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!

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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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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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.

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.

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

For September 25, 2016

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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.