The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)

For August 28, 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amen and amen.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)

For August 21, 2016

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


“Uh, sir, I can’t sell that to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Amen and amen.

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

For August 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

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

For August 7, 2016

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

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

For July 31, 2016

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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Amen.

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

For July 24, 2016

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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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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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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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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.