The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 13)

For July 31, 2016

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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago I took a youth group to Lutheridge in the mountains of North Carolina for Confirmation Camp. There we learned a game called “Would you rather?” The students lined up down the middle of the room and then they were asked questions like: Would you rather always have to say everything on your mind or never speak again?”Would you rather be a dog named Killer or a cat named Fluffy?”Would you rather be able to hear any conversation or take back anything you say?” Would you rather be born with an elephant trunk or a giraffe neck?”  the kids went to opposite sides of the room, depending on their answer, and then discussion ensued.

The game reminded me of the old comic Jack Benny, who made being cheap a part of his act.  A man walked up to Benny on the street, put a gun in his ribs and said, “Your money or your life?” There was a very long pause while Benny adopted his trademark pose of chin in hand, fingers drumming against his cheek. The mugger jabbed him with the gun and demanded again “Your money or your life.” Benny replied, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”

A man wants Jesus to make his brother share the family inheritance with him. Rather than get involved in this family dispute, Jesus takes the opportunity to caution his listeners about the dangers of greed, illustrating his warning with a story. The “rich fool” and his barns allude to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph was in prison because his boss’ wife had accused him of sexual harassment. In prison, Joseph made quite a name for himself as an interpreter of dreams. Meanwhile Pharaoh had strange dreams about fat cows and skinny cows, and about full and empty stems of grain. He asked his servants if they know any dream interpreter and someone remembered Joseph. They sent for him.

Joseph interpreted the dreams to mean that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine and advised Pharaoh to build large barns to store the surplus from the good years to help tide the country over in the bad times. Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph that he appointed him Prime Minister. And when things worked out as Joseph had predicted, the country was saved, and Egypt was able to help people from other starving countries.

Our Gospel story is similar in that great material blessing are followed by a great plan for the future.

The stories begin to differ in the use to which the great material blessings will be put. In the Joseph story, Pharaoh followed the advice and used the surplus for the good of the community and for hospitality to strangers. They stored up the blessing to be used during the time of want and need. They managed God’s blessing – not for themselves, but for others.  They provided for the poor people of Egypt and the poor people of the world.

In Jesus’ little story, the farmer thinks only of himself. New Testament scholar William Barclay said that no other parable of Jesus is so full of the words “me” and “my” and “I” and “myself.” The Greek word for I is ego. The rich fool is a case study in egotism; narcissistic self-interest that sees everything only in terms of “what’s in it for me.”

God has given us what we have, not for ourselves but for the benefit of others; for others in our community and for others in our world, for hospitality to others, even if they are strangers. This is true, whether we are talking about our personal, individual goods; or the goods we hold in common as a congregation. Everything we have, right down to the last breath we take, God has given to us..

Tithing has gone out of fashion, I suppose. At least very few people seem to do it anymore. I think tithing lost its appeal among Lutherans because if seemed too legalistic, too rule-oriented. After all, we are Gospel people, living in Evangelical freedom, able to respond to the grace of God as we see fit. I think this is unfortunate, for it robs us of the many blessings to be received from a proper understanding of stewardship. We have created for ourselves a Stewardship game of “Would You Rather,” a game nobody wins. We have created a false choice between two styles of giving and then acted as though we’ve been forced to choose between them.

I like easy math, so let’s use $100 as an illustration number. A tithe on $100 would be $10. An “of my own free-will” attitude toward stewardship would say: “I have done well, worked hard and earned this money. It would be a good thing if I gave some of it back to the community. Let me examine the programs and agencies in the community to see which deserve my hard-earned dollars. I will give them, say $10.” Now, this is a commendable and worthy attitude, but it is not Biblical stewardship.

A “God’s Law compels me” attitude toward stewardship says, “God has commanded that I give $10 of every $100 I earn to the church. Because I am a God-fearing person and do not want to make God mad at me, I will give the church $10 of my money.”  This results in the church having the money to use to do good, but it makes the giver feel like they have been coerced into giving. And again, it is not Biblical stewardship

Do you see how this is a bad game of “Would You Rather?” The first one feeds our ego, making us feel like we’ve something for God – when in reality God has done something for us and others through us; the second one makes us feel like we had to do it, that God made us do it, so we feel no joy, only compunction and resentment and perhaps a certain smugness for having done “our part.” Neither one is Biblical stewardship.

A Biblical, Christ-centered attitude toward giving says: “God has $100 and has trusted me with it. God has asked that I use at least, “at least,” $10 of this money for the benefit of others and the spreading of the gospel. Of the other $90, I may use as much as necessary for my needs and I am free to share the rest with others in response to the needs I see around me.”

What we do with our possessions depends upon which of these three attitudes we take toward stewardship. In his parable, Jesus reminds us that we are all going to die someday. And Jesus says, at the inevitable moment of our death, our accumulated possessions will be worthless to us.

As a matter of fact, they could be worse than useless. If the care and maintenance of our stuff has diverted us from seeing to the care and maintenance of our souls; the very things we cherish in this life will have been that which has ruined us for the next. As Jesus said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

God has placed in our hands all that we are, and all that we have. And the question is: What are we going to do with it, with our life and with our stuff? Would you rather serve God or serve yourself?

“Your money or your life?” That is the ultimate “would you rather?” question.

Amen and Amen.

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 12)

For July 24, 2016

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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The summer my younger son turned 14 he played on an AAU basketball team sponsored by the local Roman Catholic high school.  Besides the usual enjoyment of getting to see him play against good competition, the summer also provided a couple of moments that amused me, if not him.  The first was the confused looks on the Catholic boys’ faces when I, wearing my standard work clothes of black shirt and minister’s collar, showed up to pick up my son after practice.  It was not hard to read their minds, “But, but – a priest can’t be married!  A priest can’t have children!” I left it up to their coach to explain things.  The other amusing thing was the team’s practice of praying the “Our Father,” what we Protestants usually call “The Lord’s Prayer,” right before tip-off.  Any of you with any experience with Catholic worship know that they end the prayer at “deliver us from evil.”  They do not include the line, “For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”

Before the tip-off of their first game, the team gathered to pray, and when all the other boys stopped you could hear my son’s lone voice continuing, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever.”  He looked around, then he looked up in the stands at me with a quizzical look on his face.  On the ride home he asked me about it.  I told him that the Roman Catholics were being more faithful to the text than Protestants – that they only said what was in the gospel of Matthew. The “Doxology” (the kingdom and the power and the glory line) has been used in the Eastern Christianity, in Orthodoxy, since the second or third century, and it came into English Protestant worship through Thomas Cranmer and the first Book of Common Prayer.

So, at the next game, they prayed again.  At the end of the prayer, my son continued praying, and then tapered off, an embarrassed look on his face.  Later that week I walked by the door to his room and heard him practicing the Our Father, ending carefully at “deliver us from evil.”  At the third game, the team prayed, the team stopped at “deliver us from evil;” my son continued, “For thine is the Kingdom, and the . . . OH SHOOT!”

I have reflected on that moment frequently over the years.  It has lead me to think about two things. One is the power of liturgy, the strength of a prayer learned and engrained, good and appropriate words that stay with us – sometimes even when we try to forget them or put them in our past.  The second is the importance of persistence, especially when disappointed in prayer – the need to continue praying when the only true thing coming out of the abundance of our hearts is a sense of failure and futility, an “Oh shoot!” moment.

First – the power of learned prayer. Duke Divinity School professors Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas say that their book on the Lord’s Prayer, Lord, Teach Us, “presents the Christian faith not as a set of beliefs but rather as a prayer you must learn to pray.” (p. 15) I grew up among people whose religious tradition did not include “written prayers,” or regular forms of worship repeated week after week; but even these most independent of free-church Baptists knew the Twenty-third Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and John 3:16 by heart.   Why? Because these once these “prayers,” become embedded in our minds, they seep out into our hearts, our souls and our lives.

Martin Luther once observed that to be s sinner was to be bent, crooked, twisted.  Bend in on oneself, unable to see either God or the neighbor as serving any other purpose than serving my need, fixing my problem, saving my soul, improving my life.  The sinners first thought is, “What do I get out of it, how does it help me.”

By contrast, good prayers, good liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer, turn our attention away from me and mine toward God and the neighbor. This is what I think of when we sing the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” – “hearts unfold like flowers before you, opening to the sun above.” The first thing the Lord’s Prayer does is unbend us, lift us away from our eternal and obsessive navel-gazing that we might look up to God and around at the God’s world and at God’s people who fill it.

In our text, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. It is unfortunate that English does not have an official second person plural pronoun, so I’ll have to translate Jesus reply into “Southern” English, “He said to them, ‘When y’all pray . . .’”   If you’re from New York, it’s “When youse guys pray . . .” If you’re from Pittsburg it’s “When you’ns pray . . .”  I am, unfortunately, not well versed about informal second person plurals in the rest of the country, so y’all fill in the blank.  The point is – this is not a personal prayer, it is a communal prayer, a community prayer, a prayer we pray together, a prayer that leads us to consider things we do with and for each other in our relationship with God.

We pray “Your kingdom come.” Then we live as though that kingdom were already here.  As Luther said in the Small Catechism, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come in us.”  As Willimon and Hauerwas said, we become Christian, we inhabit the kingdom of God, by praying this prayer and allowing it to shape our lives – trusting God to provide for us daily, imitating God’s forgiveness of us by forgiving others, believing

God will be with us no matter what troubles we face.  We take this prayer deep inside us and it comes out in the way we live our lives each day.

Now on the other matter of being persistent, insistent really; being constant in prayer and unwilling to give up in the face of failure and misfortune, just as my son was unwilling to give up trying to pray the prayer the way his teammates did.  Jesus uses two scenarios common to village life to make his point: borrowing from a neighbor and our goodness to our children.  Jesus is not saying that God is either a grumpy neighbor or an evil; rather he is using the ancient technique of arguing from the lesser to the greater – if a grumpy neighbor will respond to your pleas – think how much more so God will respond.  If parents will do good things for their, think about how much more so God will do good for us.  Either way, the point is a realistic understanding God, prayer, and life that I find summed up in the old Rolling Stones song: “No, you can’t always get what you want. You can’t always get what you want. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime . . ..” What? – What comes next? ________ Come on, I know y’all know the rest of it.  “But if you try sometime you find, you get what you need.”

Amen and amen.

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 11)

For July 17, 2016

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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Whenever I hear this story, especially the part about Martha loudly complaining to Jesus that Mary is not helping her, I think of hot summer nights on the farm years ago. Mama and Daddy both worked two jobs; they got up early and milked the cow, and fed the stock (and the children) and then rode together to the textile mill, arriving in time to clock in for an eight-hour day ending at 3 pm. Then they rode home, and joined the children in the fields and barns, taking care of the crops until almost dark– in the summer that could be as late as 9 or 10 pm. After we ate dinner – Daddy and the five children would abandon a table full of dishes and pile into the den to watch television.
It didn’t take long until we could feel more than see an angry presence lurking in the door between the kitchen and the den. There stood Mama, hands on hips, towel clinched threateningly in her hand as she glared at Daddy. Finally, she would say, almost spitting it out, “Lowell, I could use some help in here.” And without skipping a beat, he would take a drag on his cigarette, expel some smoke, and point at a child and say, “Go help your mother in the kitchen.”

“But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” (Luke 10:40) Martha wanted Jesus to do what my Daddy did, point at Mary and say, “Go help your sister in the kitchen.” But he didn’t. Instead, he told Martha to calm down a bit, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. . . “- then he praised Mary, saying that she has taken the “better part.”

This story holds a certain charm for almost everyone. Parents with children, adults who used to be children, children who are still children; we can all think of times when our children were fussing and pointing fingers, or when we felt put upon and taken for granted – or perhaps others had accused us of slacking off and not being helpful. In many ways it is a universal story. And it lends itself to thinking about the constant tensions in religious life between orthopraxy (right practice) and orthodoxy (right praise); between activity and contemplation; between being busy and being still, between doing and being.

So we can end up with a sermon outline or Sunday school lesson that goes something like this:
(Lest anyone think I’m casting stones – I’m sure pretty sure I’ve preached more than one that came out this way.)

1 – The modern world is full of too many things to do, we all are consumed with our worries, and are all easily distracted by our expensive amusements and electronic toys.

2 – We should all stop being like Martha and start being like Mary – putting aside our worries and distractions and listening to Jesus.

3 – And since Jesus isn’t around for you to literally sit at his feet and listen any more, you should do the next best thing, and come to church more often and sit at my feet and listen to me, the preacher.

A nice, little, three-point outline – but not the point of this little story. The meaning for us turns on figuring out what “the one thing needed” is. What is the “better part” that Mary has chosen? What is Luke trying to say by relating this relatively minor incident in the life of two sisters?

For Luke, this is not a story about doing versus being. It is a story about receiving the Word of God into one’s life. As the scene opens, Martha has made a good start at receiving the living Word of God, Jesus the Christ. As he enters the village, she has invited him into her home. And, following his own words of instruction to the seventy when he sent them out to go ahead of him into the villages – he accepted the first invitation of shelter he received and was ready to eat whatever was put before him.

But then Martha turned from being welcoming and hospitable to being worried and concerned about making a good impression. When Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things,” he was not talking about her life in general – he was talking about that exact moment in particular.

She was so busy worrying about which dish to serve first, and what must the neighbors be thinking, and how long has that chicken been on the griddle, and when should I put the bread in the oven, and do we have enough wine, and if we get out the card table and put it in the den the youngest disciples can sit there – she was so busy thinking about those things she had no time to remember her guest – the reason she was having this dinner in the first place. She had invited the Christ into her home and into her life – and then she had no time for him. It wasn’t that her life was too busy and worrisome and distracted. It was not that she had no time for leisure, for re-creation, for leisure, for rest, for thinking deep thoughts and feeling warm feelings. All those things are important, but that’s not what Luke was after here. He was after the problem of having Christ in your house without having Christ in your heart. He was after the problem of making your faith about what you can do for God rather than about what God has done for you and wants to do with you and through you for others and for the world. “The one thing needed,” “the better part” that Mary had chosen, is the part of allowing the Word of God, in all its form – whether written, living, read, or preached – to speak to and change our lives.

Professor Dennis Okholm says it this way, “To paraphrase Karl Barth, “The church is because Christ is.” And to use the language of Barth’s Römerbrief, the church is “the great crater left by the impact of God’s revealing Word”—the Word whose chief function is to confront us with Jesus Christ.” (Theology Matters, Jan/Feb. 2009.)

Mary chose to sit and listen to the Word of God, she chose the better part – but not the only part. We too are invited to come and sit at the feet of Jesus, to listen to the Word of God, to pay attention to the activity of God in world, and to be changed by that Word. But, we are also sent out by that Word, sent out into the world to get busy with the Godly worry and holy busyness of unconditional love, bottomless generosity, and unending compassion. We are sent out to show the world the life-changing grace and heart-melting love that God in Christ has shown to us.

Amen and amen.

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

For July 10, 2016

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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

G.K. Chesterton is probably best known to most people as the writer of the Father Brown mysteries.  They are about an English Catholic priest who solves mysteries.  The stories have frequently been made into “Mystery Theatre” shows on the BBC.  Chesterton was also a devoted Christian and a brilliant, witty, author and editor of books and magazines on both popular culture and Christianity.  He once said, “In one place Jesus tells us to love our neighbor.  In another he tells us to love our enemies.  This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.”

Our enemies and our neighbors are be the same people? Chesterton was not a trained minister and I doubt he knew Hebrew, so it’s questionable that he was aware of the biblical evidence that he was right.  According to Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill-Levine, “. . . in Hebrew, the words “neighbor” . . . and “enemy/evil-one” . . . share the same consonants, they differ only in vowels, which are not included in the text.  When Jesus asks the lawyer, “What do you read there?” he is asking “Are you able to see, in Torah’s words, the command to love both neighbor . . . and those you would see as enemies?” (Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 123) 

And when the lawyer said, “Who is my neighbor?” he did more than simply try to justify himself –  he revealed that he didn’t get the “enemy” part of the equation.  What he wanted to know was this: “Who is the person (or persons) whom I can reasonably be expected to help when they are in trouble?” Jesus answered him with a story that turns that question on its head. Jesus told him: “Your neighbor is exactly the opposite of who you think it is. The one you think is your enemy is really your friend.”

When we hear a story, we usually “identify” with someone in it.  We say to ourselves, “Yes, I’m like that person, that’s the way I feel or that’s the way I would act.”  When most of us hear the story of the “Good Samaritan,” most of us want to identify with the Good guy, don’t we? We’d like to think that, like him, we’d be helpful and kind. None of us wants to be the priest or the Levite; too busy, or too self-important, or too something to care.  We like to think of ourselves as the good, kind, Mother Teresa type person – selflessly coming to the aid of a stranger.

But Jesus was a good storyteller, and as a good storyteller, he knew who his listeners were likely to identify with, and he knew it would not be the Samaritan. Jesus’ audience was Jewish, the man in the ditch was Jewish, the Priest was Jewish, the Levite was Jewish, the robbers were Jewish, the storyteller, was Jewish, the lawyer was Jewish. It is a completely Jewish story. And the last person any of these Jews, except Jesus, expected to show up in this story was a Samaritan.

Jesus used a set of three to build their expectations.  It is a standard storytelling technique.  Play into expectations, and then give it a twist. We are all familiar with sets of three:  “A minister, a priest and a ____? went into a bar.”  A rabbi of course.  “The Father, Son and _____?”  Holy Spirit.  Larry, Moe, and _____? Curley. We know how this works.   A Jewish person knew what came next, “A priest, a Levite and . . .   an Israelite. But Jesus threw them a curve-ball.  Just when they were expecting a nice, helpful Jewish boy, Jesus popped a hated enemy into the story. Not only that, he made him the hero of the story. Jesus shook up their preconceived notion of where they could look for help in time of need. Jesus told the lawyer, and the crowd, that your neighbor – the one who will help you – could very well be the person you least expect.

When he asked Jesus who his neighbor was, the lawyer was trying to define the limits of his own love, the requirements of his ethical actions toward others. Jesus turned this upside down by establishing a love ethic that has no limits, that does not operate from definitions of who’s in and who’s out.  Jesus moved beyond the question who we are required to help. He moved beyond the surprise about who might help us to much bigger questions of our willingness to receive help, and to allow that help to change us.

About twenty years ago there was a KKK rally in Ann Arbor Michigan.  As you can imagine, this very liberal, progressive, university town was not particularly welcoming to the Klan, and many, many protesters hit the street to make their displeasure known.  There were police lining the parade route, there was a barrier put up to separate the protesters from the marchers, the anti-Klan folk far outnumbered both the Klansmen and their hangers-on.  In the midst of the activities, one of those hanger-on, a man with a confederate flag tee-shirt and a Nazi SS tattoo found himself on the wrong side of the police line and the barrier – he had stumbled into the midst of the protesters.  And they turned on him, they started pushing and punching; he ran, they chased; he fell and they pounced.  Amid shouts of “Kill the Nazi,” they began to beat him with the sticks holding their placards.

And in the midst of all this, a “samaritan” showed up. Keisha Thomas, an 18 year-old black girl, leapt out from the crowd and spread herself on top of the man, shouting out, “This isn’t right, this isn’t right.”  And the sight of this fierce and insistent black teen-ager protecting a middle-aged white racist man stopped that crowd in their tracks.  Keisha was not hurt and the man himself got up and left without saying a word, but a year or so later a young white man approached her and hesitantly said, “Thank you – you saved my father’s life.”

Did her actions change the man she saved? We can’t know.  But there is a hint that her actions changed the man’s son, at least a little bit.  Her actions halted a cycle of violence and turned it in a new direction.  She saw a man whom everyone else considered an enemy and she acted toward him as if he were her neighbor.  He experienced mercy from someone whom he expected to be an enemy, whom he would have treated as an enemy.

Jesus tells us to love our neighbors.  He also tells us to love our enemies.  This is because, as Chesterton said, if we read the bible right, and we read our neighbor and enemies right, if we see all of them with the eyes of faith, we are all the same people and we are called to love and be loved without limit and without hesitation.

Amen and amen.