The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C

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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In June of 1977 I (along 20 other women and men) was ordained a United Methodist deacon in the auditorium of Methodist College in Fayetteville, NC.  Bishop Thomas from Cleveland, Ohio was the guest preacher.  I will never forget one thing he said, “Sisters and brothers, be aware – in your ministry the Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you do not wish to go.  If you wanted to go there, the Holy Spirit would be unnecessary.”

As our reading from Acts begins, Paul has had a vision; a visitation of the Spirit that has called him to go to a new place, a place he had never thought of, a place and a ministry which had never crossed his mind, a place he probably did not want to go. God showed him a “man of Macedonia” that is a Greek, pleading with him to come over the sea and bring the Gospel to that land. So Paul and Silas set out, following the route that so many Syrian refuges have taken in the last year, setting out in a tiny boat from the northwest coast of Turkey  to cross the sea to Macedonia.  From there they worked their way inland  to Philippi, which had been named for Philip, Alexander the Great’s father.

On the Sabbath, Paul and Silas went looking for the synagogue, the gathering of Jewish believers. This was always their missionary starting point. They went to people with whom they were familiar, hoping to get a hearing. There was a very tiny Jewish community in Philippi. Having no building, no house of worship, they met under the trees, down by the river.  Many Roman towns had laws that forbade foreign religious practices within the city, so the Jewish community had to go outside the gate to pray. And there Paul and Silas found them.

Verse 14 says, “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was a dealer in purple cloth. The LORD opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”

“A worshiper of God.” Lydia was not Jewish. She was a Gentile who was interested in Judaism.  In some ways, she was a First Century version of what we now call “spiritual, but not religious.” She was not “religious” in the sense that she did not unthinkingly adhere to the the established faith of her country, her community or her kin. She did not participate in the standard, time-honored religious observances just because everybody else did, and always had.  She was looking for something more, something real; she was a person primed to hear what Paul had to say.

The modern church is surrounded by Lydias, by people who have no interest in doing church just because it’s Sunday and that’s what you are supposed to do.  We are surrounded by people who are looking for something more, more real, more true, more personal. We are surrounded by people who are ready to hear the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. We live in the midst of a people who are dying of spiritual thirst and we have the Living Water and we are called to find a way to give it to them. Do we see the vision, do we hear the voice of God inviting us to reach out to them with the love of God?

“The Lord opened her heart to listen “ Many times we fail to realize that God is the one who leads people to faith, not us. We are simply God’s instruments, God’s tools, for saving the world. God does it, not us.  That means we don’t have to worry so much about knowing the right thing to say, or finding just the right time, or developing a correct outreach strategy. It’s really not that hard. It’s just telling the truth about your life and faith to another person, eventually inviting them to experience with you the church community that supports your faith.

According to business research statistics, “word on the street,”“buzz,” “word of mouth” are the most powerful marketing tools around.  When it comes to brands, consumers say they’re influenced by people, not by ads. 56% reported trying a new product because of recommendations of friends or family,10% because of TV ads, 9% newspaper ads, 6% radio ads. (Time, April 23, 2007)  Think of what this means for how important it is for us to personally share our faith story with our friends and neighbors.

There is a scripture verse that is often translated “How shall they hear without a preacher?” Because we’re used to thinking of the “preacher” as a minister, a pastor, we fail to recognize that the Bible is really talking about everybody. A better translation would be, “How can they hear without someone to tell them the Good News?”  Each of us is invited to be that someone who tells for somebody.

We know that Lydia responded to the Gospel. She shared it with her family and soon she and her household were baptized. Her conversion had a ripple effect; first Lydia; then her household, those nearest and dearest to her, then others. From these beginning there came a church, the church to which “The Letter to the Philippians” was written.

Christianity is not a  private or personal religion, not really; it is a faith that must be lived out in community. Dr. Paul Tournier, a Swiss Christian Psychiatrist, has said, “There are two things we cannot do alone. One is to be married; the other is to be a Christian.” This is why, as much as we can respect the spiritual and emotional honesty of those who say that they are “spiritual, but not religious,” we must encourage them to become a part of a community of faith.
For we all need the church in order to be Christian, if for no other reason than we cannot love and learn to be loved alone. It is within the daily bump and grind of living and working together as the people of God that we find out what it means to be forgiven for our failures, praised for our efforts, appreciated for our virtues, prayed for in our sorrows, helped in the midst of our troubles, and loved in spite of ourselves. We need each other in order to practice our faith and learn to be a truly Christian people.

For thousands of years, a major part of the loving activity of God in the world has been focused on making the community of God’s people ever bigger; on including all humanity, throughout all time and in all places. The story of God is the story of an ever widening circle of active love, moving always outward to bring more people into relationship with God and each other.

We are invited today to join in God’s missionary outreach, we have an opportunity to become a part of bringing more and more folk into relationship with God. We are called to be Lydias; people who hear the Good News, who embrace the Good News, and who share the Good News with others..

Amen and Amen.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My sister and her husband attend a church that is part of a tradition that does not ordain women to the pastoral ministry.  It’s not a major theological point for them or their congregation, nobody ever condemns women in ministry – they simply don’t think about it or talk about it.  “Men are ministers and women aren’t” is just a part of the way the world is for them; as normal and ordinary as the fact that the sun comes up in the east.

A few years ago I was the guest preacher at an ELCA Lutheran congregation near where my sister’s family lives in the Pacific Northwest.  The family, including my 14 year old niece Jennifer, came to hear me.  The pastor, who happened to be a woman, celebrated communion.  After service, the family headed home while I stayed to do a little church consulting work with the congregation.  Late in the day I drove to my sister’s house for dinner.  While passing the meat and potatoes, I innocently asked, “Well, how did it feel to see a woman in a collar leading worship?” Before anyone else could say anything, my niece put down her fork and said, with a hint of astonishment in her voice, “Well, I didn’t even know that a woman COULD be a pastor.”

For Jennifer, it was as if the sun had suddenly popped up in the west.   A women in ministry was not just unusual, or rare or extraordinary – it was unheard of, it was not normal, it was wrong – like saying 2 + 2 = 5 is wrong, like saying the sun goes around the earth is wrong.  Jennifer’s whole universe of meaning had been thrown for a loop by seeing a woman in a collar and an alb and a stole, standing behind an altar and consecrating the communion elements.  She did not know that women could be ministers.

In much the same way, Peter’s universe of meaning was thrown for a loop by his strange vision – not once bu three times.  Most of us know that the animals on the sheet were, as Peter put it, “profane and unclean.”  But are we really aware of how completely shocked Peter was by the idea that God was asking him to eat these things?  It wasn’t just a matter of eating things that were outside his comfort zone – like an old southern boy like me trying to eat lutefisk.   No, it was much more than that.  The idea of eating these things was just wrong, in a deep, serious, contrary to the meaning of the way the world is sense.  And, on top of that – for Peter the voice telling him to “kill and eat,” the voice that said “call nothing I have made unclean”  was the voice of God, the very one who had declared these things off limits in the first place.  No wonder Peter had to receive the vision three times.  He was reeling because his world was crashing down around him. He did not know that you COULD eat these things.

And then Peter discovers an even deeper and more disturbing truth – this whole vision episode wasn’t about food anyway – it was about people.  It was about Gentiles, about folk who were “profane and unclean,” at least in the eyes of a traditional faith like Peter’s.  When he awoke from his trance, people were standing there who wanted to see him, people who were Gentiles, people who who said they had been sent from God.  And with God’s words about “nothing I made is unclean,” ringing in his ears, Peter heard the command of the Spirit to “go with them and to make no distinction between them and us”  He did not know that God COULD love these people.

So Peter and six other Hebrew believers went to the house of the Gentiles who had ask for them to come.  He preached and the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles and suddenly Peter remembered what John the Baptist said, all those years ago, “I will baptize you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

And then the light bulb really goes on for Peter. “God loves all people as much as, and in the same way as, God loves me. Therefore, who am I to hinder God? Who am I to get in the way of God’s love?”  Who indeed.  Peter has turned a corner, he has moved from not knowing that God COULD love Gentiles to understanding that he himself is expected to be an agent of God’s love for all people.

And so are we.

When I was in elementary school we loved to play a game called “Red Rover.” We divided the group in half and formed two lines facing each other about twenty or thirty feet apart.  The captains took turns yelling out something like, “Red Rover, Red Rover send Willy right over.”  Willy would get up a head of steam and run at the line opposite him.  The people in the line would hold hands tightly, bracing for impact.  If Willy broke through the line, he could claim a prisoner to take back to the other line with him.  If he did not, he had to join the other side.  There was a girl who liked me.  She passed me notes and looked funny at me on the bus.  One day the captain called out, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Delmer right over.”  This was a popular thing to do because I seldom was able to break the line.   I backed up a few steps and ran as hard as I could toward the required place, which was where the girl who liked me holding tight to another kid’s hand.  When I got there I sliced through the line like a hot knife through butter, tumbling to the ground in surprise at my easy victory.  The boy who had been holding the girl’s hand was screaming at her, “You cheated, you cheated.  You let go.  You let go!”  And she smiled sweetly and said, “Yes I did, ‘cause I love him.”  And I promptly died of embarrassment.

Today, the Spirit of God invites us to cheat in the name of love.  Today, the Spirit of God command us us to make no distinctions between them and us, whoever them may be. Today, the Spirit of God reminds us that God CAN and DOES love all people because, after all, God loves us.

Amen and amen.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C

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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I recently conducted the funeral for a woman in her nineties who died of stomach cancer. As I visited with her in the last few months of her life, I often found myself sitting in silence with her in her bedroom; I held her hand and prayed silently, occasionally reading to her from the Psalms or from the Devotional Book she kept by her bedside. Her daughter came and went, going about her chores and sometimes we all sat and talked a bit. On more than one of those visits I thought of two people: Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, and Flora Belle Culbertson.

We read about Tabitha, or Dorcas, in our First Lesson. She was, apparently a very good woman, perhaps the leader of a group of women something like a WELCA circle. It says she was “devoted to good works and charity,” and that when Peter showed up the widows were “showing him tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” Good Works, charity, a sewing circle; sounds like WELCA to me.

Flora Belle Culbertson was the first funeral I ever conducted. She was about 70 and had stomach cancer. I was 23 and had very little idea what I was doing. I had met Flora Belle soon after becoming her minister. I was what the Methodist call a “student pastor.” I had finished one year of seminary and had been ordained a “deacon,” and I was assigned to a little church out in the country, about 30 miles from my seminary. I lived in the parsonage and did all the pastoral work while also commuting to school 4 or 5 days a week. I had visited Flora Belle on her dairy farm, had helped her husband around the barn a time or two, having been brought up around cows myself. Then she got sick and was dying in Duke University Hospital. I went there to see her one day. I took my Bible and my Abingdon Minister’s Manual and I sat there in her room and suddenly I was overwhelmed with a sense of complete helplessness. I didn’t know what to do.

I wished fervently for the gift of faith-healing. I wanted nothing more than to be able to lay my hands on her stomach and to shout to the heavens “Come out Demon Cancer,” and for it to work; for Flora Belle to suddenly get up, cured and healthy and well – like Tabitha/Dorcas sat up and then got up. I wanted to call the nurses and the doctors and say, “See, see. She’s not dying, she’s well. God has cured her.” But I knew I had no such power and I also did not know what else to do – and so I left; hurriedly, barely saying goodbye, despondent about her impending death and my own impotence.

I had parked my car in the Divinity School lot and I walked back through the classroom building, passing the open door of one of my professors, Dr. Edwards, who taught Black Church Studies. He saw me walk by and called me into his room. He told me I looked terrible and asked me what was wrong. I told him, pretty much what I just told you. He looked at me and shook his head and said something like this:

“Mr. Chilton, you are white and you are male and you have been raised to think that if you do not have power you do not have anything. This is not true. You need to learn a lesson from women and people of color from all over the world. There are some things you just can’t do anything about. There are things which belong to the realm of the mysteries of God. But, that does not mean that you do nothing.

“That woman over there in that hospital room doesn’t need you to fix her – she needs you to be with her, to hold her hand, to talk to her, to pray with her. The doctor might be able to cure her body but only God can heal her soul and, bless her heart, you are the designated man of God in her life right now; so get up and get back over there and sit with that woman.”

So I did.

So many years later, as I sat with Mrs. Jones, I once again wished I had the power to cure, to raise the dead, to fix things that offend and frighten me. But I don’t. Yet, ever since that day in Herb Edwards office I have remembered the difference between curing and healing and that we in the church are called to be agents of healing. To be cured is to have our physical problem completely and totally remedied – whether it be a cold and cancer. That is a good thing, it is a thing God sometimes mysteriously and somewhat capriciously does. It is a part of what we pray for. But it is not the primary thing we pray for. We pray to be healed more than we pray to be cured. To be healed is to be at peace with one’s illness and with one’s life and with one’s God.

In the thirty-nine years between Flora Belle and Mrs. Jones I have been in the presence of many, many sick people. I have prayed for all of them. Some got better, some didn’t. I take no credit or blame either way. And some who got better physically never got better spiritually – they retained a bitterness about their situation and their life. Others who got no better, or who sickened and died, found a place of peace, of serenity, of a vulnerability that was a part of their humanity and their dependence upon the grace of God. They were healed.

Our calling today is to be agents of healing in a world filled with hurting people. It is unlikely that we will discover that we have the power to raise the dead – but it is not unlikely that we will discover that we have the power to raise the spirts of those who mourn. We like Peter and the other disciples, like Tabitha/Dorcas and the widows in her circle, are called upon to lead lives “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” We not have the power to fix the world, but we do have access to the spirit which can and will heal it.

Amen and amen.

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year C

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I’ve known this story for so long I have forgotten the source. I suspect it was Don Armentrout, a Lutheran who taught Church History at the Episcopal seminary in Suwanee Tennessee. The story is that a seminary student went out to supply preach at a little mountain church one Sunday. He had the time wrong and was an hour early and so he sat in the vesting room, thumbing through the Parish Register. He happened upon a strange entry from many years ago – “Ebenezer Smith, partially baptized.” The entry was signed by a retired priest/professor who, though aged, was still living near the seminary. The next week the student went to visit him to resolve the mystery of how someone could be “partially baptized.”

The Priest remembered the incident vividly. Ebenezer had been raised in conservative, holiness tradition that believed that, among other things, a believer must have a sudden, dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit in order to be saved, and that afterward, one must be baptized by immersion in “living water,” i.e. a stream or pond, not a tank inside a church. Ebenezer fell in love with and married an Episcopalian, and he faithfully attended church with her for over fifty years, never once taking communion, because he had not been baptized, because he had not been “saved,” in an overwhelming manner by the Holy Spirit.

Finally, fifty years of Episcopal preaching, or perhaps fifty years of gentle persuasion by his wife, convinced Ebenezer that he could be a Christian without a “Damascus Road” experience and he asked the Seminary professor who regularly supplied for the church if he could be baptized; “But,” he stipulated,” I still want to be immersed in living water, not sprinkled out of that little bowl.” So it was arranged that on Easter Sunday after service, the entire church would go down the road a bit to where there was easy access to a mountain stream and a swimming hole and the baptism would be held.

The Priest waded into the water first. It took his breath away; everyone had forgotten how cold a mountain stream is in the early spring. He turned and motioned for 80-year-old Ebenezer to follow him. Ebenezer got a foot in the water and said, “Oh my word, that’s cold.” He came as far as his knees and said, “It’s too cold, I can’t do it.” The priest splashed water on Ebenezer while shouting, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Then, back at the church, he entered the baptism: “Ebenezer Smith, partially baptized.”

Though most of us don’t have the particular theological problem Ebenezer had, I wonder – how many of look at the dramatic conversion of Saint Paul and then think back on our own baptism and church-joining decision and think of ourselves as “partially baptized?” Over the years I have met many people who were baptized as infants, raised in the church, went faithfully to confirmation classes, were active in the youth group, predictably fell away from the church a bit when they were in their late teens and early twenties, but came back and had been regularly involved ever since. And not a few of them felt there was something missing. And if they were willing to dig a little deeper into that feeling of something missing, it was this business of a special experience of God’s grace like Paul received on the road to Damascus. Somehow, what even in the Bible is an unusual and extraordinary experience has become, for many, an unspoken norm.

This is unfortunate because most of us don’t really need such an encounter to meet God. It’s somewhat analogous to measuring your romantic life against what you see in the movies. It’s just not fair – either to you or your life partner. Nobody’s life measures up to that – not even the actors who star in those movies. Real life isn’t like that – not in romance and not in spirituality. Real love is messy and unpredictable and doesn’t follow a script. Real religious life is the same way – it too is messy and unpredictable and doesn’t follow a script and is usually much less and dramatic and much more ordinary than any of the stories we read in Acts.

The story of the conversion of Saint Paul was necessarily dramatic and over the top because Paul was a dramatic and over the top enemy of the church, the Way. He had helped to stone Stephen, he had arrested other believers, he was on a mission to ferret out and detain other believers in Damascus. A bolt of light that knocked him to the ground was the only way God was going to get his attention. Frankly, most of us don’t need that sort of conversion.

What many of us do need is a better understanding of what life after conversion looks like. Hidden away in the dialogue between the Lord and Ananias is a little line that often gets overlooked. Verse 16 – “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” More dangerous than a feeling of having been “partially baptized,” of having a less than full encounter with the holy in becoming a faithful Christian; is the feeling that being a Christian somehow means my life will be much better than otherwise, that I will be happier and healthier and more fulfilled and receive many more material blessings, etc. etc.

This just isn’t true. It wasn’t true for Jesus, it wasn’t true for Paul, who was executed, it wasn’t true for the twelve apostles, most of whom died a violent martyr’s death. It’s not true for most Christians. Jesus meant it when he said, “Any who would like to become my followers must deny self, take up a cross and follow.”

That cross isn’t a pretty piece of jewelry hanging around your neck – it is a life spent in giving of oneself for others, of suffering for the sake of the name of Jesus, of taking risks for the poor, the unjustly treated, the hungry, the imprisoned. Now as much as ever, to follow Christ is to step out on the Way, to follow the road less traveled, to step out into the deep, cold water because Jesus calls you to follow and serve.

Amen and amen.