Year B — Good Friday

A Bonus Sermon for Holy Week: Good Friday
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
The question of the cross is a fairly simple one.
Many people suffer. Many people suffer innocently, abused by cruel and heedless power. Many people die. Many people die innocently, murdered by cruel and heedless power.
Jesus of Nazareth is one of these millions of people who have suffered and died at the hands of cruel and heedless power. And the question is, “Why does his suffering, his death, his cross, matter more than any of the other millions?” Put another way, “What difference does one more martyr make?”
It’s not an easy question to answer, is it? We in the church often glibly talk about Jesus “dying for our sins,” but how often do we stop to think about what that really means, and how it really works, and if it’s true (and I firmly believe it is,) what difference it makes in the way we are called to live our lives this day and every day that follows.
Since the late Middle Ages, one of the standard understandings of the cross goes something like this: God is perfect and is both perfectly merciful and perfectly just. Human beings are, alas, much less than perfect. We daily fail to live up to perfect justice and are constantly in need of perfect mercy.
The problem is – God cannot be perfectly just and perfectly merciful at the same time. According to feudal custom and Roman law, “satisfaction” has to be made for justice to be preserved. (Remember how in old movies an offended gentleman would slap someone’s face and say, “I demand satisfaction.” That’s the idea.) But, if God punishes us as we deserve, gets divine satisfaction, then we’re all dead and God’s not merciful. If God doesn’t punish us, then God is not perfectly just.
So, the theory is, God had to come into the world as a perfect human being so that a perfect sacrifice could be made; so that justice could be satisfied and mercy fulfilled. Jesus dies on the cross, sins are paid for, we’re all forgiven, let’s all get ready to go to heaven.
But hold on a minute. It that really it? Is that all there is to it? Or is there more?
Yeah, there’s more, much more. This model has a neat, logical consistency to it, but neither the real world nor the Bible are really neat nor completely logical.
The cross of Christ calls us to consider the ways in which Jesus is leading us and calling us to a life as one of God’s “suffering servants.”
The cross is not so much about some divine mental and emotional calculation that makes it okay for God to forgive us as it is about God in Christ coming into our midst to suffer and die with us to show us that as bad as that is, it is not the final answer in God’s eternal equation.
And because Jesus has not only shown us the way but has also preceded us in both death and new life; we can respond to the call of Christ to take up our own cross and follow, confident not that we will not die, but sure that dying will not be our ultimate end.
The story is told that when Desmond Tutu was a relatively young Anglican minister in South Africa one of his white friends, a Methodist minister, came to him and pleaded with him to stop his activities protesting the South African government’s policy of legal race discrimination.
The friend said, “Desmond, you must stop.” Tutu replied, “Why?” His friend said, “Why? Because if you don’t they will kill you.” “Ah,” Tutu said, “Well, brother, death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. I have a resurrection Jesus.”
The message of the cross, the transaction that took place there, has many meanings, too many to list, but at least one of them is this, “death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.”
Because Jesus led the way, we can confidently go out each day doing what good we can find to do, knowing that God smiles upon us and Christ goes with us.
Amen and amen.

Year B — Maundy Thursday

A Bonus Sermon for Holy Week: Maundy Thursday
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Texts: Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17; 31b-35

One day about 20 years ago I went to a Holy Week breakfast at the big downtown church in a major southern city. It was a Chrism Mass and the Bishop had called us together to renew our ordination vows and to eat together.

We drove in early, most of us from the suburban and rural outskirts. We wore our best Lutheran finery, black suits and black shirts and white collars and silver crosses. We vested in the chapel and filed into choir stalls in the chancel where the bishop preached and prayed and gave us communion and we prayed and pledged our troth and received the elements with humble hands if not totally humble hearts.

We divested ourselves of our albs and stoles and then retired to the small dining room where the Altar Guild laid before us a brunch of eggs and bacon and biscuits and cheese grits and sausage balls and fresh fruit and, and and. . . .

We sat at oak tables covered with linen table cloths and ate off good china with silverware that appeared to have a significant amount of real silver in it. And we had a wonderful time lamenting how difficult our lives were and how taxing our jobs were and what a burden Holy Week was and eventually it got time for me to leave.

Somewhere between the small dining room and the chapel where I recovered my alb and the long hallway to the parking lot I got turned around and lost and went downstairs and down a corridor and found my self spilling out into the street on the opposite side of the church from where I expected and wanted to be.

The morning sun was shining brightly in my eyes and it took me a moment to gather my wits and figure out where I was and when I came to myself I looked down the sidewalk in the direction I wanted to go and saw a long line of folk huddled on the dewy grass, trying to stay warm and dry while waiting for the food kitchen housed in the church’s basement to open.

I felt very conspicuous walking along beside that row of folk, dressed in my best suit, carrying my white robe, a silver cross around my neck. I spoke to a few folk as I hurried past them to the corner. As I came to the street and turned to the left I glanced back and then I looked up and to my right. And what I saw stopped me dead in my tracks.

From where I stood, I could see in the floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall windows of the small dining room. I could see the assembled holy people of the area Lutheran churches, smiling and talking; warm, dry, and well-fed.

By simply shifting my eyes I could see a significant portion of the area’s homeless population, cold, hungry, silent and appearing as alone in a group as they were by themselves.

And I wondered, “On this Tuesday in Holy Week, in this city, at this hour; which group would Jesus be eating with; the clergy or the homeless?”

Really, I wondered, “Which group should I be eating with?” Or better yet, “Shouldn’t all of us be down here eating with all of them?”

Jesus says, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done.” (13:15)

In our text from John’s Gospel, we find the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. In a note in a study bible and another in a textual commentary I was reminded of the extreme lowliness of this task.

Footwashing was normally done by a slave or a servant, not the host. If the host had no slave, he would provide water and a towel, but would not wash the guest’s feet himself.
Indeed, it was a job that could be performed by a woman or a child or a non-Jewish slave, but no Jewish male, not even a slave could be required by a Jewish master to do this for another. (The Access Bible and The Lectionary Commentary)

The example that Jesus has set for us is not the particular one of putting on towels and washing the feet of our fellow churchgoers, (though it would be nice if we actually thought that much of one another and could naturally do that without laughing or cringing.)

No, the example here is one of indifference to one’s own importance and of close and particular attention to the hurts and needs of the other to the point of self forgetfulness in service of those needs.

On this night, this Maundy Thursday, we are called to remember a number of things.

The text from Exodus tells us of the night of the Passover, the night the Hebrew people were set free from slavery in Egypt by God’s strong hand.

The meal Jesus and his disciples ate on the night of the footwashing was a Passover meal and the early church saw Jesus as the Passover lamb whose blood has protected us from the angel of death.

Our reading from I Corinthians reminds us that on the night that he washed the disciples’ feet, Jesus said some things that must of seemed strange to the disciples on that night but which came to mean a lot to them after his death and resurrection.

After they had seen his body broken and his blood spilled upon the cross, his words over the bread and wine that night took on new and more vital meaning and significance.

And buried within the John story is the reason this night is called “Maundy” Thursday.
After all, what sort of word is Maundy? What does it mean? It is an old English word related to “mandate” or “command” and this night is called Maundy Thursday because it was during the Passover meal, after he had washed everyone’s feet that he told them, he commanded them, “to love one another.”

Vs. 34 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

Well, how do you command love? To be more specific, how do you command one person to love another? To be really specific, how do you command someone to love someone else they don’t even like very much, if at all?

Well, you do it like Jesus did it, and he may have been the only one who could have done it and deserved to be obeyed.

You see, you do it by having loved everyone completely and totally and “to the end” (13:1)

To the end of his life?
To the end of time?
Or to the end that they will in response love one another?

Like YHWH freeing the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, God in Christ upon the Cross has freed us from our bondage to this world’s power, summarized by Luther as “sin, death and the devil.”

We have been loosed and set free by the death and resurrection of Jesus, shown forth to us in the bread and wine of communion. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (I Corinthians 11:26)

It is because of this new freedom and the love that Jesus gives to us that we are able to love others, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

Our calling this night is to remember the Lord’s death, and to anticipate his resurrection.

Our calling this night is to receive the love of God in Christ into our lives, the way the disciples received Jesus’ gift of washing their feet.

Our calling this night is to go out into the world renewed in our commitment to let the love of God in Christ that fills us, overflow from us into acts of kindness and generosity to others.

Amen and amen.

Year B — The Sixth Sunday in Lent (Palm/Passion)

Commentary for April 1, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 50:4-9a
As I consider the overwhelming passion of the Lord on this beginning of Holy Week, I am struck (and I genuinely intend no pun here) by the depth with which Isaiah’s text connects us to the willing submission of Christ. 

“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.” (v. 6) I am simply stunned at the unbegrudging audacity of Jesus in accepting the fulfillment of this passage in his life.

The haunting refrain of an old gospel hymn comes back to me at this point: “I gave my life for thee, what hast thou given for me?” 

(for the powerful background on this hymn text by Frances R. Havergal, click here

Psalm 31:9-16
In the midst of plotters and schemers, the confidence of the Christ is ultimately in God. 

Again, I am reminded that, for Jesus, the imminent threat of death was very real; the run-up to Golgotha was not some dress rehearsal or momentary discomfort. Jesus is going to die, and I suspect he knew that.

Close behind that thought must have been, “If God does not save me, I am lost.” That may be the deepest truth of the Passion.

Philippians 2:5-11
This classic worship text of the early church is a reminder of the close proximity of privilege and humility, of submission and glory, of obedience and exaltation. Needless to say, it prepares us for the greatest proximal opposition of all: life out of death.

Mark 14:1-15:47
When considering this entire passage, opportunities for preaching abound. The real task is deciding what must be left unsaid in the sermon. (The story does, after all, speak for itself — and quite well, at that!)

One organizational theme that suggests itself is that of acceptance vs. rejection. In his characteristic rapid-fire manner, Mark presents several characters in rapid succession who all make decisions based on either accepting or rejecting participation in the unfolding drama of the passion:

  • the woman with the alabaster box of ointment — accepts Jesus and anoints his feet
  • those in attendance at the meal who complain — rejecting this seemingly pointless extravagance
  • Jesus affirms the woman’s action — accepts her offering and memorializes her action 
  • Judas Iscariot, who departs for the purpose of betrayal — rejection of Jesus and his actions
  • the man with the jar of water — acceptance displayed by provision of the upper room
  • Peter of the bold predictions — penultimately rejects Jesus at the crowing of the rooster
  • Jesus struggling in prayer in the garden — acceptance of the difficult task before him
  • the mob from the “chief priests, scribes and elders” — arrest and rejection

And so on, and so forth…you get the idea.

The theme of acceptance and rejection will continue through to Mark’s stark ending of his gospel at 16:8 — basically handing the story off to we, the hearers and readers of his story. (More on this next time!)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist and mathematician, had a dog that he loved very much. Wherever Newton went, the dog went with him.

The story is, one time he had worked for months and months on a theory about the nature of the universe, working late into the night by candlelight, his worktable covered with papers, which were in turn covered with formulas and theorems and conclusions.

Late one night, newton got up from the table to leave the room and the dog jumped up and bumped the table, turning over the candle, which set Newton’s papers on fire.

Newton returned to the room to find years of work gone up in flames.

He put out the fire, then sat on the floor and wept. The dog nuzzled up to him and licked his face and Newton hugged his dog and said, “You will never, ever know what you have done.” (Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods, p. 36)

The story is that when Eve took the fruit from the tree and when Adam took the fruit from Eve; things fell apart. And God looked at Adam and Eve with great sadness and said, “You will never ever know what you have done.”

What began in Adam and Eve continues in us.

Each of us plays out our own, personal little Garden of Eden in which we discover our capacity for doing things that tear God’s creation apart.

Back when I was young and knew everything and had not had either the time or inventiveness to really mess things up in life, I didn’t worry too much about the sinfulness of humanity in general and my own sinfulness in particular.

But I’m older now and I don’t even like to think about the ways that I have been less than I meant or hoped to be.

I have not just failed to do good, I have on occasion done bad; and knew I was doing bad when I did it, and I did it anyway.

And I don’t know why.

And I have no excuse other than the fact that I am human and that is what humans do sometimes.

I don’t blame any one or any thing else; not my mama or my daddy or my environment or anything else.

It was just me and my life and an occasional fit of sorriness.

And I’m sorry.

And I have a deep, deep need for a voice from outside myself who will neither condone my misdeeds nor condemn me for them.

And we meet that voice, that God, in the one “who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” (Phil. 2:6) but rather “emptied himself,” and come to be one of us, to live with us, to die with us and for us on the cross.

My daddy’s sister, Aunt Mildred, never, ever really threw anything away. When her nieces’ and nephews complained to her about this, she would say, “You just never know when you might need it.”

Our protests that you had to be able to find “it” in order to use “it” when you needed “it,” fell on deaf ears. She was confident that she knew where all her “its” were. And I think she did.

I would ask her about a bill or a letter or a magazine and she would say something like, “It’s in the back bedroom, in the left hand corner of the closet, third shoebox from the bottom, in a plastic bag.” And she’d be right.

God is, I think, a bit like Aunt Mildred; if not southern then at least eccentric.

God shares her passion for saving everything and her awareness of everything she
had saved.
God doesn’t do the expected and normal thing and condemn useless and unholy trash to Gehenna, the fiery garbage heap outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Instead, where others may see worthlessness, God sees something worth saving, something worth hanging on to, something worth taking a risk for, something worth making a great effort for, something worth dying for.

And God knows where all that saved stuff is. God cares about that which God has saved.

And it is God’s will that it all be saved, because God made it all, and God loves it all, no matter what it has done.

The Gospel is that it is because of our great need and God’s great sorrow and anguish over our great need that Christ came into the world.

. . . but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death – even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2: 7-8)

And so, the great question is not whether or not God loves us and cares about us – that question has been answered once and for all by Christ upon the cross.

The question is; are we being obedient to our call to take up our cross and follow?

The Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville was for a long time the home of the Grand Ole Opry. It was originally a church, built as a preaching place for a famous evangelist named Sam Jones.

The story is that Jones was holding what the holiness folks called a “quitting meeting,” during which people confessed their sins and swore off drinking, and smoking and cussing and running around with people they weren’t married to and such like misbehavior.

The meeting had reached an emotional high point when Jones called on one ultra-righteous woman in the congregation and asked her what she was going to quit.

She said, “I ain’t been doing nothing, and I’m going to quit that too.”
I’m a Lutheran, and we Lutherans learned a long time ago that there is nothing we can do to make God love us, nothing we have to do to earn our salvation.

The problem is, some of us learned that lesson too well and we do nothing in response to God’s love for us.

God calls upon us today to “quit doing nothing,” in response to the Gospel.

We are called to give ourselves for others as Jesus gave himself for us.

We are called to care about the hurts and pains of others as Jesus cared about our hurts and pains.

We are called to live lives of obedience to Jesus’ call to us to take up a cross and follow.

Follow him into the world with hope in our hearts, with acts of love in our hands and with words of grace and promise on our lips.

Amen and amen.

Year B — The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 25, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Jeremiah 31:31-34
It has always been a comforting thought to think of God, as a Heavenly Parent, holding me by the hand. Good image; strong image.


But, evidently, as a wayward child, I can decide to withdraw my hand from the protective grip of God. So, God has designed, so says Jeremiah, a new way to hold me: God has placed God’s “law” inside of me. God’s word, God’s law is — to the Hebrew understanding — the very presence and assurance of “God Himself.”

So, when I consider that God has now placed God’s law in my heart, that is pretty much the same as saying God has taken up residence there. No longer is it necessary for anyone to “tell me” what I need to know about God. I simply look within my own heart — God’s home.

Psalm 51:1-12
Sin is a sticky thing; like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth, or an annoying piece of lint that you just can’t flick off of your shirt — it keeps coming back and coming back at you, no matter how hard you try to get rid of it!

Only God can get rid of sin and the images it burns into our minds and into our souls. One of the favorite attacks of “the evil one” is to remind us over and over of the ways we have messed up, that we are inferior, that we are undeserving of love because “we’ve been bad.”

I’m so glad that one of the favorite techniques of the Holy One is to blot out our transgressions with the abundant mercy of God. God sustains joy; the Lord sustains us spiritually.

Psalm 119:9-16
In keeping with Jeremiah, “the word” of God here symbolizes God’s very presence. Therefore, how does any one of us — young or old — keep our way pure? By hiding, or treasuring, God’s word in our hearts.

Keep the things God says –what God really wants you to know — close by you all the time. Keep ’em in mind; be ready to pull them out of your pocket. You’ll be surprised just how handy they will turn out to be!

Hebrews 5:5-10
For now, don’t worry too much about Melchizedek, who he is, or what he does (though if you have a hankering, you’ll find his story in Genesis 14.)

The real emphasis here is on what Jesus does — the Great High Priest — who, even though he had every right as the Son of God, instead learned about obedience (a term used for a servant, not a son) and suffering — and thus received glory from God. He did not seize it or assume it for himself.

The glory of God, in Jesus, is also shared with us; we receive eternal salvation because of what Jesus has done.

John 12:20-33
The appearance of the Greeks who sought after Jesus has always been something of a reminder to me that we never know who is going to be intrigued with our message about the Christ. These guys seem to come “from left field,” so to speak, and Philip seems a little puzzled as to what to do with them.

Ever have someone like that come to your church? We all say we want to reach “new people” — but then you get somebody who is really from beyond the edge of your normal constituency, and you find yourself asking the internal question, “How in the Sam Hill did they get here?” 

To Jesus, it seemed to represent an important development; it is almost as if he says, “Okay, boys; if the Greeks are showing up, then it’s just about time to kick this thing into high gear.”

Does he know that means the stuff is about to hit the fan? He seems to intimate that with his prayer about being troubled and asking God to save him from this hour. 

Certainly, this is the human Jesus that Dr. Chilton leads us to consider in the sermon below; what God had for him to do was hard and he had to find himself somewhat reluctant, at times, to carry it forward.

And, yet, the Savior is willing to play the part of the kernel of wheat falling to the ground — there is new life yet to come even in the midst of an impending burial. 

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Psychiatrist and Christian writer M. Scott Peck tells of treating a woman who had been involved in a variety of cults.
Peck says, “I asked her one day, ‘Tell me about Jesus . . . how he died?’
He was crucified.’ She answered. Something, perhaps the fact that she did everything she could to avoid pain, propelled me to ask, ‘Did it hurt?’
Oh no!’ she responded . . . . . I persisted ‘How could it not hurt?’
Oh,’ she replied happily, ‘He was just so highly developed in his Christ Consciousness that he was able to project himself into his astral body and take off from there.’”
Well, I suppose that’s one theory.
A Unitarian friend of mine continually reminds me that there is danger in thinking of thinking of Jesus as both divine and human.
He says that if we think that Jesus was divine, we may begin to excuse ourselves from the call to follow him to the cross.
We think, “Well, Jesus was God, so he could do those things and it didn’t really hurt him. At least it didn’t hurt him the way it would hurt me. So really, I’ll worship him, but following him is a bit too dangerous.”
Unless we take the human pain and suffering of Jesus seriously, we may fail to take seriously our own call to face pain and suffering for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus reminds us that our calling as Christians is to follow him, and that following him includes following him to the cross, not as spectators but as participants in suffering for the sake of the world.
Hebrews gives us an intensely human portrait of Jesus; one filled with mental anguish, the dread of anticipated suffering, pleading for mercy and, finally, resignation to his fate.
The Greek word here is sarx. It means meat; bones and blood and muscle. It is a declaration of Jesus’ very real humanity.
The verse continues, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears,”
Many rabbis taught that there were three levels of prayer:
  1. Prayers – verbal or silent, thought out and controlled
  2. Loud cries – shouting at God in anger or anguish.
  3. Tears – pure emotion and pain.
Hebrews shows us Jesus engaged in all three but most especially loud cries and tears, pouring out his fear and pain to God. One who feels no pain and no fear, one who is not “human,” does not weep and cry before God.
Verse 7 continues: “to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard.”
Jesus knew that the path he was on lead to death, to the cross. Jesus also knew that God could save him from this end. And Jesus was not afraid to let his fears and feelings be known, to God and to others.
What agony he must have felt. You could save me if you would, but you won’t! Why won’t you? Why won’t you? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Now, Hebrews 5:7 says he was heard – – – and yet, he died. Died in agony upon the cross. What kind of hearing is that?
When I was about 12 or 13 I was in the Boy Scouts. One night at Scouts we were running a race and I tripped. I fell face down in gravel on the side of the road. I lodged a piece of gravel under the skin on my forehead.
The rural medical clinic was a mile or so down the road from our meeting place. The Doctor and my father were both assistant Scoutmasters so they gathered me up and took me to the clinic.
The doctor was good but his bedside manner was a bit on the brusque side. As I lie there on that cold, hard metal table he came at me with a huge needle to numb my forehead. I am still not very fond of needles, but then I was deathly afraid of them.
I looked over at my Daddy and began to cry out, “Daddy, Daddy, daddy, please Daddy. Don’t let him hurt me, please Daddy. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.
The doctor threw a leg over me to hold me down, put his left arm down on my chest and proceeded to inject the needle. All the while I continued to cry and beg and plead for my Daddy to make him stop. And just as the needle entered I saw my Daddy’s hands, knuckles white as he clutched my jacket. I looked up and saw a tear in the corner of his eye. It was the only time I ever, ever saw him cry.
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. I was heard, oh yes, I was heard. And I was denied.
Hebrews 5: 8 “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
Here is a great mystery of the faith. Wherever are, God in Christ has been; fully, completely, totally.
Think about the most scared, lonely, and troubled you have ever been.
And Jesus has been there.
Think about the moments when you have felt ignored and abandoned by God.
And Jesus has been there.
Think about all the times when you just did not know if you could make it.
And Jesus has been there.
The Promise of the Gospel is not that if you are a Christian life will be easy.
The Gospel is not about ways to make your life, your marriage, your career, your children or anything else work out in a way pleasing to yourself.
The Gospel is the call to follow Jesus to the cross and beyond.
To follow Jesus in serving the poor and needy.
To follow Jesus in reaching out to the despised and rejected.
To follow Jesus in standing up for those who are oppressed and ill-served by the world.
To follow Jesus in fighting against illness and evil wherever they may be found.
And sometimes following Jesus to the cross means we will suffer for our commitments, that we too will be rejected and scorned as much as those with whom we take our stand.
Christ calls us to follow him.
It is not an easy way.
It is not a painless path.
It is not likely to be smooth sailing.
It is the Way of the Cross.
And the promise of the gospel is that where God calls us to go, Jesus has already been, and as we go, Jesus is going with us.
Amen and amen.

A New Liturgy — Well Worth a Look (and a Listen!)

Our very own Bubba #1, Dr. Chilton, has cooperated with the Rev. Dr. Joel Emerson to produce a new liturgy, Lord, Have Mercy, that is “accessible, playable, affordable, singable, flexible… for any denomination.”

This contemporary setting of the ancient text of the liturgy can be accompanied by guitar, keyboard, or a full praise band. No formal church music training is required (though musicians will find it quite useful) — and there are downloadable listening tracks, which may also be used for performance in your church.

For a limited time, the score and the tracks are available FREE at www.lordhavemercyliturgy.com.

Year B — The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 18, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Numbers 21:4-9
A curious thing about poison — it not only is a substance which can sicken and kill, but is often also the means of producing the antidote which becomes a cure. Of course, it must first be injected into a subject who is capable of producing antibodies, becoming affected and quite likely sickened in the process. (For a review of how snakebite antivenom is prepared, click here.)

Consider the imagery of sin as poison; consider as well the One who is willing to be afflicted with sin on our behalf in order to produce the ultimate antidote — life from death.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
The psalm supports the first reading, though the names have been changed [or omitted] to protect the guilty. The key thought here is not to cast further blame on the wandering Israelites for their complaining and lack of faith, but rather to focus on God’s action when God’s people cry out in their trouble (v.19) –“he saved them from their distress.”


There is help; there is a Savior.

Ephesians 2:1-10
As Pastor Mary Ann Braswell notes so well in the sermon below, the bottom line for all of us who live as human beings in this world is simple: we have a sin problem and God has a sin solution. It is high time that the ones with a problem and the One with a solution should meet.

John 3:14-21
The word of grace is always set against the backdrop of sin and its judgment. Notice that it is sin that is judged by God; the wrath of God is always directed against the power of evil. Sinners (which includes all of us, naturally) are affected by sin and are touched by the judgment of God so far as sin remains in our lives.

But God’s purpose is not now, nor has it ever been, simply to punish sinners. God’s eternal purpose is to bring light into the darkness and forgiveness into the midst of a sin-affected world. The simple, beautiful doorway to God’s grace is belief — trust — in the Beloved One we know as God’s only Son.

Sermon
by the Rev. Mary Ann Braswell, Guest Preacher*

I recently saw a comment posted in a Facebook pastors’ group that disturbed, and perhaps, convicted me. Another pastor shared that in the 20 years before he entered the ministry, he never heard a single sermon on salvation! I have really struggled with that and wondered if it could be true. Finally, I decided that likely every sermon he heard had been about salvation, but he had failed to connect the dots; for any sermon about God or Christ and their love for us is ultimately a sermon on salvation. 

Today, I’d like to try and connect the dots.

We live in a broken and hurting world. Most denominations, if not all, are seeing a decline in numbers. Church seems to have fallen out of favor. There was a time when Sunday was different. Businesses were not open. There was no point because they would have no customers since everyone was at church. Those days are long gone. 

Today Sunday is just another day for most people. The church seems to be competing with the things of the world, and sometimes it seems like we are losing. A lot of people who don’t attend church will say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” To me, that means they are seeking. They might not know what, but they recognize the need for something more in their lives.

Nicodemus was like that. He was a Pharisee and religious teacher, yet he sought more. So he sought Jesus in the darkness. The Bible does not say why he came at night, so we can only speculate. Perhaps he did not want to be seen with Jesus, who was not in good standing with the religious leaders.
Perhaps he wanted to catch Jesus at a quiet time, away from the crowds that surrounded Jesus during the daytime. Or perhaps this was a metaphor; Nicodemus was in the darkness, seeking the Light of the world. 

As Jesus explained to him that he must be born again, this second time a spiritual birth, Jesus also reminded him of the story of Moses lifting the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness so the Israelites could be healed from their snakebites. The one on the pole offered healing by faith.

Jesus also would be lifted up on a pole, the thing we call the cross. The difference is that what we gain by faith when we look at the cross and believe is not healing from snakebites that would lead to death, but forgiveness of our sins which would lead to eternal life. Notice that God sent Jesus because he loved us, not because he condemned us. 

We have a choice to accept or reject that love and the salvation that comes through believing in him. If we accept, we are promised everlasting life. If we reject him, we are condemned by our own action. We perish when we are cut off from God.

Our salvation comes through Jesus Christ who came into the world to save us. He is the light of the world, and he came into the darkness of the world for our sake. Everyone has to make a choice. The Israelites could chose to look at the serpent on the pole and believe and be healed or not look and not believe. We can choose to look at Christ on the cross and choose to believe and be forgiven of our sins and have everlasting life or not look and not believe.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Salvation is about love, not condemnation. Salvation is about accepting, not rejecting. Salvation is about everlasting life, not death.

From this day forward you must always say, “Yes, I’ve heard a sermon on salvation!” If you have never made this decision before, today you must decide. Will you accept God’s love or reject that love? Today, I’ve connected the dots. 

Yes, it really is that simple! 

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *_

*Mary Ann Braswell is Pastor of the Lone Hill-Excelsior Charge of the United Methodist Church in Douglas, Georgia and is a regular Lectionary Lab reader/workshop participant. Welcome to another honorary “Bubbette!”

Bonus Sermon

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton 

(Bubba was feeling a little extra energetic this week, so he sent this one on through…)

 

I have concluded that almost everyone has a relative like my late Aunt Mildred.
She was my Daddy’s sister, she lived with her parents until they died, then she married her longtime suitor. She never had children, which, some of us think, was something of a blessing for those unborn.
Having no children, she doted on her nieces and nephews and sent us birthday cards with sticks of gum in them until we were well into our 30’s and 40’s. She also wrong long, disjointed letters all over those cards; front, back, and then folded them out and wrote on the inside.
One time, in the midst of all the news about Uncle LW’s impending hernia surgery and what they had for lunch at the Derby and what they had to pay for it and what was wrong with it, and how Myrtle feels about her son’s job change (now if I can only figure out who Myrtle is) and a long digression on the ugly dress Cousin somebody wore to Grandpa Watson funeral in 1960 and a guess at how much rain they had last week based on the amount in the coffee can on the stump in the backyard, there was buried this line: “I paid the premium on your Combine Accident Insurance last week.”
Believe it or not, that was the first thing in that letter that I did not understand at all. What? What is Combine Accident Insurance? A combine is a piece of farm equipment I haven’t been near since I was twenty years old. And, I’m sure it’s not about farm equipment anyway and what kind of insurance is it and why is Aunt Mildred paying the premium? In the midst of this muddle I did what all southern boys who have been raised right do. I called my mother.
She said, “Oh Lord, you know your Aunt Mildred, bless her heart. She takes out these policies on all you children all the time. She’s scared to death somebody she knows will wind up in the hospital unable to pay their bills. She’s got policies on all 5 of you children, plus LW’s nieces and nephews too. I tell her you all have got jobs and insurance but she just says it might not be enough, you can’t ever have too much insurance.”
I said, “Mama, what should I do? She’s wasting her money!”
“Oh honey, there’s nothing you can do. She’s convinced that this Combine Accident Insurance is the greatest thing in the world and nobody can change her mind. If you ever have an accident, would you please her know. Nothing would make her happier than to file a claim on you.”
Though it did make me feel strange to learn that the best way to make Aunt Mildred happy was to get hurt, I decided that Mama was right and wrote Aunt Mildred a thank-you note and let it go.
What struck me most deeply in this episode was the realization that for all those years Aunt Mildred had been spending that money on me. She didn’t ask me, she didn’t tell me, she didn’t expect anything from me. She did it because she loved me and cared about me, because she thought it was a good thing to do for me.
In the midst of all this I felt twinges of guilt. ” Geez,” I thought,” I don’t even read her letters and she does that for me.” And, putting aside all the practical reasons why this was a silly thing to do, I did realize it was a sign of her love and that there was something very tender and sweet and humbling about her doing that for me. I was touched, I really was.
A few years ago these texts came up and a pastor friend asked me if I was going to tackle the bronze serpent in the First Reading. I said no, I thought I’d stick with Ephesians and John 3:16 and he said, “Well, that’s safe. It would be hard to mess that up.”
I laughed and agreed it would indeed be real hard to “mess up” such a clear Gospel message. But then I thought, as hard as it is, that is exactly what we do. For various reasons and in various ways we regularly mess up the message of God’s gift of grace.
We “mess up” the gift of God’s grace by not taking it seriously enough. We say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah I know all about that salvation business. Yeah, yeah, Jesus died on the cross, good. But what has he done for me lately? How can this Christ business improve my life now?”
I recently heard a story about a company that was having a hard, hard time. The owner called in all the employees and told them that things were bad but that he believed they would soon get better.
He told them that he had decided that instead of laying everyone off, he was going to keep them on full payroll; all they had to do was come in on Wednesdays and do maintenance on the machinery and clean up the place.
There were sighs of relief and smiles all around the room and then somebody asked, “Do we have to come in every Wednesday?”
That’s us. In the face of the stupendous, gigantic gift that is God’s grace, we want to know the details. Do I have to go every Sunday? Do I have to pray every day? Do I have to gie a part of everything I earn?
Just like I failed to take the depths of Aunt Mildred’s love seriously. Sure, she was a little eccentric and capable of incredible silliness. She was laughable.
And she loved me, and she loved my brothers and sisters. She loved us with a love we did not deserve nor adequately appreciate. We certainly did not earn it, we seldom responded to it, we never understood it.
This is a parable of our relationship with God. God loves us in spite of ourselves, God loves us more than we deserve, God loves us in ways we do not understand, God loves us in reckless, extravagant, spendthrift ways. God does things for us, like dying on the cross, that seem to others to be silly, foolish even.
And yet it is that silly, foolish, incomprehensible love which is the Gospel, the message of the gift of God’s grace.
And the most silly, most foolish and most totally incomprehensible thing about it is this: in spite of our unworthiness and unresponsiveness and inability to understand it, God just keeps on loving us, just keeps on giving us the gifts of divine grace.
“For God so loved the world that he gave. . . .”‘ John 3:16
Amen.