The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)

For September 4, 2016

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I grew up attending a congregation somewhat loosely affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.  The youth ministry of most Baptist churches in those days was divided into two groups; Royal Ambassadors (RAs) for boys and the Girls Auxiliary (GA) for, well, girls. (They later changed that to Girls in Action.)

Anyway, somebody had the bright idea that all the RA groups in the local association should go camping together at a campground along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It was really a pretty good outing – not particularly religious, but a lot of fun.  We slept in a motley collection of tents, ate food we burned ourselves over open fires, and played baseball and volleyball with groups from other churches.  About the middle of the afternoon of Saturday one of the pastors decided we should all hike to the top of a nearby mountain.  Pastor “Bob” was an ex-military chaplain and was very gung-ho about what he called “manly Christianity.”  The rest of the pastors, well, not so much.  They persuaded him it should be a voluntary activity, only for those who really wanted to go – like him and not them.

So he called all the kids together; there were probably about a hundred of us.  He said, “Who wants to go climb the mountain?”  And we all cried out, “We do! We do!” — while waving our hands in the air.  Pastor Bob smiled a really big smile and then looked at his ministerial colleagues and then back at us and said, “Okay just so you know, it’ll be about a five mile hike.”  About half the hands came down.  “Both ways – so that’s ten miles.”  Another half of the hands came down.  “It’s really steep.”  More hands came down.  “We’ll need to carry backpacks with food and emergency equipment.”  At this point only the somewhat intimidated kids from Pastor Bob’s church still had their hands in the air.  Suddenly Pastor Bob’s young associate pastor stepped forward and shouted out “Who wants S’mores?” and everybody cheered and followed him to the nearest camp-fire – leaving a crestfallen Pastor Bob to trudge into the wilderness alone.

“Now large crowds were traveling with him, and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not” – turn their back on their family, does not take up a cross, does not follow me in a life of witness, service and suffering for others, does not drop everything and go with me up Mount Calvary – well, you cannot be my disciple. Man – that’s harsh.

Every time I read this lesson, especially the parts about hating your family and selling ALL your possessions, I think to myself – did he really mean that?  Was Jesus serious about that?  I mean, does this belong in the category of hyperbole and exaggeration to make a point?  Like that other stuff he said about “cutting off your hand,” and “gouging out your eye.”  If you’re of a literalist frame of mind, well this is some hard, hard stuff.  I think I’d rather go eat some s’mores and play some baseball and leave the spiritual mountain-climbing to someone else.

But Jesus did mean it.  He didn’t mean it literally, but he meant it.  The Greek word used is a comparative word.  We use the word “hate” in the same way occasionally.  “Honey, I’ve getting ready to cook dinner.  Would you rather have steamed broccoli or cooked cabbage?” “Oh, no contest!  I hate cooked cabbage – let’s have the steamed broccoli.”

Jesus is really saying, “If it comes to a choice between me and your father and mother, or your wife and children, or between brothers and sisters, or even your own life unless you can choose me, you are not my disciple.”

Those are indeed hard words, but they are not about hating those whom you are called to love – they are about counting the cost of loving and following Jesus. Like building a house or going to war – there is a price to be paid – and the one who does not count the cost lives to regret it.

This is what Dietrich Bonheoffer was getting at in his most well-known book, “The Cost of Discipleship.”

In it he identified what one of my professors called “The Protestant Problem” – cheap grace.  We preach the God’s forgiveness of our sins so strongly that, if we’re not careful, we will begin to believe that it doesn’t matter what we do – God will forgive us, so why worry about doing the right thing.  As one skeptic put it, “God likes to forgive.  I like to sin.  It’s a nice arrangement.”

To this Pastor Bonheoffer offered a resounding “No!” – both with his words and with his life.  Echoing Jesus  in today’s gospel, he called people to count the cost, to realize that accepting God’s grace also meant accepting a life of service and sacrifice.  Not only did Bonheoffer say this, he lived it.  Leaving behind the security and safety a teaching job in New York City, he returned to Germany to spy and plot against Hitler, dying by a hangman’s noose before his fortieth birthday, grieved by his family, friends and fiancé.  He did not hate or detest these folks, but he loved Christ and Christ’s world more.

We are also invited to count the cost of following Jesus.  Like Pastor “Bob,” Jesus stands before us telling us what it will take to go with him up the mountain.  But Jesus offers something more.  Christ will not only lead us. Christ will not only go with us – Christ will fill us with the Holy Spirit, Christ will provide us with the strength and the will to continue, Christ will even carry us in those places where we cannot carry ourselves.  Though Jesus does indeed invite us, also in the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer, to come and die – Christ also promises to raise us to new life – in this world and the next.

Amen and amen.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)

For August 28, 2016

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When you’re pastor of the Lutheran Church in Athens, Ga, where the population of the town is 115,000 and the capacity of the college football stadium is 93,000 (which means everybody is town is there on game days – 93,000 in the stadium and the rest cooking out in the parking lot), and it’s the week before your alma mater, the UNC Tar Heels, will play the UGA Bulldogs – well it’s time to ease the tension with a probably not true football story.

I heard this story from a football coach over in Alabama.  He said that when Shug Jordan was coach at Auburn, he called up a former player and asked him to go to a high school game in his town and see if there were any players that Coach Jordan should recruit. Mike said, “I’d love to help, but what kind of player are you looking for?” Jordan replied, “Mike, you know when you go to a game, there’s always that fellow that gets knocked down and stays down?” Mike said, “We don’t want that fellow, do we coach?” Coach said, “That’s right Mike, we don’t. And Mike, you know there’s that fellow that gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and stays down?” And Mike said, a little hesitantly, “We don’t want that fellow either, do we coach?”  “No, Mike we don’t. Then there’s that fellow that always gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up . . .’ Mike got excited, “I know, I know. That’s the fellow we want, ain’t it coach?” Coach Jordan sighed and said, “No Mike.  We don’t want that fellow.”  Now Mike was really confused, “Well, who do we want Coach?”  And the Coach Jordan shouted over the phone – “Mike we want the fellow who’s been knocking everybody down!

 

Today’s Gospel lesson is about the question, “Which fellows do we want?” At one level it’s about which fellows we want at our table, in our home, as our friends, on our social calendar. On another level it’s about which fellows does God want us to want – not only in our personal lives but also in our communities.  Put another way, it’s about who is included in God’s love and therefore should be included in our love and in our community of faith.

First, let’s look at verses 7-11: When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This echoes our reading from Proverbs 25: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’, than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Luke’s Jesus turns our assumptions about God and goodness upside down and inside out. Over and over again, Luke shows us Jesus proclaiming that most people are totally mistaken about who’s in and who’s out; who’s acceptable and who’s expendable; who’s good and who’s bad; who’s a saint and who’s a sinner, who’s saved and who’s damned. Jesus teaches that what it means to be a “Child of God,” has nothing to do with our pedigree and everything to do with God’s gracious propensity for love. Over and over again Jesus teaches us this; we are servants, not masters; we are to wash one another’s feet; we are to take the last place, not the first; we are to see in the least and most despised the real face of Jesus our Lord, our Christ.

It is only when we recognize that all places at God’s table are places of honor that we become willing to accept and enjoy whatever place God has chosen as the right place for us. We are all God’s chosen people, serving God in the place where God has placed us. If we sit around wishing we were someone else, doing something else, in some other place; we can miss the joy of being who we are, doing what we’re doing, where we are.

In verses 12-14 we move on to Jesus second parable; this one aimed at the host of the dinner:
“He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

The importance of this story is not so much about who we invite into our homes, though it wouldn’t hurt most of us to invite some folks from outside our comfort zones once in a while. Jesus is really addressing the issue of who is to be welcomed into the presence of God, who is to be considered acceptable in the church. When Jesus says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind,” his Jewish audience would have remembered that Leviticus 21:17-20 makes clear that those who “have a blemish” are not to “draw near” to God. No one who is “blind, or lame, or has a limb too long, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or an itching disease or scabs.” Jesus message is this: “This is a totally different community than you thought it was, and the standards for admission are completely the opposite of what you thought they were.”

The question for us today is simple: Are we ready to follow Jesus’ lead? Are we ready to be humble servants and are we ready to be radically inclusive in admitting people to God’s church and to God’s table? These two sayings of Jesus are held together by the fact that all of us in the church are both hosts and guests at the banquet of the Lord.

We are all of us poor, lame, blind, undeserving strangers, sinners whom God has invited in. And we are also all of us hosts at this banquet; those who have the duty of inviting and welcoming other poor, lame, blind, undeserving strangers and sinners to the feast.
I have a file full of little notes and quotes people have given me over my forty years of ministry.  Here’s one a teenager gave me at a youth retreat twenty years ago. “The greatest joy any Christian will ever receive will be when we all sit together at God’s great Messianic banquet and someone looks across the table at us and smiles and says, ‘Thank you for inviting me.’”

 

Amen and amen.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)

For August 21, 2016

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As a graduate of a non-Lutheran seminary, I spent a year at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC.  My Daddy told his Baptist sister I was being “Lutheranized.”  One Sunday I had been out in the country to “supply preach” in Prosperity, or Pomaria, or Pelion, I don’t remember which – it was one of the P towns.  Anyway, my old college room-mate was coming through Columbia on business and dropping by our apartment for a late lunch.  My wife walked to church near the campus and then to buy pizza.  My job was to buy beer on my way home.  So there I stood on a Sunday afternoon, in a suburban grocery store in Columbia SC; gray suit, black shirt, clerical collar, wooden pectoral cross hanging around my neck, a six pack in hand, while a surprised and befuddled teen-age clerk stared at me.  The following conversation ensued.

 

“Uh, sir, I can’t sell that to you?”

I was also befuddled.  I was completely caught off guard. “Oh, sorry, here’s my ID.”

She said, “No, that’s not it.  I can’t sell beer on Sunday.”

I hate to admit how genuinely thick I was at that moment.  “Why ever not?”

“Well,” she said, “it’s the ‘blue laws.’”

I was still being incredibly thick.  Preaching exhaustion? “What are blue laws?”

She looked directly at my cross and collar and bit her lip and said.  “Well, uh, well, the religious people, uh, think certain things, uh, shouldn’t be sold on Sunday, uh, well it’s the law.”

Then my brain kicked in. Sabbath observance laws, now I get it. Pizza with sweet iced tea wasn’t as bad as I remembered.

 

In our Gospel lesson Jesus is at worship on the Sabbath day. A woman with a chronic crippling illness is there to worship.  Jesus reaches out to her and heals her. Notice – she does not approach Jesus, she does not ask to be healed, she does not make any demonstration of faith in Jesus’ healing ability.  This is all Jesus; this is all grace.  At once, the leader of the synagogue attacks. Though he is “indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath,” he doesn’t attack Jesus; he goes after the crowd for having the wrong standard of Sabbath behavior, for coloring outside the lines, for not following the exact letter of the law.

Jesus responds by pointing out that even the strictest interpretation of the Law allows people to untie their cows and horses and donkeys and lead them to water on the Sabbath in order to prevent unnecessary cruelty. Jesus uses a bit of word play in his rhetorical question.  The same Greek word can be translated either “untie” or “set free,” depending on the context.  So Jesus says, “You untie (or set free) your animals so that they can get water – shouldn’t this woman also be set free (or untied) from her bondage?”  Jesus’ argument from the lesser (the tied up animals) to the greater (the woman tied up in knots with her illness) is unanswerable.

We will lose the point of this story for us if we think it’s about Sabbath observance; either the buying of beer or healing of diseases –  that battle has already been won or lost, depending on your point of view. Very few of us would really hesitate to do anything on Sunday that we would do any other day of the week. About the only thing that Jesus could have done in this situation that would have shocked us would have been to not heal the woman because it was the Sabbath. For us, we must instead consider ways in which our understanding of religious rules and regulations block us from showing genuine, heartfelt compassion to those in need.

I doubt any of us can think of anything. No one sets out to be a cruel and unjust person. Nobody thinks that their way of following God stops them from being kind, caring and compassionate. The leader of the synagogue was evidently considered by his friends and neighbors to be good man, a true man, a generous and helpful sort of fellow – this was why they made him the leader.  He’s not a rabbi or religious scholar – he’s just a regular guy –  a fisherman or a cobbler or a farmer or a tentmaker.  Just a normal person who has accepted a volunteer leadership role. He’s just trying to remind people of the rules as they have always been practiced. He says, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, but not on the Sabbath Day.” If he were given an opportunity to explain himself, he would probably say something like this, “I think Jesus was a little hard on me –  I’m just an unpaid leader of a tiny congregation. I spend countless hours aiding the poor and the widows and the sick in our community. All I was trying to do was keep order, make sure everybody followed the rules; after all, that’s my job.
Just like this “leader of the synagogue,” we may think we are a friendly and caring and compassionate religious community, while outside eyes may be able to see us more clearly as we are, may be able to see who it is we are not being good, and kind, and generous to; who it is that is the stranger who ends up not feeling welcomed and loved within our doors. This is why we need Jesus to look at us and speak to us about ourselves. Just as Jesus broke into the insular world of first century Palestinian Judaism with a new set of eyes and a fresh voice; we need to let Jesus look us over and tell us what he sees. We need to hear and heed the call of Christ to break out of our old comfortable way of seeing things and doing things; we need to look at the world with the fresh eyes of Jesus, we need to look at the world as a place filled with opportunities to bend the rules in the name of love.

 

Amen and amen.

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 15)

For August 14, 2016

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Some years ago a man I knew in one of my churches had a badly bent arm that pained him greatly. He went to several doctors, none of whom could help him. Finally, he went to a specialist, who told him good news, he could help him, he could fix his arm.  It was good news, but it was not pleasant News. He could fix his arm, but first he would have to break it.

Jesus comes to us today with Gospel, with good news, but it is not necessarily pleasant or welcome news. Do you know the old expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”  The Rev. Woodie White, one time United Methodist bishop of Indianapolis, tells of being a bookstore and seeing a book titled, “If It Ain’t Broke, Break It!” It was a business leadership book by a couple of corporate types, but the book got the bishop to thinking about the world, about the church. What needs to be broken in this world? What needs to be changed in the church? Break it!

It’s a different message than we’re used to hearing, but it is an important one. Jesus came into this world with a message and a mission, both of which were good, but neither of which was pleasant.
His message was a message of love, and as we all know, love can be very, very unpleasant at times. You see, the opposite of love is not hate, not anger, not unpleasantness.  The opposite of love is apathy, uncaring, being uninvolved; which can often be very quiet and pleasant.

Love, on the other hand, is often noisy, and nosy, and very involved. Love will get up in your face and in your business and will not let you slip away unchallenged into nice failure. Love will confront you with unpleasant facts about yourself, love will sometimes break you in order to heal you.  Jesus had a message of love, a message of love that disturbed communities and families because it refused to allow people to coast along in a pleasantly unhealthy and unhappy slide into death.  Jesus, the living word of God, broke into the world demanding that we to get beyond the roles handed to us by our society and its norms “I’m the father and this is what I do, and you’re the son and this is what you do, and this is the Mother and this is what she does, and you’re the sister and this is what you’re allowed to do.”

Jesus has called us to get beyond roles and to get into relationships; real, messy, involved relationships.  And the sometimes unpleasant but ultimately good truth is –  that kind of love is disruptive, it breaks what isn’t really working in order to create a new family, a new community of truth and love – to bring into the world the realm of God.

Jesus came with the message that’s God’s kingdom, God’s realm, God’s new community, was coming – indeed was, in Christ, already here.  And he came with a mission.  His mission was to break the power of the evil one through the power of selfless love. When Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” (Luke 12:50) it is this mission that he refers, the cross is the thing that must be completed. Jesus came to complete what was begun many years ago in the parting of the Red Sea; Jesus came to rescue God’s people, Jesus came to fight the good fight of faith and to break us free from our bondage to sin, death and the devil. Jesus came to be the capstone, the final chapter, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

After talking about how his message and his mission are disruptive to the world as it is – Jesus encourages us to “read the signs of the times.” Pastor John Ortberg told this story in a recent book, “A man is being tailgated by a woman in a hurry. He comes to an intersection, and when the light turns yellow, he hits the brakes. The woman behind him goes ballistic. She honks her horn at him; she yells her frustration in no uncertain terms; she rants and gestures. While she is in mid-rant, someone taps on her window. She looks up and sees a policeman. He invites her out of her car and takes her to the station where she is searched and fingerprinted and put in a cell.  After a couple of hours, she is released, and the arresting officer gives her her personal effects, saying “I’m very sorry for the mistake, ma’am. I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, using bad gestures and bad language. I noticed the WHAT WOULD JESUS DO bumper sticker, the CHOOSE LIFE license plate holder, the FOLLOW ME TO SUNDAY SCHOOL window sign, the FISH EMBLEM on your trunk, and I naturally assumed you had stolen the car. (When the Game is Over, It all Goes Back in the Box)

Reading the signs of the times is tough isn’t it? When I read that bit in the gospel about families,

“From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided. . .” I thought of our recent political conventions, and our current presidential campaigns, and the way folks on Facebook have been pleading for other people to keep a civil tongue.  Some have gotten angry and unfriended each other; still others have sworn off politics – pledging to post only pictures of cute cats and silly grandchildren (or is it cute grandchildren and silly cats?)

What are the signs and what do they mean?  The political parties often agree on the facts, on the signs – what they cannot seem to agree on is what the signs reveal.  They cannot even agree on what is wrong – no wonder they can’t agree on what is to be done about it.   
In the midst of tough times we tend to look to our political leaders for answers.  And, as citizens of a democracy, it is both our right and our duty to participate in the governance of our country.  But the Bible often reminds us – in the long run it’s not about us – it’s about God.  Hebrews points us to look at what it calls the “great cloud of witnesses” – who went before us in the faith.

We are not alone sisters and brothers; and we are not traveling down roads previously untrod. Where we are others have been before, and they held on to their faith and God held on to them. We are encouraged to look to them as a sign; a sign, and a seal, and a promise of God’s presence, of God’s protection, of God’s provision. We are called to look to them and then, to look beyond them to the God in whom they placed their trust and their hope.  And we are called to follow their lead and place our trust, our lives, our future, in the hand of God who will carry us through.

Amen and amen.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 14)

For August 7, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
One Sunday morning about 20 years ago I slipped out of our apartment at my usual 6 am, tiptoeing around in semi-darkness to avoid waking my wife and children, who were not fans of the early service.  I shivered a bit in the late autumn chill as I got into my pick-up and sleepily tried to put the key into the ignition.  It took me a moment to realize that my fumbling was not my fault – the ignition was not where it was supposed to be on the side of the steering column.  Startled, I looked more carefully around the cab.  Sliding window from the bed was agape, glove compartment open, ignition gone – someone had broken in and tried to steal my car!  Not fifty feet from where I slept!  For the next hour or so, I thought many unChristian thoughts and said not a few unChristian things.
“…if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.  You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Luke 12:39-40)
In my childhood, I often heard preachers misuse this verse, and others like it, to frighten people into conversions.  The implication was that Jesus was an extremely erratic and irrational bully just waiting in the wings for us to really mess up so he could sweep in and point an accusing finger and say, “Aha!  Caught you!  Now you’re gonna get it!”  And the Good News was, if you could whip out your “I got saved at the Cripple Creek Church Revival of 1964 ‘Get out of hell free’ card,” all would be forgotten and Jesus would give you a big hug and carry you with him back to heaven. That may not be exactly what the preacher said, but that’s what an 8 year old Delmer heard.
Many years of theological education (and not a little therapy) later, I now know that this is not what Jesus was talking about. The issue is not judgement but rather readiness to receive the kingdom of God into our lives.  The verse I cited is the conclusion of our reading – it begins with the too often ignored advice to us to “be not afraid, little flock – it is the father’s good pleasure to GIVE YOU the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)  We do not have to be afraid when the kingdom comes; it is a good thing – not a bad thing.  It is not something we earn, there is no test, no need for a “get out of hell free card,” no way to fail or come up short.  The kingdom is a promise – not a prize;  it is a thrill, not a threat; it is a thing of joy forever – not destiny of doom.
Between the promise and its realization, as we live in the world of the “already-but-not-yet” kingdom of God, we find ourselves subject to the possibility of losing hope and, when we lose hope, we often turn away from trusting God and give in to the soul destroying temptation to trust ourselves and our accumulation of things to keep us safe in an always dangerous world.
As we see and experience more and more of the distrust, discord, disagreement and disconnection leading to the fearfulness and violence that fill our world, our country, our state, and our communities – it is reasonable and understandable for us to be fearful.  And it is not unusual that in such a time of unease and uncertainty we feel ourselves drawn to build up a protective shield of material security.  This is what Jesus warns us against -Do not trust yourselves or your stuff – instead trust your God and love your neighbor. “Sell your possessions and give alms.  Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  (Luke 12:33-34)
I once knew a man who was what I call “locally rich,” rich compared to the vast majority of his neighbors.  He was an ordinary man had made a shrewd investment in a local company when he was young.  He and his wife lived in the same lower middle-class neighborhood where they grew up.  Though they were worth several million dollars, they drove an economy car and dressed simply.  He had had a stroke and didn’t get out much.  One day after a pastoral visit that included home communion, he walked me to the porch and said to me, “I think anyone who dies rich has failed to pay attention to Jesus.”  After both he and his wife were gone on, I learned how they had given away almost all their money to long list of good causes in their city.  They were ready for the kingdom.
Once, when I was a teenager, I was baby-sitting my neighbor’s grandson.  He was about four years old. I was preparing to give him a treat of a popsickle.  There was a problem; he already had a cookie in each hand.  He had been nibbling on the cookies for most of the afternoon, they were covered with a combination of dirt and saliva.  It was really hot and he really wanted the popsickle.  But I could’t persuade him to let go of either of the cookies, he stared at me and started crying as the popsickle melted but he just couldn’t let go of what he had to receive what he was promised.
Today Jesus invites us to let go of our fear and welcome into our lives the gift of the kingdom of God. He invites us to stop holding on to the false security offered by things in order to take hold of the true life offered to us in the “already-but-not-yet” kingdom of God.
Amen and amen