An Unabashed Plea for Your Participation

The Two Bubbas beseechingly request the honour of your presence at our Mountaintop Soiree this October 24-26 in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina!

Seriously, we have had a good initial response for the Advent Lectionary Workshop, but would like to invite any of our other loyal readers who might be considering joining us to go ahead and indicate your interest. We need to plan appropriately at the Hinton Retreat Center, so your communication and participation would be most welcome!

And, while you’re at it…invite a friend to come on along.

Year A — The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19)

Commentary for September 11, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 14:19-31
It strikes me that one of our more popular current catch phrases is, “Don’t worry…I got your back!” Spoken by a true friend, those words mean an awful lot. Having someone there to help, support, and cover our more vulnerable moments can be a a real life-saver.

How much more awesome, then, to see that God literally had Israel’s back in this most treacherous moment of the Exodus. Just when it seemed that the promise of liberation might fail after all — with a thundering herd of horses, chariots, and angry Egyptians in hot pursuit — God calmly and confidently moved from the vanguard to the rear guard. 

Keep trusting, people of God…the LORD has got your back!

Psalm 114
I have had the fortunate occasion of some extended time off recently, and used a portion of that to get outdoors into God’s creation. There is nothing like the power and majesty of mountains, oceans, and the incredible blue of the sky on a clear day to restore my sanity and confidence in the sustaining presence of God.

The psalm celebrates God’s power — sometimes displayed dramatically in nature — by virtue of his mere (or, perhaps sheer) presence. What does it take to turn the sea back or to set a mountain skipping? Just God, showing up.

Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
In our contemporary context, the “Song if Miriam” might be seen as a little too festive or celebratory in the face of the tragedy that befell the Egyptians. In a war, for one side to triumph means that the other side has been obliterated, or pretty close to it (take Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples.)

Yet, for Israel, the triumph at the Red Sea is seen as an expression of God’s will, might, power and — ultimately — righteousness. We dare not read this text as “might makes right.” This is not, “My God is bigger than your God…” (which sort of logic I hear a lot of in today’s international and inter-religious dialogue/debate/demagoguery.) 

A celebratory prayer, or even hymn of praise, after a time of national deliverance is fitting; we are right to acknowledge the hand of God in our lives, even and especially when coming through a “trial by fire.” But, we do well to remember that God has many children, and that hearts are heavy on all sides of a conflict when precious lives are lost.

 Genesis 50:15-21
Joseph’s example is one we need when considering our response to those who have wronged us: “Am I in the place of God? You intended to do harm to me, but God intended it for good…so, have no fear.”

 Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Perhaps my favorite praise psalm, Psalm 103 has more good “tidbits” that I will ever be able to uncover and share in my lifetime. On this day, I think these stand out particularly:

  • The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (I really appreciate the “slow” part — not that God never gets angry, but rather, that anger is well-tempered by mercy, grace and love)
  • God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. (Hoo, boy, am I happy about this one — especially given some of the bonehead moves I have employed in my lifetime!)
  •  …as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. Just how far is the east from the west? (A little Kipling here might help!)

 Romans 14:1-12
The takeaway from Romans for today:

  1. Quarreling over opinions is a foolish thing to do.
  2. We will all stand accountable before God.

Here ends the lesson.

Matthew 18:21-35
Only in God’s timing could this gospel portion come up for us in America on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. Forgiveness is a deep, national struggle for us when it comes to the events of that day.

Dr. Chilton helps us situate our own struggles with forgiveness in today’s sermon. 

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Today is the tenth anniversary of a day that, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, “will live in infamy.”

Most of us have very vivid memories of that day; where we were when we heard the news, huddling around TV sets with loved ones or co-workers, checking up on friends and relatives around the country, hastily organized prayer vigils and worship services.

Emotions were running raw and deep. I particularly remember a pastor friend praying at a neighborhood service. He invoked Jesus on the cross praying for the Roman soldiers, his executioners, by saying “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” The pastor prayed that we might come to the place where we could pray that prayer with Jesus for those who destroyed the twin towers.

An acquaintance of mine reacted very negatively to that prayer and called to talk to me about it. At the end of a long conversation she said, “Well, I know that’s the way I’m supposed to feel and act; but I’m just not there yet and I’m not sure I ever will be.”

I think most of us know what she meant, especially today. Forgiveness is easy to talk about and hard to do. And sometimes, in certain circumstances, it feels almost impossible.
In Today’s Gospel lesson, when Peter says to Jesus that he thinks forgiving seven times is enough, Peter is feeling pretty good about himself.

After all, the Law only requires that we forgive an actual brother, a blood relative, three times for the same offence.

Peter generously expands the notion of “brother” or “sister” by including members of the church. Then he more than doubles the amount of forgiveness required.

But Jesus stuns Peter by expanding it even more, to 77 times or maybe to 70 x 7.

Through exaggeration, Jesus is making a point that he expands with the parable of the Master and the unforgiving servant; there are no limits to God’s forgiveness, nor should there be on ours.

In the parable the Master calls in the slave who owes him 10,000 talents. This the slave cannot pay. He begs that the debt be forgiven. And the Master does indeed forgive the slave the debt.

Then, that very day, almost at the same time, this same recently forgiven slave goes out and cruelly throws a fellow servant in jail over a debt of 100 denarii.

Let me see if I can make these numbers make sense. 1 Talent = 6000 denari. So, doing the math; the first slave owed the Master 60 million denarii while the second slave owed only a 100. Talents, denarii, dollars; it doesn’t matter, the point is obvious.

The first slave owed the Master a debt that it was impossible to pay. Then he turned around and refused to forgive someone else a tiny debt.

This, Jesus says, is the way we human beings treat one another. God has forgiven us much and yet we are reluctant to forgive one another a little.

Marina Gottshalk wrote a column in the Oakland Tribune a few years ago about a gun amnesty program in the town of Kensington, CA.

A woman brought in a loaded pistol she had bought 20 years ago, planning to kill her husband. She never shot him, but notice, Gottshalk says; she kept the gun loaded.

All too often, our forgiveness is like the woman choosing NOT to kill her husband. Someone does us wrong, and while we may not cause a scene, neither do we forgive. We don’t shoot them, but we keep the gun loaded just in case.

How do we learn to forgive? Only through remembering how much we have been forgiven.

We all owe to God a debt we cannot possibly pay.

Yet God forgives us:

Not because of our promises to be good,
not because of our promises of future service,
not because of our commitment to give more to the church. None of that is enough.

God forgives us because of who God is, not because of who we are.

The grace and forgiveness of God are free, but they are not cheap; the cross is a constant reminder of their cost.

In our story the man who was forgiven much then fails to forgive another man a little thing, a small debt. Again, the connection to us is painfully obvious.

How can we, who have been forgiven so much, fail to forgive others their sins against us?

That is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer that we are to forgive others the little things because God has already forgiven us everything.

Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, says, “For just as we sin greatly against God every day and yet he forgives it all through grace, so we also must always forgive our neighbor who does us harm, violence and injustice, bears malice against us, etc. If you do not forgive, do not think that you are forgiven in heaven. But if you forgive, you have the comfort and assurance that you are forgiven in heaven – not on account of your forgiveness (for God does it altogether freely, out of pure Grace . . .)” [Book of Concord, Fortress, 2000 edition, p. 453]

April 25, 1958 – Philadelphia, PA.A Korean student at the University of Pennsylvania was waylaid on the way to Post Office by a street gang. He was beaten, robbed and killed.

There was a great public outcry, the prosecutors called for the death penalty.

In the midst of the furor, a letter arrived from Korea. It read:

Our family has met together and we have decided to petition that the most generous treatment possible within the laws of your government be given to those who have committed this criminal action . . . .

In order to give evidence of our sincere hope contained in this petition, we have decided to save money to start a fund for the religious, educational, vocational and social guidance of the boys when they are released.

We have dared to express our hope with a spirit received from the Gospel of Jesus Christ – who died for our sins.

How do we truly forgive one another? Only through remembering that we have already been forgiven much by God. Amen and amen.

Year A — The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)

Commentary for September 4, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 12:1-14
New beginnings. We all need them at some time in our lives, don’t we? This may be the biggest “new beginning” in the Bible, short of the death and resurrection of Christ.

After many of years of faithfulness, followed by many years of suffering, oppression and prayers, the children of Israel are about to be delivered from their misery by means of the tenth (and most “awe-ful”) plague — the death of the first-born children in Egypt.

God gives detailed instructions through Moses for salvation from the plague. A sacrificial lamb, the shedding of blood, a common meal, preparations to depart into a new (if somewhat unknown) life. All of these are themes that will echo in the Christian telling of the Jesus story.

Why is blood required? Why must life be ended in order for life to be gained? Are there “innocent” lives involved here…children, mothers, families who had nothing to do with the stiff resistance of Pharoah?

All of these questions speak to the horrific consequences of sin — unfortunately, sin always leads to death. And even more tragically, we may be affected by sin that is committed by us or someone else, completely unbeknownst to us. Talk about a bummer!

What, then, is the takeaway from this Passover passage? 

God takes sin very seriously; God provides a way of salvation; that way is dreadfully costly; ultimately, it is God who not only provides the way, but pays the price, as well.

Psalm 149

It is pretty difficult for us to relate to a service of worship and praise in which we celebrate God’s vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people who are our enemies. (Well, maybe it’s not that difficult for some within the Christian community, but it is for me!)

I’m still struggling with what to do with a line like v.6: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands…”

Perhaps the best I can do at the moment is to acknowledge my discomfort, and recall the words of the Apostle from last week’s lesson, “…give place unto wrath: for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

Ezekiel 33:7-11
This passage offers some balance to the language of the psalm; it was also quoted often in the aftermath of the slaying of Osama bin Laden earlier this year. That God does not take any delight in the loss of human life — even of those who are “wicked” — is an important element of the divine character. We do well to remember that.

Psalm 119:33-40
Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola cursed the secular Medici society of Florence, Italy during his day (late 15th century) — leading his followers to a frenzied “Bonfire of the Vanities” in which they burned collections of art, literature and cosmetics on Mardi Gras, 1497. (What a dude! Read more about Fr. Savonarola here.)

Author Tom Wolfe used the phrase to great advantage with his 1987 novel (and subsequent movie adaptation) about life in New York City during the decade of the 1980’s. The book illustrated Wolfe’s theme (taken from Ecclesiastes — “all is vanity” — according to some sources) that no one really has any control over their own life, regardless of wealth, wisdom or success.

(Read the book, or catch Tom Hanks in one of his most underwhelming roles in the movie…a nice suggested companion book is Ragen, Brian Abel (2002), Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, ISBN 0313313830)

Psalm 119 is right on the mark again!

Romans 13:8-14
Paul gets us right where we need to be got, especially after all these heavy lessons about killing the first-born and owning up to our vanities.

You don’t really owe ANYTHING to ANYBODY…except to love them. That’s the real point of what God has been trying to say all along. Period.

Matthew 18:15-20
We are sometimes afraid of this bit of relational wisdom from Jesus. We oughtn’t be; this is not a process to try when somebody in the church has been bad and we want to get rid of them. It’s a powerful injunction to give the respect due to each other — and to try to work things out face to face when we’ve hit a bump in the highway of human frailty.

The thing is, it’s absolutely amazing how often v.15 does the trick!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit my mother on the farm where I grew up in the foothills of Virginia. I went for a drive to check on old familiar places and leaving the parking lot of Hatcher’s Chapel United Methodist, I glanced down the road and across a pasture at the Pentecostal Church and remembered a story my late father had told me about that church. It brought a smile to my face as I stood at his grave later that day.

Most of the denominations in that part of the world were against tobacco, but the vast majority ignored the fact that many of their members were tobacco farmers or worked in tobacco factories. Not the Pentecostal Holiness. They took their anti-tobacco stance seriously.

Daddy told me that every spring, when the farmers in his congregation planted their tobacco, the Preacher would go and see them and read them the section in the Pentecostal Holiness Discipline forbidding involvement in “the tobacco trade” and the scripture we read from Matthew. A few weeks later he brought two elders with him and did it again. And some time before Memorial Day, the women and children of the congregation gathered in solemn assembly to excommunicate their fathers and husbands and brothers, etc. Then everyone would go home to a nice Sunday dinner.

Sometime in the Fall, after everyone had harvested their crop and sold their tobacco, the women and children would gather again and vote their menfolk back in, just in time, my father added with a wink, for the church to collect a tithe on the proceeds of the tobacco sale.

Somehow, while following the Bible literally and carefully, the good folks at the Pentecostal Holiness church managed to miss the entire point of Jesus’ teaching in this matter. They used this text as a way to keep the church clean from the messiness of sin while Jesus meant it as a way to bring messy, sinful people back into the household of faith.

It is interesting to note that Matthew 18:15-17 is the only bit of Scripture cited explicitly, chapter and verse, in the Model Constitution for Congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is in Chapter 15, THE DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS.

The wording of the constitution is important here. It says, “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18.” Did you notice? “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted.”

This text is not about “How to throw someone out so the church will be pure.” This text is about “How to love somebody back in so that they might be saved.”

There are three things in the text that show us this:

1) Context: Matthew placed this episode between two important sayings of Jesus about forgiveness and the reclaiming of the lost. It comes after the shepherd leaving the 99 to go search for the one lost sheep and before Jesus tells Peter that we should forgive sinners not seven times but
seventy time seven. It is obviously a part of a forgiveness reconciliation section.

2) Within the text itself, verse 15, Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one;” indicating that the whole point is to bring people back into the family of faith.

3) And for me, the most important point is the one most misunderstood, verse 17, “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”

This text is usually taken to mean that we should exclude, ignore, shun, excommunicate, disown, debar, avoid, treat as null and void and nonexistent these folks; but let me ask you an important question: “How did Jesus himself treat gentiles and tax collectors?”

Let’s see. Matthew, in whose gospel we read these words, was a what? Does anybody know? Matthew 10:3 “Matthew the tax collector.” That’s one tax collector he invited into his inner circle.
And what about Zaccheus? The “wee little man” in a sycamore tree; a Tax Collector.

The Pharisees were always fussing about Jesus, mostly for eating and drinking and partying with whom? “Tax collectors and sinners!” That doesn’t sound like shunning and avoiding to me.

And what about Gentiles? Let’s see. There’s the Samaritan woman at the well. What about the Canaanite woman whose daughter had a demon? Then there’s the Roman Centurion who sought to have his daughter healed. Wasn’t that the person Jesus said had more faith than anyone in Israel? That doesn’t sound like shunning and avoiding and excommunicating to me?

Matthew certainly had a reason for telling us that Jesus said we should treat sinners like gentiles and tax collectors; but it does not seem to be have been the reason we have traditionally assumed.

We thought it meant that we should wash our hands of them, shun them and have nothing to do with them. And because middle-class Americans, generally speaking, just don’t act like that, we have ignored the whole thing. We have not attempted reconciliation under Biblical standards because it is too messy emotionally and we don’t want to deal with getting to the end of the process and having to kick somebody out.

But kicking them out is not the point. What Jesus really meant was that we should treat people with whom it is hard to reconcile as people in need of serious love. This text is about learning to love people, even when they don’t particularly want to be loved.

It is about reaching out to people, even as they push us away. It is about loving others enough to talk to them about their behavior and to offer them help in changing it. And it is about refusing to give up on anybody, anybody at all. It is about the willingness to go that extra mile to find a lost sheep. It is about a willingness to forgive and forgive and forgive, until the sinner is redeemed.

Simply put, it is about treating other people the way Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors,

as people to be loved and brought into the Kingdom of God.

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)

Commentary for August 28, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 3:1-15
The burning bush. We usually picture this scene as one of awe and wonder, a moment that we may feel as if we would like to have shared. “Boy, if God ever spoke to me out of a burning bush, THEN I’d know for sure what God wanted me to do and I would get right to it!”

Hmmm…did you ever notice that Moses didn’t set out on this particular day to find a burning bush, or even to hear a word from God, for that matter? He was just doing the same thing he had done every other day for the last 40 years or so — he was taking care of the sheep.

Not a particularly glorious or stimulating job. Sheep go out, sheep eat, sheep drink, sheep do whatever sheep do. Shepherd watches out for danger, keeps sheep from doing anything stupid. Sheep lay down for the night, next day start all over again. Humdrum, by definition.

Even the inflammatory shrub itself is not that particularly awesome at first glance. More of a curiosity, really.

But, then — in the midst of the humdrum routine and through a curious happenstance — GOD SPEAKS. And Moses’ life is certainly never going to be the same! God has big doin’s in mind for him.

As preachers and parishioners, we might want to be on the lookout for sheep and/or bushes this week. You never know when, where, or how God just might be calling.

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b
The psalm text connects to God’s call of Moses and Aaron in order to save the children of Israel from Egypt. It was a good thing and an act of deliverance when God brought them to Egypt in the time of Joseph; now, it is an act of deliverance for God to bring them out of Egypt in the time of Moses. God’s “wonderful works” (v.2) are found in all kinds of circumstances.

As v. 1 reminds us: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name….”

Jeremiah 15:15-21
It’s hard to preach the word week in and week out. Jeremiah’s commitment to be God’s messenger caused him physical and emotional pain. It’s no wonder we call him “the weeping prophet.”

Notice his description  in v.16 of what it’s like to receive a word from the Lord: “your words were found and I ate them.” What do we associate the act of eating with? Pleasure, nourishment, need, hunger, desire, satiation, want, fulfillment. 

Two other examples of prophets called to “eat” God’s words are found in Ezekiel 3:3 and Revelation 10:10. For both Ezekiel and John, the experience was bittersweet. We are, indeed, nourished on the words of God — they are “sweet as honey” when we receive them.  

Speaking them to people that we may love or loathe, however, is a different matter. In either case, our stomachs may churn and we may wonder how our words will be received (an issue that gave no little pause to Moses, by the way.) What we are left with — our hope and assurance as preachers — is God’s promise in v.19. 

“If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them.”

Psalm 26:1-8
Psalm 26:2 is a dangerous prayer to pray! “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind.”

Romans 12:9-21
This second half of the “gifts” passage of Romans 12 continues to describe the things that become a part of our lives as believers in Jesus, by the ongoing presence of the Spirit. When you follow the Spirit, Paul has argued, these kinds of things happen.

To the contrary, if these ain’t happenin’, maybe you’re not as in touch with said Spirit as you need to be?

Matthew 16:21-28
Cross language still gets people all hot and bothered. It got Peter upset in the gospel reading for today; he didn’t want to contemplate what it meant for Jesus to suffer, bleed and die on a cross! (One may also argue that he wasn’t too hep on the idea for himself and his fellow disciples, either.)

And yet, Jesus affirms that the experience of the cross is the quintessential and defining moment for anyone who would follow in his way. He could not and would not avoid it for himself; he invites all who would be his not only to be willing to take up a cross — but to actually do so!

Dr. Chilton explores this less-than-comfortable-but-oh-so-necessary conundrum in his text below.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was listening to the comedian George Carlin one night on HBO. He was talking about how the expression “self help” is an oxymoron. “Look it up,” he said, “if you did it yourself, you didn’t need any help! Pay attention to the logic of the language people!”
Along the same lines, I was thinking about the concept of self-service! Isn’t that a bit of an oxymoron as well? I mean if you do it for yourself, is it really self service? It would appear to me that the concept of service really should have to do with something you do for others, not something you do for yourself.
But, all this self-help and self-service is very much the modern, American way. What’s in it for me? How do I benefit? Where’s my payoff?
These are the questions that run through our minds as we
mull over any request for a commitment of our time, talent or treasure. If I do this, we think, is it going to be worth my
effort, my involvement. Or would I be better off doing something else?
Our Scriptures for today present an interesting counter-balance to our normal way of thinking.
First look at Moses in the lesson from Exodus 3, the famous story of the burning bush. You may remember that Moses, after having been raised in the palace as an adopted son of the Princess, had had to flee Egypt after killing a cruel overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave.
Moses had found sanctuary, a wife and a family and a profession, far out in the desert.
Bluntly put, the last thing he wanted to do was go back to Egypt and face a murder charge.
But that is what God wanted him to do, that is what God called him to do.
This was not a case of either self-help or self-service.
It was rather a case of self-denial and self-sacrifice and following the leading of the Spirit, wherever that Spirit led him.
That is what our Gospel lesson is about as well.
Jesus very clearly defines here what his commitment to the Kingdom of God is all about, what he expects to happen to him because he has been faithful to his calling from God.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” (verse 21)
I doubt that Peter even heard the last thing Jesus said, that bit about rising again. All Peter heard was the pain and suffering and rejection. And he couldn’t take it.
“Wait a minute,” he thought, “this isn’t what I signed up for.
I want to be a part of the bold, strong, conquering, triumphant Kingdom of God. I want to have a better life, and more joy, and a happier marriage. What’s all this gloom and doom about.”You have to give Peter this much, he never held back on what he really thought.
But Jesus, in turn, rebuked Peter. Called him Satan. Told him to start thinking in spiritual terms, not material terms.
In other words, stop thinking about self-help and self-improvement and self-service; and start thinking about helping others and improving your community and serving the needs of those around you.
That’s what the key statement in today’s Gospel Lesson is about. Listen again:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves,
take up their cross, and follow me.
We want to be like Peter, we want to follow Jesus without it being too much trouble. We want being Christian to improve our self-esteem and make us better husbands and wives and children and help us be more successful in our lives and in our careers.
The problem is, we want all that without the self-denial and self-sacrifice and the spiritual submission to God that goes with it.
The simple fact is, without the cross there is no Christianity.
Without a cross, without both the cross of Christ and the cross of the Christians, we are reduced to a pleasant religious and philosophical society which meets every Sunday to sing hymns and listen to a nice talk and take part in a symbolic meal.
But with the Cross, we are a saved and redeemed people, called upon to follow Jesus in giving our all for the betterment of the world.
With the Cross, we are God’s Holy People, stepping out in faith to
follow God into the trenches of the world’s struggle with Sin, Death and the Devil.
With the Cross, we are a Royal Priesthood, going forth into the unknown future with a mission and a ministry to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bind up the broken-hearted, soothe the suffering and heal the halt and the lame.
With the Cross, we have a Divine Mandate to stand against the powers that be on behalf of the poor and needy, to speak out against injustice and oppression wherever we see it and know it to exist.
With the Cross, we dare to lose our life in the cause of Christ.
And with the Cross we, like Jesus, find our real lives, the lives for which God created us, the lives we have been called and led to embrace since we were children; lives of love and service to God and our neighbor.
Amen and Amen.

Year A — The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)

Sermon for August 21, 2011
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Bubba II apologizes for his “deadly sin” this week (sloth, you know!) No commentary on the texts, but here’s the sermon. Happy preaching, friends!

(A sermon originally preached at Messiah Lutheran Church, Madison, AL in 2008)

Matthew 16:13-19

I have often wondered why Jesus decided to give Simon-Bar-Jona the nickname Rocky, for that is what the name Peter means. It comes from the Latin “petra” meaning rock or stone. The most familiar English usage is in the word “petrified,” meaning “turned to stone”.

Most of the time people who are nicknamed Rocky are stalwart, unmovable, straight-ahead, no-nonsense kind of guys, like Rocky Balboa. Somehow the name Rocky doesn’t seem to fit Simon son of Jona.

For this Rocky, this Peter, was, to put it bluntly, not very dependable. He was hot one minute, cold the next.

I’ll walk on water, Lord.

Oops, help, I’m drowning!

I’ll never let them take you Lord, give me that Sword.

Jesus? Never heard of him.

Lord, I’ll stand by you forever.

Well, Jesus is dead, I’m going fishing.

Was Jesus making fun of Simon by calling him Peter?

Was Jesus joking when he said that on this rock of questioning, unstable, doubting and undependable faith I will build my church?

Or was Jesus being both more realistic and more daring than we can ever imagine?

When Jesus picked someone like Simon bar Jona to be the backbone of the church, Jesus picked someone remarkably like us. We are all probably more like Peter than we would like to admit.

We grow hot and cold in our enthusiasm for God; we are often confused about our faith, about what it means to be a follower of Jesus; we continually stumble on our journey to Jerusalem.

There are TWO great confessions of faith in today’s Gospel Lesson:

One is Simon saying to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The other is Jesus saying to Simon, “You are Rocky and on this Rock I will build my church.”

Ever since I was a little kid I have found many things in the Bible hard to understand.

Mostly Old Testament stories that conflicted with the science I was being taught in school and stories of God killing people or telling the Israelites to kill people in God’s name, stories that conflicted with the God of Love I believed in.

I have spent my adult life sorting out answers to those questions.

But I have to tell you that the thing that has astounded and befuddled me the most is how on earth God could place the most precious Jewel of Eternity; the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; into the weak and fragile hands of people like us, like you and me.

But, that is indeed what God has done.

When Jesus says to Simon, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church . . . . “

We should hear, “Members of Messiah Lutheran Church, you are Rocky and on this rock,

I will build my church.”

There are many things that come to mind when one says “Church;”

Building. Worship Service. Sunday School Classes and Women’s Circles and Youth Groups and Men’s Breakfasts and Social Ministry Projects and Council Meetings and Offering Envelopes and Annual Meetings and Stewardship Campaigns.

All those aspects of being the church are built on just two things:
1) Our faith in God; and
2) God’s faith in us.

A better way to say that would be that the church is built on just one thing;

the relationship of love that exists between God and God’s people.

God chose to build the church on the somewhat uncertain rock of our faith and our discipleship and our commitment to Christ and the Gospel.

God risked everything by trusting us with “the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I have two grown sons. I did not realize what a tremendous thing God had done in giving us the keys until I had to give my oldest son the keys to the family car when he turned sixteen. But, after a few speeding tickets and small fender benders he began to live into that trust.

God has handed to us the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. God has shown a tremendous amount of faith in us. And let’s be clear. It is not trust that we have earned; it is trust that we have been given in the fervent hope and belief that we will grow up enough to handle it.

It is a scary thought, and a humbling one, to realize that God has put the Gospel, the Keys to the Kingdom, into our hands. It is a thing that is so, so big, and we are so, so small; that we don’t even know where to start.

“It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.”

Those are the first words of what is being called “The Prayer of Oscar Romero.” It has circulated on the internet and printed on posters, etc.

Romero was the Archbishop of El Salvador who was killed at the Altar during Mass by a government death squad.

The words were actually spoken by another bishop, a Cardinal, at a Mass for priests who had recently died, but they speak for all of us about our place in the work of the Kingdom, God’s hand in all eternity, and God’s hand on us.
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work”.

Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Year A –The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15)

Commentary for August 14, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Genesis 45:1-15
It’s an ongoing theological dilemma, of sorts; just how much “blame” or “credit” should we assign to God for the stuff that happens in our lives?

 In a strictly predestinarian manner of speaking, there are some who say that “everything that happens is for a purpose — it’s the will of God.” This leads to some pretty twisty interpretations of God and God’s will in the case of, say, a baby born addicted to crack thanks to her mother’s poor choices.

On the other hand, there are some who say that “God gives us free choice and has nothing to do with the consequences we bring on ourselves.” This makes God the ultimate absentee landlord, with very little influence over the created order.

Joseph certainly makes an intriguing case for some level of involvement by God in the affairs of his life; he maintains that God was at work in the long-ago choice by his brothers to rid themselves of the pesky, arrogant dreamer by selling him into slavery. “God sent me before you to preserve life.” Not only his own life, we might add, nor simply the lives of his family members…but the lives of countless thousands (or perhaps millions) by his influence over Pharaoh and the affairs of Egyptian government.

So, exactly where does the providence of God lie in the affairs of humanity — those who are people of faith and those who are not?

Psalm 133
This psalm supports the theme of “family reunion” in the Genesis reading; “how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.” The two main images are of profusion and abundance — it’s a BIG blessing when barriers to relationship are removed and unity is restored.

The image of anointing with so much oil that it would run all the way down the beard and flow onto Aaron’s robe is something like a baptism. This is no mere dabbling of sweetly-scented oil. It is poured out and flowing! 

Similarly, the “dew of Hermon” was supposedly legendary for its ability to water the earth. Mt. Hermon is the highest point in eastern Palestine; according to Henry Maundrell, Anglican clergyman and Oxford academic who wrote a series of travel diaries in the 18th century, “with this dew, even in dry weather, our tents were as wet as if it had rained all night.” (Read more about Rev. Maundrell here)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Just who, exactly, is welcome in God’s family? According to the prophet, the list includes “foreigners…outcasts of Israel…and all peoples” (goyim, Gentiles.) A thought worth remembering as many of our churches continue to struggle with who is welcome. And who is not.

Psalm 67
The repeated chorus, “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you,” is not only a beautiful piece of worship liturgy, it is a fitting reinforcement of the theme that God’s work in the world is for all the people of the world — not just God’s chosen people.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
We’re all in the same boat, so to speak: “For God has imprisoned us all in disobedience so that God may be merciful to all.” 

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
Boy, oh, boy…talk about who’s in and who’s out! After discussing the original case of “trash talking” with his disciples, Jesus apparently demeans a double-outsider — a WOMAN from SIDONIA. She is the wrong gender to receive the respectful attention of the rabbi, and she is definitely from the wrong side of the tracks. Who exactly did she think she was that Jesus should grant her request?

She was a lot like us, actually. As Dr. Chilton discusses in the sermon below, she was a “hard case.” Perhaps it was she who needed conversion on this day…or, perhaps, it was the crowd watching and listening that needed to be converted from their prejudice and tiny belief system. Whichever the case, by the end of the story we all come to understand that what God is up to in redeeming the world is always bigger, broader and deeper than we can imagine.

Imagine that!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In today’s Gospel lesson we find Jesus behaving in what looks like a totally unchristlike manner.  There is no way to see  what Jesus said to the woman about taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs as anything other than insulting and demeaning to her; both as a woman and as a Canaanite.

And, insult aside, we gentiles have a hard time reconciling the understanding we have of Jesus as Savior of the world with Matthew’s quote that he came only to the lost sheep of Israel.

So we pastors and Bible teachers have turned to a series of “explanations” that get Jesus off the hook:

1) There are those who see this as an acted out parable.  That Jesus was just saying what he knew his followers thought and he wanted them to see how bad it sounded so he could then correct it.  This is the “He didn’t really mean it,” explanation.

2) Some say that this is an inauthentic saying, words put into his mouth by the early church and the Gospel writer and the key to our understanding is to decide why the early church would tell such a story of Jesus.  This is the “He didn’t really say it,” explanation.

3) Others say Jesus was not referring to her as a dog but was simply using an old saying or a village proverb.  Does anyone get offended when we “The early bird gets the worm,” is used in such a way that they are obviously the worm?  This is the “We don’t really get it,” explanation. 

And now that I’ve set it up, you can all look at me expectantly and think, “Okay pastor, which is it?” 

And here’s the thing, I really don’t know.

Did Jesus have an authentic conversion here, one that extended his mission beyond the Israel to all the world?  We don’t know.

Did Jesus already know that his mission extended beyond Israel to the Gentiles and this encounter was a brilliantly ad-libbed teachable moment? I don’t know.

But there is one important thing we can know; as a result of this encounter and this text the mission of Jesus is irreversibly defined as going beyond the boundaries of Israel.

However it is that he got there, the end result is that from this moment forward there could be no question the Kingdom of God included everybody.

And, whether or not Jesus himself had a conversion experience around this issue, this text as it stands certainly makes it appear that he did.

And because of this, it is important that we consider our own lives and see if there are places where conversions are necessary in our own understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy.

One of the key differences in American Christianity is the divide between the conversionists and “raised in the faith folk.”  On one side are those who insist on a conversion experience, a moment of “getting saved.”  On the other are those who believe that we can be raised as Christian, growing and maturing in the faith.

Sometimes we can get a little too strident in theological defense of our tradition’s position on this, becoming what former Senator Alan Cranston called “rigid as a fire poker without the occasional warmth.”(Time, August 8, 2011, p. 64)

And like those who take hard line political stands, we can fail to learn what others have to teach us.  I’ve been asked many times, “Brother, are you saved.”  Somehow the answer, “I’m a Lutheran pastor,” doesn’t seem to satisfy the questioners. 

I have shied away from talking about conversion, but I have decided to learn something from my conversionist friends.  I think conversion, recognizing the way God has called and changed me, is important to the growth of my faith.

So my new answer to that question is, “Yes, many times.”  As I look back on it now, I realize my life has been a series of conversions, of times when my preconceptions about the nature of God have been dashed upon the rock of God’s word of hope and promise to all peoples.

And out of those collisions a new me and new direction in my life have emerged.

I think I count as my first conversion a conversion from the thoughtless racism of the rural south in which I was raised, in an incident that is simply too embarrassing and shaming for me to tell except to say that when I was in high school I hurt a friend very, very deeply and in the process learned the depths of the evil of which I was capable and also learned that only God’s love and forgiveness and power of reconciliation could make it right and it did.

Since that day in 1969 I have had many conversions about liberals and conservatives and communists and tea partiers and men and women and yankees and intellectuals and rednecks and homosexuals and, and, and. . . .

Every time I have come to a place where I think I’m okay, God opens up another area in which I am limiting God’s love and mercy and grace to people like me.

And one more time I have to go through the process of being broken down and rebuilt through the power of God’s love and redemptive power.

Not too long ago I bought a pair of clip-on sunglasses to wear in the car.  For two weeks I fretted and fussed with those sunglasses because they just didn’t fit tight.  Finally I took a good look at things and discovered it wasn’t the clip-ons that were crooked, it was my glasses.

It’s like that with the Word of God in our lives.  We continually try to bend God’s word to the shape of our lives, and we continually find it to be an uneven fit.

The salvific moment, the moment we begin to be saved, to be converted, is when we reverse the process and begin to bend out lives to the shape of God’s word.

The gospel calls us to a radical kingdom of inclusivity, a kingdom that includes everyone, including hard-case disciples like us.

Amen and amen.