Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

For October 30, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost. (Luke 19:10)

Have you ever been lost? I don’t mean just a little dislocated. Not “I know they live around here somewhere,” lost. I mean “really, truly” lost; “no real idea where you are and how to get to safety” lost; “afraid to move anymore, because to move might get you deeper and deeper in trouble” lost. Have you ever been that lost? I have and I will never forget it.

I was 8 years old and it was in the middle of the summer and we were at my Grandmother Hubbard’s cabin in the Appalachian Mountains. Grandma had ten children, and those ten children had lots of children, and because my mother was the youngest of the ten, my siblings and I were the youngest grandchildren.

On this day, the older cousins had all decided to going hiking, specifically to climb “Joe’s Knob,” a very high mountain some miles from her cabin. And the cousins had decided that “the little kids” were too young to go along. This did not sit well with me, and after a while I got myself a canteen of water and a peanut butter sandwich and snuck off to follow them. And I got lost. Completely, totally, “no idea which end is up” lost. And it was getting dark, and I was very much alone and farm from anything. This was deep woods, miles of nothing but trees and hills for miles in all directions.

Eventually I sat down on a log and just cried, and cried, and cried. I did not know what to do, or which way to go. I thought I was going to die out there – I really did.

Unlike me, Zacchaeus in our Gospel lesson doesn’t look lost, does he.? He’s got a very important job – he’s a “chief tax collector.” And he’s rich, very, very rich it would seem. He’s not very popular, not at all respected – otherwise people would let him through, let him see Jesus. But he is in an unpopular profession – legal but disreputable, like selling pornography or running a strip club or something like that.

So, there is a crowd on the streets of Jericho and Zacchaeus can’t see who it is that is causing all the commotion. Though we have learned the song that says “Zacchaeus was a wee, little man,” that might not be so. It could be that Jesus was the little man in this story. Both the Greek and the English translations allow for that understanding. Many in the early church read it that way as further confirmation that Jesus was not the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Rescuer, that most people expected. Rather than being a tall, strong, mighty warrior of God, maybe he was a short man, a “wee, little man,” who surprised everyone.

Either way, Zacchaeus could not see who was causing such a crowd in the streets, so he went ahead a bit and climbed up in a sycamore tree. Jesus got to that point and looked up into the tree and pronounced to Zacchaeus a word of Grace. “Hi there Zack, get on down out of that tree. I’m staying at your house tonight.”

I imagine Zacchaeus being so startled by this that he almost fell out of the tree. He knows who he is, he knows that he is a bad man, an immoral person, a traitor to his people. He has no illusions about himself. And yet this rabbi, this prophet, this faith-healer, this unique and holy man, has blessed him. By going to his house, Jesus has announced to Zacchaeus and to the world that he accepts and loves Zacchaeus. And Zack could not be more thrilled. He was “happy to welcome him.”

Zacchaeus was happy, his neighbors were not. Again with the judgement and criticism of Jesus, “He has gone to eat with one who is a sinner.” Over, and over, and over again we see this is the gospels. Jesus reaches out in love and acceptance to someone whom the regular “good people” of society would not be seen dead in the presence of – and the regular “good people” get all mad about it. Like it’s any of their business in the first place who Jesus hangs out with. They don’t care that Zacchaeus is lost, they don’t care that his life and his life choices have cut him loose – not only from his God but also from his people. Even though he, like them, is a son of Abraham, a person of the Covenant, a member of the Jewish community – he does not feel like it and they do not treat him like it. He has had everything he wanted and nothing he needed. He is a person without a place, a people, or a purpose.

And Jesus changed all that by stopping underneath the sycamore tree and calling Zacchaeus by name. Because, even though Zack did not know Jesus; Jesus knew Zack. And Jesus knows us. And Jesus knows those around us who feel themselves cut-off from God and from God’s people. Jesus knows who we are better than we know ourselves and Jesus loves us more and better than we love ourselves. Jesus is “the Son of Man” who has come into our midst to seek us and save us and show us the way to love one another, the way to come home. Just as Zacchaeus responded to the unexpected love of God by giving to others and making reparations for his sins, we are called to lived changed lives full of grace for others in response to the grace we have received.

I did, by the way, find my way out of those woods. Or rather someone came to seek and save a lost little boy. As I sank down in despair beside my log, grasping my empty canteen in my hand as a weapon to fend off critters – I first heard a voice and then I saw a light. I heard my Daddy call my name; over and over and over again. And then I saw a flashlight bobbing up and down through the woods, coming my way. And I stood and shouted “Over here, over here!” And in that moment, I knew what it felt like to be saved.

Amen and amen.

 

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Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 25)

For October 23, 2016

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Life, alas, has intervened in the fate of the Lec Lab Live podcast again. Between us, we have had four family medical procedures in the past week, and just enough time to get all our “normal” stuff done. As best as we can tell, we’ll be back next week.

Remember, you can use the “Search” feature to the left to look for previous commentary and sermons on any of the lectionary scriptures on any day of the three-year cycle!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I like to check out a variety of English translations of the Bible when I first read through the lessons for Sunday. Sometimes it helps me get a fresh perspective on something I’ve read many times before. This week, it made me sit up and think. In Psalm 84, verse 6 we have the words, “those who go through the balsam valley.” “What is a balsam valley?” I thought. So I tried the old Revised Standard Version: it says “the valley of Baca.” So does the King James, the Common English Bible and the English Standard Bible. But what’s a Baca. This is getting me nowhere. So I dug deeper, into the original language. Turns out it’s an obscure Hebrew word that probably means “the valley of the weeper.”

What an image! “The valley of the weeper.” A place of sadness and spiritual dryness. A place where one feels the pain of being separate from others, from one’s better self, from God. A place to weep bitter tears of contrition and remorse.

It is in a personal “valley of the weeper” that we find the tax collector in today’s Gospel lesson. We can’t know why he is standing apart from the rest of the community, why he beats his chest, why he hangs his head and chokes out a sobbing confession of sinfulness and sorrow. But he does.

Part of it is that to be a tax collector at that time and that place was to make one’s money cheating other people, or at least strong arming them. A tax collector was at the bottom of the Roman Empire’s exploitation scheme. The Emperor made financial demands of the Governors and kings under him; they in turn made financial demands of regional officials, and so it went down the line to the tax collector, who was given a certain amount he had to collect and turn in. anything he got above that was his salary. It was a system that led inevitably to corruption and resentment. So perhaps he had woken up to the evil of which he was a part. Not just the evil of his own personal actions in coercing money from others, but the evil of participating in a system of governance that abused and oppressed his own people.

And perhaps he was confessing the greed and avarice that had pulled him further and further away from his God and his own true self as a person of faith and morality. So perhaps he woke up one day with the realization of what he had done and of who he had become – or perhaps it was a gradual realization over time, and he had been struggling with this confession for a while, working up his nerve to come into a holy place before a holy God and admit his sorrow and his sorry-ness. And so he stands apart, in his own private little valley of Baca, valley of the weeper, and sobs out his misery and remorse.

And standing across the room, as far from him as he can get, there is a man in the first century equivalent of a Brooks Brothers suit. He looks over his designer glasses at the tax collector, he straightens his silk tie and pulls his cuff-linked collars straight, rolls his eyes and throws his head back as he looks up to heaven and begins to speak, “O God, thank you for making me such a fine fellow, with such a fine character and such a fine life. I especially thank you that I am not like one of the little, insignificant people; especially not like that awful tax collector over there. Your Humble Servant, George M. Farasee, Esquire.” Or something like that.

Luke ends the story there telling us that the tax collector went to his home “justified.” That is, he went home right with God and at peace with himself. He came through the valley of Baca, of weeping and sorrow and found there springs of God’s mercy and pools of God’s love. He found his soul washed and cleansed and made right and ready to go forward. On the other hand, the Pharisee walked away empty handed. Or more correctly, empty-hearted. His prayer left no room for God to come in; it was full of self, indeed the Pharisee pretty much addressed it to himself.

The question for us today is; “Who am I in this story?” Am I the repentant sinner or the self-righteous Pharisee? I suspect that most of us, most of the time, are a little bit of both. As Dr. Luther said, we’re all saint and sinner at the same time.

All of us have a little bit of Pharisee in us. We want to think that we are good people doing good things. And most of the time we are. And all of us look with contempt on some other people sometimes. It’s a part of being human. As one of my country preacher mentors told me once, “Son, if people was perfect they wouldn’t need you or Jesus.”

And all of us have taken a trip or two through the valley of Baca, the place of sorrow and remorse. All of us have those dark places and dark times we’d rather not admit to or revisit.

And yet we must; because we are pilgrims and the only highway to Zion goes that way. The only route to Christ leads by the foot of the cross, his and ours.

And so we come to this place on this day to pray, to open up our hearts and lives to the one who already knows all there is to know about us. So we stand, not apart but together; and first we bow our heads and then we lift our hearts, knowing that our God loves us with a perfect love and sends us out to lead other pilgrims through the valley of Baca to the spring of God’s grace.

Amen and amen.

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 24)

For October 16, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Our gospel lesson about the widow pestering the judge reminds me of the TV show “Big Bang Theory.” It’s about a group of socially inept scientists and their friends. Like all sit-coms, it has several running gags. My favorite is the way Sheldon knocks on his neighbor’s door.

Sheldon doesn’t just go to the door and knock, then wait for Penny to answer. No, Sheldon goes to the door and knocks, hard and fast, several times. Then he says “Penny!” Then he knocks some more: Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” On and on and on until Penny wearily answers the door. Penny doesn’t answer the door because she wants to see Sheldon. Far from it. Penny answers the door so that he will stop knocking.

In the parable, Jesus has set for us a scene in which a poor, helpless person has nowhere else to turn but to a judge. And the judge does not seem to care about her. The only one who can help her is totally unwilling. She has no money to bribe him, no power to coerce him, no important relatives to influence him; what is she to do?

Well she has two choices:  1) she can quit, give up, crawl away in despair and frustration. Or 2) she can continue to beat upon his door, accost him in the streets, stand in his yard with a sign demanding justice, tell her neighbors and friends about his unwillingness to help; in short

– she can refuse to go away. Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!”

And it worked. In verse 5 the judge says ” . . .because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  The judge gives her what she wants so she will go away. He is tired of her calling his name and beating on his door. He wants to get rid of her. But why does Jesus say this is like our need to pray always and not lose heart? Does God “grant us justice,” simply to get rid of us? Or because we disturb the divine repose? Or to avoid embarrassment? How is God like the unfair judge?

Jesus’ point is tied to the fact God works on a different time schedule than we do and therefore it is easy for us to get discouraged if our prayers seems never seem to be answered, if the “Son of Man” appears unlikely ever to come. This story isn’t really about courtrooms and judges and poor widows; it is about persistence in prayer and faithfulness in living. This a story about not losing faith in the face of difficult times.

Because, for most of us, there does come a time when it feels as though our prayers are ascending no higher than the ceiling. Writer and Professor C.S. Lewis, the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” among many other things, wrote eloquently and honestly about his feeling abandoned and left alone by God after the death of his wife:

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy,

so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” (“A Grief Observed” pp.2,3)

Yet, despite feeling abandoned by the Holy One, somehow Lewis persisted in praying and believing, trusting and relying on God. Eventually, he came to be at peace with God and with the loss of his wife – not pleased, but at peace.

And eventually he could say about prayer, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”

That running joke on “The Big Bang” theory doesn’t always turn out the same way because the reason Sheldon is banging on Penny’s door is always different. In the midst of the humor there is the underlying fact the Penny genuinely cares about Sheldon, despite how annoying he can be. She listens to his request, which is usually somewhat bizarre, tells him no and closes the door. But Sheldon does not give up. Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” “No, Sheldon!” Knock! Knock! Knock! “NO! Knock! Knock! Knock! “Penny!” Somewhere along the way, Penny finds a way to help Sheldon with his problem, to help him resolve whatever dilemma is driving him, and her, to distraction. And most of the time – the answer comes from Sheldon, not from her.

So it is with us. As Lewis said. “Prayer doesn’t change God – it changes me.” We are called to persist in prayer, “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable,” (2 Timothy 4:2), we are encouraged to struggle with our needs and with our God, employing “the utmost patience,” (2 Timothy 4:2), like Jacob in his all night wrestling match with the Holy One.

It is in those moments of deepest need and darkest difficulty that our illusions about our self-sufficiency and our presumed ability to make it through life unscathed and on our own are wiped away; and we discover our need, our trust, indeed our faith, in the love God shown to us in the cross of Christ. We will not come through such times unhurt and unafraid, but we will emerge from them with a deeper faith, with a kinder heart, and with arms opened wide to embrace a hurting world with a gentler love.

Amen and amen

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 23)

For October 9, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

We have before us today two interesting stories: the story of Namaan and the story of the ten lepers.
Both are stories about people healed of a skin disease. Both are stories in which main characters are outsiders, aliens, foreigners. Both are stories about trusting God in our journey of faith.

Namaan was a powerful and important man with a problem. He was a leper who desperately wanted to be healed, but no one in his country could help him. Namaan had an Israeli slave who told his wife that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure Leprosy. Namaan’s wife told her husband who goes to see the king, prompting the king to write a letter to the king of Israel. The letter says, in short, “This is Namaan. Cure him of leprosy.”

Well, the king started tearing his clothes, which was the biblical equivalent of throwing things. He said, “This is impossible. I’m not God. What is he trying to do, start a war, pick a quarrel with me?”
At this point the man of God, the prophet Elisha entered the scene. He sent a messenger to the king, with a very pointed question: “Why have you torn your clothes?” In other words, “ Why are you so upset?” The answer is simple; the king is so fixated with what he cannot do that he was lost sight of what God can do.

When we look at the world and its troubles; when we survey our personal lives that are so often hindered with difficult relationships and situations; when we look at the size of our problems and the smallness of our resources; it’s easy to be like the king and become discouraged if we focus on what we cannot do rather than keeping our hearts and minds centered on what God has done in the past and has promised to do in the future.

So Elisha sent word to the king to calm down and to Namaan, inviting him to come to his house to be healed. Namaan comes. As he approached the house, and a servant came out and said, “Elisha says for you to go wash in the Jordan river seven times.” Like the King, Namaan went ballistic. He fumed, “Why is he showing me this disrespect? I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God and would wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprosy.” Namaan had an entire scenario in his mind about how this healing would go, and it was all tied to his sense of importance. And, though he received the promise of healing, he was not satisfied, for it was not grand enough, not personal enough, not “special.” The prophet didn’t even come out, I must not be very important, humph!”

We will be dissatisfied with God as long as we focus on what we want and not on what God provides. This is a very difficult lesson for us to learn. We are so accustomed to the idea that, “The customer is always right,” and to our primary self-identity as a customer, a consumer, a recipient of the bountiful abundance that is America, that for me has become the defining mantra of our lives. The idea that we should trust God for what we need and stop worrying about what we want is so foreign to us as to be unintelligible nonsense. We will be regularly disappointed as long as we focus on what we want and fail to recognize the goodness God provides.

But Namaan’s entourage did not let him down. They said to him, “Listen, this prophet really didn’t ask you to do much, just wash in their little river a few times. If it works, good. If it doesn’t; then you can be angry.” And he calms down, he washes in the river, he is healed, and he graciously goes back to thank Elisha and worship God.

Our Gospel lesson is another story of lepers and healing. It, too, is a simple story. Like Namaan, the ten men had leprosy. Like Namaan, they wanted to be healed. Like Namaan, one of them was a foreigner. Unlike Namaan, they weren’t famous, or powerful or important. They didn’t have armies to command, or kings to influence. All they had was each other and their disease.

So, they stood on the side of the road, “keeping their distance,” the Bible says. They stood there because they had heard that the man Jesus, the faith-healer from Galilee, was in the neighborhood, and would be coming by. They called out to him for healing, and Jesus responded by telling them to go to the priest and show themselves to be clean.

Not one of them says, “But, I’m not clean.” Not one of them says, “But you didn’t do anything.”
Not one of them says, “But I’ve still got leprosy.” Not one of them refused to go. They just took Jesus at his word and did what he said and launched out on the journey of faith, trusting what he had promised would become true, and it did. The text says, “as they went,” they were made whole.

The ten started on the road to see the priest no different than when they asked Jesus for healing. It was in the midst of their journey that they discovered themselves healed. So it is with us. Perhaps we came to church seeking a difference in our lives, looking for the healing of a hurt, the changing of a habit, the forgiveness of a sin. Maybe we have come looking for a new way to be in the world, a new direction and a new purpose for our lives. Why ever we are here, whatever our motivation for being in the church, no matter the reason we are standing on the road asking Jesus for help – we will be like the lepers; our help will not come before we start out, nor at the end of the road. Our help and healing will come to us as we go along the way.

After they realized they were healed, nine went on to see the priest; only one came back to thank Jesus. The other nine were focused on their pretty new skin, on the exciting experience of being “normal,” and “acceptable,” and “cured.” They were focused on themselves and what had happened to them. The one who came back to thank Jesus remembered the one who made it happen.  The nine thought about the cure, the one thought about the cause.

We are all always in the midst of spiritual journeys, road trips of the soul. We are all always in the middle of “as they went.” We are all always rehearing the promise and setting out on the trail. And, we are all always experiencing healing as we go, a little here and a little there. And the question of faith is this, will we notice? Will we notice our healing? Will we notice that we are closer to God and to each other? Will we notice our growth in grace?  Will we notice our deepening love affair with the holy? And when we notice: will we focus on ourselves, on our experience itself? Or will we remember the cause, and give thanks to God?

Amen and amen.