits the brakes. The woman behind him goes ballistic. She honks her horn at him; she yells her frustration in no uncertain terms; she rants and gestures. While she is in mid-rant, someone taps on her window. She looks up and sees a policeman. He invites her out of her car and takes her to the station where she is searched and fingerprinted and put in a cell.  After a couple of hours, she is released, and the arresting officer gives her her personal effects, saying “I’m very sorry for the mistake, ma’am. I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, using bad gestures and bad language. I noticed the WHAT WOULD JESUS DO bumper sticker, the CHOOSE LIFE license plate holder, the FOLLOW ME TO SUNDAY SCHOOL window sign, the FISH EMBLEM on your trunk, and I naturally assumed you had stolen the car. (When the Game is Over, It all Goes Back in the Box)

Reading the signs of the times is tough isn’t it? When I read that bit in the gospel about families,

“From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided. . .” I thought of our recent political conventions, and our current presidential campaigns, and the way folks on Facebook have been pleading for other people to keep a civil tongue.  Some have gotten angry and unfriended each other; still others have sworn off politics – pledging to post only pictures of cute cats and silly grandchildren (or is it cute grandchildren and silly cats?)

What are the signs and what do they mean?  The political parties often agree on the facts, on the signs – what they cannot seem to agree on is what the signs reveal.  They cannot even agree on what is wrong – no wonder they can’t agree on what is to be done about it.   
In the midst of tough times we tend to look to our political leaders for answers.  And, as citizens of a democracy, it is both our right and our duty to participate in the governance of our country.  But the Bible often reminds us – in the long run it’s not about us – it’s about God.  Hebrews points us to look at what it calls the “great cloud of witnesses” – who went before us in the faith.

We are not alone sisters and brothers; and we are not traveling down roads previously untrod. Where we are others have been before, and they held on to their faith and God held on to them. We are encouraged to look to them as a sign; a sign, and a seal, and a promise of God’s presence, of God’s protection, of God’s provision. We are called to look to them and then, to look beyond them to the God in whom they placed their trust and their hope.  And we are called to follow their lead and place our trust, our lives, our future, in the hand of God who will carry us through.

Amen and amen.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 14)

For August 7, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
One Sunday morning about 20 years ago I slipped out of our apartment at my usual 6 am, tiptoeing around in semi-darkness to avoid waking my wife and children, who were not fans of the early service.  I shivered a bit in the late autumn chill as I got into my pick-up and sleepily tried to put the key into the ignition.  It took me a moment to realize that my fumbling was not my fault – the ignition was not where it was supposed to be on the side of the steering column.  Startled, I looked more carefully around the cab.  Sliding window from the bed was agape, glove compartment open, ignition gone – someone had broken in and tried to steal my car!  Not fifty feet from where I slept!  For the next hour or so, I thought many unChristian thoughts and said not a few unChristian things.
“…if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.  You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Luke 12:39-40)
In my childhood, I often heard preachers misuse this verse, and others like it, to frighten people into conversions.  The implication was that Jesus was an extremely erratic and irrational bully just waiting in the wings for us to really mess up so he could sweep in and point an accusing finger and say, “Aha!  Caught you!  Now you’re gonna get it!”  And the Good News was, if you could whip out your “I got saved at the Cripple Creek Church Revival of 1964 ‘Get out of hell free’ card,” all would be forgotten and Jesus would give you a big hug and carry you with him back to heaven. That may not be exactly what the preacher said, but that’s what an 8 year old Delmer heard.
Many years of theological education (and not a little therapy) later, I now know that this is not what Jesus was talking about. The issue is not judgement but rather readiness to receive the kingdom of God into our lives.  The verse I cited is the conclusion of our reading – it begins with the too often ignored advice to us to “be not afraid, little flock – it is the father’s good pleasure to GIVE YOU the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)  We do not have to be afraid when the kingdom comes; it is a good thing – not a bad thing.  It is not something we earn, there is no test, no need for a “get out of hell free card,” no way to fail or come up short.  The kingdom is a promise – not a prize;  it is a thrill, not a threat; it is a thing of joy forever – not destiny of doom.
Between the promise and its realization, as we live in the world of the “already-but-not-yet” kingdom of God, we find ourselves subject to the possibility of losing hope and, when we lose hope, we often turn away from trusting God and give in to the soul destroying temptation to trust ourselves and our accumulation of things to keep us safe in an always dangerous world.
As we see and experience more and more of the distrust, discord, disagreement and disconnection leading to the fearfulness and violence that fill our world, our country, our state, and our communities – it is reasonable and understandable for us to be fearful.  And it is not unusual that in such a time of unease and uncertainty we feel ourselves drawn to build up a protective shield of material security.  This is what Jesus warns us against -Do not trust yourselves or your stuff – instead trust your God and love your neighbor. “Sell your possessions and give alms.  Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  (Luke 12:33-34)
I once knew a man who was what I call “locally rich,” rich compared to the vast majority of his neighbors.  He was an ordinary man had made a shrewd investment in a local company when he was young.  He and his wife lived in the same lower middle-class neighborhood where they grew up.  Though they were worth several million dollars, they drove an economy car and dressed simply.  He had had a stroke and didn’t get out much.  One day after a pastoral visit that included home communion, he walked me to the porch and said to me, “I think anyone who dies rich has failed to pay attention to Jesus.”  After both he and his wife were gone on, I learned how they had given away almost all their money to long list of good causes in their city.  They were ready for the kingdom.
Once, when I was a teenager, I was baby-sitting my neighbor’s grandson.  He was about four years old. I was preparing to give him a treat of a popsickle.  There was a problem; he already had a cookie in each hand.  He had been nibbling on the cookies for most of the afternoon, they were covered with a combination of dirt and saliva.  It was really hot and he really wanted the popsickle.  But I could’t persuade him to let go of either of the cookies, he stared at me and started crying as the popsickle melted but he just couldn’t let go of what he had to receive what he was promised.
Today Jesus invites us to let go of our fear and welcome into our lives the gift of the kingdom of God. He invites us to stop holding on to the false security offered by things in order to take hold of the true life offered to us in the “already-but-not-yet” kingdom of God.
Amen and amen

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 13)

For July 31, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago I took a youth group to Lutheridge in the mountains of North Carolina for Confirmation Camp. There we learned a game called “Would you rather?” The students lined up down the middle of the room and then they were asked questions like: Would you rather always have to say everything on your mind or never speak again?”Would you rather be a dog named Killer or a cat named Fluffy?”Would you rather be able to hear any conversation or take back anything you say?” Would you rather be born with an elephant trunk or a giraffe neck?”  the kids went to opposite sides of the room, depending on their answer, and then discussion ensued.

The game reminded me of the old comic Jack Benny, who made being cheap a part of his act.  A man walked up to Benny on the street, put a gun in his ribs and said, “Your money or your life?” There was a very long pause while Benny adopted his trademark pose of chin in hand, fingers drumming against his cheek. The mugger jabbed him with the gun and demanded again “Your money or your life.” Benny replied, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”

A man wants Jesus to make his brother share the family inheritance with him. Rather than get involved in this family dispute, Jesus takes the opportunity to caution his listeners about the dangers of greed, illustrating his warning with a story. The “rich fool” and his barns allude to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph was in prison because his boss’ wife had accused him of sexual harassment. In prison, Joseph made quite a name for himself as an interpreter of dreams. Meanwhile Pharaoh had strange dreams about fat cows and skinny cows, and about full and empty stems of grain. He asked his servants if they know any dream interpreter and someone remembered Joseph. They sent for him.

Joseph interpreted the dreams to mean that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine and advised Pharaoh to build large barns to store the surplus from the good years to help tide the country over in the bad times. Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph that he appointed him Prime Minister. And when things worked out as Joseph had predicted, the country was saved, and Egypt was able to help people from other starving countries.

Our Gospel story is similar in that great material blessing are followed by a great plan for the future.

The stories begin to differ in the use to which the great material blessings will be put. In the Joseph story, Pharaoh followed the advice and used the surplus for the good of the community and for hospitality to strangers. They stored up the blessing to be used during the time of want and need. They managed God’s blessing – not for themselves, but for others.  They provided for the poor people of Egypt and the poor people of the world.

In Jesus’ little story, the farmer thinks only of himself. New Testament scholar William Barclay said that no other parable of Jesus is so full of the words “me” and “my” and “I” and “myself.” The Greek word for I is ego. The rich fool is a case study in egotism; narcissistic self-interest that sees everything only in terms of “what’s in it for me.”

God has given us what we have, not for ourselves but for the benefit of others; for others in our community and for others in our world, for hospitality to others, even if they are strangers. This is true, whether we are talking about our personal, individual goods; or the goods we hold in common as a congregation. Everything we have, right down to the last breath we take, God has given to us..

Tithing has gone out of fashion, I suppose. At least very few people seem to do it anymore. I think tithing lost its appeal among Lutherans because if seemed too legalistic, too rule-oriented. After all, we are Gospel people, living in Evangelical freedom, able to respond to the grace of God as we see fit. I think this is unfortunate, for it robs us of the many blessings to be received from a proper understanding of stewardship. We have created for ourselves a Stewardship game of “Would You Rather,” a game nobody wins. We have created a false choice between two styles of giving and then acted as though we’ve been forced to choose between them.

I like easy math, so let’s use $100 as an illustration number. A tithe on $100 would be $10. An “of my own free-will” attitude toward stewardship would say: “I have done well, worked hard and earned this money. It would be a good thing if I gave some of it back to the community. Let me examine the programs and agencies in the community to see which deserve my hard-earned dollars. I will give them, say $10.” Now, this is a commendable and worthy attitude, but it is not Biblical stewardship.

A “God’s Law compels me” attitude toward stewardship says, “God has commanded that I give $10 of every $100 I earn to the church. Because I am a God-fearing person and do not want to make God mad at me, I will give the church $10 of my money.”  This results in the church having the money to use to do good, but it makes the giver feel like they have been coerced into giving. And again, it is not Biblical stewardship

Do you see how this is a bad game of “Would You Rather?” The first one feeds our ego, making us feel like we’ve something for God – when in reality God has done something for us and others through us; the second one makes us feel like we had to do it, that God made us do it, so we feel no joy, only compunction and resentment and perhaps a certain smugness for having done “our part.” Neither one is Biblical stewardship.

A Biblical, Christ-centered attitude toward giving says: “God has $100 and has trusted me with it. God has asked that I use at least, “at least,” $10 of this money for the benefit of others and the spreading of the gospel. Of the other $90, I may use as much as necessary for my needs and I am free to share the rest with others in response to the needs I see around me.”

What we do with our possessions depends upon which of these three attitudes we take toward stewardship. In his parable, Jesus reminds us that we are all going to die someday. And Jesus says, at the inevitable moment of our death, our accumulated possessions will be worthless to us.

As a matter of fact, they could be worse than useless. If the care and maintenance of our stuff has diverted us from seeing to the care and maintenance of our souls; the very things we cherish in this life will have been that which has ruined us for the next. As Jesus said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

God has placed in our hands all that we are, and all that we have. And the question is: What are we going to do with it, with our life and with our stuff? Would you rather serve God or serve yourself?

“Your money or your life?” That is the ultimate “would you rather?” question.

Amen and Amen.