Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C

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A Sermon by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite southern writers.  If you like to read and have not read any of her work, you should.  I like her so much that I bought a book of her correspondence and spend a bit of my daily devotional time reading a letter or two.  Since she was a Catholic, she often mentioned her faith and because she was a fiction writer she often talked about literature when she wasn’t gossiping her mama and the other folk she interacted with on her farm near Milledgeville Ga.

In one of my favorite passages, she talked about being asked to come and read at nearby Wesleyan College. She says:

“Week before last I went to Wesleyan and read (my story) “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” After it I went to one of the classes where I was asked questions. There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. “Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.”

Yes, and much too often it’s what happens when people start interpreting the Bible.  We hear the story of “the Prodigal Son” read to us and immediately, we begin to think “Okay, the father is obviously God, and the elder brother is the good guy, so he represents the Pharisees and the scribes in verse 2, and the younger brother is a scoundrel, so he signifies the tax collectors and sinners.  And the story is about how God loves sinners and forgives them when they repent and how the Pharisees and scribes didn’t like it when Jesus showed God’s love to sinners, and we shouldn’t be like the elder brother – we should rejoice with God over the repentance and forgiveness of a sinner.  That is, we think, the significance of the people and the happenings in this story.”

As Flannery O’Connor pointed out, sometimes a black hat is a black hat and sometimes a father with two sons is a father with two sons. Let’s see what happens when we take the story for what it is; a story told to a Jewish audience that was very familiar with the stories and scriptures of the Hebrew tradition.

The first thing we need to realize is that there is a large gap between the first three verses about tax collectors, sinners, scribes and Pharisees; and the rest of our lesson about the lost son.  In between are two other stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin.  It’s obvious we are intended to see these stories as all making similar points.

In the first Jesus says, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  I’m jumping up and down, waving my hand, I know the answer to that, “Nobody in his right mind, Jesus.”  I grew up on a farm.  The goal is to protect the herd at all costs.  One sheep goes off alone, you risk losing the rest on the off chance of finding the one.  But Jesus’ shepherd does and when he finds it, throws a big party to celebrate – probably a sheep barbecue, which sort of negates the victory.

In the second story, Jesus says, “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”  Again, I know an answer, probably not the answer Jesus was looking for. “Not my Mama.”  Her attitude would have been, “It’s here somewhere, probably in the couch.  It’ll turn up sometime. I can’t lose a day’s wage looking for a coin equal to a day’s wage.”  But the woman in Jesus’ story does, and when she finds it, she throws a story to celebrate, which probably cost more than the coin she lost.

Then we come to today’s tory, about the lost son.  Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out that a Jewish audience hearing Jesus say, “There was a man with two sons,” would immediately remember “Adam had two sons, Cain and Abel. . .. Isaac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. . .. Joseph had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim . . ..”  also they will remember that it was the younger son who was always the hero, “David was the youngest of seven, Solomon is the second child born to David, etc.”  “All biblically literate listeners know to identify with the younger son.”  But Jesus threw them a curveball. In this story, the younger son turned “. . . out to be an irresponsible, self-indulgent, and probably indulged child. . .” (Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, pp.50-51) This younger son goes away, is lost the text says, then he is found, and a big party is thrown to celebrate his return home.  Three lost things, three careless owners/fathers, three over the top parties, and one very unhappy elder brother.  What is the point?

Well, one thing it’s not is it’s not a story about repentance and forgiveness.  A sheep can’t repent, a coin most certainly can’t repent, and a careful read of the story shows the younger son to have been more conniving than contrite.  His little rehearsed speech is calculated to get him back in with Daddy more than anything else. A son can repent, but I don’t think this one did.

In all three stories you have someone who has lost something so precious to them that they throw caution and good sense out the window and do everything they can to find or restore that one to themselves.  Abandoning the secure sheep to hunt for the one, putting all else aside to search for the coin, and the father – the father had already lost his son when he asked to be given what was coming to him.  The father gave it to him in the desperate hope that the son would see the love and not go away or at least would soon come home.  And the father sat and watched, watched for the son to return.

I think the over-the-top celebrations are the key to understanding what Jesus is getting at in these stories.  They are not about repentance and forgiveness; nor are they about forgiven sinners and judgmental Pharisees. They are about the immeasurable and somewhat unreasonable love that God has for all of us.  Just as all three of these people felt the loss of something they loved so keenly that they acted in ways that made no sense, business or otherwise; just so God’s love is so great for all God’s children that God grieves when they are lost and celebrates uproariously when they are found.

The invitation to the Elder Brother to come to the party is not an invitation to forgive his repentant sibling – it is an invitation to celebrate the fact that a man had two sons, both of whom he loved beyond reason.

The Gospel for us today is this – God has many children and God loves them all with an unreasoning passion – so much so that God-in-Christ took the outrageous risk “for us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed) of coming to live with us and die upon a cross for us, and God will not rest until all God’s children are found in him.  And then – wow, what a party that will be.

Amen and amen.

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

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A Sermon by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I am a big fan of Westerns.  Most mornings I get up and make coffee and breakfast and sit and watch “Gunsmoke” or “Bonanza” on the Western Channel while I eat.  I know these shows aren’t high art but I enjoy them.  I imagine it’s because they permit me a nostalgic moment with my childhood more than anything else.  Of course, when one gets older one notices things you didn’t really think about as a kid.

Like religion for instance.  Most of the settler religion shown on westerns is nominally Christian.  There are a few Mormons thrown in occasionally and for movies set in the Southwest or Mexico you often have Catholics, usually Hispanic.  But the interesting thing is that the Christianity is not very Christian – it is very law centered, very law based.  You hear a lot about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and almost nothing about grace and mercy and forgiveness.  Even when they talk about forgiveness it has to be earned.  Why, in the famous Gary Cooper movie “High Noon” the sheriff has married a pacifist Quaker woman who has convinced him to hang up his badge and guns and leave town.  But circumstances won’t permit it, and in the end, she ends up taking up a gun to defend him and help save the town.

Now, I’m smart enough to know that conflict and revenge are a whole lot more entertaining than grace and forgiveness, at least in movies and on TV shows.  Where would Westerns be without angry men seeking to shoot one another as a point of honor?  But still, I do occasionally yearn for a minister who sounds like a preacher of grace and salvation, not a puritanical legalist.

The people who come to talk to Jesus about the “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” would have fit right in to the old west.  Since Pilate was the Roman governor, we can assume the killing had political overtones.  Perhaps the people not only wanted to know if Jesus thought that the sins of the Galileans had caused their killing – they also wanted to sort out whether Jesus might call for some sort of revenge and rebellion.  And he did not.  He invited them to turn their minds away from the possible sins of the Galileans and their murder by Pilate.  Jesus led them to think about their own sins and their own death and where God might be in all that. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”

Then he doubled down by pointing out another tragic situation where many people died – an industrial accident when the tower of Siloam fell and eighteen people were killed. Jesus asks the rhetorical question, “Do you think they were the worst offenders in Jerusalem?” before answering it with the same words as before – “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

It’s a frightening thought, isn’t it?  All this talk of “If you don’t repent, you will perish.” I grew up attending a church in which it did not matter where the sermon started, every week it took a detour through Hell and ended up at the foot of the cross.  In those days I wasn’t clear about much but I was clear that if I didn’t straighten up and fly right, not only would my Daddy spank me but the Good Lord above would see to it that I spent eternity frying in Hell.

The thing that the writers of old westerns and my childhood preachers in that little mountain church failed to pick up on was that while there is judgement in the Bible; there is also grace.  Yes, there is vengeance; but there is also mercy; while there is much Law, there is much more Gospel.

And strangely enough, these things are not in conflict with one another, not really – rather they are opposite sides of the same coin; you really can’t have one without the other.  They work in tandem, helping us find our way to God.

The little story Jesus tells about the unproductive fig tree is instructive on this point, especially if we don’t get confused about who is who in the story.  Too often, we identify the most powerful person in the story as God, or perhaps God the Father.  That’s not necessarily so.  If we look at this story with God as the owner who walks through the Garden and sees an unproductive tree (that would be us) and orders it cut down; then we have a judgmental, vengeful, uncaring God and a prophet trying to plead with God to spare the people.

But what if we think about it another way?  What if we see the owner as, well, the owner of a vineyard and the fig tree as a fig tree and the gardener as gardener. That is, take the story as it is and then work out what it might mean for us.  This way the owner is being reasonable – the tree is unproductive, it’s taking up space, water and fertilizer and giving him no return on his investment.

The gardener sees something in the tree and things he can do, like heaping manure on it, to get it healthy again. So the owner relents, but only for a year.  The tree has been rightly judged; it has also been given a moment of grace, a bit of mercy.

So it is with us. We are all called to take a look at our lives and to consider where we might need to change, to turn in a new direction, that is, to judge ourselves and to repent where necessary.  None of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, can say that we are everything God made us to be, none of us does all that God invites us to do. All of us would benefit from being cultivated, from having our faith freshened up, and most of us could use some “manure,” that is – spiritual instruction and prayer.

Our God is a god of grace, a god of love, a god of mercy, a god of forgiveness.  As Isaiah says, “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6-7) But the parable teaches us that we must not presume upon God’s indulgence too long, “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

Some years ago I read in Christian Century magazine a piece by future bishop Will Willimon about attending a funeral in rural South Carolina at which the preacher turned from conducting the funeral to preaching a sermon on the theme, “It can get too late.”  I imagine that for such a sermon a corpse in an open casket is an effective object lesson.  On the way home, the young Pastor Will fumed to his wife about how terrible, unconscionable, ignorant, and tacky that was.  And she agreed with him; then she said, “The worst thing about it is that it is true.  It can get too late to repent.”

This day Jesus invites us to turn away from worrying about and judging the faith and fate of others.

We are invited to look instead at our own lives, our own faith, our own fate.  We are encouraged to repent, to turn in new directions, to seek opportunities to serve God in new and exciting ways.

Amen and amen.

Second Sunday in Lent, Year C

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A Sermon by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Most of us are familiar with various expressions about “a fox loose in the henhouse.”  While the dictionaries trace this idea back to a medieval proverb and note its similarity to the Roman adage about “the wolf guarding the sheep;” it is probably much older than that.  It’s likely that any country that has foxes, chickens, and crooked politicians has a similar saying.  Jesus grew up in farm country and often used experiences common to rural life to make his points.  Today is no exception.  The idea of a sly fox loose in the henhouse coupled with a hen anxious to protect her chicks provides us with a powerful image of the dangers that prey upon us in life, the promise that God seeks always to protect us, and our stubborn refusal to allow the love of God into our lives.

The setting today is relatively late in Jesus’ three-year ministry.  He has made it known that he is leaving his small town base in Galilee and heading to Jerusalem for Passover.  He has caused quite a stir in the hinterlands, preaching, teaching, healing disease and casting out demons.  Word of mouth is a powerful thing in an oral culture and everyone, from little children all the way up to King Herod, has heard something about “the Galilean,” the miracle worker who not only heals but who also proclaims the coming of God’s righteous kingdom.

Jesus’ words about the coming of the kingdom interest the Pharisees –  and frighten King Herod.  Sometimes we misinterpret the Pharisees, we have been taught to consider them the Biblical bad guys. Remember the youth camp song, “I don’t want to be a Pharisee – ‘cause they’re not fair–you -see.”  Well, maybe we’re the ones who aren’t being fair.  If the Pharisees weren’t interested in what Jesus had to say, they wouldn’t have kept coming around, asking questions, probing, digging, trying to find out if he is the Messiah, the one sent to bring in the kingdom.  Even though they weren’t a part of Jesus’ posse, his entourage; they certainly weren’t as antagonistic to him as we have supposed.  The Pharisees who came to him this day had connections, they had heard things, rumors, innuendos, perhaps straight out warnings and plans.  However it was that they knew, they knew for sure – Herod was out to get Jesus, to kill him.

Why?  Because Herod was the fox loose in Israel’s henhouse.  The king was supposed to protect and care for Israel.  Unlike many other rulers in the ancient near east, the king of Israel was not considered divine, was not a god. The true King served God as a leader, a shepherd, a caregiver tending to God’s people – and Herod was none of those things.  He was a ruthless, conniving, coward.  He had forced his brother Phillip to get a divorce so he could marry Phillip’s wife.  He murdered John the Baptist because his wife told him to.  It is likely he wanted to get rid of Jesus because Jesus had connections with John the Baptist, and because he could not understand what sort of kingdom Jesus was talking about but it seemed like a threat to national security.  Better to torture him and kill him than to take a risk.  No wonder the Pharisees told Jesus to “Get away from here.” But Jesus was undeterred, sending Herod a message of defiance, “Go and tell that fox for me, I am going to finish what I started here, and then I’m coming your way.”

In what he says next, Jesus weaves together a couple of word pictures.  First is the image of the prophets being sent to “Jerusalem;” the Hebrew Scriptures long story of the children of Israel continually rejecting the prophets and turning their backs on God.  Second, he continues the idea of Herod as a fox by comparing God to a mother hen who desires to gather her brood under her wings to protect them from the dangers loose in the world. Notice how Jesus phrases this, “How often I have desired to gather your children together. . .but you were not willing.” Desired by God, but defied by the people.  God seeks and people scatter.  God yearns to protect, but the people yearn to be what they think is free.

And most of us are no different today, are we?  Those of us here in church have gotten, or will soon get, beyond the age of adolescent pushing against the boundaries.  Most of us try to live good and moral lives.  We may not remember all the ten commandments, or exactly understand how they apply to everyday life, but we have a pretty good handle on the basics.  Most of us, most of the time are doing all right in the “upstanding citizen, don’t break the law, lend an occasional helping hand to a neighbor, give something back to the community” standard of being a good Christian and a fine American.

But what about when we don’t?  What about when we fail?  What about when we fall?  What about when we do something we knew we shouldn’t and afterward wish we hadn’t?  Or what about when bad things happen to those of us who consider ourselves good people who should not be so treated? What about when the fox of the world – its evil, its greed, its random destructiveness, its capacity to push us back and push us down, overwhelms us?  Do we remember God then?  Do we remember the mothering God who seeks to wrap her soft and protective wings around us?  Or are we like the citizens of Jerusalem – unwilling?

The Gospel in this text ad in our lives is in the very last line, “. . .the time comes when YOU say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” this looks back to Psalm 118, a psalm sung when a new king, a true king, a true shepherd of the people, a leader, not a fox – entered into the temple and into his kingship.  It looks forward to the time in the very near future when Jesus will enter Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, lauded by the people as that true king and thus, the Messiah of the Lord.  And it looks very much forward with Paul and Timothy to that day when “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:10-11) Every knee, every tongue.  That’s you, that’s me, that’s everybody.  God made us, God loves us with the fierce and determined love of a mother, God is patient and God waits for us to return.

We may be unwilling, but God is undeterred.  That old mother hen will stay out there searching for us, doing battle with the world’s foxes and the wolves, standing ready to receive us when we are ready to come home.

Amen and amen.

First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Catch the podcast Lectionary Lab Live here

A Sermon by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I seldom mention politics from the pulpit because it’s dangerous, and generally foolhardy, and if you’re not really careful, it’ll blow up in your face. Frankly, politics and religion mix about as well as gasoline and cigarette lighters – it’s just not a good idea to bring them together. But I’m going to do it anyway.

Right at the moment we’re in the middle of the primary season. The Iowa caucuses just took place, the long list of the usual suspects, uh, I mean candidates, is beginning to be whittled down. People are making predictions about what will happen in the upcoming primaries, and in the conventions this summer and in the election this fall. But the real story of the presidential election of 2016 will not be written until sometime after the first Tuesday in November. Then bloggers, and newspaper columnists, and ultimately political scientists and historians, will be able to look back and pick out those moments that led to the fateful day in the fall when America elected a new president.

For the church, the season of Lent is a time to look back at the life and ministry of Jesus and see what it was that led him to the cross on Good Friday and out of the tomb on Easter morning. Luke and the other gospel writers wrote years after the events they talk about. Like a good political writer looking back at the election of 2016, they have the advantage of hindsight and can pick out those things to highlight that will help their readers understand who Jesus was, and what his death and resurrection means for the people of the world.

There are five Sundays in Lent and the people who put together the Lectionary have carefully and thoughtfully picked out five incidents to help us follow Jesus from baptism to death. These stories are familiar to most of us, so familiar that we need to read them closely and listen to them carefully to hear the gospel speaking in new way in a new time. In the coming weeks we will hear about Herod the fox and Jesus as a mother hen seeking to protect he chicks; we will be reminded of the fig tree which bore no fruit and the prodigal son who ran away and then came back. We will sit at dinner with Lazarus and his sisters while one of them anoint Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and Judas begins to fret. But first, today, we will think a little bit about the temptations of Jesus – Jesus alone in the wilderness with the devil.

I have to wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he walked from Nazareth to the Jordan to get baptized. He comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, a voice claims him as the beloved Son of God. That’s got to be one of the best days anybody’s ever had.

But then a strange thing happens: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” I wonder if Jesus thought to himself, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” I don’t know what Jesus was expecting, but I’m pretty sure forty days without food while arguing with the devil was not on the list.

Well, he may not have been expecting it, but he was prepared. Luke presents the dialogue with the devil in a somewhat stylized manner and the form it takes is interesting. The Holy Spirit has just declared Jesus to be the “Son of God,” so the tempter goes after that first. “If you are the Son of God, prove it,” he says. Command this stone to become a loaf of bread. And Jesus, drawing on his years of studying the scriptures, responds, “It is written.” Or as Billy Graham used to put it, “The Bible says.” “Man does not live by bread alone.”

The devil tries again, “If you will worship me, I’ll give you the world.” And Jesus again responds, “It is written,” quoting Hebrew scripture – “Worship the Lord your God.”

One more time the devil tempts Jesus, tests him, “If you are the Son of God,” throw yourself down and let the angels catch you. And before Jesus can respond, the devil tries to beat him at his own bible game, saying with a smirk, “It is written,” then citing two places in Hebrew scripture where the writers claim the promise of God’s protection. Can’t you just imagine Jesus smiling and shaking his head and then reminding the devil, “It also says, ‘Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.’”

There’s a double meaning in that line about not putting the Lord to the test. On the one hand, Jesus says to the devil. “I can’t jump off a roof testing to see if God the Father will rescue me. It’s against the Bible.” But Jesus also knows that the devil knows who he is, the devil knows he is the Son of God, the devil knows he is the Christ; so Jesus is tell the devil, “It’s not appropriate to test me either, as I am the Son of God. Time’s up. Go away.” And the devil did – for now.

The last two words in this text are haunting, aren’t they? “An opportune time.” A time when Jesus is once again vulnerable, questioning, weakened, stressed. A time when he is sorting out who he is and what it is he is called to be and to do. This is why Jesus was so vehement when Peter first called him the Christ but then tried to talk him out of the idea that to be the Christ meant to suffer and die. “Get behind me Satan,” Jesus thundered – because behind the words of Peter he heard echoes of the devil’s attempts to divert him from what he knew to be his necessary role of suffering servant. These were real temptations Jesus faced; real ways of following God that did not entail suffering, ways that made him popular and famous. But Jesus turned away from these ideas in the wilderness, Jesus turned away from them when he confronted Peter, and he turned away for the last time in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “If you can take this cup from me, please do. But not my will but your will be done.”

Like Jesus, we often struggle with what it means to be children of God. As individuals, as a congregation, and as the larger Christian community – we are often tempted to seek out ways to follow Jesus that make us look good, or that we will give us more influence and popularity; that will make us more attractive and make people want to become a part of our community – as if winning people for Christ were the same thing as winning a primary or an election. But Jesus’ time in the wilderness teaches us it’s not. The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to examine ourselves and our temptations and for us to embrace the life of being suffering servants, seeking ways to serve those in need in the name of the one who died for all.

Amen, amen.

For Better or Worse…We’re Back!

It has been a little while since we decided to take a break from producing our Lectionary Lab weblog and podcast. I guess we realized just how much we missed you all, so we’re going to try a little something new!

For the upcoming Season of Lent, we have produced a series of podcasts around the idea, “Preaching the Gospel at Lent.” The introductory session is available hereThere will be a new episode each week, appearing as soon as we can get them finished. So, you can wait and listen each week as you prepare, or you can download them and listen when you wish.

Also, each week we will publish a sermon — usually by Bubba #1, aka Delmer — so that you can do with those what you will, too!

Let us hear from you — comments are very welcome. It was awfully nice to hear from so many of you when we left off last time!

See you’uns again soon!

John and Delmer