Year B — The Third Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 11, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 20:1-17
“Nope. Not gonna’ do it!”

Dana Carvey made a mint on his impersonation of President George H.W. Bush (the first Bush to be POTUS) and his famous line regarding raising taxes. The monologue had, as its chief virtue, the short-but-sweet repetition of the “not gonna’ do it” tag-line. It stuck in the popular culture.

Now, there is no real comparison between the Decalogue and Dana Carvey, but the strength of these “ten words” that have impacted culture for several thousand years are their brief, to-the-point presentation of the way that we should live. (Not that we always do, but we can aspire, eh?)

Other gods? No, don’t do it!
Idols? Nope.
Use God’s name the wrong way? Negative.
Labor on the Sabbath? What were you thinking?

Honor Mom and Dad…good.
Murder. Bad. 
Adultery. Unh-unh. 
Stealing…don’t even think about it!
False witness — tsk, tsk, tsk!
Really, really wanting what belongs to somebody else? Bad idea!

Psalm 19
How do you say it, but not really have to say it? Lots of guys wish they could figure this question out when it comes to professing their love. We’re not that good with words — at least not most of the time.

The heavens, on the other hand, are quite good at expressing the greatness of God without the need for any words or voice. All one need do to get a glimpse of the glory of God is to take a look around. The world is full of it!

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
What we do as preachers can certainly be considered foolish by some.

I mean, come on…we’re going to make some sort of difference in the lives of our parishioners and congregants by what we say week after week? Get a grip!

Except that the message we seek to impart — the message of the cross of Christ and its self-giving power in the midst of our existence — THAT really does make a difference when we hear and act upon it.

Preaching, and the message that we preach, may seem foolish; but, the Apostle rightly reminds us that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

John 2:13-22 
Okay, so were the sellers of cattle, sheep, and doves — and the notorious “money changers” — really doing a bad thing? No, they were actually providing a decent and helpful service to the pilgrims who needed to travel a long way to make their Temple sacrifice. Nothing wrong with the service itself.

But…we must always be careful of allowing even good acts and intentions of encroaching on the space that belongs to God and God alone. Selling stuff “in the temple” is a whole other ball game. The temple is set apart for worship; sheep just really don’t fit here! (Ahem, see the “ten rules” mentioned above.)

Are there any ways that we are filling God’s temple with things that don’t really deserve to be there? What encroaches on the “holy space” in our lives that belongs to God and only God?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Samuel Wells, now the Dean of the Duke Chapel and minister to Duke University, writes of something that happened 20 years ago in Romania.

The Iron curtain was falling all over Europe, Communism was collapsing. On Christmas day of 1989 Romania’s President was arrested, tried and executed. 

The country was in turmoil. No one seemed to be in charge. Reporters flooded the country, looking for anyone who could speak English. 

Finally they found someone, and in one sentence she summed up not only Romania’s predicament, but the human condition: “We have freedom,” she said, “but we don’t know what to do with it.” (Christian Century, March 15, 2000)

A similar thing happened in Germany after the Reformation started. Turned loose from the rules and regulations of the Catholic Church, many people thought the Gospel meant that they were free to do as they pleased because God’s grace was free.

Martin Luther himself was sent out to visit the churches all around Wittenberg and wrote his catechisms, Large and Small, as a response. 

Referring to his visitation of the churches he wrote in the introduction, “Alas, what wretchedness I beheld. We have perfected the fine art of abusing liberty.”

The Bible tells us that this was the situation of the Hebrew people when God gave the Ten Commandments.

They had just been liberated from slavery in Egypt, they had been handed a great gift of freedom, and they didn’t know what to do with it. They too were perfecting the fine art of abusing liberty.

The word we often translate from Hebrew into English as law is Torah. Instruction, guidance or teaching would be better.

The Hebrew people themselves never considered the law to be onerous or a burden; rather they saw it as a gift. A gift flowing out of God’s love and concern for the people who needed to learn how to live with their new freedom.

We too struggle with issues of what to do with our spiritual freedom, our religious liberty; and how to treat God’s law in light of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Many of us give ourselves lots of slack in regards to the Ten Commandments, believing ourselves to stack up pretty well. Which is, I think, to miss several important points.

The Ten Commandments aren’t rules that God has laid down as a test to see if we’re good enough to get into heaven; rather they are God’s very practical guide to living a fulfilled and fulfilling life.

As such they work on several levels. 

First, they are an outline for living together as ethical human beings; a picture of the kind of life God wishes for us. It is perfection we will not reach, but that is no excuse for not trying.
Second, they are a “mirror for the soul,” as Luther put it, helping us see ourselves as sinners in need of God’s grace.

I was looking them over and trying to figure out which ones I had not broken; at least not in the strictest, most literal sense.

No other Gods – Nope. No Baal or fertility cult worship going on in the Chilton household.

No graven image – Nope. No bowing down to a man-made object that’s not a God.

Not taking the Lord’s Name in Vain – Nope. Well, I do have a barn-yard vocabulary but I draw the line at G– D—.

Remember Sabbath Day – Nope. Always go to church on Sunday, seldom do manual labor or other such work.

Honor parents – Nope. Birthday cards, weekly phone calls, Christmas gifts. Done.

You shall not kill – Nope. Never even been in a fight since 7th grade.

You shall not steal – Nope. Unless you count sneaking fries off my wife’s plate when she’s not looking.

You shall not bear false witness – Nope. Like Daddy said, always tell the truth. That way you don’t have to remember what you said.

You shall not covet, neighbor’s house, wife, slaves or his ox or his ass – Nope. Good on all of them.

Looks like I’m in the clear. Based on this record, I didn’t need Jesus to die for me. I’ve got the being good thing covered.

On the other hand, if “Other Gods” means things which get more of my attention and loyalty than THE GOD, then I’m probably guilty.

And if “Graven Images” implies earthly things to which I have devoted a great deal of time and energy and which are the most important things in my home, well . . .

Suppose taking “the Lord’s name in vain” means using religion for less than holy reasons, oops!

And the Sabbath could be about creating enough silence and space in my life to allow God to seep in and nurture and lead and refresh me. Oh my!

Honoring father and mother may have something to say about how I deal with those who have taken on the responsibility for leadership; have I been responsive and cooperative? Dang!

Well, I really haven’t killed anyone; but I haven’t prevented or protested a lot of the violence which goes on in my name, funded by my dollars.

Adultery? Well there is that “lust in the heart” thing Jesus talked about.

You shall not steal? What was it Augustine said, “Anything you have more than you need is stolen from the poor.” Ouch!

False Witness? Wee, I do not lie, but I can “spin” the truth like a whirling dervish.

Okay, okay; but I still haven’t coveted anybody’s donkey and nobody can say that I did!

The law may be a good teacher but most of us are, in one way or another, bad students.

No matter how hard we try we fail more often than we succeed in our attempts to live up to its requirements.
Lent is a time when we are called to examine our hearts and our lives and to repent and
return to the LORD.

It is time when, like Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the temple, we are called to gird up our loins and chase the evil-doing and misdirection out of our lives.

A look at our lives in the light of the Ten Commandments shows us why what Paul in First Corinthians calls “the foolishness of the cross” was necessary.

It is also a time when we are reminded that there is palace where we can let go the burden of trying to live up to laws and expectations.

A place where God’s grace is freely given and where we freely accept it and live in it.

A place where our freedom is made complete.

That place is the foolish stumbling block of the cross; where our need and God’s love come together.

Amen and amen.

Year B — The Second Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 4, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
The idea of “covenant” continues from last week; God’s covenant with Noah symbolized life and hope — cessation from destruction. Now, God Almighty asks Abraham to walk before him and to exercise faith (“be blameless.”) Not to be perfect, really, because Abraham (like Noah before him and countless others after him) certainly has his moments of weakness. 

But it’s the intention that matters; Abram’s submission to God is shown as he “falls on his face” (recognizing the superiority of the other.) The covenant is one of blessing, of multiplied goodwill and prosperity. Abram is promised many descendants — and he knew as well as anyone that that is some promise to a 99-year old man!

This God is a God of awesome promises and spectacular fulfillment. Can God really be trusted to do what God says?

Psalm 22:23-31
God’s work is multi-generational. Always has been, always will be. God’s promises are to Jacob and his offspring, but God’s work is intended for the benefit of all nations (I love the phrase “all the families of the nations shall worship before him” in v.27.)

Notice that we are included in the psalmist’s invocation: “future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.” (vv. 30-31) Pretty cool, huh?

Romans 4:13-25
The apostle goes right to the heart of the matter, recognizing that it must have been something of a struggle for Abram to believe that two old people like Sarai and himself could become parents — indeed, that he would truly become “the father of many nations.” But, Abram found a way to believe.

Abram “faithed” it out. It was definitely a process, as Paul notes that he “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” (v.20)  Nobody automatically starts strong in their faith. It has to grow on you. Or maybe in you, or all around you.

What ways can we “give glory to God” as we continue to grow stronger in our faith?

Mark 8:31-38
Nobody likes negative talk; Johnny Mercer knew that when he penned the lyrics to his hit song, “Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative” in 1944. (It’s a catchy tune, and was purportedly based on a sermon he heard his priest preach in Savannah, Georgia. Listen to Mercer’s original version here.)

Peter tries to give Jesus some similar advice, but the Christ will have none of it. “Get behind me, Satan…” are not the words you hope to hear when you have a one-on-one conversation with Jesus.

The kingdom happens through denial and cross-bearing; it wasn’t a particularly popular message then, nor is it now. One finds one’s life by losing it. We still have a long way to go in figuring that one out, don’t we?

For Mark 9:2-9, see previous post for The Transfiguration of our Lord here.

By the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In an old Reader’s Digest at the doctor’s office, I ran across this little story. A woman writes:

When my sister-in-law Ginny cooks she likes to substitute ingredients for those in the recipe. 
One time I gave her the recipe for a chicken-and-walnut dish that her husband, my brother, likes, and she served it one night when I was over.

In place of walnuts, she used raw peanuts. And for chicken, she substituted beef. In fact, every major ingredient had been replaced.

“This is terrible!” my brother said after one bite. Ginny glared across the table at me and said, “Don’t blame me! It’s your sister’s recipe!”

In today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus tries to explain to his disciples what it means for him to be the Messiah and for them to be his followers. But Peter doesn’t like it. He wants to change the recipe, the formula, the instructions. All this suffering and dying business doesn’t fit his understanding of what a Messiah is, and it REALLY doesn’t fit his understanding of what he wants to do with his life in God’s service and Jesus’ footsteps.

Starting our Gospel lesson with verse 31 is a bit jarring; we begin in the middle of the story. It’s like walking into a party just as everyone gets deadly silent and a woman screams at her husband “That’s what you think!” and stomps off upstairs and locks herself in the bedroom. You’re left looking around at everyone asking, “What? What was that about?”

In order to understand this text, you really have to know what went before. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus asked his disciples: Who do people say that I am? And the disciples offered up John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the Prophets. Then Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answers for them all when he says, “You are the Christ, the Messiah!”

This is where we come in; Jesus is explaining what it means for him to be the Christ, the Messiah. ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed . . .” Jesus went on to talk about being raised after three days, but Peter quit listening at the part about being killed. 

Peter’s brain screamed NOOOO! NOT Jesus, NOT the Messiah, NOT the Christ. That’s not the way the story goes; that’s not right; that’s not the formula for success, we’ve got to change that!

So Peter grabs Jesus and takes him aside for a little private conversation. Actually the Bible says Peter rebuked him; that’s a strong word. It means he fussed at Jesus for not being Holy enough, for not staying up there on the pedestal where Peter and the rest had put him and wanted him.

When Jesus yells “Get behind me Satan,” he is not yelling at Peter; he is yelling at Satan. This business of avoiding the cross is a real and terrifying and lifelong temptation for Jesus. This was Jesus’ lifelong spiritual battle.

In Luke’s version of this story, he says that Satan left Jesus alone until a more opportune time. Well this is it. This is a good time to get under Jesus’ skin with the temptation to power and privilege

Here Jesus is; surrounded by an adoring crowd that has begun to call him the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah. He has struggled to maintain his humility by referring to himself as the Son of Man and by talking about suffering and rejection and death.

But Peter, his main man, tries to talk him out of it. Jesus recognizes the voice of Satan when he hears it. This is a moment of genuine temptation which must be resisted firmly: 

This battle continues all the way to the cross. Remember in the Garden of Gethsemane, how Jesus prays and drops of blood form on his brow and he cries out, “Not my will, but thine be done?”  That’s the moment Jesus finally puts Satan away, the moment he completely replaces his own will and desires with the will and desires of God the Father.

After pushing Satan away, Jesus gathers the whole crowd together to teach them, and us, what it means to be disciples of Christ, followers of Jesus.

One thing’s for sure; no one can accuse Jesus of false advertizing, of luring followers with hip music and entertaining video displays and cool, helpful sermonettes on 

Three Tips for a Happy Marriage or Ten Biblical Investment Strategies.

Jesus lays it out straight and unmistakable: “If any want to become ,y followers let them deny themselves, take up a cross and follow me.” Now, many of us, when we hear that recipe for being a Christian; that set of instructions for building a Christian life, we rebel. 

Not like Peter, with a straight out rebuke and argument with Jesus.  That, I think, would be more honorable than what we do. No, we’re more like “Ginny,” changing the recipe. 

Well, he couldn’t have meant for us to deny ourselves, not really. That’s just, well, that’s just un-American. We’re supposed to have the things we want because God loves us and will bless us. He must of meant that we should read the Bible carefully for all those wonderful promises about how we can be happier and richer and a more well-rounded and well-liked person.

And take up a cross? Surely not! Surely, he didn’t mean that we show give away our heard-earned money; that we should actually suffer for the good of others. Probably he meant that we should give a reasonable percentage of what we have, like the Lutherans, say 2 or 3 %. That’s probably what he meant. He was just exaggerating to get his point across, like my old gym teacher.

And follow him? Gee, I don’t think so. After all, Jesus ended up dead. I think he meant we should admire him, and worship him, and expect good things from him, especially when we’re in trouble; but follow him? I don’t know.

Yes, the change the recipe and then wonder why the Christian life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. GK Chesterton said that Christianity has NOT been tried and found wanting; Christianity has been tried and found difficult and then abandoned by most. 

Brothers and sisters in Christ; Jesus meant what he said. On March 20, 2000 PEOPLE magazine ran a story about Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Center, Texas. One day the pastor’s wife was praying and asking God “Why is my life so empty?” 

Soon thereafter she and her husband began taking the state classes to be foster parents, and soon the idea spread throughout the church. Bennett Chapel is a tiny church, made up of working class people making a living as loggers or down at the chicken plant or at the hardwood flooring company. 

They didn’t have much to start with. But they decided to use what they had to make a difference in the lives of hurt, abused and unwanted children. As of the year 2000, 17 families in the church had become foster parents to 43 children in just two years.

As I think about that story, I am always struck by two things;

First, these were just ordinary people, with ordinary incomes and ordinary lives who basically did not need another child around to feed and clothe and worry about. Yet, in response to the tug of God’s will, they laid aside their own wants and needs for the sake of another.

Second, a quote from the social worker that echoes our Gospel lesson’s conclusion.

Social worker: “They don’t view themselves as a blessing for the child. They view the child as their blessing.” 

Jesus: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it.

Our calling today is to lose our lives into the life of Christ, to lose our wills in the will of God to give ourselves up totally and completely to the one who gave himself up for us upon the cross.

Amen and amen.

Year B — The First Sunday in Lent

Commentary for February 26, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Genesis 9:8-17
Lent begins with a covenant.

God made a promise (a solemn agreement, if you will) to Noah that God’s vindictive judgment would never again occur by means of a flood. The rainbow becomes a symbol of life through this covenant. It is a sign of hope for “all flesh,” as well — God’s love for the world is just that. God’s love for the world.

Might Lent be an opportunity for us to review our own covenant with creation? How shall I treat the world that God has made, and which I am privileged to occupy?

Psalm 25:1-10
Psalm 25 makes an excellent prayer guide for Lent: “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.” (v.4)

Walking the path — participating in the journey — taking time to prepare our hearts and lives. Perhaps these metaphors for this season of the church’s life are a bit overworn; however, listening and watching for God’s guidance ARE age-old practices that can and should be renewed — not just in Lent, but throughout our lives.

1 Peter 3:18-22
We follow Jesus. 

That’s our “job description” as disciples. Everywhere Jesus goes, his disciples follow. (For Peter and the gang, that got a little tough in the garden, outside the judgment hall, and at the cross.) What it means for us to follow Christ in his suffering and death is the subject of much consideration for us these next few weeks. 

But, one thing is certain: when we follow Christ in suffering and death (here, “death in the flesh,”) we are, like Christ, made “alive in the spirit.”

Baptism is connected to this supreme action of God in our lives by Christ; it is his acting, his living and dying, which saves us. As Christ was obedient to God in all things, including his own baptism (see the gospel reading for today,) so for us obedience in baptism is an act of following Christ. We are his disciples when we believe and are baptized.

Mark 1:9-15
Belief. Temptation. Ah, the twin experiences of the life of faith!

It would be nice, we are sometimes prone to think, if we weren’t faced with so much temptation as we attempt to live for Christ. We truly believe…and we don’t really mean to mess up when tempted to do so. We feel guilty because of our continuing propensity to sin. 

We may be unsure, at times, of our own worth before God. Why, oh why, do we have to face such trials? Why couldn’t God just remove them from our lives?

The wilderness experience of Jesus — coming as it does on the heels of his own “profession of faith” with John at the Jordan — is a time of preparation. It is signification of things yet to come. Whatever it was that Jesus faced for 40 days in the desert, it was nothing like the trial he would face as he approached the cross.

Perhaps the wild place — the barren, lonely place — is the time we need to be assured of the presence of God, the constant Love of God for our lives. Perhaps this is where we most effectively learn to pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

Is our own time of trial a preparation for what we have yet to face? Can we learn the deep truth of all that it means to be the Beloved of God?

by the Rev. Dr. Ruth Hamilton, Guest Preacher* 

Wandering in the Wilderness
Mark 1:9-15

So here we are, in the wilderness once again. We’re in no person’s land, outside of space and time, in an environment as bleak and cold and never-ending as a January day in Chicago. And yet, for all its bleakness, the wilderness is one of those places where God comes to meet God’s people.
You will recall that even though God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, destroyed their enemies, and was personally leading them through the wilderness to a land of milk and honey, the Israelites were not the least bit grateful, faithful, or obedient to God’s will. Time after time on their journey the Israelites complain—there’s not enough water, manna is boring, we should go back to Egypt. So on through the wilderness Israel goes, being tested by God and failing every test.
Finally, just as the Israelites are about to enter the promised land, they completely lose their confidence in God. They are afraid, so they decide to return to Egypt. They have failed the final test. So God decrees that only one of them, the one who did believe, will enter the promised land. On the threshold of that wonderful place to which they had been journeying, the Israelites are locked out. Like Adam and Eve, they have been banished forever from the Garden of Eden.
But, as always, God’s “no,” God’s word of judgment, is not God’s final word. God promises, after the current generation has all died, to let their children enter the promised land. Then God drives the Israelites back into the wilderness, where they wander for forty years. And even then, God does not forsake them.
During the forty days of Lent, we are those Israelites journeying in the wilderness, where our faith is being tested. And we are just like those Israelites, complaining every step of the way. God has given us everything, and we say, “It’s not enough. I need more. I need something different. Could I have my life in another size and color, please?” 
God has guided us faithfully through life, and we keep wandering away, looking for an easier route, a better deal. God has planned a wonderful destination for us, and we are afraid to enter into it. We fail to have faith in God. We would rather trust the things of this world. We would rather be slaves.
But when we live this way, the wilderness becomes dark and scary. We lose our sense of direction and purpose. God seems very far away. We worry that we’ll be wandering around forever because there seems to be no way out. We’ve failed God’s test, so we, like the Israelites, are sentenced to die in the wilderness. We will never see the promised land.
But then in our wilderness, we discover that we are not alone. Jesus has been there before us, and Jesus comes there to meet us now. Mark tells us today that Jesus had been driven into the wilderness for forty days to do what the Israelites could not do, what we cannot do. 
In the wilderness when Jesus is tempted by Satan and wrestles with evil, he passes the test. Jesus has such faith in God that he is willing to go wherever God leads him. Into the wilderness, onto the cross, into the tomb, into hell itself. And because of Jesus’ faith and obedience, God raised him to life and into heaven, life for all eternity. 
Because Jesus traveled that road from the wilderness to the promised land, so can we. We know we cannot do it by ourselves—but we don’t have to. Jesus leads us through the wilderness of this life into the land of salvation. All we need to do is trust and follow him.
Because the destination of our journey is certain, we, like the Israelites, can use these forty days of Lent, this time in the wilderness, to prepare for our entry to the promised land. The disciplines of Lent—penitence, self-denial, prayer, acts of charity—prepare us to hear the good news of Easter. They strengthen our faith. They help us trust in God and walk in God’s paths. So don’t be afraid to enter the wilderness. God is waiting for us there.

* Ruth Hamilton serves as Assistant Secretary in the Office of the Secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Among her many honors, she has been titled as an “Honorary Bubbette” and we’re awfully glad to have her here to keep the Bubbas sharp!

Year B — Ash Wednesday

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

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

A few years ago I was pastor in a church that was in the midst of a renovation. On the hall where I had my office there was a temporary wall with plywood door. On the door was a sign “Danger. Do not enter.”

And every Sunday after worship I returned to my office and observed the tell-tale dusty footprints on the hall carpet. People simply couldn’t resist going into the education wing to check out the progress.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Like dusty footprints in the hall we leave behind us traces of our humanity, signs of limitedness and imperfection for all the world to see.

We are human and prone to failure.

We are human, and unable to make of ourselves anything else.

Dust reminds us of the messes we make in life, the messes we sometimes make of life.

No matter how hard we try not to we leave bits of dust, of mess, behind us wherever we go.

That is why the Ash Wednesday liturgy has within the long confession. It is an invitation for us to own up to the inevitable messiness of our lives.

But, it is important for us to remember that confession always ends with absolution, with a declaration of forgiveness, with a word of grace and wholeness.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

These words themselves contain both confession and absolution, law and gospel in equal measure.

They echo the story in Genesis in which God took a lump of clay, a bit of dust, and breathed life into it, into us.

We are dust, but we are very special dust, we are dust filled with the breath, the spirit, the very life of the creator God.

And when we die, we in all our dirty dustiness will return to our maker, to God.

Far from being rejected for our dustiness, we will be gathered back to the one who gave our dust, who gave us, our very lives.
In the meantime, between birth and death, between dust and dust, we live in the world as imperfect human beings, as fractured angels, as what Luther called being a saint and sinner at the same time.

All too often we see ourselves and our God at one end or the other of the holiness spectrum.

Either we see God as a stern and unbending judge and ourselves as miserable sinners or we see God as an indulgent grandparent who excuses our every mistake on the strength of great love and ourselves as sweet, harmless, and innocent little saints.

And the truth lies somewhere in the vast empty space in the middle, both for God and for us.

Yes, God is righteous and holy. Yes, God does hate sin and demands justice and obedience. Yes, we do often fail to measure up.

And yes, God does love us with a complete and unconditional love, a love that casts our sin deep into the sea, as far from us as the east is from the west.

And the problem is we can’t find a nice middling image for God, halfway between these two extremes; there is no middle position, God is not either/or; God is both/and.

God is both judge and savior just as we are both saint and sinner.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

We are dust beneath God’s holy feet and we are dust that has had holiness breathed into it.

The God who condemns is also the God who saves, both, at the same time.

Our Lenten journey is a journey to the cross, to the place where the ultimate mystery of God’s eternal love is revealed.

The cross is the place where God’s judgement of sin and God’s forgiveness of sin merge into the form of the crucified Christ.

Luther said that there is only one place we can look and be certain that we are seeing God.

There is only one place where God’s terrible justice and God’s steadfast love can be clearly seen together. That place is Christ upon the cross.

So, please, please, remember that you are dust,

And please, please remember, to dust you shall return.

Amen and amen.

Year B — The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

A Lectionary Lab Bonus Sermon
(for those who may not be celebrating the Transfiguration of the Lord on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany)

Click here for texts

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Alex Haley, the author of Roots, was not an overnight success. He grew up on a farm in West Tennessee then spent many years in the merchant marine. After he was discharged he turned to writing penny-a-word short stories for pulp magazines under many pen names.

He worked in relative obscurity until first his biography of Malcolm X and then roots made him both rich and famous.
In his office Haley had a framed photograph of a turtle sitting on top of a fencepost. When asked about it, Haley would explain; if you see a turtle on a fence post you know he didn’t get there by himself. He had some help. Whenever I start thinking about what a great job I’ve done, I look at the turtle and remember how I got here. I had help.
Today’s Gospel lesson is about a man who got well. He didn’t do it alone, he had help; help from Jesus and help from his friends.
As the story opens Jesus has returned to Capernaum, where he was “at home,” the Bible says.
We’re not sure if that means he was a home-owner and they were in his house or if he lived in someone else’s home. Either way, people had heard about his healings out on the road and they knew where to find him and flocked to his house.
There was a crowd, a crowd so large and tightly packed that one person in search of healing could not force his way in. So he and his friends hit upon a clever idea.
They went up on the roof and cut a hole in the ceiling and lowered him into the room where Jesus’ was. This was not as difficult as one might think. There was almost certainly a set of stairs on the outside of the house leading to the roof, The roof itself was probably flat because families used the roofs the way we use patios; as a cool place to eat and sometimes sleep during warm weather.
The roof itself was formed by thick beams three or four feet apart, first covered with tree branches and then several feet of dirt. This is why the text says they “dug through it.”
Though this was not a welcome act of destruction, it was one that could be easily and inexpensively repaired.
So they lowered the man down into the room so that he could be healed by Jesus. Then comes the most fascinating line in the story; “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Did you catch that? Mark says Jesus saw the faith of the friends and healed the man. This was indeed a turtle on a fence post, for he was completely dependent on his friends. As are we all.
Several years ago I knew a man who was a prominent church leader; a pastor, a professor, eventually a bishop. He was a man of strong faith.
But his faith grew very cold when his wife died of cancer at a relatively young age. A few years later he wrote about his very personal dark night of the soul. He said he could no longer believe in god, he felt no love, no hope, no faith, no anything. He went through the motions in his job, but his insides were dead. He wrote of going to church and being unable to pray. He went, he said, and sat when everyone else sat and stood when everyone else stood, he read the prayers, he sung the hymns, but he felt nothing. Nothing at all.
The worst time was during the prayer of the church. He could not pray, he could not believe that anyone was listening. He knelt, he said the appropriate responses, but nothing was happening, it felt so unreal.
Often he asked himself, “Why do I go? Why go through the motions?” And the only answer he could come up with was that he needed to be there with those people who did believe and who did care, about God and about him.
Eventually this man’s faith grew back again. He said it was a long, slow process of hanging on.
And the most important factor in being able to hang on was the people who prayed for him.
He said, “I don’t mean the people who prayed to God mentioning my name and my need and asking God to help me. I mean the people who, week after week in church, prayed the Prayer of the Church while I sat among them unable to pray. They prayed for me, in my stead, in my place, because I was unable to do it for myself.
In those days, he was a turtle on a fencepost, carried by the faith of his friends when he was unable to lift himself. The faith of the church became his faith when his faith was paralyzed.
We are all called to be friends to one another.
We are called to carry each other into the presence of Christ.
We are called to pray for one another.
We are called to have faith in and for each other.
We are called to carry each other before the presence of the Christ, where our sins are forgiven and we are truly healed.
Amen and amen.

Year B — Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday before Lent)

Commentary for February 19, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

2 Kings 2:1-12
It’s a bit of an odd story — but, of course, it’s important, not only for the gospel reading for today, but in its own right, as well. 

Elijah has had a long and varied ministry. Like most of us called to serve God, he has been more faithful some days than others. But, no one doubts that Elijah has pretty much been “THE MAN” when it comes to prophesying God’s word in Israel. Ever since he flamed the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (and subsequently went into pouting mode,) God has led Elijah through the depths and to the heights of ministry.

Now, it’s Elisha’s turn; we can certainly say that Elijah’s successor has determination and perseverance. Elijah tries three times to “give him the slip,” but Elisha will have none of it. All he wants is to be twice as successful at following God as Elijah has been. I don’t think he’s begin cocky — he really, really wants it!

His predecessor can’t guarantee it, but because Elisha is willing to stick with it — God blesses him. Nice parable for us.

Psalm 50:1-6
Psalm 50 is a nice worship piece for this Sunday, with its images of fire, light, and shining forth.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Our “natural” hearts and minds are veiled; we cannot see spiritual things clearly. But, the presence of God causes light to shine out of darkness (a connection to the primal creation story) and reveals Christ to us and in us.

Mark 9:2-9
Fire on the mountain, as it were; the Transfiguration is always an exciting story. Mark’s terse treatment, if anything, highlights and accentuates the action.

I like it that it was a SUDDEN realization that there was no one to go down the mountain with them but Jesus. Wherever we go, Christ is there.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Imagine the Peanuts Cartoon: Linus and Charlie Brown are lying on their backs on the pitcher’s mound, staring up at the clouds in the sky.  Charlie Brown says, “Linus, do you ever see anything in the clouds?”

Linus: “Well, yes Charlie Brown, I do. For instance, that one over there bears a striking resemblance to Michelangelo’s depiction of the Creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 
And that one, there over the school, looks like a map of Scandinavia, see; there’s Denmark and Sweden.
  And that one there looks like a helix. Do you ever see anything Charlie Brown?”
Charlie Brown: “Well, I was going to say a Ducky and a horsey but I changed my mind.”

Every time I am confronted with a Biblical story like the Transfiguration, I feel a bit like Charlie Brown; compared to the religious experiences of others the things I have seen are simple and plain. My personal religious experience contains no bright flashes or red-hot emotions, no defining moments of transcending clarity, no poetic, mystical exuberance.

No, my religious experience tends toward the mundane and the ordinary; reading the Bible, family prayers, church on Sunday, familiar hymns. I have no frame of reference with which to begin to try to understand what happened to Jesus and his Disciples on top of that mountain.

The experience is completely and totally foreign to me. And yet, there is something within it that tugs at my heart, that pulls at my soul, that preys on my mind.

There are two ways to approach a story like this: one is the rational, analytical, scientific approach.  The other is as a child, with eyes attuned to seeing mystery and magic.

Soren Kirkegaard told a parable about this: 

There were two young people, one a German girl, the other an English boy. They met on the beach in France; they conversed in high school French. After returning to their respective homes, the girl wrote the boy a passionate letter in German, which he did not know.

First; he laboriously translated it, using grammar books and dictionaries and lexicons. But, he did not stop there. He put aside the intellectual work and read the letter for what it was; a love letter from a girl; a love letter aimed at his heart, not at his head.

So it is holy stories, with the Bible. While we must not turn off our brains in looking at a story like this, we cannot stop at the rational level, we must remember to read the Bible for the other thing that it is; a letter of love aimed at the heart. Matthew wrote this story to touch our hearts, to let us know something important about the love of God for us.

I learned to read using Dick and Jane books. Some things have stayed with me.
See Dick. See Dick go. Hear Jane. Hear Jane talk. Go Dick go. Go see Jane. Etc.

One way of looking at, listening to, hearing the story of the Transfiguration is through the mind of a child, through the simple words of See – Hear – Go.

What did they see? We must remember that this was a vision, a thing seen! So the important question is not what actually happened, what factually occurred. The important question is what did the disciples report that they saw; what was revealed to them.

So, again what did they see? They saw light and clouds which are ancient symbols of God’s presence; remember the Exodus through the desert, God lead the Children of Israel with a cloud by day and a fire, a light, by night. The disciples saw God’s presence and guidance, a cloud and a fire, on Jesus.

They saw Moses and Elijah. In Jewish tradition Moses represented the Law and Elijah stood for the Prophets. In Jewish Tradition, both Moses and Elijah were to return before the Messiah,
The appearance of Moses and Elijah signaled to the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah.

Moses and Elijah give Jesus their blessing and then the disciples see Jesus’ alone:
this shows that Jesus completes, fulfills, the Law and the Prophets.

What did they hear? They heard divine speech silence human speech: vs. 5 – “while he was still speaking.” They heard a command to listen to Jesus: vs. 5 – “listen to him.” They heard from Jesus the Gospel: vs. 7 – “get up and do not be afraid!”

Through the eyes of Peter, James and John we have seen the vision, we have heard the voices.
How are we called to respond? Where are we to go?

First, we are called to the mountain. Not to blinding lights and booming voices but to time apart with Christ. We are called to look at Christ with awe and hope and love, we are called to listen
to his commands to love one another with body, mind and soul.

Then, we are called off the mountain and back into life. Like Peter, we want to stay on a spiritual high but we can’t stay, we have to go back down to where life is lived for real.

For it is down here, and out there, in our homes and schools and jobs and communities
in the mundane, ordinary,
 “so-called” real world that real faith is lived out. That is where we live our faith, that is where we shine the light of Christ, because that is where that it is needed most.

And that is where God has sent us.

Amen and Amen.

Year B — The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for February 12, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

2 Kings 5:1-14
The mighty and the lowly are often juxtaposed in scripture. Mountains are made low, valleys are exalted; rich men are cast down, beggars are lifted up. Ignorant fishermen are occasionally called to preach, just as learned rabbis are by-the-by given “thorns in the flesh” as they seek to minister.

Naaman, as Dr. Chilton reminds us (see sermon below), was a great man by any society’s measure. Super successful, virile alpha-male, probably even photogenic in his prime (he would be a great presidential candidate in our time, I suppose!)

But he was afflicted with a disease that was the scourge of the lowly. The great warrior was a leper. He needed some serious help from the great prophet of Yahweh, and so sets out to (eventually) find Elisha.

Interesting to note that he might never have been cured if it were not for the advice of a captive slave girl (another mighty/lowly juxtaposition in vv. 2-3.)

Though Elisha wielded great and impressive powers in his own right, there is no spectacular miracle of healing to be performed. He doesn’t even meet Naaman in person, but rather sends a messenger. “Go wash seven times in the Jordan River — that’ll do it.”

Naaman is incensed at such a simplistic prescription — he doesn’t even consider the Jordan to be a real river! It is his own servants who convince him to give it a try; seven dips and it’s done. Naaman is healed.

In what ways might God be seeking to use the lowly things of our lives to accomplish a mighty purpose? Do we complain or obey?

Psalm 30
The psalm text has language that echoes the experience of Naaman; the Lord has “drawn up” his servant. God “brings up” from Sheol.

For the burdens of mourning and sadness, God offers dancing and gladness. Good swap anytime you can get it!

I love v.12 and its association with Fanny Crosby’s gospel song text, Redeemed: “I sing for I cannot be silent, [God’s] love is the theme of my song!”     (Learn more about the song here)

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
We live in a success-oriented society — “everybody likes a winner!” Of course, we also live in an age when “every player gets a trophy” — a practice that is decried by some. I guess the flip side of everybody likes a winner is that we need a lot of losers.

I don’t think the apostle is trying to say that, in Christ, some of us (or just one of us) is going to be the “winner” in the heavenly sweepstakes, and that all the rest of us will be losers. I also don’t think that this is a case of every player gets a trophy, either.

Regardless of one’s soteriology, it seems that Paul’s point here is that living the Christ life is worth the struggle; none of us should “run aimlessly.” Imagine Usain Bolt (click here if you don’t know who Bolt is) taking off at the crack of the starter’s pistol and trotting forward a few steps, then veering off and running toward the stands, stopping to chat and grab a little popcorn…you get the idea.

“Run, Christian, run!” might be an acceptable paraphrase?

Mark 1:40-45
“If you choose…” is the challenge and approach of the leper in today’s gospel story. An interesting and novel approach to prayer, perhaps. In this instance, Jesus is moved with compassion and does choose to bring healing.

Jesus seems willing because the leper seems willing. There’s an important idea here about the way we cooperate with the power of God, I think.

Of course, there are still some unanswered questions in this account, as well. Are there times that Jesus does not choose to make one whole? Are there people who pray, seemingly willing for God’s power to be displayed, and yet no apparent healing occurs?

Later in the gospel story, it is Jesus himself who will be faced with something of a dilemma concerning God’s choice at the cross– “
Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.” (see Mark 14:36)

Submission; acceptance; trust. God’s mighty power at work in the lowest (and lowliest) places of our lives. My, oh my, we preachers have a lot to work with here!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Naaman was a great man. The Bible calls him a “great warrior,” and says he was “in high favor with” the King of Aram, a neighboring kingdom to Israel.

Naaman also had a problem, a weakness. He had a skin disease. The Bible calls it leprosy, but it could have been anything along the lines of eczema or psoriasis.

As the story unfolds, an Israelite girl who had been captured in war becomes a servant girl in Naaman’s household. She tells Naaman’s wife about a prophet and faith-healer over in Israel.

The wife tells Naaman and Naaman tells the king.

The King values Naaman so highly that he sends Naaman to the King of Israel with a letter of request and lots of money and gifts.

Naaman comes before the King and presents his letter. Here’s what the letter said,

When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that YOU may cure him of his leprosy.”

When he reads the letter the Israelite king panics. “What kind of trick is this?” he thinks. “He sends his great warrior in here and demands that I cure him of leprosy, what’s he trying to do, start a war? I’m not a healer, I can’t cure anybody!”

The servant girl said that a prophet in Israel could heal Naaman but somewhere along the way it turned into a request for the king to cure. The king of Aram assumed the other king had all the power in his own kingdom. And notice how quickly the king of Israel assumed that the other king was up to no good. It does not seem that much has changed in the world of politics in 3000 or so years.

If Elisha the prophet had not stepped in at this point an attempt to do a good deed for a friend could have been turned into an excuse for war.

But Elisha did step in. He invited Naaman and his entourage to come to his house for healing.

But the misunderstandings weren’t over yet.

Naaman shows up at Elisha’s house, fully expecting a grand welcome.

I suspect he also had a preconceived notion as to how things were supposed to go when one goes to a faith-healer. He was looking for ceremony and pyrotechnics and grand gestures invoking the power of the gods.

Instead, Elisha sent out a servant with a short and somewhat strange message:
Go wash in the Jordan seven times and your flesh will be restored and you shall be clean.”

That was all. That was it. No incantations. No “magic salve.” No “balm from Gilead.” No mumbo, no jumbo.

Just “Go. Wash. Restored. Clean.”

Now it was Naaman’s turn to get a bit reactive.

The prophet had seriously disappointed him. No royal welcome, no flashy ceremony. And wash in the Jordan? That’s just a piddly little creek compared to the great rivers of Damascus, my home town! Why can’t I wash there? This is ridiculousness. I’ve never been so insulted in all my life!

So, like a little boy on a playground who didn’t get his way, Naaman grabs up his stuff and stomps off toward home.

Once again the common folk, the servants, come to the rescue. They approach him, call him down and talk a little common sense into him.

Look, if the prophet had asked you to perform some great feat like climbing a high mountain or slaying a great monster, you would have done it. Your problem is all he did was tell you “wash and be clean.” Can you not do this simple thing?

Naaman calmed down and listened to his servants and went to the Jordan and washed three times.

And yes, his skin was restored. He was cleansed and he was healed.

And you know what. In the end, Naaman did do a great thing, or at least a thing that was difficult for him.

Naaman humbled himself in obedience to God and God’s word.

Naaman put aside his pride and his expectations and his preconceived notions and his resistance to simplicity and made a decision to trust.

Naaman didn’t trust God, but because he didn’t know or believe in the God of Israel.

Naaman didn’t trust Elisha, because Elisha didn’t act like the religious leaders he was used to.

But Naaman did trust his own servants and with that tiny sliver of trust, of faith, he was healed.

All of us need to be healed.

All of us have places of brokenness and weakness.
No matter how great or powerful or rich or successful we may be, all of us have blemishes, things that weaken us, part of ourselves we don’t want other to see.

All of us need to be healed in some way at some time in our lives.

And all of us, like Naaman, need to learn to trust.

We need the opportunity to find a place that is safe enough that we can let go of our pride and our pain long enough to let the gentle healing power of God’s love wash over us.

And we need to remember that we are all called to a life of servanthood.

Remember; Naaman didn’t trust God, Naaman didn’t rust the official religious person Elisha, but he did trust those who served him.

We are servants of God and servants to each other.

Many times we will be the only voice of hope and love another person in our life will be able to hear.

We are called take responsibility for speaking gently and in love to those around us, constantly reminding them of the simple power of God’s love.

We are called today, as individuals and as a community of faith, to allow ourselves to be healed by God’s love.

It is not an easy thing to do. Many things can stand in our way.

Let us be like Naaman and let go of those things.

Gathering whatever sliver of faith we can muster, let us give ourselves into the simple love of God, trusting that it will change our lives forever.

Amen and amen.