The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 22)

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Fortunately, Delmer’s keyboard is still working.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In her autobiography, Broadway actress Helen Hayes tells about her first attempt to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. Before bringing it out of the kitchen to the dining room table, Hayes announced to her husband and son: “Now, you know this is the first turkey I’ve ever cooked. If it isn’t any good, I don’t want anybody to say a word. We’ll just get up from the table without comment, and go to a restaurant to eat.” She then went back to the kitchen to get the tray. When she came into the dining room with the turkey; she found her husband and her son seated at the table with their coats, hats and gloves on; ready to go out to eat. They did not have much faith in her ability to cook a turkey.

In today’s gospel the disciples also suffer from a lack of faith.  Jesus said to them, “If you had even the faith of a mustard seed. . . “ and the seed of a mustard plant is very tiny indeed, like the head of a pin, really. The message seems to be that the disciples just don’t have enough faith. This is what Jesus meant. Jesus knew the disciples have all the faith they need. What they don’t have is an understanding of what it means to have faith.

In verse 1-4; Jesus has said to the disciples that they should forgive a sinner who repents. Then he adds, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  No wonder the disciples cry out “INCREASE OUR FAITH!” How can Jesus expect any normal human being to forgive someone for treating them badly that many times?

If a person sins against me – treats me badly, sticks it to me – seven times in a row and seven times in a row they say they’re sorry; is Jesus saying he expects me to forgive the jerk every time? Really! Enough is enough. I want to know when it’s going to stop!  And yet; Jesus says forgive. So with the disciples, we  cry out, “INCREASE OUR FAITH! WE CAN’T DO THIS.” The gap between what Jesus asks us to do and our ability to do it is enormous.

And that is just the point of this lesson. We are thinking of faith as something human, something that we do, some especially intense sort of believing, or some really focused positive thinking that results in good things happening for us and ours. We think of faith from the human point of view and Jesus thinks of faith from God’s side of things. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the ocean because it’s not our faith that does it – it’s God.

The disciples are worried about their ability to forgive as much as Jesus demands. So they ask for an increase in faith so that they will be able to perform this superhuman feat of humility and generosity and compassion. And Jesus tells them they don’t need a bigger faith. With the God of Israel just a little bit of faith is plenty because God does the work.

The disciples are fretting about the quality of their performance as disciples and followers of Jesus. They are worried about how “spiritual” and “faithful” and “religious” they will appear to their LORD and not incidentally, to their community. But Jesus carefully reminds them that in the life of faith it is not the believer who performs the act of power or receives the praise for it. Both the act and the credit belong to God.

Jesus’ parable about the master and the slave reminds us of the proper relationship between God and a person of faith. If we perform our acts of love and service to God out of a desire to earn praise on earth in this life or a secure spot in heaven in the next; we are missing the point; not only of this parable but also of the life of faith.

There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. God’s love has been ours since before we were born; it washes over us every day, unbidden and unearned. It fills our lives, melts our hearts, softens our eyes, tenderizes our spirits and turns us away from our preoccupation with ourselves to a fascination with loving and caring for Christ by loving and caring for those whom God has placed in our midst for us to love.

The reality is this: we have all the faith we need to do great things for God. Or, to be more biblically and theologically correct; we have all the faith we need to allow God to do great things in, with and through us. Faith the size of a mustard seed is all that is necessary for God to put God’s power to work in our lives and in our world.

Today we are invited to humbly ask God to increase, not our faith, but rather our willingness to be used by God in any way God chooses.  Today we are invited to use what little faith we have to stay at the table – hat, coat and gloves off and put away – waiting patiently to receive whatever God has in store for us.

Amen and amen.

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 21)

For September 25, 2016

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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the movie The Princess Bride, one of the running gags has to do with a scheming con-man who continually says things are “inconceivable.”  The problem is – everything he says is inconceivable ends up happening.  Finally, his huge and supposedly dim-witted henchman looks at him and says, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

To my father, the idea that his children could hear him tell them to do something and then not do it was truly “inconceivable.”  He would tell one of us to do something and if, after a few minutes the child did not begin doing as requested, he would bark, “Didn’t you hear me?”  For my daddy, not hearing him was the only possible explanation for our not doing as he requested. Hearing without obeying was “inconceivable,” simply not possible, something he could not understand or imagine.

Our Gospel lesson today turns on a question of hearing without obeying.  In verse 29 Abraham says to the rich man “(Your five brothers) have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” For Abraham in the text, and for Jesus as the storyteller, it was “inconceivable” that people could actually hear what Moses and the prophets said and yet not obey, not do what was commanded.  In good Jewish tradition, to listen to the word of God is more than simple hearing, it is also doing what the word of God commands.

In this parable, Jesus creatively retells a story that was part of popular folk-lore of his day.  It is not a story we should use to try to figure out what the life after death is like – that is not the point of the story.  Jesus is using this ordinary folk-tale about rewards and punishments in exactly the same way a modern preacher might use a joke about someone going to heaven and talking to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.  “Did you hear the one about the woman who, when St. Peter asked her for proof that she was a Lutheran, she looked in her huge handback, muttering ‘I know there’s a hot dish or a Jell-O mold in here somewhere?’”

So Jesus tells this story, and he tells it well.  Short, quick lines create images that stick in your mind.  A self-indulgent rich man, wearing expensive clothes and eating vast quantities of gourmet foods – all day, every day; while at the gate of his mansion there is poor Lazarus, starving, hoping for a hand-out, licked by dogs. And then they die.  Rich man is buried and descends into hell; Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.

This great reversal of fortune becomes even more stark when the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a mere drop of water to cool his tongue and Abraham says “No, it can’t be done, it is too late.  Nobody can cross the distance between us. You made your bed, now sleep in it.”

Resigning himself to his own fate, the rich man tries to save his family.  “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers, so that they will not wind up here too.”  In reply Jesus drives the rhetorical dagger home – Abraham says, “You and they have both already been told.  You and they have Moses and the prophet.  You and they have chosen not to listen.  It is inconceivable that you really listened, because you have shown no evidence of having heard in the way you have lived your life.”

When the man pleads that someone coming from the place of the dead, a spirit or a ghost, would surely convince his brothers, Jesus does not back down.  He insists they have already been told all they need to know: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  Jesus is adamant that the problem is not that we do not know what we are called by God to do; the problem is that we have not listened, we have not been willing to do as we have been asked, we have not taken God seriously.

There is a scene in the comic movie My Cousin Vinny in which Brooklyn lawyer Vinny is instructed by a very serious small-town judge in Alabama “Do not appear in my court without appropriate attire.”  The next day Vinny shows up dressed in his usual black leather jacket. When the judge reminds him that he was ordered to wear a suit and fines him for being in contempt of court, Vinny is astonished and says, “You were serious about that?”

The rich man has discovered that God, speaking through Moses and the wrophets, was quite serious when he said things like this, which fill the Hebrew Scriptures.

Deuteronomy 15:7 – “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your own community in any of your towns . . . do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.” That’s Moses.

Isaiah 58:7 – “Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house . . .”

That’s a prophet.

The rich man could not say he did not know what he was called of God to do for his poor neighbor, nor could claim not to know Lazarus, or that Lazarus was starving at his gate. The rich man called Lazarus by name – he knew him, he knew his situation, and he did not care.  Even in the afterlife he continued to look down on Lazarus, attempting to treat him as a servant at his beck and call.  “Send Lazarus to me,” he says.  “Send Lazarus to my brothers,” he adds. Even when he has lost everything else he has not lost the sense of place and privilege which kept him from really hearing, really listening to, really conceiving of, and really obeying the truth God was telling him in the Scriptures. He just didn’t believe God was serious about that.

Albert Schweitzer is best known as a missionary doctor in Africa. Did you know it was his third career?  He was also an accomplished church musician, an organist; plus, he was a world renowned New Testament Scholar who wrote one of the foundational books for 20th century studies on the life of Jesus, and, in his spare time, a Lutheran pastor. When he was asked why he became a doctor and moved to what was then French Equatorial Africa, he cited this parable.  He noted that the rich man, for him representing Europe, had medical care and Lazarus, representing Africa, did not. Albert Schweitzer heard this story and decided that it was inconceivable that he not do something because it was obvious that God was serious about that.

By world standards most of us are rich, some of us very rich.  None of us does not know that God has called us to love and serve our neighbors in need.  Are we listening?  Can we conceive of ways to make that happen? Do we know that God is serious about that?

Amen and amen.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 20)

For September 18, 2016

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

As baseball season is winding down and the pennant races are heating up, I have been reminded of a kerfuffle from back in 2007.  The New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays were in a tight pennant race. Derek Jeter was the batter.  Tampa Bay’s pitcher threw a pitch that bounced off Jeter’s bat, and Jeter shook his left arm, and screwed up his face in pain, and grabbed his elbow. The umpire decided the ball had hit Jeter and awarded him first base.

Now, nobody but the home plate umpire thought Jeter had been hit, and after the game, when Jeter was asked about it, he admitted that he had put a fast one over on the umpire. And, the newspapers and the sports talk shows had a field day, arguing over whether or not Jeter was a cheater, or just a smart ballplayer.

It seems to me that Derek Jeter and the unjust office manager in our Gospel lesson have a lot in common; both of them pulled a fast one, and the man in charge rewarded them for it.  It’s a difficult story is a hard one to understand, isn’t it? Okay, let’s be honest.  The story is not that difficult to understand. It is the way the world works and we all know it. Both our candidates for President have been accused of pulling fast ones that are very similar to what the manager did.  My baseball story is the sort of thing that happens all the time in life, just usually outside the prying eyes of television cameras and sports reporters.

We understand the story.  So, actually, it’s what Jesus says about the story that’s hard to take. It looks for all the world like Jesus is praising someone who cheats, someone who, like Derek Jeter, does something dishonest in order to win.

A business owner finds out that his office manager is guilty of mismanagement. He calls in the manager and says “You’ve got two weeks to get ready for an audit. Now get out of here.” The manager knows he’s in deep trouble. Too proud to beg; too weak to work; what to do? What to do?

Suddenly, he has an idea. He calls in some of the company’s biggest customers. “Have I got a deal for you?” he says. The plan is simple. He cuts their bills in half, destroys the paper trail and writes new invoices.  Now when the audit happens, no one can prove that he cheated and all the richest man in town will owe him a favor. His future is secure. Of course, when the owner looks at the doctored books he knows what has happened but there is nothing he can do about it. He knows he has been conned. And here’s the surprise. He says to the man: “I have to admit it; you were pretty smart. You got me. Now get out of here.” As I said, up to this point the story makes perfect sense to us. What doesn’t make sense is the fact that Jesus seems to join the owner in praising the manager for his dishonesty.

But a careful reading of the text shows that Jesus is not praising the man for being dishonest. Rather, he is pointing to the man as an example of someone with single-minded devotion to a cause – which in this case, happens to be himself. Jesus’ point turns out to be pretty simple. “Here,” he says, “is someone who knows how to give his entire heart mind and soul to the service of his god.” And  Jesus wonders, “What if the citizens of the Kingdom of God, were to give this sort of  single-minded and complete devotion to the cause of the one and only true God!”  Martin Luther, in the Large Catechism, says: “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.”

This story of the unjust steward confronts me with some serious questions I have to ask ourselves, the first one being “What really is my God?”

Is it my #1 concern in life to share Good News with the poor? Or am I like the people Amos ranted about – those who “trample on the needy and bring ruin to the land?” (Amos 8:4)

Look at the Psalm. Do I give some time each week to help the Lord “raise the poor from the dust?”  Do I contribute to and pray for organizations dedicated to participating with God in “healing the sick?”  (Psalm 113:7)

How well do I heed the words written to Timothy? How much of my valuable time do I spend each week in “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings?” (1 Timothy 2:1)

Jesus points to the manager and says, “This man is shrewd and devoted his serving his god –his god being wealth and money.”  Can I be as smart and devoted in serving the Living God?

This is the real question Jesus puts before us in his story of the con-man office manager.  Because it has to be one or the other – it can’t be both.  You cannot be fully, completely, and totally devoted to the care and feeding of your bank account – while also being fully, completely, and totally devoted to the care and feeding of your soul. “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

This is not an admonition –  as in “You shouldn’t try to do that, it’s too difficult.” No, this is a stern statement of spiritual fact – “You cannot serve the Lord your God and the Lord your money.  It’s not possible, it can’t be done.”

The underlying issue here is trust; do we really, fully, completely, and totally trust God with our life and our future?  Or do we hedge our bets – trusting our own wits, and our own efforts, and our own accumulation of things, to keep us safe in a dangerous world?

Jesus invites us to trust in God.  And the only way for that to happen is for us to learn to obey the first commandment: “You shall have other gods before me.”  If there is anything “to which our heart clings” more than it clings to God; if there is anything that we trust more than we trust God, that thing is, Luther says, truly oor God. Today Jesus invites us to trust and serve God above all other things. Can we?  Will we?

Amen and amen.

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 19)

For September 11, 2016

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Is God a grown-up or a parent?”  Writing in the Catholic Digest, Kathleen Chesto says she was confused by her daughter’s question. “I’m not sure what you mean. What’s the difference between a grown-up and a parent?” “Well,” her daughter said, “Grown-ups love you when you’re good and parents love you anyway.”

“Is God a grown-up or a parent?” It’s a good question. Does God love only when you’re good? Or does God love you anyway? What is the nature of God’s love? Is it really complete and total and unconditional? Really? And, if that’s the nature of God’s love; what does that mean for us?  Do we have to love everybody too? Or, are there some people we’re allowed to dislike because we’re pretty certain God doesn’t like them either?

Throughout Luke’s Gospel the “Pharisees and the scribes” are consistently portrayed as the grown-ups, as the people who spend a lot of time figuring out all the dos and don’ts of life; all the nuances of good and bad behavior.

And these Pharisees and scribes are mighty unhappy when Jesus acts more like a parent than a grown-up, loving people even when they’re bad.  Even though he knows that the people he is partying with are not acceptable and nice and “good” people; well, he’s going to party with them anyway.

And the official good people can’t stand it. They thought Jesus was one of them, they thought he was on their side.  They thought this because he knew so much scripture, and because he talked so much about giving your all for the Kingdom of God, and because he was so obviously such a good man – he must be a Pharisee or a scribe or someone acceptable to Pharisees and scribes and . . . well, they just could not figure his behavior out. What is he thinking – eating with those people? Doesn’t he know who they are, where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing?

The Pharisees and scribes had decided that the people Jesus was hanging out with were bad people who violated the rules of good behavior and should be avoided and shunned and in general treated badly; both by God and by us – the official good people in the world. Therefore, when they saw Jesus eating and drinking and partying with these “tax collectors and sinners,” they were appalled and disgusted and decided that Jesus could not possibly be the “good person” they had presumed him to be.

And like a good parent, Jesus responded to their distress not with argument or protest – but by telling them stories. These stories have two “God figures,” people who, according to Jesus, act the way God acts. One is a shepherd, the other is a woman. These are interesting choices. Shepherds were nomads. They slept, bathed, ate and lived outdoors. Because of this they were unable to keep most of the purity laws that were so important to the Pharisees. And women were a problem for Pharisees, who preferred to neither see them nor speak to them any more than was absolutely necessary.

Jesus uses these two stories to make the same two points: One – God loves every single human being extravagantly.  Just as the shepherd cared about his lost sheep enough to spare no effort in looking for it, God cares about all people enough to spare no effort in looking for us. God values us the way the woman values her piece of money and God will ransack the universe getting us back the way the woman ransacked her house hunting that coin. These are incarnational stories; stories about God coming into the world to seek out and save God’s lost creation. Jesus is the shepherd looking high and low for those not in the fold; Jesus is the woman sweeping through the house, turning over chairs and pulling out couch cushions, looking high and low for a valuable possession.

Two – In telling about the parties given by the shepherd and the woman; Jesus is pointedly chastising the Pharisees and scribes for their hard-heartedness in grouching about the time Jesus with spending with the so-called sinners. “Look,” Jesus says, “God is elated that these people are thinking about God and their life and about what it means to be a good person. That is something to celebrate.”
As one of my Mother’s childhood preachers in the Virginia mountains said about this text, “Instead of being happy the sinners came in for a bath – those old sourpusses are sitting around complaining about the smell.” It seems clear that for Jesus, God is a parent, not a grown-up – God does not  love us only when we’re good, God loves us anyway.  The question for us today is do we know that God loves us anyway?

Dr. William McElvaney was president of the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. One day he was driving to the airport to pick up a person who was giving a speech at the seminary. To get there he had to drive over the Missouri River on the Paseo Bridge. About a half mile from the bridge he got stuck in traffic. Nothing moved. After about fifteen minutes, traffic moved again. There was no indication of why traffic had stopped, no road work, no accident, nothing.

The next morning Dr. McElvaney read in his morning paper about a depressed man who stopped his car on the bridge, got out and crawled over the rail and got ready to jump. People saw him and called the police. Officers leaned over the rail and talked to him, trying to get him to come back to safety. Meanwhile another officer fitted himself with a harness and a long rope. He secured the rope and crawled over the rail, inching toward the man. Just when he got close enough to reach out and touch him, the man jumped off the bridge. And the patrolman jumped after him, wrapping his arms and legs around him in a tight embrace. They fell together until the rope was tight, and they swung above the river. Up above, on the bridge, people could hear the policeman yelling in the ear of the jumper, “If you go, I go! Because I’m going to hold onto you until hell freezes over!”  Tex Sample, The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World p. 117

The gospel for us today is this – God is not a grown-up, God is a parent?  God does not love us only when we’re good, God loves us anyway, all the time, until hell freezes over. God has clearly been revealed in the life death and resurrection of Jesus as a loving parent who will never stop loving us, ever. Christ left the safety of heaven and leapt into the world to seek and save us. Christ has grabbed onto our souls and has promised to hold onto us until the fires of hell burn out. Amen