BONUS SERMON: All Saints Day

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

TEXTS: Rev. 7:9-17, I John 3:1-13, Matthew 5:1-12

Today is All Saints Sunday, an interesting Holy Day on the Church’s Calendar. It is the Christian equivalent of the Ancient Greek “Altar to an Unknown God” which Paul referred to in Acts.

The Greeks had altars to hundreds of gods. They were afraid they might have left one out, so they built an altar to an “Unknown God” just to make sure they didn’t make some minor, obscure god mad, and thus get punished for failing to worship a god they didn’t know about.

In the early days of the church, people began to remember those who had been especially devout and holy and who had died as martyrs for the faith as “Saints,” persons already in heaven and able to hear prayers and help out those still living.

By medieval times, the church calendar was filled with Saint’s Days honoring all the offici8al Saints of the Church. And ALL Saints Day was an attempt to cover their bets, like the ancient Greeks, by giving a day to ALL SAINTS, to make sure no one was left out.

After the Reformation, Protestant Churches like the Methodists, the Presbyterians and the Lutherans continued to observe the day but changed it’s meaning to one of  remembrance and celebration of all Christians, ALL SAINTS, past, present, and future with whom we share communion in the universal, “catholic” church. It is especially a day to remember those in the local parish who have died in the last year.

For me, All Saints is a reminder that; as important as the future is; and as all-consuming as present problems can be; the past is important too. In many important ways, William Faulkner was right when he said, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” Or as Dr. Bernard Boyd said in New Testament Class at UNC,
“Christianity and Judaism acknowledge the ISNESS of the WAS.”

I am an acknowledged Luddite. Technology befuddles me. I still carry a fountain pen, my watch has a dial with numbers and a big hand and a little hand. I can’t program a VCR or anything else. To me, a computer is a fancy typewriter and I treat it like one. Often times even simple technology defeats me.

For instance, passenger-side rear-view mirrors. I am sure someone will explain this to me after service, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why they put mirrors there designed to deceive us.

It happened again last week. I was rushing up and down the interstates, over a thousand miles in three days. I looked in the outside mirror, plenty of room to move into the right lane. I slide over, horns blare, brakes screech, and I glance back over my right shoulder; there’s a car even with my rear bumper in the right lane. Looking in the mirror, it seemed so very far behind me.

Then I read the fine print, the fateful words. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. Why do they do that? I fumed.

Since I am stumped by technology I, of course, could not come up with an answer, so I commenced thinking about thinks I do understand, philosophy and theology and such.

“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”
“The Past is not dead, it is not even past.”
“The ISNESS of the WAS.”

On All Saints Day, we celebrate the positive side of this truth.

In Spirit, we are as close to the Cross as the Disciples.

In Faith, we are as connected to Jesus as his friends.

In Christ, we are as much a part of the Resurrection as Mary and Martha and Peter and John.

Christianity is an historic religion, rooted in a true story that happened at a particular time in a particular place involving a real Jesus who suffered real torment and died a real death on a real cross.

But Christianity is not just History; it is not yesterday’s news. The Study of Scripture is not the study of Ancient Wisemen in order to learn the wisdom of the past and apply it to the problems of the present. It is partially that, but it is so much more. Christ and the Cross transcend time and place in such a way that when the Bible is read in the midst of believers, Jesus is here speaking to us.

When we celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar, participate in the Eucharistic Assembly, receive the Bread and Wine as his Body and Blood, Christ is really present here with us, and we are really present in the Upper Room at the Last Supper and at the Mountaintop feast where every tear is wiped away and death is swallowed up. We are in Old Palestine and the New Heaven, all at the same time.

Objects in Mirror are closer than they appear.

The Christ of the past is not dead, he is not even past.

He lives, and because he lives, those whom we name here today, all those who have gone before us in the faith, all the Saints live also,

“. .  the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27)

Commentary for November 6, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
“Third time’s a charm!”

I’ve heard that all my life, though I’ve never thought much about the meaning (or original context) of the phrase. I suppose usually we mean it as either a token of good luck or persistence. Of course, I’ve also always heard that “the harder you work (persist), the luckier you are.”

Whatever the deepest meaning may be, Joshua makes the Israelites commit three times to follow Yahweh. I guess he didn’t want any backing up later…nobody saying, “Well, you didn’t tell us it would be this hard!”

Psalm 78:1-7
Gary McIntosh’s book, One Church: Four Generations was very helpful to me in understanding the challenges of “multi-generational ministry.” 

As we see from this psalm text, that concept has been around for a very long time! We must always be thinking of how we are doing at passing the faith along to the next generations — even “the children yet unborn.”

Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Wisdom is personified in Solomon’s writings — here as in Proverbs — and takes the form of a strong, authoritative woman. Interestingly, there would not be much of a cultural example of this type of character. Women were permitted very little share in the public discourse of the time, much less in teaching roles or roles of authority.

Another key that God’s wisdom is not like our human wisdom — you will most likely find it in places that you are not looking for it!

Amos 5:18-24
Verse 24 is oft-quoted from the prophet Amos; we think we like the idea of “justice and righteousness” rolling down like a river.

But, as faithful Amos reminds us, we also think that we want “the day of the LORD” to come, and that our worship must naturally be pleasing to God. Neither of those is what we seem to think it is, either!

Perhaps we ought to hold the headlong rush toward what we “think” God wants from us long enough to pause, reflect, and reconsider both our longing for God to hurry up, and the worship we offer in the name of Christ.

Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20
For those who use this text as scripture, these words continue the introduction to Wisdom given in the earlier reading. A “path of righteousness” of a different sort is laid out here.

Psalm 70
A classic juxtaposition — God’s greatness and my weakness. Hasten, indeed, O God…you are our help and deliverer!

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Paul gives the young Thessalonian church his interpretation of the “day of the LORD” — taking Amos’ themes of darkness and terror and viewing them through the lens of Christ’s coming again to unite God’s creation in himself.

We need not fear — whether alive or dead — at the ending of all things. Jesus is Lord, and God can be trusted. That’s pretty much that, whatever your personal eschatological interpretation of this passage. 

Matthew 25:1-13
“A day late and a dollar short.”

Since I began with homey colloquialisms today, let’s end with one.  I suppose you could just as well use, “Not much lead in the pencil” or “A few fries short of a Happy Meal.” All would be synonymous with “caught at midnight with no oil for the lamp.”

We are to be on the watch for the kingdom of God, always prepared to do the will of the One who has asked us to be ready.

After all, you don’t want folks to think “your cheese done slid off the cracker!”

 * Just for fun — a collection of colloquial expressions is found here on the “not too bright list” compiled by Dan Hersam

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Listen again to the words of the Prophet Amos:

Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear;or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.

These verses remind me of a Good News/Bad News joke. Not any particular Good News/Bad News joke, just that kind of joke.

As a matter of fact, I spent a great deal of time in sermon preparation looking for just the right Good News/Bad News joke to start the sermon.

The Good News is: I found one. The Bad News is: it isn’t very funny. The really Good News is I decided not to tell it.

A few weeks ago I was browsing in a bookstore and I ran across two books I had never seen before.

One is The Optimist’s Guide to History
The other is The Pessimist’s Guide to History.

While I was checking out, the clerk looked over her glasses at me and said,
“I’ve sold a lot of these books, but nobody’s ever bought them both at the same time.”

I said, “Well, I guess most people are either optimists or pessimists, but I’m just a preacher looking for sermon ideas.”

And the Good News is: I found one.

The books are organized in chronological order, beginning with Creation, or the Big Bang, depending on your point of view; and progressing to the present.

The Optimist’s Guide points out the positive events in history while the Pessimist’s Guide lists all the horrors that have ever happened.

As I read through these two books, I noticed two interesting things.

1) The Pessimist’s Guide is much longer than the Optimist’s Guide; (360 versus 260 pages)I don’t know what that means, I just noticed it.

2) There are many things in each book which I, personally, would have put in the other book. Some things the authors counted as Bad, I saw as Good, and vice versa.

It would appear that whether something is Good News or Bad News is a tricky question.

It depends not only on whether or not you’re an Optimist or a Pessimist but also where you’re standing when you look at it.

Each of our Scripture Lessons makes reference to an idea that is referred to by several different names:
The Day of the Lord,
The Coming of the LORD,
The Second Coming,

And the question is: “Is the coming of the LORD Good News or Bad News?”

In Amos, The Day of the Lord is pretty much Bad News all around, for everybody.

This idea, that the Day of the LORD would be a bad day, was quite a shock to his hearers.

They weren’t prepared for this word of Judgement and didn’t accept it.

The people Amos was preaching to thought themselves to be pretty good people.

They went to temple, did the required sacrifices, lived by the Ten Commandments; except when it was inconvenient or seemed a little extreme or something, or got in the way of a good business deal or a good time.

In other words, they were a lot like us.

And they knew themselves to be God’s Chosen People, so the Day of the LORD would be Good News, right?

It would be a Good Day when God would give all those Godless other people who aren’t like us, a good licking for being, well, not like us.

So they were unprepared for Amos to tell them that their assumption of their own goodness was a dangerous thing.

It’s as if someone ran away from a lion and was met by a bear, or ran away from the lion and the bear into the safety of the house, then put his hand on the wall and was bitten by a snake.

Bad News becomes Good News becomes Bad News again.

First Thessalonians sees The Coming of the LORD as Good News for those who are dead and those who are still alive. This is what we’re talking about in the Creed when we profess the belief that Christ will “come again to judge the living and the dead.”

And in that judgement there is implied Bad News for those who are “not in Christ.”

And in the Gospel Lesson, the coming of the Bridegroom is Good News for the Bridesmaids who were prepared, who had oil in their lamps; and equally Bad News for those who were unprepared, not ready, who had no oil.

Since we know that the Church is the bride of Christ, it’s easy to figure out who the Bridegroom is in this story. What’s not easy to figure out is who we are.

We can’t take this story literally, securing our future fate by stocking up on lamp oil, like a bunch of Survivalists filling their basements with nonperishable food and machine guns.

What is the oil? What must we do to be counted amongst those who are prepared when the bridegroom cometh?

This is a place where a Lutheran preacher has to tread lightly. Our theology, quite rightly I think, is extremely cautious about telling anybody that there is anything they HAVE to do to be saved.

Justification by GRACE through Faith. Justification by GRACE through FAITH. It’s our mantra and it’s a good one because it’s true.

BUT, too often Lutherans (and a few other folks I’ll wager) have failed to recognize that there is more to being a Christian than being justified, than being declared righteous, Okay with God, by God.

Sometimes in bending over backwards to avoid legalism we have fallen over backwards into license and amorality.

We seem to have adopted Oscar Wilde’s position that, “God likes to forgive, I like to sin; it’s a nice arrangement.”

We have learned well the truth that “God loves you just the way you are.”
We have ignored the equally important truth that, “God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”

So, again, what puts oil in your lamp? What must one do to be ready when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead?

The key is responding to God’s mercy and generosity with mercy and generosity of our own.

The Christian life burns brightly when one comes to the recognition of how much God has done for us; and one becomes so grateful that generosity begins to burst forth in one’s life.

The oil in our lamp is the oil of loving action in response to God’s loving act of sending Jesus the Christ into our lives to save us, and to fill our lives with hope, joy and purpose.

The Bad News is all around us. Wars and rumors of wars, economic struggles and job loss, sickness and death, poverty and hunger, the list goes on and on.

The Good News is: God has done something about those problems and needs. God sent Jesus into the world to show us God’s love and to show us God’s way. And God has called a people to deal with those problems, those needs, those Bad News things that surround us. God has called us, we are that people, we are the Good News to a hurting world.

We are called to commit ourselves to keeping our lamps burning with the love of God, reaching out to the world with love on our lips, hope in our hearts, and help in our hands.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

BONUS SERMON: Reformation Sunday, October 30

By the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Texts: Jer. 31;31-34; Rom. 8:19-28; Jn. 8:31-36

Savonarola was a Dominican priest and reformer of the church shortly before Martin Luther’s time.

He was tortured and burned at the stake for his efforts when Luther was a teenager.

For years, he was a very powerful person in Florence, Italy.

Early in his pastorate, Savonarola noticed an elderly woman who came to the cathedral every day before mass and knelt before the statue of the Blessed Virgin to pray for an hour.

Savonarola mentioned her devoutness to an old priest who had served the cathedral for decades.

He smiled and said. “Things are not always what they seem. Years ago, this woman was the model for the statue of the Virgin. She’s not worshiping God. She’s worshiping who she used to be.”

One of the great dangers Lutherans face on Reformation Sunday is the danger of worshiping who we used to be.

I have served two Lutheran churches that were founded before the American Revolution. And both of them had “History Rooms,” with gathered artifacts from their past: Silver Communion Ware, old pulpits and altars, Council minute books, written in German, etc.

There were walls filled with portraits of pastors, from pen and ink sketches to modern photographs. Members usually jokingly referred to it as “the rogues gallery,” and, in some cases, not without reason.

This ancestor worship, this veneration of who we used to be, is not unique to Lutherans, nor is it a terrible or grave sin.

But, it can block us from seeing ourselves as we really are, it can blind us to our need, to hear and respond to the gospel for ourselves.

We can become so enamored of our Lutheran-ness that we can forget our human sinfulness and our need for God.

Back in the day, back in the 1960’s when Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, he boarded an airplane with a bunch of reporters and was very much in “show time” form, bragging and joking and “carrying on” as we say in North Carolina.

When the Flight Attendant told him to fasten his seatbelt, Ali looked around at his captive audience and said, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.”

The Flight Attendant smiled, leaned down and fastened him in and said, “Yes, well, Superman don’t need no airplane neither.”

We are not supermen or superwomen or super-Lutherans or super-Christians. We need a word of truth to remind us of our limitations and needs.

Just like Savanarola, and Martin Luther, and Phillip Melanchthon, and John Calvin, and yes Muhammad Ali; and a host of others, we must hear and know the truth and be set free by the hearing and knowing.

What is the Truth that sets us free? What is the truth that we celebrate this Reformation Sunday?

A few years ago I heard the Rev. Dr. Leonard Bolick, the Bishop of NC preach at the anniversary of a congregation and he told us of a poll done by Christian Researcher George Barna.

Barna had asked a wide cross-section of Americans a very simple question: What are the most important words you”ve ever heard?

Answer # 1 – (no surprise) I Love You.

Answer #2 – (no surprise either) I Forgive you.

Answer # 3 – (Unexpected) “Dinner’s Ready! Come eat!”

These three phrases, “I love you”, “I forgive you”, “Dinner’s ready, Come Eat,” summarize the truth of the Gospel, they remind of why we’re here, they tell us why we built this building and what we are called to do and be here.
1) I love you

We’ve all seen the signs on the interstate, “Massage Parlor” or “Adult Bookstore.”
The last time I saw one I began to ponder the desperate hunger for love that drives people to those places.

St. Augustine: “Our hearts are restless O Lord, until they rest in thee.” And “There is a hole in the heart of (humanity) that only God can fill.

Until we rest in God, until God fills that hole, we will fill it with other things: like sex and booze and drugs and food and wealth and work and productivity and popularity and social activity and, and, and. Whether we are aware of it or not, our lives are driven by a search for God, a yearning for what the Bible calls the Peace that passes all Understanding.

That is the Church’s # 1 purpose for being; to tell the world God is love, God is love, God is love.
#2 – I forgive you.

But, you know what? Sometimes knowing that God is love is not enough – somehow that does not rescue us from our despair and our desperate search for peace. Why? Because with our knowledge of God’s goodness and love is an awareness of our own unworthiness, our inability to be the good people we want to be, of our failure to live up to our own standards, much less God’s.

(Famous Baptist minister Carlyle Marney – was teaching at the Ridgecrest Assembly once. Someone asked, “Where’s the Garden of Eden?” Marney replied, “128 Hill Street, Knoxville TN. That’s where I stole money from my mother’s purse and hid from her under the stairs.”)

The only thing that will reach us in that state is a clear message that God’s love is greater than our failure. That God’s love is so deep and so wide and so complete that it can forgive and defeat even the darkest and most evil act.

The cross stands at the center of a Christian Community’s life because it is a startling and sobering reminder that God’s love is free, but it is not cheap. God’s love cost God the life of Jesus, who was willing to suffer and die so that we could be forgiven and live. The Church is a sign, pointing always and forever to the cross, shouting out to the world: You are forgiven!
#3 – Dinner’s ready, let’s eat!

We use the word Communion so much and so often to refer to the Lord’s Supper that sometimes we forget that it has other meanings.

It also refers to the connection and community we have with God and each other, a connection and community that exists at all times and in all places.

The gathering for the meal is a celebration and a strengthening of a reality that never ceases to be true; that we live now and forever within the Eternal Life of God.

We gather at the Lord’s Table to remind ourselves that we are a community united in Christ and in constant love with one another.

That is why in the ELCA, the table is always open and inviting to all, calling us back, time and time again, to the place where God’s love and forgiveness are made real and touchable for us in the bread and the wine.

My boys were 10 and 7 when they got into an argument over the frequency of communion.

Oldest: takes too long, if you do it every Sunday, not special, etc.
Youngest: You only say that because you’re good. I’m a mean little kid, I need all the forgiveness I can get.

Love, forgiveness, community. That is why we are here.

Robert Frost once said, “Home is that place that, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.”

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we are the world’s true home.
We are not here to worship who we used to be, we are here to worship God.
This church does exist for the benefit of those of us in here.

This congregation exists for the salvation of those out there,
as an outpost of the Kingdom of God,
as a sign of God’s love,
as an agent of God’s forgiveness,
as an open table
where God’s hungry children can be fed.
We are the world’s true home,
and it is our calling to cry out to the world:
God is love, You are Forgiven, Dinner’s ready! Come Eat!

Amen and amen

Year A — The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26)

Commentary for October 30, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Joshua 3:7-17
Several “quick hitters” that I note in this passage:

  • Joshua had a pretty bad case of nerves about taking over for Moses; after all, who wants to bat clean-up after Babe Ruth? Who wants to coach football at Alabama after Bear Bryant? (I know I’m dating myself with these analogies…but, what the heck…it’s my blog!)
  • But, it was God who “exalted” him; we never will really succeed at pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. That’s just a misconception in popular American culture.
  • Speaking of bootstraps, have you ever noticed that the waters of the Jordan River — at flood stage, no less — did not part until the soles of the priests’ feet hit the waves? God is the original “just in time” delivery system!
  • I wonder how heavy that ark got while the whole nation of Israel took their time crossing the river?

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
Verse 2 is a great reminder: “let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” Don’t make God’s work in your lives a secret! It’s okay actually to talk about it. A pastor I met once referred to evangelism as “saying something good about God.” 

I like it.

Micah 3:5-12
Don’t lean on God to cover your own behind. God never owes it to any of us to clean up our mess. 

Psalm 43
There are certainly hope-challenged and soul-disquieting days that come our way. How powerful to pray for the light and truth of God — which is sometimes just knowing that you are not alone, and that God has not given (and will not give) up on you.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Those of us who had uplifting, encouraging parents received a true blessing from God. Not everyone is so fortunate. Whatever our draw in the parental lottery, we are encouraged by this passage to “live lives worthy of God.”

Matthew 23:1-12
I saw this week where Mike Judge, the creator of the infamous comic duo Bevis and Butthead, is working on an upcoming theatrical release of the boys’ new adventures. I can just hear Bevis snorting now, “Heh-heh-heh…you said ‘phylactery!'”

What is a phylactery, exactly? According to the omnipresent Wikipedia (which is actually pretty good on their Jewish minutiae): Phylactery is the English name for Tefillin, a pair of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.

Anyhow, the Pharisees are ripped by Jesus basically for being all show (BIG phylacteries, those guys!) and no go when it comes to what counts in the kingdom of God. There really is no better way to say it than v. 12.

Or, you could read Dr. Bubba’s sermon, below…:)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Those of us of a certain age can still sing along to the Mac Davis’ tongue-in-cheek country song “O Lord it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”
It was one of those songs that gets in your head and won’t go away.
Our Gospel lesson today is a warning to Christians in general and religious leaders in particular, about the dangers of pride and the call to humility.
I come from Appalachian, Scots-Irish stock and we have a particular problem with this; we are very proud of being humble. Whenever I left the farm to go out for a night on the town, my Daddy would give me the contradictory admonition, “Now son, be proud, remember you’re a Chilton and don’t act like you think you are somebody.”
It made sense to us.
Back before the Civil War there was an exchange in the US Senate that went something like this:
The senator form North Carolina: “I come from North Carolina, a great vale of humility lodged between two mountains of conceit.” (referring to Virginia and South Carolina, for the geographically challenged.)
The senator from Virginia retorted, “That is true, but only because North Carolina has a lot to be humble about.”
In our Gospel lesson, Matthew shows Jesus admonishing his disciples not to be like the scribes and Pharisees in their exercise of the teaching authority Jesus is in the process of giving them. All of chapter 23 is aimed at these religious leaders who are accused of being prideful hypocrites, blind guides and whitewashed tombs.
Dale Allison of Pittsburg Theological Seminary notes, “ . . .one could scarcely find a biblical text so little heeded . . .Christian history instructs us that all the vices Matthew 23 attributes to the scribes and Pharisees have attached themselves to Christians, and in abundance.” (The Lectionary Commentary, The Gospels, p.139)
First thing that needs to be noted is that it is beside the point for us today to beat up on the scribes and Pharisees, for in the words of Huck Finn, “They been dead a considerable long time. . . .(and) I don’t take no stock in dead people.”
Second thing is that for us to fuss about the Jewish religious leaders would be; well, somewhat hypocritical, seeing as how Christian leaders of all stripes have been just as guilty of the same thing.
Third thing is; we need to listen to what this word has to say about us and our pride and humility problems.
Recently I heard of an international study done of secondary, high school level education. I don’t have the exact numbers right to hand, but the students from the United States ranked in the 20’s and 30’s in every category but one. In that one thing we were #1 in the world.
Can you guess what it was? Self-esteem. We have done a fine job of teaching our young people to be very proud of themselves, even when there is no reason for it.
We have created a secular gospel that has moved from teaching people that everyone in America has the right and opportunity to achieve to teaching everyone in America that no matter what they do, they have a right to be proud of themselves and to demand respect from others.
This secular attitude has bled over into the church where a vigorous proclamation of Law and Gospel; sin and salvation; confession, repentance and forgiveness has been replaced with the anemic and insipid blessing, “God loves you no matter what you do.”
This sense that as children of God we are specially favored cuts at the heart of discipleship and servanthood. If we are special and unique and gifted, then it is hard to see where the needs of others fit in.
If you come to church only to get your own needs met, to get your spiritual batteries recharged, to “get something out of it,” well, that’s just wrong
One is also called to membership in a community of faith in order to participate in meeting the needs of others. This is the call to be a humble servant.
The struggle, in all times and all places, is to recognize that our relationship with God is based not on some achievement or quality in ourselves; but is rooted in the immeasurable greatness of God and God’s love.
None of us is deserving of that and none of us is excluded from it.
And it is only when we recognize that we don’t deserve it that we begin to appreciate it and respond to it.
And the only genuine response is to humbly accept God’s love as both generous and undeserved and then to go out and share God’s love generously with someone who really doesn’t deserve it either.
In this way we fulfill Christ’s promise, “the greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Amen and amen.

Year A — The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25)

Commentary for October 23, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
What can you say about Moses? We don’t suppose that Moses actually wrote his own epitaph here in Deuteronomy, and the accolades are obvious and well-deserved: mighty deeds, terrifying displays of power, unequaled as a prophet and servant of God.

No wonder that, when Jesus meets two characters from Israel’s ancient past on the mountain of transfiguration, Moses is included (alongside Elijah — a fairly significant personage in his own right!) Moses is and should be famous for so many reasons.

But, his real claim to fame lies in v. 10, I believe; “Never has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” 

The vitality of our ministries — our very quality of living — is most likely quite proportional to the closeness with which we dwell in relationship with God. 

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Grasping eternity is not something that we are able to do easily, if at all. Eternity is a very long thing to try to imagine. Especially when you consider that eternity stretches to infinity in at least two directions (from our temporal perspectives, anyway) — eternity past and eternity future. 

Psalm 90:2 says, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” Before time was, God is; when time shall be no more, God still is. God never was; there is never a time when God will be. God simply is. And, of course, that goes for all of the time and times in-between. There is never a time or place that you or I will be that we cannot stop to pray, “Lord, I thank you that you are….”

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Here we have the setting for Jesus’ “second greatest commandment” — while loving God with heart, soul and strength, we are to work on loving neighbor as self. Out of all the great commandments given by God and upheld by centuries of religious tradition and teaching, it is these two that are singled out as the magnum opera of spiritual significance.

Like, pay attention, dude!

Psalm 1
Hebrew wisdom literature is known for its propensity for taking two things, sitting them side by side, and asking, in some form or the other, “so which of these do you think it is best to choose?” Psalm 1 is a classic example. 

There is the way of the righteous, characterized as a tree planted by an ever-flowing stream of water. (Consider what such a stream must have connoted to a people who lived most of their lives in the desert!)

The way of the wicked, however, is like so much dry wheat chaff — the by-product of the reaping process. When the grain is thrashed, the heavier kernels fall to the ground and are gathered. The chaff is the clinging, choking, worthless dust that comes off the shock. It just blows away and is good for — well, nothing really, except to be dust.

So, which of these do you think it is best to choose?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Ever known any well-meaning Christians who practice what I call, “evangelism by hook or crook?” Bringing people into the kingdom of God is held to be such an important value that an “all means necessary” approach becomes carte blanche to make promises, enticements, or offer rewards that may or may not have anything at all to do with the righteousness and grace of God.

(I once heard of a church that offered pony rides to children — but wanted them all to decide to “accept Jesus” first. I’m still trying to understand that linkage!)

We do not want to be homiletically guilty of any such manipulation or misrepresentation with our own claims concerning the gospel. It must have been something of an issue for first-century apostles and preachers, as well, since Paul goes to such great lengths to avoid doing so with the Thessalonian church.

We do what we do because of the love of God in us, and the love of God for the “dear children” of whom we have been given charge. 

Matthew 22:34-46
“Give me the bottom line.” 
“What’s the takeaway?”
“Let’s cut to the chase.”

All of these catch-phrases indicate the value our culture places on brief, direct communication. They may all be subtle stand-ins for the ever popular, “What’s in it for me?”

At any rate, Jesus gives us the “great bottom line” — there are two things that matter most in this life. Those are loving God and loving others (with the necessary corollary, loving yourself — I’m thinking that for some folks who will listen to us on Sunday, that third one is actually the toughest one to accomplish!)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

English writer GK Chesterton once said of this Gospel lesson, “Jesus here tells us to love our neighbors.  Elsewhere the Bible tells Jesus said we should love our enemies.  This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.”

There has been a lot of talk recently about people who say they are “Spiritual, just not religious.”  That is, they have an interest in God and holiness and amorphous mystery  on a personal, individual basis; but they are not at all interested in communities of people with similar interests because that require would them to take these other people and their opinions and problems seriously, and really, who has time for that?

Put another way, they are happy to love the God whom they cannot see but they do not wish to get involved with the neighborly enemies whom they can see.

This is, unsurprisingly, not a new problem in the history of humankind.  We have always had a self-justifying desire to decide exactly who it is we are obliged by God to be nice to; and how nice, exactly, we have to be to get credit.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we read the end of a long section in Matthew where the Pharisees and Sadducees conspire to trip Jesus up and get him in trouble with the Romans.

 Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows; the Pharisees and Sadducees cooperating makes about as much sense as the Tea Party and the Re-elect Obama Committee working together; but these folks are determined to keep Jesus from upsetting their very settled and profitable way of life.

In the few verses prior to our text the Sadducees had tried a silly question about the Resurrection which Jesus easily rebuffed and now the Pharisees take their turn with a poser about the commandments.

This is not a question about the Ten Commandments; they are talking about the ongoing Hebrew theological tradition that numbers the commandments in the hundreds, some say 613, and then argues about which is the most important or most pivotal commandment. 

In response, Jesus does two things.  First he answers their question with a very serious theological opinion, siting Deuteronomy 6:5 and our lesson from Leviticus, 19:18, tying them together as the greatest commandment.

Then he politely shuts them up with a semi-serious riddle from Psalm 110.  It is an unanswerable question, somewhat akin to “which came first, the chicken or the egg,” The crowd is delighted with Jesus’ wit, realizing he has just told the Pharisees, “Look, two can play at this game, and this time, I win.”

The most important thing in this lesson, to Jesus and to us, is the business of loving God and neighbor.  As Chesterton’s serious joke about our neighbors and our enemies being the same folk reminds us, this is not at all easy.

It is not simply a matter of being nice and getting along.  It is hard work.  It involves getting beyond our likes and dislikes, it involves hanging in with individuals and communities when the going gets tough, it involves self-sacrifice and devotion even  you’re not “getting anything out of,” the relationship.  It involves taking the neighbor seriously as a child of God who deserves our respect and care.  It involves being religious as well as spiritual.

This is why Jesus hangs loving God together with loving the neighbor.  Loving God can be easy.  God is away off there somewhere.  We can define God in such a way that God is not responsible for any of the pain of discomfort we experience in life.  That way, we don’t ever have to be angry with or resentful of God.

 We can love God with an easy conscience because  we don’t expect anything from God and God doesn’t expect anything from us and such a spiritual love will never intrude upon the very earthly, confusing messiness of our lives.

But if, as Jesus says, loving God and loving our neighborly enemies are tightly bound and inseparably linked co-commandments; then we are forced to deal with love in the real world of people who are imperfect and incomplete, people who are at times undeserving of our affection or unresponsive to it; people who are sometimes incapable of loving us back.

And, we have to live out our love for God in a world of people who also sometimes care about us when we don’t really want to be cared about.  It is, as I said, a bit confusing and messy.

The people who say they are spiritual but not religious have sspoken more truth than they realize.  “Spirit” is formless, wispy, barely there.  It is so indistinct and disembodied that one doesn’t really have to deal with it.  It is more feeling and impression than anything else.

On the other hand, the root of “religious” is ligare which is also the French root of ligament.  You can’t get much more earthy than that.  Ligare mean to tie to or to tie back.  Ligaments connect muscle to the bone; religion ties us to God and one another.

Those who seek to be spiritual without being religious believe they can float free of the ties that bind, feel good about God and be confident that God feels good about them.   

A willingness to be religious indicates an awareness that an amorphous, spiritual Godlikeness would not have plunged interferingly into the midst of our pain and suffering.

But rather, it took a God of compassion to, quite mysteriously and inexplicably, give up whatever it means to be divine and plunge headlong into the muck of our lives.

God in Christ took on ligaments and sinews and walked among us and suffered among us and died among us and with us and for us.

God in Christ was raised from the dead and draws us together, ties us together, as the Body of Christ, held together by ligaments of love and sinews of service.

And we, the tied together Body of Christ in the world, are called to the task loving God, most especially by loving our neighbors and enemies in God’s stead and in God’s name.

Amen and amen. 

Year A — The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24)

Commentary for October 16, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 33:12-23
There is a good bit of discussion in our society about what it means to “know God.” Evangelical Christians assert that not only is it possible to know God, but that through a “personal relationship” with Jesus you can know God’s exact, perfect, individualized will for your life!

Other stripes of Christians amongst us most likely have varying understandings of what it means to know God. Our diversity of opinions and freedom to pick theological nits is sometimes a boon to us; at other times, it is most definitely a bane. 

[Writing on, atheist author Adam Lee commented, “I’d love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches’ wounds are largely self-inflicted.”]

Moses speaks for us concerning our passionate desire to both see and know God; “if your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” Life is scary and the road — without faith — can be awfully rough and rocky.

And God, knowing that God’s own Divine Presence is likely to overwhelm us if we actually could get a good glimpse, responds with tenderness: “I’ll show myself to you, but not completely. I’ll cover you with my hand and you’ll get a sort of look in the rear-view mirror. But that will be enough — it will have to be enough.”

Mostly, I think this passage reminds me that God will be gracious when God desires to be gracious, and will show mercy on whom God desires to show mercy. I’m thinking that goes for the faithful among us — evangelical, mainline, orthodox, catholic — as well as for the “un”-faithful, as well. 

God believes in you, Mr. Lee.

Psalm 99
Need an encounter with the presence of God? Do what Moses did…head for a mountain somewhere! No wonder the ancients considered “the high places” to be the demesne of the gods. Has anybody ever counted how often the Bible references “mountains” or “hills” or “high places” with reference to the presence of God?

Isaiah 45:1-7
This passage is striking — at least to me — for the implication that God can “call” and “use” someone who absolutely does not know (or care?) who God is! 

I do not believe that we have anywhere in the Bible a profession of faith or moment of commitment from the life of Cyrus, the Persian king, with regard to the Holy One of Israel. And yet, Yahweh calls Cyrus his “anointed one” — meshiach in the Hebrew, christos in the Greek.

Well, wadda’ ya’ know? 

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
Some of my favorite “worship words” in this psalm:

  • Sing (lots of singing!)
  • Bless
  • Tell
  • Declare
  • Revere
  • Ascribe
  • Worship
  • Tremble
  • Rejoice
  • Roar
  • Exult
  • Oh, and sing again!

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Talk about a church with an actual GOOD reputation! How long has it been since you heard this kind of buzz concerning your congregation?

“…your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.”

Sounds like a good job description for the church, not to mention a great antidote to the kind of perfidy attested in Adam Lee’s quote [see above.]

Matthew 22:15-22
Tsk, tsk, tsk…when will the hapless Pharisees ever learn? You just don’t get the goods on Jesus with a trick question!

This jewel of a statement (“render unto Caesar, etc.”) makes allegiances to church and state pretty clear, n’est-ce pas?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I heard a story a few years ago about a man who grew up in a little country church in the Carolinas that was founded about the time of the American Revolution.
For most of its 200 plus years not much happened in either the church or the community; life went on pretty much the same year after year.
Then, in the 1980s, change happened and happened fast; Interstates and urban sprawl and Sun Belt migration. What had once been farmland was now covered with upscale subdivisions and shopping malls.
The church changed too, not without a struggle, but eventually the church moved into the 21st century.
One Monday morning the pastor was visited in his office by a man whose family had been charter members of the church way back when. He had grown up in the church then went away for an education and a career. A few years back he had sold off the family farm to a developer and no one had heard from him since.
He had returned to the community for his 40th high school reunion and had attended worship on Sunday. He was not happy.
He complained about all the changes that had taken place in the church since his youth, and he made it known that these changes were somehow an affront, an insult to him and all his ancestors and all the other people who had been a part of that church for all those years.
He ended his diatribe with these words, “Preacher, if God were alive today, he would be shocked, yes, shocked at the changes in this church.”
If God were alive today.” “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”
If God is dead, we don’t have to render much do we?
Therein lies the real question of this text. Though we often use it as a launching pad for discussions of politics, or taxes, or the separation of church and state; these are not the core concern of this Bible story.
This text is about not letting the cares and obligations of the world divert us from our calling to serve God; about not living our lives as though God were dead, while confessing our faith with our lips.
In this text we have a group of people who spent a great deal of time worrying about things like politics and taxes and the separation of temple and empire and who thought of such fretting and worrying and arguing as somehow fulfilling their religious duty to God.
The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth had threatened the delicate political and religious and social dance which kept those on top on top and those underneath, well, underneath.
Those on top were resolved to protect their position and the status quo by tricking Jesus into saying something that would offend either the Roman rulers or the piety of the people.
Listen again to verses 15-17. If he says “no,” he is fomenting rebellion; if he says “yes,” he offends the common people who hate paying taxes, especially to an Emperor who claims to be a god.
As usual, Jesus was too smart for them. He uses the coin and its images as an object lesson. “Render unto Caesar . . . “So far, so good. But then, Jesus comes across with the real, deeper point; “Render unto God that which is God’s.”
The call of this text to those of us gathered here today is to not forget God in the midst of our busy-ness.
It especially calls us away from a practical atheism in which we confess faith with our lips but fail to live it out in our lives.
The latest statistics show that the United States is still one of the most “faith in God” confessing countries in the world. To the question is “Do you believe in God?” over 90% of us say “Yes.”
But it is hard to square that confession with other statistics. Besides the plummeting church membership and worship attendance numbers of almost all Protestant denominations; think about the culture we live in: do you see a lot of evidence that this is, in any recognizable form or fashion, a nation of Christians?
Record poverty rates, sky-rocketing prison populations, the sexualization of everything, the harsh, judgmental and unforgiving political rhetoric that fills the talk shows on the left and the right, the cruel laws aimed at immigrants, etc. etc. the list goes go on and on.
And just like the Pharisees, many of our leaders from the left and the right speak of these things and of their proposed possible solutions as if their ideas were sanctioned by God him or her self!
And into this the voice of Jesus calls us back from the brink of a serious mistake.
In the midst of rendering unto Caesar, of doing your civic duty to the best of your ability; do not confuse your politics with your religion, nor neglect your God in the midst of your public service. Do not forget to “render unto God that which is God’s.”
I am not much of a linguist, but I remember a little of Latin that helps me keep things straight. Ultima means last, like the last syllable on a word, or the last letter in an alphabet. Penultima means next to last, the letter or syllable just before the last.
In common language, the ultima became the most important thing, the final thing. And the penultima was the almost final thing, the second most important.
Whatever else is important in our life; our job, our family, our children, our politics, ours sports team, God has to be our ultima, the most important, everything else is in second place.
Remember; “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’,” and more importantly, “Render unto God that which is God’s.”
Amen and amen.