The Second Sunday in Advent, Year A

For December 4, 2016

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And a brand new book by Delmer Chilton, with John Fairless, The Gospel According to Aunt Mildred: Stories of Family and Faith  has already hit the shelf ( to purchase the paperback, click here) and by December 8 (Kindle version.)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One day in Nashville I went to the YMCA to pick up my son. As I approached the entrance, a very angry mother barged out the door followed by a girl of about four and a boy about seven. The boy was saying, “I told you I was sorry.” Suddenly his mother stopped, and turned, and bent down, and looked him in the eye and said, hissing between her teeth, “Sorry doesn’t get it anymore. I want you to stop doing it!”

Our Gospel lesson for today centers on John the Baptist’s call to repentance. Repentance begins in the recognition of personal involvement in and responsibility for the evil which surrounds us. John’s call to repentance is a call for us to look at ourselves and to see in ourselves and our attitudes and our actions the things which lead to evil in the world. John’s call to repentance is a call to look at our way of being in the world and in relationship to one another and to repent of those things which cause harm to ourselves and others. John’s call is a call to confession and repentance. All too often, we make it as far as confession, and then stop. Confession is the admission that there are indeed things we do in life that are wrong. We confess that, and go no further.

True repentance combines confession,” I’m sorry,” with what the old prayer books referred to as amendment of life. The Greek word translated here repentance is not really a religious or theological word. It is metanoia, which is an ordinary, everyday word in Greek. It simply means to turn around and go the other way. To stop going one direction and to start going in the opposite direction. It means to realize you’re going the wrong way and to start going the right way. The Gospel, the Good News, is rooted in this simple act of repentance – a) being sorry you’re going the wrong way, and b) turning around and going in the right direction.

None of us goes the wrong way on purpose. Nobody in Chicago would go out and get on the interstate highway and intentionally head east with the goal of going to San Francisco; that would be silly. And if, when you realize you’re going toward New York when you want to go to the Bay area, you just shrug and say “Oh well, I’m only human,” and then you cry and gnash your teeth about the fact that you are getting farther and farther from your goal, while still purposely going the wrong way, well, that would simply be ludicrous.

Just so – few of us choose to do bad things just because they’re bad things. We follow the paths we take in life because they seem to us the right, the best, the moral way to go. And if we then realize that we’re in the wrong; to confess without amendment of life, without changing our ways, would be as inane as continuing on to New York, all the while knowing we’re going the wrong way.

The Gospel comes to turn us around, to show us the way, to warn us of the danger in the path we are taking, and to provide for us a route to safety. The Gospel is that Jesus came into the world to open for us the way to God. To unblock the path and to call us to follow Jesus on the way. For us to turn from the way we have been going, we must come to see that we are being called to turn from danger to security, from evil to good, from wrong to right, from our way to God’s way. 

One of my very earliest memories is of a bright summer day on the farm. I was playing in the backyard, under the apple trees. My Daddy was mowing hay in a field next to the house. Mama called to me from the back-porch. She sent me into the field with a quart jar full of ice water for Daddy. As I started out across the field, Daddy stopped the tractor and got off and started yelling at me. “STOP! STOP! GO BACK! GO AROUND! STOP!”

Now, even as a four-year-old, I knew that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so Daddy’s instructions made no sense to me. But I stood in the field thought about it a minute. Though I could see no reason to stop and go back and go around, it was my Daddy telling me this, so I backed up and followed his instructions. When I got to the tractor, I discovered that he had run over a yellow jacket’s nest in the ground and had stirred them up. The angry swarm was directly in the path I was following.

So it is with us. We may not be able to see the destruction which lies upon the path we have chosen, but we have a loving God and a caring Savior who are calling us to turn from the path of self-destruction. John’s call to repent is a call to look to our lives and change direction, so that when Christ comes, we will be ready.

Amen and Amen

The First Sunday in Advent, Year A

For November 27, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

WHEW!

I don’t know about you but, now that Thanksgiving is over, I’m ready for some Christmas.

It’s been a tough year. We’ve had some nasty, nasty politics. There has been a lot of racial conflict;

an uptick in violence; violence related to racial conflict; war, war, and more war; terrorism and fear of terrorism; a difficult economy; bad weather.

I live in western North Carolina – we have been ravaged with forest fires, one of which raged less than 20 miles from my house. And on the home front, we’ve been fighting cancer. I could go on, but I won’t. I am so ready for some Christmas.

You know – sweet baby Jesus; kind, gentle, understanding Joseph; beautiful, meek Mary; Holy Family – all huddled up in the barn – poor but proud. There they are, surrounded by humble kings and worshipping shepherds; dumb but loving animals huddling nearby; choirs of angels singing; the whole world rejoicing; “JOY TO THE WORLD!” off-key and at the top of our lungs. Yep! Christmas! That’s what I need, right now. Some calming Good News.

But – that’s not what we heard in our Gospel lesson is it? “As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Lord.” The days of Noah? That can’t be good. A flood came and swept everything away. What’s going on here? This Gospel lesson is a startling reminder that God always refuses to play by our rules. While we yearn for the comfort of Christmas past, Advent calls us to anticipate the discomforting possibilities of Christmas future. Advent is the season of hope. It is a time when we are called to look to the future with confidence. It is a time to prepare ourselves for the new miracles God will work in our world today and tomorrow. It is a time to get ready for new movements the Sprit in our lives.

Jesus uses three images to help us come to grips with the suddenness and unpredictability of God’s activity in the world to come. First, he reminds us of the familiar story of Noah and the flood – pointing out how everyone but Noah and his family went about their normal business, ignoring God and godliness until it was too late. Second, he gives twin examples of how some will, in the midst of the normal daily-ness of their lives, be ready to drop everything and follow when “the Lord comes.” Third, he refers to the age-old experience of burglary, making the common-sense observation that if you know when the bad guys are coming you can be ready for them. But you don’t know when they’re coming – so you must be ready for them all the time.

That’s the way it is with God, Jesus says; you never know when the God-moment is going to show up in your life so you must be ready all the time. And this readiness is not a matter of hanging decorations, and baking cookies, and sending Christmas cards, and going to office parties. This readiness is primarily a nurtured tenderness in our hearts, a willingness to listen for God’s word and to go God’s way. To be ready for Christ to come into our lives, we must begin work beating our personal swords into plowshares and our private spears into pruning hooks. We must work at making peace in our families and in our congregations and in our workplaces and in our schools before we can make peace in our world. For us to be ready for Christ to come, we must lay aside all the works of darkness, we must put on the armor of light. We are called to examine our lives, repent of our sins, commit ourselves to acts of charity and goodness, fill our lives with hope and generosity.

All our texts today remind us that God is sneaky, that God makes appearances in our lives and in our world when and where we least expect it. God comes to us in unusual ways, through unlikely people, in unexpected places. 2000 years ago – it was a little baby, the child of an unwed mother, in a spare room, of the other side of nowhere.

Who knows who, or when, or where it will be next?

Could it be you? Now? Here?

Get Ready! Wake Up! God is coming!

Amen and amen.

The Reign of Christ (Christ, the King) for Year C (Proper 29)

For November 20, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Jesus, the supposed Son of God, Lord of Lord, King of Kings – was executed like a common criminal with a couple of petty criminals. Not very kingly, is it? And then, to add more indignity, more shame; the soldiers knelt at his feet while he was still alive. Not to worship, but to gamble for his clothes.

And the people mocked him, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.” It amused them to see this carpenter; this rustic preacher wrapped in purple, claiming to be the king of the Jews, the rightful king, the representative of God on earth. They knew what a real king looked like, and this was definitely not it. A real king had power and arrogance and a hint of cruelty, and this Jesus had none of that.

There it is, the crux of the matter for the people then, and if we’re honest, for people now, including many of us. We don’t want a suffering and dying God. We want a strong and powerful one. We want a Savior who can not only forgive our sins, but who will make us richer and prettier and more popular and help insure that all our plans work out for the best. Yes, we want a powerful savior, a helpful God, a conquering messiah, a king who conquers. The Scripture shows us a man who is not anything like what anyone believes a king should be; not then and not now.

A Lutheran pastor I knew had been chaplain in Vietnam. One night he was in his tent when a young private came to see him. The private was newly arrived from the States and was scared, very scared, scared to death. The next day, he was going on patrol for the first time. And he was afraid to die. He cried, he moaned, he cursed, he prayed. He wanted the Chaplain to give him a saint’s medal, a New Testament, some charm or talisman that would keep him safe. He wanted the chaplain to tell him a prayer to pray, a good deed to do, anything to keep from dying. The chaplain said, “Look soldier, there’s nothing I can do to prevent you from getting killed on patrol tomorrow, there is no way I can promise you it won’t happen. There’s only one thing I can do. I’ll go with you.” (Personal story)

The chaplain walked into the jungle unarmed and unprotected to be with the soldier in his fearful world. That’s what Christ did for us, leaving the kingdom of heaven to live with us in the kingdom of this world; unarmed and unprotected, sharing with us in our trials and temptations, our dangers and defeats. That’s why we use the Nicene Creed on this day. To remind us that “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.”

We are called to follow our king into places of service and suffering. We are called to live each day in two worlds, two realities, two kingdoms – the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. We cannot permanently retreat from the real world which surrounds us with its pain and suffering, its hunger and disease, its wars and violence of all shapes and sizes. We are called by God to imitate Christ and put ourselves into the midst of the world’s need We are called of God to struggle with the world we see all around us, to be active participants in making this world a better place for everyone. We are called to plunge into the secular now, the world, to get in it up to our necks.

Yes, we live in two worlds, and the struggle is to not become so enamored of the one that we lose sight of the other. With Christ the King as our guide, we are called to see the hand of God moving in our midst, holding us up with divine love, pointing and gently nudging us in the direction of doing right, holding us back from danger and harm, filling the ordinary with mystery, so that like Jeremiah, and the Psalmist, the thief upon the cross, we may grab onto hope in the midst of desperate times!

Amen and amen.

Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 28)

For November 13, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

It was during Lent many years ago. I was the pastor of a very old church in rural North Carolina. On the wall of the apse, above the altar, there was a stained-glass window in the shape of a cross, lit by light bulbs. One Wednesday afternoon I was putzing around the altar getting things ready for mid-week service when I noticed that one of the bulbs illuminating the cross had gone out.  I resolved to change it, but, as often happens with me, I got distracted and forgot about it until the middle of the pre-service Lenten supper.  I excused myself and went across the parking lot to the church and then upstairs and down the Sunday School Hall and opening a little door into the back of the cross, I got down on my knees to change the bulb. This is when I looked through the stained glass and saw Seth. 

Seth wasn’t a bad kid; he was just six, and mischievous; he got into things. This night Seth had wandered over from the Fellowship Hall into the church and he was pulling the big, heavy pulpit chair over to the front of the altar. It was set for communion, with a plate full of wafers, a stack of trays, and a cup of wine already set out under the veil. Suddenly I realized what Seth was doing; he wanted to get a look at that table. I visualized him pulling everything down on his head, and falling out of the chair and getting hurt, etc. etc. So, without thinking, I barked out; “Seth, get down from there, you’re going to hurt yourself!” I will never forget the look of pure terror that washed over Seth’s face as he jerked his head up and looked into the face of Jesus staring down at him from above the altar. He started crying and yelling “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” and ran out of the room. I left what I was doing and followed Seth out of the Church, across the parking lot into the Fellowship Hall, where he was weeping into his grandmother’s large and welcoming lap. “Grandma, Grandma, Grandma; Jesus yelled at me. I want to go home NOW!”

Most of the time, I find church to be a pleasant and happy place. A place where, like Seth I am comfortable wandering around, a place where I feel safe and welcome and at home. But, every once in a while, church can become a frightening, indeed a scary place, a place I would just as soon not be. Like today while I was reading that Gospel lesson.

  That’s pretty scary stuff. All that talk about war and destruction and earthquakes and famines and pestilence and terror and persecution. Well, it scares me to death; and like Seth; I’m ready to go screaming out of the room, looking for my Grandma’s lap.

Before we go too far down this scary road, I think it important that we read this text carefully.

  What Jesus is getting at here is something we all know both from history and personal experience: the world is indeed a scary and dangerous place; full of danger, trouble and heartache. Jesus’ point throughout this text is to remind us where to look for our salvation; for grace, for hope, for love, when trouble inevitably comes.

We are not to look to big buildings and institutions, we are not to look to governments (nations and kingdoms) we are not to look to kings and governors and multinational corporations.

 All these things will fail you; indeed, will turn against you. When trouble comes, the one thing you can count on is God. 

Prof. Marty Saarinen taught at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC.
He frequently told the story his first call in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Pretty remote and rugged; then and now. Not too long after Pastor Marty got there he learned of an elderly couple who lived way back in the woods and who seldom got to church anymore and he resolved to go visit them. He borrowed a jeep and drove the paved road as far as it went, then he drove the dirt road as far as it went, then he drove along in two ruts as far as they went, then he drove along a creek bed as far as that went, then he parked the jeep, and climbed up a hill, and pushed through a bramble of wild bushes, and finally found a cabin with a tiny wisp of smoke wafting into the sky from the chimney.

Young Pastor Marty walked onto the porch and knocked on the door and waited, and waited and waited. He knocked again and waited some more. Eventually he heard a noise. The door opened and a little old man stared at Marty for a long time, then he recognized the collar and turned around to shout to his wife in her rocker: “Anna, God has not forgotten us!”

In our hectic, secular, modern world; in the midst of divisive political campaigns, wars, natural disasters, economic uncertainty, and all the other more mundane trials and tribulations of ordinary life; Jesus reminds us of God’s love, concern, and presence. We are called this day to remember that the one who loves us has not forgotten us, and to share that good news with all the “Annas” in our lives.

Amen and amen.

 

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All Saints Day/Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost for Year C (Proper 27)

For November 6, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Mother Teresa, laboring all those years amongst the poor and dying in Calcutta.  Saint Francis, abandoning his riches to become a beggar for the poor.  Albert Schweitzer, leaving behind great careers as a world-renowned New Testament Scholar and Church organist to study medicine and go live in the jungle, serving those with no other hope of health care. A man in a small town in North Carolina, spending the last 15 years of his life tenderly taking care of his wife of over 60 years.  A woman in Nashville who, after her pastor husband died of cancer in his 40’s, raised her four children by giving music lessons and serving her church as organist/choir director/education director, and social conscience.  The list could on and on.

When I look back at “these saints,” both those I have known personally and those I have only heard or read about, I don’t feel very saintly myself. I feel like the little boy Lois Wilson wrote about meeting at her door on Halloween. He was about four and he was wearing a Superman outfit. He reached out his hand as he said trick or treat. Ms. Wilson couldn’t resist teasing him a bit, “Where’s your bag?” she said. He replied, “My Mom’s carrying it. It’s too heavy for me.”  Ms. Wilson smiled and said, “But you’re Superman!” He looked down at the S on his chest and looked back at Ms. Wilson and whispered, “Not really, these are just pajamas.”

Though the Scriptures tell us that because we’re Christians, we’re also saints; most of us don’t believe it. We look down at the S on our chest and then plead with God, “Not really, I’m only human.”

This is the great mystery of All Saints Day. We are indeed only human, but we are also “The saints who gather” at Such-and-Such church, as Paul put it in many of his letters. We are, Martin Luther said, saint and sinner at the same time. While we do not go around in Christian pajamas, with a big haloed S on our chest, we do have an invisible cross on our foreheads, put there at our baptism with the words; “Delmer Lowell Chilton, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever.”

Each of us has that mark on our lives; a mark which calls us forward into saintliness. We are called to continual efforts at living into our name as “child of God,” a baptized saint. And, we never quite make it. We are always aware of falling short, of not measuring up.

We are also always aware that the other people in our family seldom measure up either. Unfortunately, we are sometimes more aware of the failures of others that we are of our own. Someone sent me a little poem a few years ago. It’s one of those things that got tucked away in a file. I ran across it the other day;

“Oh, to live above, with Saints we love, Oh, that will be Glory.

Oh, to live below, with Saints we know, Well, that’s a different story!”

The struggle of the Christian life is to remember that we are saints despite our failures, and to remember that the other people in our church family are Saints as well, despite their imperfections.

I am a Southerner and this means I have been to many family reunions; those of the various families I am a member of, and those of church members who graciously invited the pastor along to their family reunion for some good food and fellowship.  One of the things I love about family reunions is that they are often the most grace-filled moments we share. It is a time when we look beyond the surface to see the mark of the family on everyone. More than once I’ve been told, “You sure do look like your mother.”  And I have also been reminded, “You must be a guest or an in-law; you don’t look like a Beaver.”

The church is the family of faith, and we all bear, to some degree, the mark of our family, the mark of Christ. Regulars and irregulars, the faithful and the wandering, the staunch believers and “barely hanging on to their faith by the skin of their teeth,” doubters, those close at hand and those who came from far off; all together in one place, celebrating and enjoying their relatedness to each other and to God.

Our invitation this All Saints Sunday is to remember our saintliness, our blessedness, our holiness; which is a gift from God, a gift we were given for the benefit of the world. It is also a day to remember the saintliness, the blessedness, the holiness of others. To remember that they too are the beloved Children of God and that we are to treat them that way.

Amen and Amen.