Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

For January 29, 2017

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

All parents have things they say so often that, eventually, their children can predict what Mom or Dad will say before they say it. My Daddy’s was; “Is that absolutely necessary?”

Child, “May I go with you?”

Daddy, “Is that absolutely necessary?”

Child, “Can I buy a new toy truck?”

Daddy, “Is that absolutely necessary?”

Whenever Daddy said that, I usually wanted to say, “No Daddy, I just thought it would be fun; after all, I am a kid,” but because my Daddy was severely sarcasm-challenged, I usually just responded with the time-honored and kid-tested, “Please, please, can I, can I, please, please!?”

The trouble with this parental line, and others like it, is that after one hears the line a few hundred times, one stops listening; one no longer really pays any attention to what is being said.

Many of have the same problem with the beatitudes. We have heard these words of often that we think we know what Jesus is saying before he says it.   And here is the really difficult and somewhat sad truth; most of us have come to an uneasy peace with the belief that we can’t really do what he is asking of us.  We have concluded, either out loud or in our heart of hearts, that he is calling us to a standard higher then we believe to be humanly possible.

Yes, we have forgiven ourselves for our inability to live up to the Sermon on the Mount and we occasionally wonder if, after all, such high standards are absolutely necessary. It’s all well and good to say that the hungry will be blessed but what the hungry really need is to be fed. The last century has seen more death by cruelty and violence than the previous 19 combined; there are many more who mourn than ever before and heavenly reward is cold comfort in the face of today’s hot pain.

The last time I looked, the meek were still being trampled underfoot, and the strong and the unscrupulous were still in possession of most of the earth. As for those hungering and thirsting after righteousness; well, it appears to most of us that most people spend most of their time hungering and thirsting after the rewards of the flesh, better known as creature comforts, or “a certain lifestyle.”

So, when we hear what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount it appears to be far removed from the world as we know it; so we nod our heads and listen politely and think nice thoughts about being meek and hope that reading a two-minute devotional every morning counts as hungering and thirsting after righteousness; then we go out the door and into the world and about our business.

Our mistake is to think that the Sermon on the Mount is about us, about our personal behavior, that it is kind of like a graduation speech in which a wise and witty famous person explains to us the nine secrets of lifestyle success; or “How to Be a Happy Christian.”

Well, the Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus’ Little Instruction Book. It is, rather, a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is a rallying cry aimed at those called by God to become a part of that Kingdom. Notice where it is in the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter one and two, Jesus is born and grows up. In chapter three he is baptized, in chapter four he goes into the wilderness and clarifies his mission through temptations dialogue with the devil. Now, in chapter 5, he comes out of the desert and begins to preach.

In these opening words, Matthew shows Jesus announcing his plan, his program, his priorities for everyone to hear, for everyone to either accept or reject. Here, Jesus divides the world into two categories – the haves and the have-nots.

In verses 3 through 6, Jesus talks about the have-nots are those whom the world has beaten up and beaten down, those who have lost both their dignity and their hope. There is no need to spiritualize these things; this is about cold hard facts. The world is full of poor people, the world is full of people who mourn; the world is teeming with the meek, those whom the powers that be have pushed under and held under so long that they can’t remember up, much less see it. The world is full of those who seek justice, of those who have been deeply, deeply wronged by pure injustice. These are the people Jesus is talking about.

In verses 7 through 10, Jesus talks the rest of us, the haves, and where we count in this new kingdom. In a world full of war, we are called to make peace. In a world full of injustice, we are called to do justice with a pure heart. In a world full of oppression, we are called to stand with the oppressed and to help them find mercy. In a world full of people being treated unjustly, we are being called to stand with them and to allow ourselves to be untreated unjustly with them in hopes of relieving their distress.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus unveils, reveals, the Kingdom of God. It is a kingdom that includes all of us. If we are down, it seeks to pull us up. If we are up, it seeks to pull us into the battle on behalf of the least of these, the brothers and sisters of Christ. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not an unreasonable, unattainable, idealistic pipe-dream of a higher standard.  No, it is a clear and unmistakable call for us to join the battle for the Kingdom of God. This day Jesus invites us to a life of service and sacrifice, to a life of caring and compassion. In the words of Micah: we are called to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with our God.

Amen and Amen.

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

For January 22, 2017

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Every time I read this section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians I think of a story my mother used to tell about the visiting preacher who couldn’t find the church where he was scheduled to preach.  He stopped at a gas station.  There were a few men sitting about on Coke crates, smoking and gossiping and drinking coffee.  The minister got out of his car and walked over to them and said, “Can anybody tell me how to get to the Church of God?”

A man stepped forward and said, “Well, Preacher, you go down here about two mile, then you go right at the post office and cross the tracks, then a left turn at the schoolhouse. . . naw, wait a minute, that’s the Presbyterian Church – that’s Mr. Watson’s church.”   He thought a few seconds and said, “I got it. I believe you go up this here hill here, then you go left at the light and out past the VFW and it’s on the left.  Nope, nope, hold on, that’s the Lutheran Church – that’s Mr. Larson’s church.”  He wrinkled up his brow and pondered a few more seconds, “Now I remember – go on down Main Street here until you get to the Feed Store – then you turn left and go a mile or so and you’ll see this big ol’ graveyard – it’ll be back in behind there, down a dirt road.  Aw shoot – that ain’t right neither, that there’s the Baptist Church – that’s Miss Peabody’s. Church.”  The man though a few more seconds, “You know what Preacher, I don’t think God’s got a church in this here town.”

“I am one of Paul’s people.”  “I am one of Cephas’ people.”  “I’m one of Apollos’ people.” And for the hyper self-righteous people, “I belong to Christ.”  Paul’s remedy for all this infighting and fussing and back-biting was what, in another place, he called the foolishness of the cross, the ridiculousness of the Gospel story. He calls upon the Corinthians to remember the highly unlikely way God has chosen to save the world –  the foolishness of the cross.

In this season of Epiphany, we find ourselves looking at the world’s continued darkness:  its wars, disease, ignorance, prejudice, and violence. Looking closely, we see at the root of most of this humanity’s disconnectedness – our alienation from our true selves, from each other, and most of all from God. It is this lack of genuine, open, trusting, loving community and connection that either causes most of the world’s problems, or makes them worse.

In the midst of all this darkness and disconnection, the church is called to shine the light of God in Christ into the world. We are invited to be a part of God’s intention to pull the world’s disparate peoples into one community, one interconnected and interdependent family, one kingdom of heaven, one beloved people – the people of God.

This calling has never made much sense to the world. It looks to most people like a quixotic quest, a nonsense proposition. The world operates by a different set of rules. Perhaps it’s not exactly cut-throat, dog-eat-dog out there; but it certainly is “Look out for number one, and know who your friends are, and you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

When Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and called to his side “Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother;” then a bit later “James, the son of Zebedee and his brother John,” we can be pretty certain that those who watched them walk away felt that those who went were fools.

On the face of it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?  Matthew makes it clear that these men were gainfully employed commercial fishermen – casting their nets, out in their boats.  And, in the case of James and John, we know immediately that they were turning their backs on commitments to family members, “they left their boat and their father.” For what?  To fish for people? What does that even mean?  Where’s the profit in that?

I was ordained forty years ago this June.  When I first went before the Candidacy Committee for permission to start seminary, one of the members asked me, “What are you giving up to enter the ministry?” I think I said something about a potential career as a teacher or something like that, but the most honest answer would have been “Not much.  I have an undergraduate degree in sociology.  If y’all don’t endorse me, there’s a lot of ‘Would you like fries with that.’ in my future.”  In the years since I have had my turn to sit on the other side of that table in Candidacy Committee meetings and I have been humbled to hear the stories of people who have walked away from lucrative careers and a well-settled life to answer Christ’s call “to fish for people.”

Now, God does not only “call” pastors and deacons and other church professionals.  God calls each and every one of us to be a part of the “priesthood of believers.”  And this call will not make sense to some people in our lives.  Even Jesus’ family came looking for him after he went out on his preaching, teaching, healing tour.  They wanted to take him home because they thought he was acting crazy and embarrassing the family.  Each of us must look at our lives and decide “What, or sometimes who, must I give up in order to follow Jesus, to walk the way of the cross, to fish for people?”

To be God’s Church in the world – not our church but God’s church – is to fish for people, to cast out nets of forgiveness and vulnerability and risk-taking, nets that are held together with the little crosses of suffering we bear for one another each and every day. We are called to cast these nets across the great chasms of division and distrust, fear and hatred that afflict and terrorize our world. We are to cast out nets that seek to bring all those who have lived in great darkness into the great light of God’s love.

Jesus call out to us, the same as he called out to Peter and Andrew, James and John. We too are called to a ministry of connection, a ministry of casting nets of love and forgiveness toward God’s people, a mission of shining the light of God’s love on everyone. Will we embrace this ministry? Are we prepared to let the light of Christ shine through us? Are we willing to reach out to the world with the foolishness of the cross? Are we ready to fish for people?

Amen and amen.

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

For January 15, 2017

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

His name was David.  His last name was something decidedly Scottish – McCarthy, McCormick, McGillicudy. He had just graduated from the Presbyterian seminary when he came to be the minister at the little Presbyterian Church just down the dirt road from my grandmother’s house. My family went to evening service there about once a month when we were visiting grandma.

He was nothing like the other ministers I knew.  They were all loud, brash, and long-winded; very long-winded.  He wore a black robe and a colored stole and in his sermons, he talked quietly for about fifteen minutes, mostly about things Jesus did that showed us that God loved us and everybody else in the world; and about ways we could show that love to others.   His house, the “manse,” was next door to the elementary school and we often saw him taking walks in the afternoon.  This was a novelty to us farm kids – every adult we knew worked so hard that the idea of taking a walk for exercise was somewhat funny to us. If we were at recess the teacher would often ask him to umpire our baseball games – which he did willingly, competently and without a lot of fuss.

He occasionally came to visit my family, sitting quietly at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, listening to my mother chatter on.  After about thirty minutes, he would take out a pocket New Testament, read a bit, say a prayer, and be gone.  When I applied to for admission to a Quaker College, it asked for a statement of faith and a minister’s recommendation. I went to him for advice.  Though I wasn’t a member of his church, he immediately set to work helping me. He asked me a few questions about my thoughts on Jesus.  His able questions pointed me in the right direction, helped me articulate what I actually believed.  He also wrote the minister’s reference for me.

It was only later, when I felt the call to go to seminary, that I realized that without him, I would not believe in Jesus, would not be a Christian, would not be in the church, would not be a minister. He was John the Baptist for me. He was the one who pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the Sin of the world!”  He was my Saint Andrew, bringing me to Jesus and saying, “He’s the One!”  He was the one who brought me to Christ!

Well, actually he was “a” one, not “the” one – because I have come to realize that there have been many “lights” in my life, many people who have pointed the way to Christ.  Mrs. Gammons, my Baptist Sunday School teacher.  My neighbor Mr. Reynolds, gentleman farmer, grandfather of my best friend, and occasional preacher, who influenced me more by how he lived his life than by anything he said in the pulpit.  My mother, sitting at the dining room table on Saturday night “getting up” her Sunday School lesson to teach the next morning.  Dr. Boyd, religion professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, who let me know that you do not have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian.  The list could go on and on, both for me and for you.  Let’s take a minute to remember and thank God for those who were John the Baptist for us, those who like Saint Andrew, pointed us to Jesus.

Let’s also remember that all of us are called to be witnesses. Very often we make this witnessing business more difficult than it really it is.  It’s mostly a matter of pointing at Jesus and saying, “He’s the One!” We do not need any special knowledge or special training to do that.

Above and beyond everything else, the church is called to know one thing, and to do one thing. We are called to know the love of God in Christ, and we are called to bring others into that circle of love. That is our purpose for being, that is the reason for our existence, that is the end to which we work, that is our mission, that is our ministry, that is our calling.

Like the Israelites in our lesson from Isaiah, we are beckoned by God to be a light to the nations. It is too light, (too small, too tiny) a thing that we should just talk about Christ and our faith among ourselves – we must share Christ with the world.

It is our calling to be like John, pointing to Christ as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. It is our calling to be like Saint Andrew, bringing our friends to meet Jesus. It is our calling to be like the people who introduced us to Jesus, it is our calling to tell others about the love of God in Christ. It is our calling to announce to the world, “We have found the Messiah.”

AMEN AND AMEN

The Baptism of Our Lord (Year A)

For January 8, 2017

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Before there was Jeff Foxworthy there was Jerry Clower, Mississippi Baptist lay preacher and story-telling comedian.  He used to talk about the time one of his cousins was engaged to be married to a nice Methodist girl from the neighborhood.  There was only one thing wrong with this young woman – she had received infant baptism.  For the groom’s staunchly Baptist family this simply would not do, she must be properly baptized – as an adult believer – by immersion – in the river.  The young lady politely refused.  Brother Jerry was called in to mediate the situation.  Jerry sat down with the couple and the family patriarch.  He said to Uncle Jehu, “What if I took Mary Lou out into the river just waist deep?   That would be a compromise.”  Uncle Jehu said, “No, that won’t do.”  Jerry tried again, “What if I take her in up to her shoulders?”  Jehu shook his head no.  “What about up to her chin?”  Again, a vigorous no.  “What if I take her in so that just the top of her head is still sticking out of the water?  Uncle Jehu shook his head again and said, “Nope, it has to be all the way.”  Jerry leaned back in triumph and said, “That’s what Mary Lou’s been trying to tell you – it’s just that little bit on the top of the head that does the trick anyway!”

If it’s just that little bit on the top of the head that does the trick – what exactly is the “trick” that baptism does? In any discussion of baptism, the “trick” that most people think of is really the least important.  Many people believe that you must be baptized to get rid of original sin. Some people waste a lot of time arguing that there is no such thing as original sin, while others worry about babies who die going to hell if they haven’t been properly baptized, and all of it is really beside the point.

This misunderstanding of the sacrament turns it into a bit of holy hocus-pocus; a matter of human beings casting a magic spell that makes sin disappear and requires God to allow the newly baptized into heaven.  It is because of this idea that people sometimes ask, “Why was Jesus baptized, since he was a sinless, perfect being, he had no sins which needed forgiving?”

Well, first of all, baptism does not forgive our sins; God forgives our sins. Baptism is a message and a reminder to us that all our sins – past, present, and future – have been forgiven in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Martin Luther once said that whenever we feel oppressed by sin, death and the devil we should pat ourselves on the forehead and say “I have been baptized.”  His point being that because we have been baptized, these things no longer have power over us.  Baptism – the water, the words – is a constant reminder to us that we too are beloved children of God, in whom the Holy One is well-pleased.

I recently baptized a pre-school child.  That night his grandmother posted a picture of a very wet Spiderman action toy.  While taking his bath, her grandson had poured water over Spidie’s head, proclaiming as he did it so, “Now, Spiderman can be a friend of God too.” That’s a pretty good summing up – we are friends of God. Jesus’ baptism, and ours, is a public affirmation of God’s love.

For all of this the most important thing is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It brings us into a dynamic, organic, growing, pulsating relationship with God almighty.  As the Holy Spirit penetrates our lives we, like Jesus, become enmeshed with God. God is in us, we are in God, we are the Body of Christ, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit.  We are not far off and distant from God, simply seeking to keep God from sending us to Hell through magical religious rites and our accumulated list of good works. No! Baptism reminds us that we are part of the Divine Presence in the world. God has made God’s dwelling to be within us and God’s love goes out to the world through us.

In Acts 10:38, Peter says of Jesus’ baptism – “. . .God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him.” Yes, God was with Jesus, and God is with each and every one of us and is constantly working in, with and through us to “do good and heal” the world.

Writing in Christianity Today, Pastor Paul Bocca talked about how some people find a genuinely Christian life boring. Going to church, doing the liturgy, reading the lessons, hearing the sermons, doing the rituals, serving on committees, etc. etc. BORING! Pastor Bocca turns this boring accusation upside down – by admitting it, and then reminding us of another meaning for the word boring. The Christian faith is like the slow movement of a drill; slowly, laboriously digging beneath the surface of our lives. Within the continuing cycle of Sunday after Sunday, season after season, year after year, the Christian message and life in community bore ever deeper and deeper into our souls, until we begin to realize the truth of the words spoken over us in baptism.

Gradually and over time we come to believe and live out the fact that we are a beloved child of God.  We are marked with the cross of Christ forever.  We are filled with the Holy Spirit.  We are invited to follow Christ on the way of the cross. We are invited to love one another unconditionally.  We are forgiven.  We are called to forgive others.  We are ambassadors for Christ. If there is any trick to baptism, this is it.  These words, this water, trick us into acting like the beloved children of God we were created to be until one day we are no longer acting, we are just being who we really are. This boring life of faith is begun at baptism, and is not completed until the day we die. In the meantime, we are invited to begin each day with the sign of the cross as a reminder that we have been baptized, that we are, really, truly, forgiven and beloved friends of God.

Amen and amen.