The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 12)

For July 24, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The summer my younger son turned 14 he played on an AAU basketball team sponsored by the local Roman Catholic high school.  Besides the usual enjoyment of getting to see him play against good competition, the summer also provided a couple of moments that amused me, if not him.  The first was the confused looks on the Catholic boys’ faces when I, wearing my standard work clothes of black shirt and minister’s collar, showed up to pick up my son after practice.  It was not hard to read their minds, “But, but – a priest can’t be married!  A priest can’t have children!” I left it up to their coach to explain things.  The other amusing thing was the team’s practice of praying the “Our Father,” what we Protestants usually call “The Lord’s Prayer,” right before tip-off.  Any of you with any experience with Catholic worship know that they end the prayer at “deliver us from evil.”  They do not include the line, “For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”

Before the tip-off of their first game, the team gathered to pray, and when all the other boys stopped you could hear my son’s lone voice continuing, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever.”  He looked around, then he looked up in the stands at me with a quizzical look on his face.  On the ride home he asked me about it.  I told him that the Roman Catholics were being more faithful to the text than Protestants – that they only said what was in the gospel of Matthew. The “Doxology” (the kingdom and the power and the glory line) has been used in the Eastern Christianity, in Orthodoxy, since the second or third century, and it came into English Protestant worship through Thomas Cranmer and the first Book of Common Prayer.

So, at the next game, they prayed again.  At the end of the prayer, my son continued praying, and then tapered off, an embarrassed look on his face.  Later that week I walked by the door to his room and heard him practicing the Our Father, ending carefully at “deliver us from evil.”  At the third game, the team prayed, the team stopped at “deliver us from evil;” my son continued, “For thine is the Kingdom, and the . . . OH SHOOT!”

I have reflected on that moment frequently over the years.  It has lead me to think about two things. One is the power of liturgy, the strength of a prayer learned and engrained, good and appropriate words that stay with us – sometimes even when we try to forget them or put them in our past.  The second is the importance of persistence, especially when disappointed in prayer – the need to continue praying when the only true thing coming out of the abundance of our hearts is a sense of failure and futility, an “Oh shoot!” moment.

First – the power of learned prayer. Duke Divinity School professors Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas say that their book on the Lord’s Prayer, Lord, Teach Us, “presents the Christian faith not as a set of beliefs but rather as a prayer you must learn to pray.” (p. 15) I grew up among people whose religious tradition did not include “written prayers,” or regular forms of worship repeated week after week; but even these most independent of free-church Baptists knew the Twenty-third Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and John 3:16 by heart.   Why? Because these once these “prayers,” become embedded in our minds, they seep out into our hearts, our souls and our lives.

Martin Luther once observed that to be s sinner was to be bent, crooked, twisted.  Bend in on oneself, unable to see either God or the neighbor as serving any other purpose than serving my need, fixing my problem, saving my soul, improving my life.  The sinners first thought is, “What do I get out of it, how does it help me.”

By contrast, good prayers, good liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer, turn our attention away from me and mine toward God and the neighbor. This is what I think of when we sing the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” – “hearts unfold like flowers before you, opening to the sun above.” The first thing the Lord’s Prayer does is unbend us, lift us away from our eternal and obsessive navel-gazing that we might look up to God and around at the God’s world and at God’s people who fill it.

In our text, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. It is unfortunate that English does not have an official second person plural pronoun, so I’ll have to translate Jesus reply into “Southern” English, “He said to them, ‘When y’all pray . . .’”   If you’re from New York, it’s “When youse guys pray . . .” If you’re from Pittsburg it’s “When you’ns pray . . .”  I am, unfortunately, not well versed about informal second person plurals in the rest of the country, so y’all fill in the blank.  The point is – this is not a personal prayer, it is a communal prayer, a community prayer, a prayer we pray together, a prayer that leads us to consider things we do with and for each other in our relationship with God.

We pray “Your kingdom come.” Then we live as though that kingdom were already here.  As Luther said in the Small Catechism, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come in us.”  As Willimon and Hauerwas said, we become Christian, we inhabit the kingdom of God, by praying this prayer and allowing it to shape our lives – trusting God to provide for us daily, imitating God’s forgiveness of us by forgiving others, believing

God will be with us no matter what troubles we face.  We take this prayer deep inside us and it comes out in the way we live our lives each day.

Now on the other matter of being persistent, insistent really; being constant in prayer and unwilling to give up in the face of failure and misfortune, just as my son was unwilling to give up trying to pray the prayer the way his teammates did.  Jesus uses two scenarios common to village life to make his point: borrowing from a neighbor and our goodness to our children.  Jesus is not saying that God is either a grumpy neighbor or an evil; rather he is using the ancient technique of arguing from the lesser to the greater – if a grumpy neighbor will respond to your pleas – think how much more so God will respond.  If parents will do good things for their, think about how much more so God will do good for us.  Either way, the point is a realistic understanding God, prayer, and life that I find summed up in the old Rolling Stones song: “No, you can’t always get what you want. You can’t always get what you want. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime . . ..” What? – What comes next? ________ Come on, I know y’all know the rest of it.  “But if you try sometime you find, you get what you need.”

Amen and amen.

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 11)

For July 17, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Whenever I hear this story, especially the part about Martha loudly complaining to Jesus that Mary is not helping her, I think of hot summer nights on the farm years ago. Mama and Daddy both worked two jobs; they got up early and milked the cow, and fed the stock (and the children) and then rode together to the textile mill, arriving in time to clock in for an eight-hour day ending at 3 pm. Then they rode home, and joined the children in the fields and barns, taking care of the crops until almost dark– in the summer that could be as late as 9 or 10 pm. After we ate dinner – Daddy and the five children would abandon a table full of dishes and pile into the den to watch television.
It didn’t take long until we could feel more than see an angry presence lurking in the door between the kitchen and the den. There stood Mama, hands on hips, towel clinched threateningly in her hand as she glared at Daddy. Finally, she would say, almost spitting it out, “Lowell, I could use some help in here.” And without skipping a beat, he would take a drag on his cigarette, expel some smoke, and point at a child and say, “Go help your mother in the kitchen.”

“But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” (Luke 10:40) Martha wanted Jesus to do what my Daddy did, point at Mary and say, “Go help your sister in the kitchen.” But he didn’t. Instead, he told Martha to calm down a bit, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. . . “- then he praised Mary, saying that she has taken the “better part.”

This story holds a certain charm for almost everyone. Parents with children, adults who used to be children, children who are still children; we can all think of times when our children were fussing and pointing fingers, or when we felt put upon and taken for granted – or perhaps others had accused us of slacking off and not being helpful. In many ways it is a universal story. And it lends itself to thinking about the constant tensions in religious life between orthopraxy (right practice) and orthodoxy (right praise); between activity and contemplation; between being busy and being still, between doing and being.

So we can end up with a sermon outline or Sunday school lesson that goes something like this:
(Lest anyone think I’m casting stones – I’m sure pretty sure I’ve preached more than one that came out this way.)

1 – The modern world is full of too many things to do, we all are consumed with our worries, and are all easily distracted by our expensive amusements and electronic toys.

2 – We should all stop being like Martha and start being like Mary – putting aside our worries and distractions and listening to Jesus.

3 – And since Jesus isn’t around for you to literally sit at his feet and listen any more, you should do the next best thing, and come to church more often and sit at my feet and listen to me, the preacher.

A nice, little, three-point outline – but not the point of this little story. The meaning for us turns on figuring out what “the one thing needed” is. What is the “better part” that Mary has chosen? What is Luke trying to say by relating this relatively minor incident in the life of two sisters?

For Luke, this is not a story about doing versus being. It is a story about receiving the Word of God into one’s life. As the scene opens, Martha has made a good start at receiving the living Word of God, Jesus the Christ. As he enters the village, she has invited him into her home. And, following his own words of instruction to the seventy when he sent them out to go ahead of him into the villages – he accepted the first invitation of shelter he received and was ready to eat whatever was put before him.

But then Martha turned from being welcoming and hospitable to being worried and concerned about making a good impression. When Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things,” he was not talking about her life in general – he was talking about that exact moment in particular.

She was so busy worrying about which dish to serve first, and what must the neighbors be thinking, and how long has that chicken been on the griddle, and when should I put the bread in the oven, and do we have enough wine, and if we get out the card table and put it in the den the youngest disciples can sit there – she was so busy thinking about those things she had no time to remember her guest – the reason she was having this dinner in the first place. She had invited the Christ into her home and into her life – and then she had no time for him. It wasn’t that her life was too busy and worrisome and distracted. It was not that she had no time for leisure, for re-creation, for leisure, for rest, for thinking deep thoughts and feeling warm feelings. All those things are important, but that’s not what Luke was after here. He was after the problem of having Christ in your house without having Christ in your heart. He was after the problem of making your faith about what you can do for God rather than about what God has done for you and wants to do with you and through you for others and for the world. “The one thing needed,” “the better part” that Mary had chosen, is the part of allowing the Word of God, in all its form – whether written, living, read, or preached – to speak to and change our lives.

Professor Dennis Okholm says it this way, “To paraphrase Karl Barth, “The church is because Christ is.” And to use the language of Barth’s Römerbrief, the church is “the great crater left by the impact of God’s revealing Word”—the Word whose chief function is to confront us with Jesus Christ.” (Theology Matters, Jan/Feb. 2009.)

Mary chose to sit and listen to the Word of God, she chose the better part – but not the only part. We too are invited to come and sit at the feet of Jesus, to listen to the Word of God, to pay attention to the activity of God in world, and to be changed by that Word. But, we are also sent out by that Word, sent out into the world to get busy with the Godly worry and holy busyness of unconditional love, bottomless generosity, and unending compassion. We are sent out to show the world the life-changing grace and heart-melting love that God in Christ has shown to us.

Amen and amen.

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

For July 10, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

G.K. Chesterton is probably best known to most people as the writer of the Father Brown mysteries.  They are about an English Catholic priest who solves mysteries.  The stories have frequently been made into “Mystery Theatre” shows on the BBC.  Chesterton was also a devoted Christian and a brilliant, witty, author and editor of books and magazines on both popular culture and Christianity.  He once said, “In one place Jesus tells us to love our neighbor.  In another he tells us to love our enemies.  This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.”

Our enemies and our neighbors are be the same people? Chesterton was not a trained minister and I doubt he knew Hebrew, so it’s questionable that he was aware of the biblical evidence that he was right.  According to Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill-Levine, “. . . in Hebrew, the words “neighbor” . . . and “enemy/evil-one” . . . share the same consonants, they differ only in vowels, which are not included in the text.  When Jesus asks the lawyer, “What do you read there?” he is asking “Are you able to see, in Torah’s words, the command to love both neighbor . . . and those you would see as enemies?” (Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 123) 

And when the lawyer said, “Who is my neighbor?” he did more than simply try to justify himself –  he revealed that he didn’t get the “enemy” part of the equation.  What he wanted to know was this: “Who is the person (or persons) whom I can reasonably be expected to help when they are in trouble?” Jesus answered him with a story that turns that question on its head. Jesus told him: “Your neighbor is exactly the opposite of who you think it is. The one you think is your enemy is really your friend.”

When we hear a story, we usually “identify” with someone in it.  We say to ourselves, “Yes, I’m like that person, that’s the way I feel or that’s the way I would act.”  When most of us hear the story of the “Good Samaritan,” most of us want to identify with the Good guy, don’t we? We’d like to think that, like him, we’d be helpful and kind. None of us wants to be the priest or the Levite; too busy, or too self-important, or too something to care.  We like to think of ourselves as the good, kind, Mother Teresa type person – selflessly coming to the aid of a stranger.

But Jesus was a good storyteller, and as a good storyteller, he knew who his listeners were likely to identify with, and he knew it would not be the Samaritan. Jesus’ audience was Jewish, the man in the ditch was Jewish, the Priest was Jewish, the Levite was Jewish, the robbers were Jewish, the storyteller, was Jewish, the lawyer was Jewish. It is a completely Jewish story. And the last person any of these Jews, except Jesus, expected to show up in this story was a Samaritan.

Jesus used a set of three to build their expectations.  It is a standard storytelling technique.  Play into expectations, and then give it a twist. We are all familiar with sets of three:  “A minister, a priest and a ____? went into a bar.”  A rabbi of course.  “The Father, Son and _____?”  Holy Spirit.  Larry, Moe, and _____? Curley. We know how this works.   A Jewish person knew what came next, “A priest, a Levite and . . .   an Israelite. But Jesus threw them a curve-ball.  Just when they were expecting a nice, helpful Jewish boy, Jesus popped a hated enemy into the story. Not only that, he made him the hero of the story. Jesus shook up their preconceived notion of where they could look for help in time of need. Jesus told the lawyer, and the crowd, that your neighbor – the one who will help you – could very well be the person you least expect.

When he asked Jesus who his neighbor was, the lawyer was trying to define the limits of his own love, the requirements of his ethical actions toward others. Jesus turned this upside down by establishing a love ethic that has no limits, that does not operate from definitions of who’s in and who’s out.  Jesus moved beyond the question who we are required to help. He moved beyond the surprise about who might help us to much bigger questions of our willingness to receive help, and to allow that help to change us.

About twenty years ago there was a KKK rally in Ann Arbor Michigan.  As you can imagine, this very liberal, progressive, university town was not particularly welcoming to the Klan, and many, many protesters hit the street to make their displeasure known.  There were police lining the parade route, there was a barrier put up to separate the protesters from the marchers, the anti-Klan folk far outnumbered both the Klansmen and their hangers-on.  In the midst of the activities, one of those hanger-on, a man with a confederate flag tee-shirt and a Nazi SS tattoo found himself on the wrong side of the police line and the barrier – he had stumbled into the midst of the protesters.  And they turned on him, they started pushing and punching; he ran, they chased; he fell and they pounced.  Amid shouts of “Kill the Nazi,” they began to beat him with the sticks holding their placards.

And in the midst of all this, a “samaritan” showed up. Keisha Thomas, an 18 year-old black girl, leapt out from the crowd and spread herself on top of the man, shouting out, “This isn’t right, this isn’t right.”  And the sight of this fierce and insistent black teen-ager protecting a middle-aged white racist man stopped that crowd in their tracks.  Keisha was not hurt and the man himself got up and left without saying a word, but a year or so later a young white man approached her and hesitantly said, “Thank you – you saved my father’s life.”

Did her actions change the man she saved? We can’t know.  But there is a hint that her actions changed the man’s son, at least a little bit.  Her actions halted a cycle of violence and turned it in a new direction.  She saw a man whom everyone else considered an enemy and she acted toward him as if he were her neighbor.  He experienced mercy from someone whom he expected to be an enemy, whom he would have treated as an enemy.

Jesus tells us to love our neighbors.  He also tells us to love our enemies.  This is because, as Chesterton said, if we read the bible right, and we read our neighbor and enemies right, if we see all of them with the eyes of faith, we are all the same people and we are called to love and be loved without limit and without hesitation.

Amen and amen.

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 9)

For July 3, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I was in college, I worked on a tobacco farm in eastern North Carolina. It was in the early days of mechanized tobacco harvesting and we worked on a contraption pulled by a tractor through the field.

The harvesters, “the croppers” we were called, sat on low seats a few inches from the ground. We picked the leaves of the plants and put them in a conveyer belt system that carried them to a platform about 10 feet in the air where the “stringers” tied the leaves onto the tobacco sticks to be hung in the barn for curing.

Our harvester was malfunctioning. The conveyer system wasn’t working properly and leaves were dropping out behind us. We kept stopping and starting while trying to fix the machine.
A 6-year-old boy from a nearby farm was watching us work. He observed our troubles for a while and then walked up to the farmer and said, “Well, you can’t elevate’em all, can you Mr. Virgil.”

“You can’t elevate’em all,” has been my ministry motto for almost 40 years; well actually for 35 – the first five years I still thought I could, in fact, elevate them all. But after a while I realized I could not.
It was much later that I also realized that this failure to “elevate’em all” was neither unique to me, nor was it an actual failure. It has always been like this – not only for the seventy whom Jesus sent out on a preaching/teaching/healing tour, but also for the twelve apostles, for the first missionaries like Paul and Silas, and Mark and Barnabas – it was also a problem for Jesus himself.

Not too long ago we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ leave-taking contains one of my favorite lines from the Gospels. 28:17 says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” (Common English Bible) Some doubted!? These are people who had spent two or three years following Jesus, listening to him preach, seeing him cast out demons and heal people and bring people back from the dead. They had even experienced the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. They had seen and felt and talked to the resurrected Jesus. And yet, and yet – “some doubted?” You “can’t elevate’em all,” indeed.

In our gospel lesson for today Jesus sends the seventy out to proclaim the coming kingdom of God.
He sends them out into the harvest, warning them of the dangers they will face; “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” He encourages them to travel light, “no purse, no bag, no sandals,” and no lollygagging – “greet no one on the road.” He tells them to neither expect nor ask for special treatment – “eat what is put before you, stay with the first people who invite you in.” And, by the way, do not expect that everyone will hear you gladly. “But whenever,” not if, but whenever, “whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you . . .” (10:10) You can’t elevate’em all, can you Rev. Pastor?

At a recent family reunion in southwest Virginia, the cousins were sharing the no nonsense approach of our grandmother and her various children, our parents. For example: I recalled complaining to Grandma that a couple of older cousins were building a tree house in the woods and wouldn’t let me climb up and get in. She said, “That’s a good thing. You won’t get hurt when it falls out of that tree.” In a similar vein, when I was a young minister I whined to my mother about how some of my parishioners were not showing me the respect I felt I deserved. Mama said, “When Jesus told you to take up a cross, you didn’t think he was referring to that shiny silver thing you wear around your neck, did you? There’s a reason they put those things on the roof and on the altar and it’s not about looking pretty.”

In this text – Jesus is not fussing at or dismissing those who fail to receive the Gospel – rather, he is giving encouragement to those of us who go out in the world to announce the coming of the kingdom of God. Because, then as now, human beings are prone to the desire to be successful, to be winners, or at least to avoid being losers. We want to figure out how to do it right so that all our hopes and dreams for our church will come true. And, if we’re not careful – we will start changing the message, ever so slightly, ever so tentatively, ever so hesitantly – trying to find the right thing to say, or the right way to say it, so that we will not be rejected, so that everyone will hear and receive us gladly. We become so desperate to “elevate’em all” that we forget that not only did Jesus warn us that we would not be able to, but he demonstrated by his own suffering and death upon a cross that it is not possible.

The good news is – it’s not our job to elevate’em all. Over and over again the Bible makes it plain that we are not in charge, God is. Just in our lessons for today we heard it said in many ways.

From Isaiah: “I will extend prosperity to her like a river,” (66:12) and “. the hand of the LORD is with his servants . . .” 66:14) These things are God’s doing, not ours.

In the Psalm: “Come and see what God has done” (66:5) and “Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living. . .” (66:8,9)

Paul, in Galatians, reminds himself, and us, to “. . . never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . “(6:14)

And in the Gospel lesson Jesus reminds us to “. . . ask the LORD of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” That is – it’s in God’s hands.

In light of this, what are we to do? Do we sit quietly, waiting for God to save the world? Do we come to this building and enjoy each other’s company and sing hymns and songs we like and then go about our business with no thought or mention of our faith until we gather here again on another Sunday? How do we go about announcing the good news that God’s unconditional grace and life-changing love are here, now – without either manipulating the message in order to win a hearing or worrying over much about how we will be received?

Anne Lamott, author of Traveling Mercies, and many other books about faith and spirituality, was recently quoted in The Week as saying “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” This does not mean we do not go outside these walls.
The walls are not the church, this building is not the church. We, the people, the congregation; we are the church. We go outside the walls, – to work, to play, to neighborhoods and communities. And we are invited by Christ be Christian in all that we say and do. We are encouraged to shine wherever we are, with whomever we encounter. And we are invited to trust God with the harvest. We may not be able to elevate’em all. But God can.

Amen and amen.

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C, Proper 8)

For June 26, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In about a month, people from all over the world will be heading for Brazil for the Summer Olympics. Members of my family have been back and forth across the country this summer – West to East, East to West, to do work, to see family, to take vacation. It’s the same for many people these days, especially in the summer. We tend to come and go a lot and almost at will.

This was not so until relatively recent times. New Testament Professor Tom Wright says that “in most of the world for most of human history, most people didn’t travel at all. . . . they stayed in their local neighborhood all their lives.” (Luke for Everyone, p. 117)

The main exception to this staying at home was going “on pilgrimage,” taking a religious trip to a special site; a temple or a shrine. Indeed, in English the word for special days of observance is HOLIDAY, which was originally HOLY DAY. In the British Isles, what we in the United States call “taking a vacation,” is referred to as “going on holiday.” For the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, going on pilgrimage usually meant going to Jerusalem, to the Temple, like Jesus’ family did when he was a twelve year old boy. (Luke 2:41-51)

In our Gospel Lesson for today, Jesus sets out on a pilgrimage – he goes on holiday in the true sense of the term, he sets out on a mission from God and for God, he goes to a holy place to do a holy thing. In verses 51 and 53 of chapter 9, Luke says that Jesus “set his face for Jerusalem.” This phrase means something like, “he was determined to go and would not let anything stop him.”

Today’s Gospel lesson was written to teach the first Christians what it meant to be on a trip with Jesus, about how to prepare, about what to take and what to leave behind. It’s a lesson in spiritual packing.

In the first half of our story, Jesus lets a Samaritan village know he is coming and the people send back word asking him not to come. We don’t really know why. The Bible says it was, “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” Does that mean they were opposed to the ministry and message of Jesus? Or does it mean that since they were Samaritans they were already hated by the leaders in Jerusalem and didn’t want any more trouble? We don’t know, but two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, got angry and wanted God to destroy this little village the way God destroyed Sodom in the time of Abraham and Lot. Shaking his head a bit, Jesus said, “No, leave them alone.”

What can we learn from this? Anywhere we go; God has been there before us. Anywhere we go, God is there with us. Anywhere we go; God will still be there when we leave. Just as messengers went in front of Jesus on his journey, anywhere we go with the Gospel, God has already been working. Sometimes the people are ready, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they receive us with open arms; sometimes they turn their backs. But that is not our concern, we neither condemn nor punish those who aren’t ready; nor do we take credit when we and the Gospel are received. When we prepare for a journey with Jesus, we are called to lay aside our concerns for how we will be received, replacing them with a deep awareness that God is with us, all the way, all the time, and what happens is in holy hands and is not within our control

In the second half of the story various people emerge from the crowd as Jesus walks along past the village. A man says “I’ll follow you anywhere.” Jesus responds by warning him it’s a life without a permanent home. Then Jesus invites a different man to follow him , but the man says he has to bury his father first. What he means is, “Let me fulfill all my family obligations, then I’ll follow you.” Jesus tells him “Let the dead bury the dead.” That is, “If you’re going to follow the Kingdom of God, you have to let go of that duty in order to take up a new duty, the duty to proclaim the Good News.” Then a person says, “Let me first go home and say good bye.” Jesus responds with a saying about not looking back while plowing. !”

The story from 1 Kings is a perfect example of what Jesus is trying to get people to see. Elijah taps Elisha with his mantle, like a very grown-up and very serious game of “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Elisha immediately leaves his plow and goes to Elijah, pleading that he must say good bye to his parents. Elijah grouchily says, “Go back then,” but Elisha does more than just kiss the folks – he puts an end to his old life. He chops up the yokes, the farm equipment, to build a fire. Then he kills and cooks the oxen and feeds the neighbors. Not only does he throw himself a going away party, he makes sure he can’t come back by destroying his means of making a living.

Just so, when Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, he turned his back on Nazareth, on the land around the Sea of Galilee, on his life as a carpenter and small town teacher and preacher. When Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, he knew he was going to his death, he knew he was, from that very moment, walking to the cross.

And he invites us to go with him. He invites us, calls us to follow him to Jerusalem, to the cross. He invites us to unpack all the small but heavy and burdensome things that keep us from loving God and each other completely and fully and passionately. When we have empty hands, we are able to reach out to others. When we remove the hate from our hearts, we have room for love. Jesus invites us to empty our hands and our hearts of all that we hold dear so that we can take up our cross and follow him.

Amen and amen.

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Lectionary 12)

For June 19, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One Sunday afternoon about 35 years ago I was driving across eastern North Carolina, headed for a church convention in Fayetteville.  I was listening to a radio preacher because that was the only station I could pick up and I love gospel choirs. The preacher was waxing eloquent about what Ephesians calls “the full armor of God.”  In rhythmic cadences, he invited folks to “put on the helmet of salvation, uh; and the breastplate of righteousness, uh; and the belt of truth, uh, about your waist, uh; and carry the shield of faith, yes uh; and always carry the sword, uh, of the Spirit, uh, which is the word of God. Yes, amen.  Yes sir, brothers and sisters, yes sir, as long as you facing the devil head on, uh, the Lord is with you.  But look here now – there ain’t no back-plate in here, no sir; if’n you turn your back on the devil and run – you on your own.”  I almost ran off the road at that point, I was laughing so hard.

But for the man Jesus met running around nude in the cemetery – the devil was no laughing matter.  Like most modern people, I don’t know what to make of biblical stories about demon possession and exorcisms, I really don’t. When I was studying at a somewhat liberal seminary in the late 1970s, we were taught that much of it was mental illness and epilepsy and things like that, and I’m sure that those things accounted for a lot of what people in the first century thought of as demon possession.  On the other hand, it doesn’t explain everything, and it doesn’t eliminate the fact that whatever was afflicting these people – Jesus was able to cure it.

In this story, and in several that come before and after it, Luke wants to show us, to reveal to us, that Jesus has authority over all sorts of things that make our lives miserable.  This is the second of four episodes in which Jesus displays this authority: 1 – Calming the storm. (8:22-25) 2 – Today’s story of the demon possessed man. (8:26-39) 3 – The woman with the flow of blood. (8:43-48) and 4 – The raising Jairus’ daughter.. (8:49-56)  In each of these stories, Jesus is confronted by something that is frightening to most of us most of the time: the unleashed power of nature, the mystifying behavior of a self-destructive person, the chronic pain and worry of an incurable disease, and the gaping finality of death.  And each time, Jesus refuses to turn his back. Each time, Jesus chokes down his fear and faces the evil and destructive force in front of him.  Each time, Jesus reveals a little bit more of the character of God and how God feels about God’s people.

So Jesus came to the man or the man came to Jesus, and after a bit of somewhat unintelligible verbal sparring, the Bible says the demons go into the swine and the swine go into the lake, and the man goes back into his good clothes and back into his right mind.

In this encounter Jesus shows us that God is not blind to, nor turns away from, the evils and ailments that beset us.  An important message here is that God is not away off there somewhere, far removed from our petty little lives.  No.  God is here with us now, just as God in Christ was there with that man and his demons then.  Elie Wiesel1 in “Night,” his classic book about the Nazi concentration camps, tells of a day when the guards hanged three people in front of the prisoners.  Two died immediately but a third, a young boy whom Wiesel described as being loved by everyone, hung on for about thirty minutes, struggling and choking and twisting in the wind.  As they watched, Wiesel heard someone behind him say, “Where is God now?”  and Wiesel thought to himself, “He’s right up there on those gallows with that boy.”  The Biblical understanding is that, although God does not always rescue us from our distress – God does always go through our “dangers, toils and snares” with us.  God in Christ came to face evil, not turn a back to it.

Jesus went to a land full of the gentiles and healed a non-Jewish person. God does not play favorites, not among genders, not among social classes, not among races or nationalities.  Instead of building walls, Jesus broke down barriers.

As it says in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28)  Where we continually separate and segregate and parse out minute variations in accent and origin and social class and educational level so that we can keep people appropriately classified and pigeon-holed – God in Christ simply stands in front of the world, and spreads wide those holy arms, and invites all to come.

But, many of us are simply afraid.  Verse 35 says, “Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.”  We are not our best selves when we are afraid. Often times, we turn our backs, not on the devil, but on God. When we follow our fear instead of our faith, we often find ourselves on the road to perdition – not actual hellfire and brimstone but rather a life (and death) of misery, anxiety, and sorrow.

“The man from whom the demons had gone,” shows us a better way.  He sits at the feet of Jesus.  In ancient times, The teacher sat down, on a rock or a chair, and the sat of the floor or the ground at the teacher’s feet.  To sit at someone’s feet was to indicate your devotion and your loyalty, both to their person and to their teaching.  This healed man, this rescued man, this freed and liberated and happy man responded to his healing, not with fear but with faith. He wanted to go where Jesus went, to do what Jesus did, to hear and obey whatever Jesus said.

But Jesus had a better idea.  Jesus told him to stay where he was and to tell people about the good things God had done for him.  So the man stayed – but he put his own twist on Jesus’ instructions.  Did you notice it?  He was told to talk about Jesus, he obeyed by telling people about Jesus.

We too have been healed by God in Christ.  We too have been freed from sin and liberated from fear; we have too been released from racism and set-free from sexual politics; we too have been sent out into the world to tell our story of God’s love and forgiveness; we too have been stripped of our defenses and re-clothed in the armor of God.  And though it true there is no back-plate – not to worry.  Jesus loves us and Jesus has got our back.

Amen and amen.

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One of my mother’s favorite stories to tell about me was about a time when I was still her baby – the youngest of her then three children.  I was about three, just old enough to form sentences.  The three of us were sick, probably with the flu.  She took us to the family doctor.  He looked us over and then turned his back and fiddled with something.  When he turned around he had a big needle in his hand.  According to Mama, I jumped off the table and ran to the door, trying to get it open while pointing at my siblings and shouting in the general direction of the doctor, “Just them two’s sick.  Just them two’s sick. Not me, not me!”

In our Gospel Lesson – Jesus is invited to eat with Simon, the Pharisee, who was not only intrigued and curious about this self-taught country preacher and faith healer, but also skeptical and dismissive.

It wasn’t long until everyone in town knew that Jesus was eating at Simon’s house. Soon, a crowd had gathered. People were intrigued and curious; they wanted to see Jesus; they wanted to hear him say something unusual, they hoped he might perform a miracle.

A woman; a “sinner” slipped through the crowd to Jesus. She came to where he reclined at table, she stretched herself out at his feet, she covered his feet with oil, she bathed them with her tears, she dried them with her hair. And, of course, all this sensuality, all this sexiness, all this touching was too much for Simon, who would never touch any woman but his wife, much less a woman like this, a sinner, a woman of ill-repute. “How could you?” Simon mumbled under his breathe. “How could you, allow this, this, this, woman to touch you? And all this bathing, and oiling, and wiping, and kissing.  It’s disgusting!  Some prophet you are!  A true prophet would have known what kind of woman she is and certainly would not have let her touch him.”

Some people who find it somewhat miraculous that Jesus is said to know what Simon is thinking at this point. Seriously? If looks could kill, the one Simon gave Jesus would have wiped out a neighborhood. No need to be a prophet to guess what was going on in Simon’s head – and heart; it was written all over his face. Jesus must have sighed and shook his head a bit as he began to tell Simon on of his little stories.

Two people owe money a man some money. One of them owes ten times as much as the other. Neither could pay. The man forgives the debt of both. “Which of them will love him more?” Jesus says.  Who will have more gratitude and more devotion?”  Of course Simon answers, “The one for whom he cancelled the bigger debt.”

Then Jesus lays it out to Simon how the woman had simply done for Jesus what Simon, as the host, should have done. She was not a good woman and she knew it. She knew she needed a lot of love and forgiveness. Unlike Simon, she had no lifetime of doing the right thing to cling to, she knew she was in trouble and needed help.

When she heard Jesus tell of repentance and acceptance into the Kingdom of God, when she heard his stories of love and forgiveness, when she saw him touch the untouchable and love the unlovely; it struck a chord deep within her soul. She really heard his words, not as ideas but as truth; not as religious concepts but as spiritual realities. She really heard it and believed it and knew herself to be loved and forgiven by God. Only one who knew that she had been forgiven much could respond with such great gratitude and love.

“Not me, Jesus. What you’re saying doesn’t apply to me. I’m not sick. I’m not a sinner. I don’t have hurt and pain and incompleteness. I’m a good person. What you’re saying applies to other people, not to me.”  That’s what Simon thought.

Until Nathan pointed the finger at him, and shouted out “Thou art the man,” that’s what King David thought. “Not me Lord. Only them people are sick. Not me. Go forgive, and heal, and love on someone else and leave me alone.”

Traditionally Calvinists have believed in something called “total depravity.” It’s a theological way of saying what St. Paul was getting at when he wrote, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” It doesn’t mean we’re all rotten through and through. It does mean we’re all rotten at least a little bit.

Dallas Willard was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California for almost 40 years. He was also a very active Christian, a member of a Baptist Church. When he died in 2013, his minister friend John Ortberg wrote an obituary, which said in part:

Somebody once asked Dallas if he believed in total depravity. “I believe in sufficient depravity,” he responded immediately.  What’s that? “I believe every human being is sufficiently depraved that when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, “I merited this.”

(Christianity Today, June 2016, p. 79)

We have not merited God’s grace, we have not earned it, we did nothing to deserve it.  It is God’s free gift to all of us. Our capacity to forgive others begins to grow when we realize that we are all a bit depraved, when we recognize how very much we have been forgiven by God. And our capacity to love others fully and unselfishly grows by leaps and bounds when we realize how very much we have been loved fully and unselfishly by God.

Amen and amen.

The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My grandfather Reid Chilton was a great storyteller in the old Appalachian tradition of starting out with something believable about one of your relatives that suddenly becomes both unbelievable and unbelievably funny.  A couple of those stories had to do with funerals in which the corpse apparently came back to life.  My favorite went something like this.

“Back yonder before the first World War your great Uncle Arrington was preaching a funeral over to the Primitive Baptist Meetinghouse in Dry Pond.  The lady what died, she was like your grandma here, she had the arthritis so bad she was all scrunched up.  Well, when this here lady died, they didn’t have no undertaker around to do things right, so they just stretched here out as straight as they could and then they tied her down with some good, thick twine that we used to use tie up to tobacco for curing.

Well, the day of the funeral come and the lady was laid out nice in the coffin and the lid was open of course – we didn’t used to shut it until we was ready to take the body out to the cemetery.  Your Uncle Arrington got real hot in his sermon, talking about the resurrection day, and how we all need to be ready, and how we need to be ready anytime and anyplace, and about that bright morning when the trumpet will sound and all the dead in Christ will come right up outer the grave; and people were nodding and smiling and shouting “Amen, that’s right!” when, all of a sudden, that woman’s strings broke and her muscles contracted and she sat straight up in that coffin and Lord – people went wild.  They was crawling out windows, and piling up around the door, trampling on each other and pulling each other back whilst they was trying to get out.  And your Uncle Arrington, why he just crawled up under the pulpit and sat there and kept mumbling, ‘Not now, Lord. I didn’t mean now. I don’t want to go now.’”

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

The Elijah story is a little like Grandpa’s tale about Uncle Arrington – Elijah is a somewhat comic figure.  He too is a bit peeved with God. “What are you doing to me?” he says. And he’s somewhat desperate in his efforts to heal.  It’s almost as if he’s making it up as he goes along.  “I know what I’ll do – I’ll lay down on top of him, maybe that will help?’” But, eventually, the boy is restored to life.

The story in Luke is very clear and straight-forward: A man is dead. A processions is on its way out of the city to bury him. Coming out of the gates of the town, the body is preceded by a group of professional mourners, playing on cymbals and wailing like Banshees.

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

A sonless widow in that time and that place was facing a life of poverty. With no man to provide for her and no social security or life insurance or inheritance or employability, she was dependent upon the kindness of strangers. Her future looked desperate, perhaps hopeless.

Jesus reached out and touched the funeral platform on which the dead man was being carried. By doing so he broke religious and cultural rules; seriously shocking, scandalizing and confusing all those around. Not stopping there, he broke the rules of science and common sense by commanding the young man to get up, to come to life, to return from the dead; and miracle of miracles, he did.

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

Time after time in the Gospels, Jesus’ compassion and love spills over and he does a miracle for someone in need. It is a great sadness to me that so many people don’t believe that God is love, that God is forgiving and kind and merciful. Too many people in the world believe that God is eager and willing to send us all to hell. In the story about Elijah, the woman turns on the prophet with the assumption that God has come to her house with judgment and punishment: Verse 18: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” In the Gospel lesson, when Jesus worked his miracle, the immediate response of the crowd is anxious fear. The text says “Fear seized all of them . . .” In my Grandpa’s tale, the humor plays off of the contrast between people’s joy at the prospect of a theoretical resurrection and their fear and panic in the face of a real one.

We live in a world full of fear. People are afraid of rising prices and falling incomes, we are afraid of first one presidential candidate and then the other one, we are afraid of failing health care systems, we are afraid of immigrants, and disease, and forest fires, and drought, and drugs, and tornadoes and hurricanes, and terrorists, and, and, and . . .the list is long and growing. And in the midst of all this fear, there are many people who are afraid of God. Or who believe that God doesn’t care what happens to us. Or believe there is no God to help us.

The Gospel for us today is this – into this bog of sadness, cynicism, and unbelief, God intervenes to shatter this cycle of fear and violence with words and deeds of compassion and healing.  God intervened not once but many times in the days of the Hebrew scriptures – through patriarchs and matriarchs, through Judges both make and females, through prophets and seers and women who spoke truth to power, through kings and queens and shepherd boys.

And God in Christ intervened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Whose words told us who we are and what we are called to do and whose life showed us the way, the way of the cross.

And God continues to intervene through us.  We are invited to join the Christ in having compassion; in overcoming fear with love, in overcoming sorrow with joy, in overcoming death with life. Christ is risen.

And, I do mean now. We should do this now.

Amen and amen.

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I have lived in several small town and rural places in the South.  In one of those communities I had a friend whose brother was married to Maria, a young woman from Mexico.  My friend was part of a large and close-knit farm family where everybody worked side by side on each others’ farms and frequently had meals together in their various houses.  “Daddy,” the patriarch, didn’t go to the field much anymore and spent most of his days in town, gossiping with other retired farmers on the benches in front of the courthouse.

One night at dinner, after he had spent the day filling up on misinformation, he passed the bowl of potatoes, and with it, this opinion, “This county is just being overrun by “high-spanics.” Feller at the courthouse told me.”  Fortunately, Maria was in the kitchen fetching the biscuits when Daddy said this and my friend kicked her father under the table and said, “Daddy, watch your mouth.”  Daddy was startled and confused and said, “What, what did I say?”  “Hispanics, Daddy – don’t talk about Hispanics.”  Daddy was now even more confused, “Well, why not?”  My friend sighed and said, “Daddy, Maria’s Hispanic.”  Daddy smiled and said, “Naw, it’s all right. She ain’t high-spanic.  She’s Mexican.”

Fear of the foreigner, exclusion of the other, has been a part of human culture forever.  My friend’s father knew and loved Maria, knew and loved her children, his grand-children.  But when someone suggested Hispanic people were a threat, he jumped on board, not realizing they were talking about beloved members of his own family.

We sometimes mistakenly characterize first century Judaism as being closed off from foreigners. This is simply not true.  For example, our first lesson was about King Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple.  Three things are of interest here.  1) Solomon himself is the great, great grandchild of Ruth, who was not Jewish, but was a Moabite.  2) In the text itself, Solomon prays for foreigners – specifically expecting them to come and pray at the temple and asking God to treat the foreigners the same way God treats the Israelites, the Chosen People. And 3) This text was written several hundred years after the dedication of the temple.  When the prayer was written down, the temple was in ruins and the people of Israel were in exile, themselves strangers in a strange land, living among foreigners in Babylon.  And yet, through the writing of this account, they expressed an awareness that all people are God’s people.  While it is true that there were some who understood Judaism as an exclusive religion, that was not the norm.  While their vision of inclusion was not our modern one, they were not any more anti-other than any other culture of that time or place.

Our Gospel lesson reflects this culture of interaction with foreigners.  The centurion was a foreigner, a foreigner who should have been hated I suppose.  He was the agent of a foreign military power.  Since there were no Roman troops stationed in the area of Capernaum during this time period it is likely that he was either a part of the Customs Service of the Empire or he was a retiree.  It was the policy of the Roman army to reward it’s retirees with grants of farms or estates in the provinces.  Either way, the centurion was a powerful and important man living in the midst of the Jews. And apparently he had reached out to his Jewish neighbors and had built a good relationship with them. The Jewish Elders were happy to represent him, to speak up for him in requesting that Jesus come and heal his slave. They said, “He is worthy, he loves us, he built our synagogue.”  He had done much for them as a benevolent force in their community and they were glad to help him out.

Yet, while the Jewish elders called this foreigner “worthy,” he calls himself “unworthy.” When Jesus is almost to his house, the centurion sends friends to tell Jesus not to come.  “I am not worthy for you to come into my house. Just say the word and my slave will be healed.”  He adds an explanation for why he thinks this way.  “I command troops, they do what I say.  I assume you command spirits and they will do what you say.  End of story.”  And indeed Jesus does heal the slave.

These two stories model for us a faith that reaches out to and interacts with foreigners, even in the midst of larger conflicts at work in society.  The writers of the story of Solomon’s  temple prayer were the losers in a war that wiped out their country and they were living in the midst of the people who had conquered them, yet they wrote about Solomon  praying that God would welcome the prayers of foreigners.  The Gospel story took place in a time when the people of Israel were under the rule of a foreign power and yet when an important and powerful soldier of that foreign power offer help in the form of building a temple – they accepted his help.  And when he asked for help they were happy to approach Jesus on his behalf.

A friend of mine was raised in a very conservative church.  In the 1960s he went off to college at the denominational college.  There he became a part of the civil rights movement.  One Sunday a multi-cultural group of students walked across the street and up the steps, dressed in Sunday best.  They had notified a newspaper reporter of their plans and on Monday morning there was a picture on the front page of the largest paper in the state, showing the group standing on the porch arguing with the church board, who had barred them all from the premises.  That weekend my friend went home to wash his clothes and eat some home cooking and his mother groused at him over the picture. “I just don’t know where you learned such crazy ideas.”  My friend said, “Why mother, I learned them from you at church, in Sunday School.” “When did I ever teach you such a thing?”  “When you taught me to sing,

‘Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in His sight.  Jesus loves the children of the world.’ I figured if Jesus loved all of us when we are children, he also loves us when we grow up.”

Jesus loves all of us, and Jesus calls all of us to love all the rest of us.

Amen and amen.

Holy Trinity Sunday (Year C)

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

About twenty years ago I served a church near Vanderbilt University. IN good weather I often ate my lunch in a park near the campus.  One day as I tore of pieces of my hamburger bun and threw them into a pond full of ducks, I noticed a dad and his five-year-old sitting on a nearby bench.  The dad had his head buried in books and papers on his knees while his son played nearby.  Suddenly, junior got up and stood at Daddy’s knee and asked a question about the ducks or the sky or something.  Without looking up from his papers, Dad answered with a long, rambling, compound sentence full of words and concepts far beyond the grasp of the average adult.  The little boy looked at his father for a minute and then said, “Uh Dad, are you talking to me?”   

The Athanasian Creed is traditionally said on Trinity Sunday – “Uncreated is the Father, uncreated is the Son, uncreated is the Spirit.  The Father is infinite; the Son is infinite; the Holy spirit is infinite.  Eternal is the Father, eternal is the Son, eternal is the Spirit; Yet there are not three eternal beings, but one who is eternal; as there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited.”  It goes on like that for a page and a half. “Uh Dad, are you talking to me?”

The Trinity is a difficult subject to talk about and to preach about, mostly because if we try too hard to explain the inexplicable we always make a mess of it.  By the time we have come up with an explanation that makes sense, we discover we have veered off track and said something that’s not actually true.  We have a tendency to say things like: God is one and we experience the Holy in three different ways, or that the one God puts on three different faces (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) depending on our human need – like I’m one person but to my siblings I’m a brother and to my wife I’m a husband and to my children I’m a Dad.  Sounds good, but it misses the point.

As the Athanasian Creed makes exceedingly clear, paragraph after paragraph, there are three persons, separate yet united, all God and yet all one God. Turning that divine reality into something that fits a mathematical or logical model that is easy to grasp is simply not possible.  In Corinthians Paul reminds us that we are stewards of the mysteries of God.  How God can be both three and one is a mystery of God – and I’m okay with that.

For, while I am not able to make complete sense of the life of God in the Trinity – the life of God in the Trinity makes sense of my life in the world.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.  Maker of Heaven and Earth, my Lord and Savior, the Giver of Life.  All these names and phrases and descriptions swirl around in my head and let me know who God is and what God has done in the past and what God is doing now, in this place and in this time.

A number of years ago the Barna Research Group reported a study that asked a cross-section of Americans what one sentence or phrase was the most important they had ever heard.

# 1 – I love you.

# 2 – I forgive you.

# 3 – Dinner’s ready, let’s eat.

The Hebrew Scriptures are the long saga of God’s desire to love God’s people.  If I had to sum up the meaning of everything from Genesis to Malachi, “God says I love you.” would do nicely.  God made the world and God loves the world.  God made us and God loves us.  God the Father, God the Creator, God the Maker is love.  All the trees in the forest and the water in the oceans and the birds in the sky scream out to us, “God is love and God loves you, and you, and you.  God loves all of us.”

But, because God loves us God made us free, made us free to make choices, free to live our lives.  And free people often make bad choices, either through ignorance or from evil intent.  Either way, it is a fact of human existence that we make a habit of messing up a good thing and it is when we have realized our failure to be good that the mere knowledge that God loves us is simply not enough.

Why?  Because paired with our knowledge of God’s love we now have an awareness of our unworthiness, our inability to be the good people we want to be, of our failure to live up to our own standard’s, much less God’s. Ever since Adam and Eve, people who have done wrong have shied away from God, fearful of having their own “sorriness” confronted by God’s holiness.

The only thing that can reach us is such a state is a clear message that God’s love is greater than our failure; that God’s love is so deep and broad and total that it can forgive and defeat even the darkest and most evil act. The cross stands as the centerpiece of a Christian people’s life together; a startling and sobering reminder that God’s love is free but it is not cheap.  God’s love is so complete that God in Christ was willing to suffer and die so that we could be forgiven and live.

We use the word “communion” to refer to the Lord’s Supper so much that we are in danger of forgetting it’s other meanings. It refers to the connection and community of God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in the one Godhead; and to the connection and communion of all of us as individual Christians who are yet one Body of Christ in this congregation, and the connection and community of this congregation with other congregations and with the Trinity in the universal, worldwide, all times and all places, thing we call the catholic church.  We gather for the meal which celebrates and solidifies this Holy Communion to remember that we are a community united in Christ that is called to constant love and forgiveness of each other and the world.  That is why the table is always open and inviting to all – calling everyone to the place where God’s love and forgiveness are made real and touchable in the body and blood of Christ.

Elaine Pagels is a New Testament scholar who has readily admitted over the years that she is not active in the church, that she does not believe what the church teaches.  Yet, in her book “Beyond Belief,” she was honest enough to write a personal testimony about the value of the church.  The day she discovered that her young son had a terminal illness, she found herself in the back of a church, not remembering how she got there.  After a while she decided to stay, thinking that she needed to be there, that it was good to be there. She writes:  “ . . .here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child, in a community . . that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.”

That is who we are.  That is who God has called us to be.  We are a place and people who say to the world.  “You are loved; you are forgiven; dinner’s ready, come eat.”  “You belong here, you are a part of us.”

Amen and amen.