The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 9)

For July 3, 2016

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

For Commentary on the texts, please click HERE

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I was in college, I worked on a tobacco farm in eastern North Carolina. It was in the early days of mechanized tobacco harvesting and we worked on a contraption pulled by a tractor through the field.

The harvesters, “the croppers” we were called, sat on low seats a few inches from the ground. We picked the leaves of the plants and put them in a conveyer belt system that carried them to a platform about 10 feet in the air where the “stringers” tied the leaves onto the tobacco sticks to be hung in the barn for curing.

Our harvester was malfunctioning. The conveyer system wasn’t working properly and leaves were dropping out behind us. We kept stopping and starting while trying to fix the machine.
A 6-year-old boy from a nearby farm was watching us work. He observed our troubles for a while and then walked up to the farmer and said, “Well, you can’t elevate’em all, can you Mr. Virgil.”

“You can’t elevate’em all,” has been my ministry motto for almost 40 years; well actually for 35 – the first five years I still thought I could, in fact, elevate them all. But after a while I realized I could not.
It was much later that I also realized that this failure to “elevate’em all” was neither unique to me, nor was it an actual failure. It has always been like this – not only for the seventy whom Jesus sent out on a preaching/teaching/healing tour, but also for the twelve apostles, for the first missionaries like Paul and Silas, and Mark and Barnabas – it was also a problem for Jesus himself.

Not too long ago we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ leave-taking contains one of my favorite lines from the Gospels. 28:17 says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” (Common English Bible) Some doubted!? These are people who had spent two or three years following Jesus, listening to him preach, seeing him cast out demons and heal people and bring people back from the dead. They had even experienced the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. They had seen and felt and talked to the resurrected Jesus. And yet, and yet – “some doubted?” You “can’t elevate’em all,” indeed.

In our gospel lesson for today Jesus sends the seventy out to proclaim the coming kingdom of God.
He sends them out into the harvest, warning them of the dangers they will face; “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” He encourages them to travel light, “no purse, no bag, no sandals,” and no lollygagging – “greet no one on the road.” He tells them to neither expect nor ask for special treatment – “eat what is put before you, stay with the first people who invite you in.” And, by the way, do not expect that everyone will hear you gladly. “But whenever,” not if, but whenever, “whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you . . .” (10:10) You can’t elevate’em all, can you Rev. Pastor?

At a recent family reunion in southwest Virginia, the cousins were sharing the no nonsense approach of our grandmother and her various children, our parents. For example: I recalled complaining to Grandma that a couple of older cousins were building a tree house in the woods and wouldn’t let me climb up and get in. She said, “That’s a good thing. You won’t get hurt when it falls out of that tree.” In a similar vein, when I was a young minister I whined to my mother about how some of my parishioners were not showing me the respect I felt I deserved. Mama said, “When Jesus told you to take up a cross, you didn’t think he was referring to that shiny silver thing you wear around your neck, did you? There’s a reason they put those things on the roof and on the altar and it’s not about looking pretty.”

In this text – Jesus is not fussing at or dismissing those who fail to receive the Gospel – rather, he is giving encouragement to those of us who go out in the world to announce the coming of the kingdom of God. Because, then as now, human beings are prone to the desire to be successful, to be winners, or at least to avoid being losers. We want to figure out how to do it right so that all our hopes and dreams for our church will come true. And, if we’re not careful – we will start changing the message, ever so slightly, ever so tentatively, ever so hesitantly – trying to find the right thing to say, or the right way to say it, so that we will not be rejected, so that everyone will hear and receive us gladly. We become so desperate to “elevate’em all” that we forget that not only did Jesus warn us that we would not be able to, but he demonstrated by his own suffering and death upon a cross that it is not possible.

The good news is – it’s not our job to elevate’em all. Over and over again the Bible makes it plain that we are not in charge, God is. Just in our lessons for today we heard it said in many ways.

From Isaiah: “I will extend prosperity to her like a river,” (66:12) and “. the hand of the LORD is with his servants . . .” 66:14) These things are God’s doing, not ours.

In the Psalm: “Come and see what God has done” (66:5) and “Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living. . .” (66:8,9)

Paul, in Galatians, reminds himself, and us, to “. . . never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . “(6:14)

And in the Gospel lesson Jesus reminds us to “. . . ask the LORD of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” That is – it’s in God’s hands.

In light of this, what are we to do? Do we sit quietly, waiting for God to save the world? Do we come to this building and enjoy each other’s company and sing hymns and songs we like and then go about our business with no thought or mention of our faith until we gather here again on another Sunday? How do we go about announcing the good news that God’s unconditional grace and life-changing love are here, now – without either manipulating the message in order to win a hearing or worrying over much about how we will be received?

Anne Lamott, author of Traveling Mercies, and many other books about faith and spirituality, was recently quoted in The Week as saying “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” This does not mean we do not go outside these walls.
The walls are not the church, this building is not the church. We, the people, the congregation; we are the church. We go outside the walls, – to work, to play, to neighborhoods and communities. And we are invited by Christ be Christian in all that we say and do. We are encouraged to shine wherever we are, with whomever we encounter. And we are invited to trust God with the harvest. We may not be able to elevate’em all. But God can.

Amen and amen.

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C, Proper 8)

For June 26, 2016

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

For Commentary on the texts, please click HERE

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In about a month, people from all over the world will be heading for Brazil for the Summer Olympics. Members of my family have been back and forth across the country this summer – West to East, East to West, to do work, to see family, to take vacation. It’s the same for many people these days, especially in the summer. We tend to come and go a lot and almost at will.

This was not so until relatively recent times. New Testament Professor Tom Wright says that “in most of the world for most of human history, most people didn’t travel at all. . . . they stayed in their local neighborhood all their lives.” (Luke for Everyone, p. 117)

The main exception to this staying at home was going “on pilgrimage,” taking a religious trip to a special site; a temple or a shrine. Indeed, in English the word for special days of observance is HOLIDAY, which was originally HOLY DAY. In the British Isles, what we in the United States call “taking a vacation,” is referred to as “going on holiday.” For the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, going on pilgrimage usually meant going to Jerusalem, to the Temple, like Jesus’ family did when he was a twelve year old boy. (Luke 2:41-51)

In our Gospel Lesson for today, Jesus sets out on a pilgrimage – he goes on holiday in the true sense of the term, he sets out on a mission from God and for God, he goes to a holy place to do a holy thing. In verses 51 and 53 of chapter 9, Luke says that Jesus “set his face for Jerusalem.” This phrase means something like, “he was determined to go and would not let anything stop him.”

Today’s Gospel lesson was written to teach the first Christians what it meant to be on a trip with Jesus, about how to prepare, about what to take and what to leave behind. It’s a lesson in spiritual packing.

In the first half of our story, Jesus lets a Samaritan village know he is coming and the people send back word asking him not to come. We don’t really know why. The Bible says it was, “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” Does that mean they were opposed to the ministry and message of Jesus? Or does it mean that since they were Samaritans they were already hated by the leaders in Jerusalem and didn’t want any more trouble? We don’t know, but two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, got angry and wanted God to destroy this little village the way God destroyed Sodom in the time of Abraham and Lot. Shaking his head a bit, Jesus said, “No, leave them alone.”

What can we learn from this? Anywhere we go; God has been there before us. Anywhere we go, God is there with us. Anywhere we go; God will still be there when we leave. Just as messengers went in front of Jesus on his journey, anywhere we go with the Gospel, God has already been working. Sometimes the people are ready, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they receive us with open arms; sometimes they turn their backs. But that is not our concern, we neither condemn nor punish those who aren’t ready; nor do we take credit when we and the Gospel are received. When we prepare for a journey with Jesus, we are called to lay aside our concerns for how we will be received, replacing them with a deep awareness that God is with us, all the way, all the time, and what happens is in holy hands and is not within our control

In the second half of the story various people emerge from the crowd as Jesus walks along past the village. A man says “I’ll follow you anywhere.” Jesus responds by warning him it’s a life without a permanent home. Then Jesus invites a different man to follow him , but the man says he has to bury his father first. What he means is, “Let me fulfill all my family obligations, then I’ll follow you.” Jesus tells him “Let the dead bury the dead.” That is, “If you’re going to follow the Kingdom of God, you have to let go of that duty in order to take up a new duty, the duty to proclaim the Good News.” Then a person says, “Let me first go home and say good bye.” Jesus responds with a saying about not looking back while plowing. !”

The story from 1 Kings is a perfect example of what Jesus is trying to get people to see. Elijah taps Elisha with his mantle, like a very grown-up and very serious game of “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Elisha immediately leaves his plow and goes to Elijah, pleading that he must say good bye to his parents. Elijah grouchily says, “Go back then,” but Elisha does more than just kiss the folks – he puts an end to his old life. He chops up the yokes, the farm equipment, to build a fire. Then he kills and cooks the oxen and feeds the neighbors. Not only does he throw himself a going away party, he makes sure he can’t come back by destroying his means of making a living.

Just so, when Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, he turned his back on Nazareth, on the land around the Sea of Galilee, on his life as a carpenter and small town teacher and preacher. When Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, he knew he was going to his death, he knew he was, from that very moment, walking to the cross.

And he invites us to go with him. He invites us, calls us to follow him to Jerusalem, to the cross. He invites us to unpack all the small but heavy and burdensome things that keep us from loving God and each other completely and fully and passionately. When we have empty hands, we are able to reach out to others. When we remove the hate from our hearts, we have room for love. Jesus invites us to empty our hands and our hearts of all that we hold dear so that we can take up our cross and follow him.

Amen and amen.

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Lectionary 12)

For June 19, 2016

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

For Commentary on the texts, please click HERE

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One Sunday afternoon about 35 years ago I was driving across eastern North Carolina, headed for a church convention in Fayetteville.  I was listening to a radio preacher because that was the only station I could pick up and I love gospel choirs. The preacher was waxing eloquent about what Ephesians calls “the full armor of God.”  In rhythmic cadences, he invited folks to “put on the helmet of salvation, uh; and the breastplate of righteousness, uh; and the belt of truth, uh, about your waist, uh; and carry the shield of faith, yes uh; and always carry the sword, uh, of the Spirit, uh, which is the word of God. Yes, amen.  Yes sir, brothers and sisters, yes sir, as long as you facing the devil head on, uh, the Lord is with you.  But look here now – there ain’t no back-plate in here, no sir; if’n you turn your back on the devil and run – you on your own.”  I almost ran off the road at that point, I was laughing so hard.

But for the man Jesus met running around nude in the cemetery – the devil was no laughing matter.  Like most modern people, I don’t know what to make of biblical stories about demon possession and exorcisms, I really don’t. When I was studying at a somewhat liberal seminary in the late 1970s, we were taught that much of it was mental illness and epilepsy and things like that, and I’m sure that those things accounted for a lot of what people in the first century thought of as demon possession.  On the other hand, it doesn’t explain everything, and it doesn’t eliminate the fact that whatever was afflicting these people – Jesus was able to cure it.

In this story, and in several that come before and after it, Luke wants to show us, to reveal to us, that Jesus has authority over all sorts of things that make our lives miserable.  This is the second of four episodes in which Jesus displays this authority: 1 – Calming the storm. (8:22-25) 2 – Today’s story of the demon possessed man. (8:26-39) 3 – The woman with the flow of blood. (8:43-48) and 4 – The raising Jairus’ daughter.. (8:49-56)  In each of these stories, Jesus is confronted by something that is frightening to most of us most of the time: the unleashed power of nature, the mystifying behavior of a self-destructive person, the chronic pain and worry of an incurable disease, and the gaping finality of death.  And each time, Jesus refuses to turn his back. Each time, Jesus chokes down his fear and faces the evil and destructive force in front of him.  Each time, Jesus reveals a little bit more of the character of God and how God feels about God’s people.

So Jesus came to the man or the man came to Jesus, and after a bit of somewhat unintelligible verbal sparring, the Bible says the demons go into the swine and the swine go into the lake, and the man goes back into his good clothes and back into his right mind.

In this encounter Jesus shows us that God is not blind to, nor turns away from, the evils and ailments that beset us.  An important message here is that God is not away off there somewhere, far removed from our petty little lives.  No.  God is here with us now, just as God in Christ was there with that man and his demons then.  Elie Wiesel1 in “Night,” his classic book about the Nazi concentration camps, tells of a day when the guards hanged three people in front of the prisoners.  Two died immediately but a third, a young boy whom Wiesel described as being loved by everyone, hung on for about thirty minutes, struggling and choking and twisting in the wind.  As they watched, Wiesel heard someone behind him say, “Where is God now?”  and Wiesel thought to himself, “He’s right up there on those gallows with that boy.”  The Biblical understanding is that, although God does not always rescue us from our distress – God does always go through our “dangers, toils and snares” with us.  God in Christ came to face evil, not turn a back to it.

Jesus went to a land full of the gentiles and healed a non-Jewish person. God does not play favorites, not among genders, not among social classes, not among races or nationalities.  Instead of building walls, Jesus broke down barriers.

As it says in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28)  Where we continually separate and segregate and parse out minute variations in accent and origin and social class and educational level so that we can keep people appropriately classified and pigeon-holed – God in Christ simply stands in front of the world, and spreads wide those holy arms, and invites all to come.

But, many of us are simply afraid.  Verse 35 says, “Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.”  We are not our best selves when we are afraid. Often times, we turn our backs, not on the devil, but on God. When we follow our fear instead of our faith, we often find ourselves on the road to perdition – not actual hellfire and brimstone but rather a life (and death) of misery, anxiety, and sorrow.

“The man from whom the demons had gone,” shows us a better way.  He sits at the feet of Jesus.  In ancient times, The teacher sat down, on a rock or a chair, and the sat of the floor or the ground at the teacher’s feet.  To sit at someone’s feet was to indicate your devotion and your loyalty, both to their person and to their teaching.  This healed man, this rescued man, this freed and liberated and happy man responded to his healing, not with fear but with faith. He wanted to go where Jesus went, to do what Jesus did, to hear and obey whatever Jesus said.

But Jesus had a better idea.  Jesus told him to stay where he was and to tell people about the good things God had done for him.  So the man stayed – but he put his own twist on Jesus’ instructions.  Did you notice it?  He was told to talk about Jesus, he obeyed by telling people about Jesus.

We too have been healed by God in Christ.  We too have been freed from sin and liberated from fear; we have too been released from racism and set-free from sexual politics; we too have been sent out into the world to tell our story of God’s love and forgiveness; we too have been stripped of our defenses and re-clothed in the armor of God.  And though it true there is no back-plate – not to worry.  Jesus loves us and Jesus has got our back.

Amen and amen.

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

For Commentary on the texts, please click HERE

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One of my mother’s favorite stories to tell about me was about a time when I was still her baby – the youngest of her then three children.  I was about three, just old enough to form sentences.  The three of us were sick, probably with the flu.  She took us to the family doctor.  He looked us over and then turned his back and fiddled with something.  When he turned around he had a big needle in his hand.  According to Mama, I jumped off the table and ran to the door, trying to get it open while pointing at my siblings and shouting in the general direction of the doctor, “Just them two’s sick.  Just them two’s sick. Not me, not me!”

In our Gospel Lesson – Jesus is invited to eat with Simon, the Pharisee, who was not only intrigued and curious about this self-taught country preacher and faith healer, but also skeptical and dismissive.

It wasn’t long until everyone in town knew that Jesus was eating at Simon’s house. Soon, a crowd had gathered. People were intrigued and curious; they wanted to see Jesus; they wanted to hear him say something unusual, they hoped he might perform a miracle.

A woman; a “sinner” slipped through the crowd to Jesus. She came to where he reclined at table, she stretched herself out at his feet, she covered his feet with oil, she bathed them with her tears, she dried them with her hair. And, of course, all this sensuality, all this sexiness, all this touching was too much for Simon, who would never touch any woman but his wife, much less a woman like this, a sinner, a woman of ill-repute. “How could you?” Simon mumbled under his breathe. “How could you, allow this, this, this, woman to touch you? And all this bathing, and oiling, and wiping, and kissing.  It’s disgusting!  Some prophet you are!  A true prophet would have known what kind of woman she is and certainly would not have let her touch him.”

Some people who find it somewhat miraculous that Jesus is said to know what Simon is thinking at this point. Seriously? If looks could kill, the one Simon gave Jesus would have wiped out a neighborhood. No need to be a prophet to guess what was going on in Simon’s head – and heart; it was written all over his face. Jesus must have sighed and shook his head a bit as he began to tell Simon on of his little stories.

Two people owe money a man some money. One of them owes ten times as much as the other. Neither could pay. The man forgives the debt of both. “Which of them will love him more?” Jesus says.  Who will have more gratitude and more devotion?”  Of course Simon answers, “The one for whom he cancelled the bigger debt.”

Then Jesus lays it out to Simon how the woman had simply done for Jesus what Simon, as the host, should have done. She was not a good woman and she knew it. She knew she needed a lot of love and forgiveness. Unlike Simon, she had no lifetime of doing the right thing to cling to, she knew she was in trouble and needed help.

When she heard Jesus tell of repentance and acceptance into the Kingdom of God, when she heard his stories of love and forgiveness, when she saw him touch the untouchable and love the unlovely; it struck a chord deep within her soul. She really heard his words, not as ideas but as truth; not as religious concepts but as spiritual realities. She really heard it and believed it and knew herself to be loved and forgiven by God. Only one who knew that she had been forgiven much could respond with such great gratitude and love.

“Not me, Jesus. What you’re saying doesn’t apply to me. I’m not sick. I’m not a sinner. I don’t have hurt and pain and incompleteness. I’m a good person. What you’re saying applies to other people, not to me.”  That’s what Simon thought.

Until Nathan pointed the finger at him, and shouted out “Thou art the man,” that’s what King David thought. “Not me Lord. Only them people are sick. Not me. Go forgive, and heal, and love on someone else and leave me alone.”

Traditionally Calvinists have believed in something called “total depravity.” It’s a theological way of saying what St. Paul was getting at when he wrote, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” It doesn’t mean we’re all rotten through and through. It does mean we’re all rotten at least a little bit.

Dallas Willard was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California for almost 40 years. He was also a very active Christian, a member of a Baptist Church. When he died in 2013, his minister friend John Ortberg wrote an obituary, which said in part:

Somebody once asked Dallas if he believed in total depravity. “I believe in sufficient depravity,” he responded immediately.  What’s that? “I believe every human being is sufficiently depraved that when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, “I merited this.”

(Christianity Today, June 2016, p. 79)

We have not merited God’s grace, we have not earned it, we did nothing to deserve it.  It is God’s free gift to all of us. Our capacity to forgive others begins to grow when we realize that we are all a bit depraved, when we recognize how very much we have been forgiven by God. And our capacity to love others fully and unselfishly grows by leaps and bounds when we realize how very much we have been loved fully and unselfishly by God.

Amen and amen.