Year A — The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Commentary for April 10, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Ezekiel 37:1-14
It’s actually a pretty spooky scene, if you stop and think about it. Ezekiel often gets swept away by the Spirit of the Lord for ecstatic visions — but in this one, he ends up “down in the valley” surrounded by nothing but bones. 

As in human bones. They used to be skeletons, but they’re past that stage now. The text notes that they are “very dry” — all the life-giving marrow has been sucked out by the wind and time. There are no remaining connective tissues; presumably, they have also gone the way of the desert air. Just a pile of bones, literally. 

As if to remove all doubt, the scene emphasizes emphatically (which is saying the same thing twice, I guess) that these people are DEAD — LONG DEAD!

Which of course, sets the stage for a dramatic revival of spirit, flesh, and bones by the Lord GOD. And a great precedent for not only the miraculous story of Lazarus’ re-entry into the land of the living in the gospel story for today, but for God’s greatest miracle of new life: the resurrection of the Lord (coming soon to an Easter story near you!)

Of note: it is clearly God’s power that transforms the bones in Ezekiel’s vision; yet, the “Mortal” prophet is invited to play his part in the dramatic transformation. God invites us, weak and mortal though we may be, to “prophesy” — to preach and proclaim — the good news of God’s redemption.

Psalm 130
Beautiful prayer of acknowledgment that it is from “the depths” that God hears our cries. Perhaps this is because we are most likely to call to God when we’re in the depths? Not that many psalms begin, “From the mountaintops I called unto you, O Lord…”

Verse 6 is particularly poignant: “my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.”

Have you ever had one of those nights that you thought would never end? Anxious over the health of a sick child…waiting to learn the results of an important medical test…wondering about the fate of a loved one…facing a difficult situation of almost any kind…the kind of experience St. John of the Cross called la noche oscura del alma — “the long dark night of the soul?”

That’s what it means to watch for the morning. That’s what it means to wait (long, ache, hope) for the Lord.

Romans 8:6-11
Lots of language here about flesh and death and the spirit and being raised from the dead. Fits in well with the texts from Ezekiel and the Gospel.

For a focal point, you might consider verse 9a: ” But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

John 11:1-45
There are a number of important questions raised by the story of Lazarus; among them is one lifted up by Dr. Chilton in the sermon that follows: “does an awareness of God’s power to overcome death make a difference in how we live our lives?”

Jesus confronts Martha, the sister of Lazarus, with essentially that question. “Your brother will live again, Martha…do you believe this?”

We stand with family members time and again, offering the rites and assurances of our particular traditions for the burial of the dead. The question persists there, quite tangibly.

As preachers, perhaps the best place for us to begin preparing this week’s message is to ask the question of ourselves. Does my awareness of God’s power to overcome death make a difference in how I live my life?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be?”

That was the first line of the first sermon preached by James Insight in his first parish. In his book, I TURNED MY COLLAR ROUND, he tells the “rest of the story.”

In his mail on his first day in that church, Father Insight found an advertisement for a sermon service which promised to send him, for a modest fee, a fresh sermon every week, written by a “veteran” preacher, and based on the week’s Gospel lesson.

They helpfully included a “sample” sermon, already printed out and ready to preach.  The young Rev. virtuously wadded it up and threw it in the trash-can.

All week he struggled to find time to write a sermon as well as struggling with the fact that he really didn’t know how.  Finally, on Saturday night, he plunged into the trash can, recovered the trial sermon, smoothed it out, and promised himself, “just this once.”

“Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be? It certainly caught the congregation’s attention. As a sermon, it was not full of mercy, but it was mercifully short.

A classmate of the new Vicar, a man who had been the star of the class, who took all the prizes in Greek and Hebrew and theology, was scheduled to preach Evening Prayer.

The guest preacher went into the pulpit, fiddled with his notes, adjusted his vestments, pulled his glasses down to the end of his nose and, glaring over them at the congregation, bellowed;

“Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be?”

and proceeded to preach the exact same sermon, with the exact same gestures, that Insight had preached that morning.

The question is an important one, isn’t it? Where will we be ten minutes after we’re dead?

What does life after death hold for us? Is this all there is, or is there something more to follow?

And, if there is, what difference does it make?

Is the promise of life after death just pie in the sky, bye-and-bye?

Or, does an awareness of God’s power to overcome death make a difference in how we live our lives? Here. And now.

Each of our Scripture lessons deals with these matters of life and death and life eternal.

Ezekiel looks out over a valley of dry bones and hears God ask:
Son of man, can these bones live?

St. Paul writes to the church in Rome and says:
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

And the Gospel Lesson is the story of the raising of Lazarus, a story containing much talk of life and death, and the startling sign of Jesus bringing a dead man back to the world of the living.

Lazarus is the one man who could have told us much about what effect a second chance at life might have.

Unfortunately, the Bible is mostly silent about what happened to Lazarus after he walked out of the tomb, merely noting his presence at dinner with Jesus 6 days before the Passover.

All of us are familiar with stories of near death experiences. The long tunnel of light and a comforting presence at the end have become a part of popular culture, including being in an episode of the Simpsons.

Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard joked about one of his many heart surgeries by saying that he himself had seen a strange light at the end of a long tunnel.

He said he realized he had gone to Georgia Heaven when a strong voice said, “Attention K-mart shoppers, our Blue Light Special is. . . “

In 1821, a boy was born into a well-to-do St. Petersburg, Russia family. After graduation from the Imperial Military Academy, the young man found that he was more interested in writing than fighting, and so he became a journalist and a novelist, writing about the life of the well-to-do in Czarist Russia.

He also spent much time discussing politics with other young writers, whiling away the afternoons in bars and cafes; filling the time with coffee and communism, rum and revolution.

Czar Nikolas the First quickly learned of the young radicals group and decided to teach them a lesson.

He had them arrested and tried and sentenced them to death by firing squad. They were dressed in White death gowns and led to a public square where the military detail awaited them.

Blind-folded, dressed in burial clothes, hands bound tightly behind their backs, they were paraded before a jeering crowd, and then tied to posts.

The order “ready, aim” was shouted. The rifles were cocked and . . . at just that moment a horseman rode up with a message from the Czar: sentence was to be commuted to four years hard labor.

Fyodor Dostoevsky never fully recovered from this experience. He had peered into the jaws of death and from that moment life became for him precious beyond calculation.

“Now my life will change,” he said, “I shall be born again in a new form.”

In his life after that there were two signs of that profound born again-ness.

One was faith in Christ. As he boarded the convict train for Siberia, a devout woman handed him a New Testament, the only book allowed in prison.

He read the Gospels over and over again while he was in prison and emerged with an unshakable confidence and belief in Christ.

The other was that he came out of prison a different type of writer. His naive views on the inherent goodness of humanity were shattered on the hard rock of the gigantic evil he found in his cellmates.

Yet, over time, he glimpsed the image of God in even the lowest of prisoners. He came to believe that only through BEING LOVED is a human being capable of love.

Out of this transition came his great and moving novels of sin and repentance, forgiveness and grace:

Crime and Punishment
The Brothers Karamazov
The Idiot

Those of us who baptize infants by sprinkling and pouring sometimes miss one of the great messages of Baptism, a message fully evident in the immersing, the dunking, of an adult convert completely beneath the water. In Baptism we “die and rise with Christ.” Listen to the words of the Lutheran Funeral service:

When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 280)

“. . . . we too might live a new life.” The message of the Gospel is that ten minutes after we’re dead we will be safe in the arms of God’s love. Our most important death has already taken place, our death to sin and the devil.

We live each day as new creatures in Christ and death no longer holds any threat for us.

Poet/priest John Donne said, Death be not proud. Why should death not be proud? Because Death cannot win, indeed, death has already lost.

Our calling today is to live each day as persons for whom death holds no fear,

as messengers of the unbelievable Good news that God’s love is more powerful than anything this world can do to us,

we are called to spread the word that dry bones can indeed live:

Prophesy to the bones, People! Prophesy to the bones!


Year A — The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Apologies for the tardiness of this week’s post…we’ll see if we can’t get back on schedule from now on!

Commentary for April 3, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

1 Samuel 16:1-13
It is with more than a dab of discomfort that we confront this text that has God saying, “…I have rejected [Saul] from being king over Israel.” What do we do when we face the clear displeasure of the Lord with our chosen path and plan?

(Remember, the people had gone against the express will of both God and Samuel earlier by repeatedly affirming, “We want to be like the OTHER nations…we want a king!”) Now, the king was going crazy, and it didn’t seem like such a good idea after all…and on top of all that, God was p—-d!

There is distrust that abounds everywhere, for as Samuel approached the elders in Bethlehem they asked him, “Do you come in peace?” Even faithful old Samuel must have a few questions in his mind for God, as prime candidate after prime candidate passes before him, and yet each one is passed over by God. 

Finally, when it is all said and done, God tells Samuel to anoint the “runt of the litter.” Almost funny that, when the people picked their king, they chose head-taller-than-everybody-else Saul; when God picks the king, they get the shepherd boy. 

Something here about God’s propensity to choose the “foolish” things of the world in order to demonstrate God’s power, hmmm?

Psalm 23
Okay, so what do you want me to add to the voluminous commentary on Psalm 23? Wow…what a text!

Of course, it ties us to God’s selection of David as king for Israel; the shepherd boy becomes the shepherd of Israel. And it is his family line that will produce the Great Shepherd, Jesus the Christ.

The late Richard Carlson made publishing history (and not a few shekels, I’m sure) with his blockbuster little book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…(and it’s all small stuff!) It remains an excellent resource for learning to let go of our compulsive need to manage every detail of our daily lives.

David, the Shepherd/King, beat him to the punch by a few thousand years, though. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…”

Ephesians 5:8-14
Ephesians 5:10 makes for an excellent “life verse.” Write it down; paste it up on the fridge; carry it around on a card, or better yet, just go ahead and memorize it. You’ll never need to buy another self-help bestseller for as long as you live.

“Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” One might add, “then do it.” 

John 9:1-41 
Dr. Chilton states in this week’s sermon that the story from John’s gospel for this week is a long one, with many twists and turns. True that, Dr. C.!

It requires a good bit of exegetical work to make this passage preach, and it is without hesitation that I commend to you the effort below to do just that.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Our Gospel lesson is a long story with many twists and turns.  It is a story that requires us to pay close attention to the double meaning of words.

It is also a story that reminds us that God looks at the world very differently than we do.

The story follows a fairly simple outline:

1) 1-7 – Jesus heals a man born blind

2)  8-12 – The neighbors are puzzled and ask questions.

3)  13–17 – The Pharisees are puzzled and ask questions.

4) 18-23 – The parents are puzzled and are asked questions and bail on their son.

5) 24-34- The Pharisees ask more questions, the man gives the best answers he can.  The Pharisees get mad.

6) 35-41- The man and Jesus talk. Jesus gives answers. Sort of.

In the midst of this simple story, lots of questions are raised, questions about the ways of God, questions about sin and punishment, questions about Good and Evil.

Mostly questions about Jesus; Who is he? Is he Good? Is he Evil? Is he the Devil? Is he the Messiah?

The story starts with Jesus seeing a man born blind and the disciples asking a, well, a stupid question.

At least it seems stupid to us, but it made perfect sense to them. They believed in a first century version of instant Karma, of direct punishment for sins. As the saying goes, “Somebody’s gotta pay!

The man was born blind, so it’s obvious his blindness is God’s punishment for some sin. But whose? Did the parents get a blind son as punishment for some sin of their own? Or is the man being punished for some cosmic sin committed in the spirit world?

This was a common belief at the time of Jesus. It is the result of a belief in a completely and totally fair and just God. And we fall victim to this sort of thinking all the time. “What did I do to deserve this?” we whine when something inconvenient happens to us; as if God sits in heaven with a sin-o-meter, keeping track of our misdeeds and meting out demerits for Sacred Honor Code violations.

But, it doesn’t work that way, which is a good thing for us; because if we really were directly punished for our sins, we’d all be a lot worse off than we are; me especially.

Jesus says that neither the man nor his parents are to blame, then he heals him; with mud and spit and a wash in the spring, all the while talking about being the light of the world and being about God’s work.

Then the cycle of questioning begins.

First the neighbors. And we have to admit; we’d be as amazed and confused and puzzled as they. He looks like the man born blind, but, but, this guy can see; how could that happen?

The Blind man kept saying. “It’s me. It’s really me.”And they kept saying, but how?  And the man told the simple unvarnished truth, without interpretation;

“This man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”

Next it was the Pharisees turn, the religious right wing, those who were so certain they were right that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees, those who had created a strict understanding of how God works in the world, and no little miracle was going to change their understanding of God.

They were convinced that God had set up the world so that:
1) Sinners cannot do miracles.
2) Working on the Sabbath is a sin.
3) Healing is work.
4) Jesus healed/worked on the Sabbath.
5) Therefore Jesus was a sinner, and
6) Therefore, Jesus could not work a miracle.

The whole discussion with the Pharisees and his parents and the Pharisees again, from verse 13 to verse 34, revolves around these issues; and I do mean revolves.

The discussion goes around in circles as the man who once was blind sticks to his straight story about his healing; no interpretation, no elaboration. In the old TV show Dragnet style, he gives, “just the facts.”

“I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

And the Pharisees can’t take it. What has happened has broken their model for how God works.

Jesus does things that they consider sin, and sinners can’t work miracles and yet this man claims Jesus healed him. Does not compute! Does not compute!

In an article in Ministry magazine, Margaret Shuster, of Fuller Seminary in California says, “Some of us, . . .know too little about the seeming contrariness of God . . .” (Ministry, March 2008, p.11) I like that, “the seeming contrariness of God.”

We don’t like it when God gets contrary, do we? We like God to color between the lines, to follow the speed limit and stay in the right lane.

And the Bible shows us a God who likes to speed, who can sometimes barely keep it between the ditches, who not only does not color between the lines; it sometimes appears that God doesn’t even know that the lines are there.

If we try to see God and God’s activity in the world as limited by our ability to figure out how God could or should behave, we have created, in the words of bible translator JB Phillips, a “God who is too small.”

If you think you have God figured out, you are like the poster my wife used to have up over her desk when we were in college. It showed a grumpy looking Gorilla with its hands over its ears and its eyes closed. The caption read, DON’T CONFUSE ME WITH THE FACTS, I’VE ALREADY MADE UP MY MIND!

That was the Pharisees; they had already made up their minds. Though the neighbors and the parents swore that this man had been born blind, though it was obvious that he could now see, though it testified over and over that Jesus had done it, they couldn’t accept it; it did not fit their preconceived and thought out plan of how God works in the world. And so, they got mad and threw the man out.

Now we turn to the last paragraph, where John shows us the man born blind having a conversation with Jesus. Jesus reveals his identity as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of Man. And the man born blind confesses his faith saying, “Lord, I believe!” Then John shows Jesus explaining what has just happened. Listen carefully:

I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.

John is using the two meaning of sight and blindness here. Physical sight and spiritual awareness, and is making it clear to the Pharisees that they are the truly blind people in the story.

When my boys were little, I taught myself a phrase to say when they goofed up, as kids are always going to do. Instead of yelling or fussing when they made a mess or broke something or got into a fight, I tried to always say, “Okay, what have we learned from this?”

It’s a good question to ask about this story, what have we learned from this?

1) We have learned that life is not exactly fair. We are not directly punished for our sins and we are not directly rewarded for our good deeds; which, for most of us, is a good deal; since our sins generally outweigh our good deeds.

2) We have learned that, in the words of the old Ray Stevens song, Everything Is Beautiful: “There is none so blind as he who will not see.”
The Pharisees refused to recognize that Jesus was a good man, a healer, perhaps a prophet, maybe the Messiah; because he did not fit their system. The question for us is simple: what truth about God have we failed to see because it does not fit with the way we want to see the world.

3) We have learned that the Bible teaches Jesus as more than a good man, a teacher of moral truth, an insightful interpreter of human nature. We have learned that the Bible teaches that Jesus is The Son of Man, the Christ, the Messiah, the Light of the world. That he came into this world to open our eyes to the truth about God and love and sin and forgiveness.

4) And we have learned that our calling is to be like the man born blind. We are called to tell the simple, clear unvarnished truth about how Jesus has touched and changed our lives. Nothing More and nothing Less.

We are called to say, One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.


Year A — The Third Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 27, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 17:1-7
It’s tough to be “the man in charge.” (I realize that some of the “men in charge” who read this blog are women, by the way.) Pastors will more than likely sympathize almost immediately with Moses, who shepherds the flock of Israel along their way early in the wilderness wandering.

He has been on the job for less than a year; things went swimmingly well (no pun intended) at the crossing of the Red Sea, and there had been a couple of close calls just a bit earlier in the Exodus account. 

The people had already faced this “no water to drink” problem once, and Moses (at God’s instruction) had found a solution (see 15:22ff.) They had also been without food, and God provided manna (I love it…”what is it?” is the literal translation for the word manna! — see 16:1ff.)

But, NOOOOO! That’s not good enough for the Israelites by the time we get to chapter 17; that whole “Pharaoh’s army got drowned/God gave us water/God provided manna” scene was long gone from their memories. What has God done for us LATELY? And just who do you think YOU, are, Moses…leading us out here to die like this? Geez…if we’d have known you weren’t any better than this, we’d have sent you back to the seminary!

Well, some days it’s just like that, isn’t it? People are people, and they can be pretty cranky and cantankerous and short-sighted. But, God couldn’t quite let Moses give up. “It’s not about you, Moses; it’s really all about what they believe about ME. So, pull your staff out one more time and we’ll try to take care of them.”

Pastors and preachers, you may feel a lot like Moses sometimes. It seems that we are in a real “what have you done for me lately?” business. But, don’t get discouraged; it’s more than likely not about you. You be sure you are regularly using the staff of your preparation, your prayers, and the passion for serving God that brought you to this call in the first place. God will take care of the rest. 


Psalm 95
There are few better calls to worship than Psalm 95:6 — “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!”

The psalm references the Exodus 17 text by reminding us not to let our hearts become hardened like the people who were at “Meribah and Massah.” The two words mean “quarreling” and “testy.” 

Yeah…don’t be like that!

Romans 5:1-11
Suffering may or may not be something that we, or our congregants, know a lot about. Most likely, there will be a variety of experiences among the people in our pews that will qualify in their minds as suffering. I may not agree, or you may not agree — but suffering, in one form or another, is pretty much a common part of the human experience.

Romans reminds us that there is some redemption in suffering; not that suffering should be glorified, nor that those who suffer necessarily become more spiritual or in some way superior. But there is possibility in the midst of suffering…it does not have to be undergone in vain. 

Suffering can have meaning; certainly, a part of our Lenten journey is to consider the suffering of the Lord on our behalf, the suffering that exists in the world around us, and our own suffering. In what ways can we seek redemption in suffering through the endurance, character, hope and love that come from the Spirit of God?

John 4:5-42
Neither Jesus, nor the woman from Sychar should have been at that well at noon time. It was a “woman’s place” — the men would be out and about doing the important things that men have to do. (Harrumph, harrumph…) Drawing the water for the daily needs of the household was “woman’s work” — but was not usually done in the heat of the day. Early morning and late afternoon would have been much more appropriate times for being at the well.

Isn’t it interesting how God seems to do some of God’s best work in “unexpected” places and at “uncommon” times –not to mention through “unusual” suspects!

In the sermon below, Pastor Chilton develops the idea of what it means when we are willing to follow the example of the Lord and allow ourselves to be placed in “unusual” circumstances and, sometimes, to take “uncommon” risks and actions. Perhaps that might be the key to experiencing “unexpected” blessings.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In 1978, the churches now forming the ELCA introduced a new worship book, the Lutheran Book of Worship; known to most Lutherans as the LBW or “the Green Book.”

One of the “new things” that the Green Book introduced was the passing of the peace. This was not met with, um, universal enthusiasm shall we say, amongst traditionally stoic and reserved German Lutherans in the South.

While I was in seminary in South Carolina in the early ’80s, I read in the SC Synod Newsletter about one pastor’s experience teaching his congregation about passing the peace.

He had written a newsletter article about it, preached a sermon about it, finally the fateful day came when he turned from the Altar and said to the congregation, in what he hoped was a warm and encouraging voice, “The Peace of the Lord be with you!” 

“And also with you,” came the mumbled, almost hushed, reply.

Stepping bravely out of his appointed place in the chancel, the pastor went forward to the front row to shake the hand of the woman there and greet her with words of peace.

She was someone he barely knew, who sporadically attended services and always slipped out during the last hymn.

The moment his hand touched the hand the elderly woman tentatively held out, her face crumbled, her eyes flowed with tears and she fled the building by a side door.

It was all the pastor could do to finish the service, and as soon as possible he drove to her house to check on her.

She politely ushered him into the “front room,” and told him, “I’m so sorry I made such a scene. It’s hard to explain. You see pastor, since my husband died 5 years ago; you’re the first person who has touched me.”

There are many people in the world today who are yearning to be touched, looking for someone to reach out to them, to make contact with them.

Ours is a world full of hurting, lonely, scared and scarred folk, needing to be touched and healed.

In our Gospel lesson today, we read the story of a time when Jesus touched a life.

It is a story that calls us to the ministry of touching the lives of others with the love and concern of Christ.

It was not easy for Jesus to touch the Samaritan woman’s life. He had to overcome, or simply ignore, many societal and cultural barriers to do it.

He was a Jew – she was a Samaritan.

He was a man – she was a woman.

He was a Rabbi – she was a woman of suspect moral character.

Yet, here was Jesus, a religious leader, alone in a lonely place; not only speaking to her but holding a long conversation with her, someone he was not supposed to even make contact with.

And yet, Jesus found a way to touch and transform her life.

Jews considered Samaritans to be racially impure, a mongrel race, half Jew and half Barbarian.

The Samaritans were the descendants of the lower class people left behind when the rich and educated and powerful leaders of Israel had been carted off in bondage to Babylon.

The ancestors of the Samaritans had inter-married with the non-Jews living in the area and had tried to keep the faith alive the best way they could without a temple or priesthood, passing on the Torah in oral fashion and worshipping at outdoor altars on mountaintops.

When the Jews returned from Babylon years later, they wouldn’t let the Samaritans help with the rebuilding of the Temple, indeed wouldn’t have anything to do with the Samaritans at all.

So the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Girizim. Eventually, tensions between the groups erupted and an Israeli army destroyed the Samaritan temple, leaving them to worship on the lonely mountaintop.

Jesus was a Jew – she was a Samaritan; they should have ignored each other. But there’s more.

Even if she had been Jewish, the encounter would have been suspect, because many Jews believed that men should not speak to women in public.

The most strict Rabbis advised that men should not speak to their own wives in public.

There was even a group of devout Pharisees who were nicknamed the “black-and-blues,’ because they walked around in public with their eyes closed to avoid seeing a woman and kept running into things.

BUT Jesus ignored all this, and at mid-day, while sitting alone at a well, he asked her for a drink of water.

Nothing extraordinary, nothing stupendous or profound, just a drink of water.

And she could not have been more surprised if he had asked her to fly.

What was said between them was much less important than the fact that he spoke to her, he carried on a conversation with her, he treated her like a person worth knowing.

He treated her with respect, he treated her, A SAMARITAN WOMAN!!!,
like someone who was acceptable, like someone who was touchable.

He touched her life in that conversation. He talked to her about important things; about God and life and worship and love.

And most importantly, he did not condemn her as others had done. Rather, he offered her an opportunity to change her life. He offered her the Living Water of God’s Love.

He did not argue with her about the relative merits of Jewish and Samaritan ways of worshipping the same God. Rather he shared with her his love for that God and his certainty that without Spirit and Truth, no worship was true.

He touched her – by going where she was.

He touched her – by ignoring societal barriers that  separated them.

He touched her – by letting her know that he cared about her, he accepted her, he loved her.

Jesus is reaching out to us today, reaching out with love and acceptance, reaching out to invite us to follow him on the way of the cross.

Jesus also calls us to call others, to reach out to the world around us, to the people around us, and touch them with the love of God in Christ.

We are called to be like the woman at the well, going and telling others about the one who has touched our lives.

Amen and Amen.

Year A — The Second Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 20, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Genesis 12:1-4a

Lent is a season of journey; faithful followers of Jesus seek to walk a bit more solemnly and — hopefully — with a bit more sensitivity to the voice of God’s calling for our lives. 

Abram most likely goes down as the supreme example (other than Christ himself) of “call and response” in this area. The story as we have it is brief; we do not get the richness of detail that will come later with characters such as Jacob (who wrestled with God) or Moses (who argued with God.)

Abram, in some way which is not revealed to us, hears the call of God for his life: “Go…I will show you…and I will bless you.” That’s pretty much it. Not long on detail, this call from God.

And Abram went. Did he struggle with the implications of his decision? Did he put up a fight with God, offer any resistance, ask for more clarity or for magical signs? Again, we don’t know, and we generally assume that he did not. He simply packed up and went. 

This is an important part of our consideration of our own journey with Christ for Lent. First, how will we hear the voice of God? And, second, how will we respond? Dare we decide now…in advance…that when the voice of God calls us, we will simply go?

Psalm 121
Many of our “older” parishioners — perhaps experienced is a better term — carry the first verse of this magnificent psalm in their memories from the elegant King James Version: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

Glorious language…unfortunate punctuation. It is not “the hills” that provide our source of help. It is the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth that does so. 

Lifting our eyes to the hills is a gesture of searching, of openness. Some might say that it is an act that bears a certain sense of desperation or weariness. “Oh, God, I don’t think I can take much more! Where are you? Can you help? Will you?!”

The reassuring good news is that the Lord will, indeed, bring help. God is not asleep on the job; God is there, above you, as a shade in the heat of the noonday sun (we appreciate that in Florida!)

Notice the calm, steady rhythm of the closing verses: “The Lord will keep your going out AND your coming in from this time on AND forevermore.” That pretty much covers it, I think!

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Now, we get a look at Abraham from the “flip side” — a thousand-plus years after his obedient response to God and subsequent journeys that laid the foundation for God’s work through the nation of Israel. 

Abraham is THE MAN for many nations and people of faith, just as God promised in those early days. Abraham has plenty of reason to boast, Paul reminds us. If anybody was ever righteous before God for what he had accomplished, it would be Abraham.

But, it wasn’t Abraham’s great works, or even his obedience that mattered. It was his faith. Of course, one might well argue (and other biblical writers do so, at considerable length) that Abraham’s faith was made visible by his “works.” Faith is not faith, some might say, until and unless it is demonstrated.

We won’t solve that issue in the course of this brief commentary, or in any number of sermons. However, the point remains: without faith, it is impossible to please God. Abraham had it; so should we.

John 3:1-17

John 3:16 is in the news again these days. This time, it’s not the guy with the multi-colored wig who appeared so regularly at NFL games and other major sporting events holding up his sign, or even Tim Tebow with the verse painted under his eyes as he prepares to do battle on the football gridiron.

It’s an evangelical preacher who wonders if maybe this verse actually means what it says, i.e., that God really, really, really LOVES the world…all of it! (You can check out one writer’s view of the brouhaha stirred up by Rob Bell here.)

Most people do not realize that the most-often quoted numerals in the Bible (they know the John 3:16 part, if not what it actually says!) comes from the longer discussion Jesus was having with Nicodemus. It’s a heckuva dialogue, I tell ya’, and I’ll leave you to sort out the exegetical issues associated with phrases like, “as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness,” and “you must be born again [from above.]”

But I think that no matter what your take on the “serpent/born again” language, the impact portion of this passage remains with the Big 1-6. Just what does it mean for God to love the world…all of it? (Check out your best Greek sources for kosmos; here‘s a quick reference if you’d like.)

Personally, I think Rob Bell may be on to something. Call me a big believer in the love of God.

I’ve been called worse.

Matthew 17:1-9

Please see commentary and sermon for March 6, 2011  

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Did you ever hear of a man named Harvey Pinick? A lot of golfers have. He wrote a best seller called Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book. There’s an interesting story about that.

Harvey Pinick was born in 1905. He started his golf career caddying at the Austin, Texas Country Club. He pretty much stayed there his whole life, moving up to golf pro and teacher.

In the 1920’s, Harvey bought a Red spiral notebook and began jotting down teaching notes, humorous stories and homespun philosophy derived from teaching and playing golf with all sorts of people. He never intended to show the book to anyone, he was going to give it to his son, someday.

In 1991, when he was 86 years old, Harvey showed the book to a writer he knew and ask him if it was worth publishing. The man took it, read it, and told him yes. The writer called Harvey’s house one day and talked to Harvey’s wife. He left a message that Simon and Schuster had agreed to an advance of $90,000.

A week or so later the writer saw Harvey at the golf course. Harvey seemed nervous and upset. After hemming and hawing a while, Harvey spit out what was bothering him. With all his medical bills and his limited income, Harvey just couldn’t see any way he could come up with the 90 thousand to get the book published.

The writer stared at Harvey for a while and then burst out laughing. “Look Harvey, you don’t pay them, they pay YOU. You don’t give 90 thousand; you get 90 thousand.

Many of us are like Harvey Pinick. We think our relationship with God is about what we have to pay God, about what we can do to make God accept our work. 

But it’s really the other way around. God wants to give us the free gift of his Son, of his love. As our Gospel Lesson teaches us “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)

We are pretty good at saying the right words about this relationship, we learned them in Sunday School or Confirmation Class, we hear them over and over in  sermons, we do know how to say the words:

Justification by Grace through Faith,
Justification by Grace through Faith.
It’s our mantra, our slogan, our holy chant, our rallying cry.

But do we believe it? Not so much with our heads and with our words, but deep in our hearts and in our souls and in our emotions? Do we know that God has saved us because God loves us? Do we know that it’s about what God has given us; not what we have given God?

It seems to me that all too often we have higher entry level standards than God. It is the basic human condition that in every area of life that time after time we seek to prove that we are good enough or smart enough or faithful enough or diligent enough or beautiful enough or holy enough to deserve the love we receive from God.

And the reality is that none of us is any of those things enough to have even earned the love of our parents or our children or our partners of our friends; much less earning and deserving the love of the Creator of the Universe.

The most important thing that can happen in any relationship is that you figure out that the other person just loves you. You didn’t earn that, it just happened, it’s a mystery. Parents love their children, children love their parents, husbands and wives and boyfriends and girlfriends love each other just because they do.

The second most important thing that can happen in a relationship is that you figure out that love can die if it is abused or taken for granted. But, if love is embraced and nurtured, it will never die.

People do not earn each other’s love, they accept and receive and care for each other’s love and in that warm caring space, love grows stronger and more enduring.

The same is true of God’s love for us and our love for God. We do not earn God’s love. We do not merit God’s love.

We are not so lovely and good that God looks down upon the earth and says, “Oh look at that one! There’s a beautiful holy person, I’ll love her!” And none of us is so ugly and sinful that God says, “Look at that disgusting person, I’ll turn my back on him!”

God made all of us and God loves all of us. There is nothing we did to create that reality and there is nothing we can do to change it. God is love and God loves you and God loves me.

We did not create it and we cannot change it, but we can either live in God’s love or we can ignore it; we can choose to embrace God’s love or we can choose to abuse it by taking it for granted.

Our readings from Genesis and Romans refer to the story of the calling of Abram and Sarai; they were called to leave the land of their birth, Ur of the Chaldees and to go wherever God sends them.

The Bible says nothing about God seeing something special in these two people that made God pick them; God just did. We don’t know; Abram and Sarai may not have been God’s first choice. God may have been going around the Middle East calling people for years, but nobody else listened. Who knows; maybe Abram and Sarai were at the bottom of God’s list, not the top.

But, they were the ones who said yes to God’s call. They heard the promise of love and blessing and responded by placing their trust in God and following where they were led.

That’s what justification by grace through faith really means; hearing God’s call, feeling God’s love and embracing God’s grace and allowing our lives to be changed, altered by God’s very real presence in us.

I want to ask you something this morning. Have you allowed God to love you? Have you taken the time to sit quietly with your soul and look honestly at your life and then say to God, “This is me. This is who I am, this is what I’ve done and I know it’s not enough, but it is all I’ve got.”?

I’m not talking about the so-called sinner’s prayer, or “getting saved,” or any of that.

I’m talking about allowing God’s love to embrace you fully and completely.

I’m talking about putting aside any notions that you’re not good enough or complete enough or you don’t believe enough or do enough.

I’m talking about sitting still and looking at Jesus lifted up on the cross and realizing that the magnitude and completeness of God’s love for you is beyond belief or comprehension.

I’m talking about opening your heart to the love God has for you. Have you done it? Won’t you do it?

Year A — The First Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 13, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The story of “the Fall” is pretty well-known to most of our listeners…at least, they THINK they know this story. You could always use this little exercise as an attention-getter and sermon opener: “How many of you think that Eve was wrong to pick that first apple off of the tree?”

You’ll get a mixture of confused stares, enthusiastic hands raised, and irritated grimaces from your folks, no doubt; that’s when you say, “Well, of course, we don’t really know WHAT the forbidden fruit was, since the Bible never really SAYS it was an apple.”

That’ll make ’em take a second look — and illustrate the point that we should ALWAYS be sure that the scripture says what we THINK we know that it says.

That’s kind of how the serpent plies his trade here, after all; “did God really say?…” is such an enticing line.

“Well, come to think of it, I’m not really sure what God said; hmm, maybe what God meant was (fill in the blank with your favorite interpretation.)”

I’ve often said to my congregations over the years — remember, this is the Baptist Bubba speaking now — “The devil has never had to come up with a new line. We’re still falling for it after all these years!”

We die just a little every time we surrender God’s good intentions for an experience of our own design.

Psalm 32

There are few descriptions more vivid in depicting the struggle that sin brings to our bodies, hearts and minds than Psalm 32. “Body wasted…groaning all day long…strength dried up….” We identify with the aftermath of our poor choices, do we not?

But the good news is also present in this ancient text. Confession does, indeed, restore the soul. Notice vv. 6-7 particularly in relief of the earlier part of the psalm: “rush of mighty waters…hiding place…glad cries of deliverance….”

Better than the words of the old Alka-Seltzer commercial! (Check the original “Speedy” here.)

Romans 5:12-19

The Apostle performs some great “theological math” in this passage. One man’s sin, which is a problem for us all, is canceled out by one man’s sacrifice. In fact, the gift made possible by the one man (Jesus) is much greater than the curse brought on by the one man (Adam.)

The sin of the one + the grace of the One = freedom for the many

Grace > Sin

Theological math, I tell ‘ya!

Matthew 4:1-11

I’m pretty sure that, if I had been there in the wilderness — with the power that was available to Jesus — I would have fallen for the old “turn the stones into bread” trick. Like the humans in the garden, that temptation would have looked so “good for food” and “pleasant to the eyes”…and I’d have succumbed like so many others before me.

But, that’s kind of the point of this familiar passage for the first Sunday in Lent, isn’t it? I wasn’t there, and Jesus was. And he didn’t fail the test.

This is, it seems to me, a crucial point for what Calvin called the “whole course” of Christ’s obedience. It is not only on the cross that “Jesus took my place;” rather, at every point in which he was tempted, the Christ is taking my place. Jesus accomplishes what I could not, completely and in every way.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Several years ago someone gave me a tee-shirt that I absolutely loved. I wore it so much I wore it out. Just the other day, I was dusting the furniture and found its remnants in the rag box. It read:

To do is to be” – PLATO “To be is to do” – DESCARTES

“Dobedobedo” – SINATRA

What we do, how be behave, what we believe; is a large part of how others define us.

Pastor, teacher, housewife, student, musician, funny, quiet, aggressive, talkative, etc.

And how we define ourselves has a major effect on how we behave.

It is, at times, a chicken and the egg question. Which came first? Am I a Pastor because I do pastoral things; or do I do pastoral things because I am a Pastor?

The biblical position is that we act out of our identity; that who we believe ourselves to be is the determining factor in what we choose to do.

Have you ever noticed that when someone behaves in an outrageous or improper or, most often, horribly RUDE manner, the first thing people say is: “Well, just who do you think you are?”

That is the right question. Who we think we are shapes our behavior. And the Bible shows us that Satan knew this. That is why he challenged Jesus on the point of identity in today’s Gospel lesson.

The key to understanding the story of the temptations lies in the THREE little words: IF YOU ARE.

In the last verse of Chapter Three, verse 22, following Jesus’ baptism, a voice comes from heaven and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And here just a few days later, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God.” Satan presents Jesus with the opportunity to define what it means to be the Son of God.

He is given the opportunity to win popularity by turning stones into bread, feeding the masses and feeding his ego at the same time.

He is given the opportunity to achieve great power by worshipping the devil and turning his back on trusting God to provide.
He is given the opportunity to achieve great fame by throwing himself off the temple and showing himself to be God’s Chosen One by letting the angels catch him.

These temptations invite Jesus to imitate the Emperors in Rome who secured power by giving the people free food and free entertainment, winning their favor with bread and gladiators.

The temptations with which Jesus was faced are the very ones we, you and I, fall victim to on a regular, I would almost say, a daily basis.

In little subtle ways we seek popularity or power or possessions as a way of hedging our bets against the uncertainty of the world.

After all, we live in an age in which a grocery store “meet and greet” for a congresswoman was turned into a national tragedy by a lone man with a gun; terrorists blow up innocent people, stock markets plunge and housing prices fall,

A world where wars rage and tornados strike and earthquakes break open the very ground beneath our feet.

A little control over our own lives and a bit of money securely invested, what’s wrong with that?

It comes down to a matter of faith, of trust, of belief and confidence in the promises of God to love and care for us throughout life’s trials and temptations.

The problem is: the things the Devil wanted Jesus to do as the Son of God are selfish, and self-serving and ultimately self-glorifying.

And Jesus rejected them because being centered on self is inconsistent with being the Christ, the Beloved, the Son of God, the one sent to save others.

It was during the forty days in the wilderness that Jesus struggled with what it meant to be the Son of God.

When he became clear about that identity, he came out of the wilderness, and began to preach the Kingdom of God and to perform mighty acts of healing and exorcism.

In the forty days in the wilderness, Jesus found out who he was and came forth ready to behave in accord with his identity.

When Jesus knew who he was, the question of what he was to do was already answered.

To be the Christ, the Son of God, laid out for him a path to follow, a way of being in the world that led to certain things to do; preaching. Healing, confronting evil.

Throughout these forty days of Lent we are called to contemplate the life of Jesus, his path of service and obedience to God, his living out his identity as the Son of God.

As we do that, we must ask ourselves some identity questions, personally and congregationally.

Who am I? Who am I, really? And what is God calling me to do? Who are we? Who are we, really? And what is God calling us to do?

Not too long ago I turned on the TV to watch a ballgame and caught the tail end of an old episode of LAW AND ORDER.

Two lawyers, one white, one black, were sitting in a book lined office, having a drink and discussing the just ended case. The black lawyer said, “I used to think I was a lawyer who happened to be black. Now I feel more like a black man who happens to be a lawyer.”

It is a question of identity that will shape his life and work.

Who am I? Am I a lawyer, or doctor, or policeman, or office manager, or teacher, or truck-driver or nurse, or retiree who happens to be a Christian?

Or am I a Christian; who happens to be a lawyer or doctor or policeman, etc.

It is an important question, and the answer will shape your life.

Likewise, as a congregation, as a community, we struggle with identity questions.

Who are we, really? Are we a gathering of like-minded people, a denominational enclave? If so, then the things we do should be designed to take care of ourselves.

Or are we a people whom God has called together to be the Body of Christ, as Martin Luther says in his Small Catechism:

Called, gathered, empowered and sent? Called to be a Christian, gathered around Word and Sacrament, empowered by the Holy Spirit, sent into the world to spread the love of God.

If that is who we are (and I believe it is) then the things we do will be designed to care for others.

Jesus spent forty days in the Wilderness struggling with the question of identity, struggling to discover what it meant to be the Son of God.

Throughout the forty days of Lent, we are called to do the same. We must ask ourselves,

“If we are the beloved children of God, what is God calling us to do?”

Church; just WHO do you think you are?

Amen and amen.

Year A — Ash Wednesday

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
A few years ago the church I was serving went through a major renovation of the Fellowship Hall and Sunday School space. Just past the door to my office there was a plywood barrier with a 6 foot tall – 2 foot wide entry hole covered with heavy plastic. It had a sign on it that said “Do Not Enter.”
So, of course, every Sunday all the men ignored the sign and went through into the construction area to check out the progress. And every Monday I came into the office to see a trail of dusty footprints from the plywood barrier past my office and out the side door.
Now, being a preacher my thoughts on this matter turned quickly from floor cleaning to soul cleaning and lessons we can learn from dust.
In the first place: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return is a reminder of our humanity.
In the movie Rudy, the hero is an undersized young man from a steel town who wanted to play football for Notre Dame. He faces almost impossible odds in trying to make his dream come true. During one of his worst days, he goes to see a priest at the College chapel; asking him all those “why?” questions we are prone to in moments of disappointment.
The priest smiled and said to him, “Son, I’ve been a priest for over 40 years and there are only two things I am absolutely certain if: There is a God, and I’m not him.”
THERE IS A GOD AND I’m not him,
We are human and we are therefore less than perfect.
We are human and prone to failure.
We are human, and are incapable of making of ourselves anything else but humans.
Dust reminds us of the messes we make in life, of life.
Like dusty footprints in the hall, we leave behind us traces of our own humanity, signs of our imperfection for all the world to see.
No matter how hard we try not to, we leave bits of dusty failure and frailty behind us, wherever we go.
That is why the Ash Wednesday liturgy contains a long confession; it is an attempt to own up to the inevitable messiness of our lives.
But is it important that confession always ends with absolution, with a declaration of forgiveness; and that this promise of forgiveness is contained in the Ash Wednesday refrain:
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
To dust you shall return; this is an echo of the story in Genesis where God took a lump of clay, a bit of dust, and breathed life into it.
Indeed we are dust, but we are very special dust, we are dust that has been filled with the breath, the spirit of the Living Creator God.
And when we die, our dust will return to its maker, to its God.
So, far from being rejected because our messy dustiness; we are gathered back to the one who gave us, who gave our dust, its very life.
In the meantime, in the interval between birth and death, between dust and dust, we live in this world as imperfect human beings, as fallen and fractured angels; what Martin Luther called being a Saint and a Sinner at the same time.
All too often, we try to see ourselves or our God at one end or the other of the Holiness spectrum.
Either we see God as a stern and unbending judge and ourselves as miserable sinners, or
We see God as a sort of indulgent grandparent, excusing our every cute mistake on the strength of the divine love, and we see ourselves as sweet, harmless little saints.
And the truth lies somewhere murkily in the middle, somewhere in the vast empty space between those two extremes.
Yes, God is holy and righteous. Yes, God does hate sin and demands justice and yes, we do fail to measure up.
And yes, God does love us, all of us, with a complete and unconditional love, a love that casts our sin deep into the sea, as far from us as the east is from the west.
Now, the thing is, we can’t place God somewhere in the middle between these two extremes, there is no diddle position, no “sort-of” nice, “sort-of” stern God.
The truth is God is, at one and the same time, both of these seemingly opposite extremes, just as we are both saint and sinner at the same time.
God is the inexpressible mystery that lives in the empty space between God as judge and God as savior.
In the temple, in the holy of holies, atop the altar, cherubim and seraphim, nothing there: God is in the empty place.
Remember that you are dust, that you and you and you and me, all of us are a speck of us dust beneath the feet of a mighty God.
And remember to dust you shall return. Remember a loving God calls you back to the place where you were created.
In that mysterious space is where God waits to receive us, and the only way to be ready to be received is, in the words of Psalm 51, with “A contrite heart and a broken spirit.”
Our Lenten journey is a journey to the cross, the place where the ultimate mystery of God’s love is revealed.
The cross is the place where God’s judgment of sin and God’s forgiveness of the sinner merge in the form of the crucified Christ.
Martin Luther used to say that we tend to look for God in all the wrong places, in feats of power or stern-ness of purpose.
Luther said there is only one place that we can look and be certain that we are seeing God,
There is only one place where God’s terrible justice and God’s steadfast love are both clearly revealed, and that place is Christ upon the Cross.
So, this night, and every night, remember that you are dust,
And never forget the promise that to dust you shall return.