Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

For February 19, 2017

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Not too many years ago, a mother of two young boys called me, laughing, to let me know that while her sons had listened carefully to my children’s sermon the previous Sunday, both of them had failed to completely grasp the concept I was attempting to explain.

The night before, her oldest had come running into the kitchen. He was crying, loudly, and was hopping on one foot while holding his shin. In between sobs, he complained, “Tommy kicked me, he kicked me and he wasn’t supposed to. The pastor said he wasn’t supposed to kick me.” Of course, he was followed by his brother, who said, “Pastor said ‘strike’ and ‘cheek,’ ‘turn the other cheek.’ He didn’t say nothing about not kicking your brother when he kicks you first.” Mom turned to Billy and said, “Did you kick Tommy first?” “Well yeah, but he wasn’t supposed to kick me back. Pastor said so.” All I could think to say was, “Well, this sort of thing has been going on since the first set of brothers – Cain and Abel – and at least no one died this time around.”

Even as adults, many of us are more like Tommy and Billy than we would like to admit. Though in the Ten Commandments God was very clear about what was expected of us in terms of our behavior toward one another, we persist in what appears to be self-serving misinterpretation, reading God’s commands with our own self-interest in mind. To put it bluntly, many of us are strict with others and lenient with ourselves. For example – today’s first lesson comes from Leviticus. The 18th chapter of Leviticus is often cited by people in debates about sexuality, usually with stern admonitions that we “must follow God’s law.” Recently I saw someone with “Leviticus 18:22” tattooed on his arm – a “you shall not” text about sex. Funny, he seems to have missed Leviticus 19:28 “you shall not . . . put tattoo marks on yourself.” Like I said, stern with others and lenient with ourselves.

The question is, “How do we sort through this business of hearing and obeying God’s laws without being either inappropriately lenient or self-righteously stern?” Leviticus 19 takes a stab at it by expanding some of the bare bones of the Ten Commandments into more specific regulations on how to treat one another. For example, “Thou shalt not steal” evolves into commands about not defrauding, not dealing falsely, not cheating your workers. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is expanded with words about not slandering, not lying, not defrauding. “Thou shalt not kill” is explored in terms of not bearing hate in our hearts, not taking vengeance, not bearing grudges, etc. All this is summarized in verse 18 as “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Increased specificity helps, but as the story of the Good Samaritan makes clear, the human tendency to be strict with others and easy on ourselves persisted as people cleverly asked, “Well, yes, but who, after all, is my neighbor?”

Underneath the “Who is my neighbor?” question is the basic human quest to know the bottom line,

What must I do to be saved?” “What is required?” Questions which too often become “What’s the least I can get by with?” I have never forgotten my first finance committee meeting in my first church so many years ago. We were working on the new budget for the next year. I told them what the denominational “minimum salary” requirement was. The chair said, “Well let’s write that down. Reckon we can’t do no less than the minimum.” (And yes, I know, I shouldn’t bear a grudge, Leviticus 19:18, and I don’t. But nobody said I had to forget.)

Jesus directly addresses this minimalist, “what is required,” approach. An “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” was an attempt at being fair, at avoiding escalation in human relationships by limiting the amount of vengeance one could take on another. It is a law that limits unfair and “disproportionate justice.” Jesus raise the ante by advocating “disproportionate mercy.” Jesus changes the question from “How can I appropriately get even?” to “How can I show mercy and love in this situation?” Thus, he says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” Jesus reinterprets the rules, the laws, about how to treat your neighbor – using principles that run throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There’s really nothing new here. Jesus is just underlining, and highlighting, and drawing attention to, principles that have been stated over, and over, and over again throughout God’s relationship with God’s people.

Now, back to that question about how to read and interpret the Bible without being either inappropriately lenient or harshly judgmental. The Bible a sprawling, messy, somewhat inconsistent, beautiful, occasionally frightening, complex compilation of history, prophecy, poetry, hymnody, biography, correspondence, and apocalyptic visions composed by hundreds of human writers over thousands of years. Is it any wonder that it lends itself to so many competing opinions and understandings? Both Leviticus and Jesus show us the key – the scriptures call us to do that which shows love to our neighbors – whomever that neighbor may be. We are called to do that without stopping to think about whether or not we’re required to, or how little we can get by with, or whether they deserve our help, or if they will be able to return the favor. None of that matters. God loves us, we are invited to love one another. Period.

And, just in case there’s a Billy or Tommy listening to this today; “strike” includes kicking. And “cheek” includes any possible part of your body you can think of. I’m just saying.

Amen and amen.

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Fresh sermon, a “rerun” on the podcast — but we always do the best we can! Thanks for following us here on LectionaryLab.com!

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the 1980s, I was a pastor in Rowan County, NC.  The local afternoon daily paper, the Salisbury Post, ran a weekly church page.  They listed things like address, worship times, pastor’s name, etc. – all in really tiny print.  The Post was different from most newspapers that I had dealt with – it asked you to supply a sermon title or they wouldn’t publish your church’s information.

My titles were never very good, I just don’t have a talent for titles, but one of the other Lutheran pastors in town was really good with titles.  One of my favorites was “You Can Rust-Proof Your Car; but Can You Rust-Proof Your Soul.”  I still remember his title for a sermon on this gospel lesson – “Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said.” Can I get an amen?

There are several things in this text that many of us might well wish Jesus had never said. Even though we take the part about “whacking off limbs” and “poking out eyes” as metaphor and hyperbole and “exaggeration for the sake of emphasis,” Jesus still sets out a personal moral standard higher than anyone I know could actually achieve. No anger, no lust, no swearing, no little grudges and resentments and petty drama with siblings, or co-workers, or fellow church-members, or all of the above?  Is he serious?

And no divorce except for adultery?  What about people in abusive relationships, or people married to alcoholics or drug-addicts, or people who find themselves trapped in a relationship with someone who refuses to even pretend to pull their weight in the marriage?  Was he serious about that? Well yes; yes he was.  Jesus was digging beneath the surface of the letter of the law into get at the spirit, the intention, the principle undergirds it. Jesus was inviting his hearers to think with him about the “why” of the rules they have been given.

Most people, then and now, don’t want to do that. We want to know the rules, the facts, the guidelines, what do we have to do. The Bible is full of people asking these types of questions:

What must I do to be saved?  What does the Lord require?  What is the greatest commandment?

And the always difficult to comprehend part is that when we find out what the rule or law or guideline is, many of us seem to then want to find a way around it. “What’s the speed limit here?”  “It’s 55.” “Hmm,” we think, “I can probably get away with 60 at least, probably a little more.”

Here, Jesus declared that “Thou shalt not murder,” was not only intended to keep people from bashing each other’s heads in – but was rather to call for people to restrain their anger and seek peace in all their relationships.

But most people, then and now, decide that the minimum is enough.  We think something like – “The fact that I hate my sister-in-law and treat her like dirt on a regular basis, that I passive-aggressively make her life miserable every chance I get, is not a moral issue because I have not murdered her.” Jesus said to this, “You have not killed her but you have killed the relationship, you have slowly poisoned a sacred connection with the toxicity of your hateful feelings.”

And so it goes with each of the things Jesus talks about in this part of the Sermon on the Mount.

Adultery, divorce, lying – in each of these things Jesus asks us to look behind what is required to find what is both possible and preferred.

The language about gouging out eyes and sawing off limbs is not an invitation to self-mutilation; rather it is a reminder that being the person God made us to be may require us to painfully and carefully control, or even remove, some part of our life that we are not sure we can do without.

Here are a few very difficult questions Jesus’ words raise for us on this day.  What is killing your spirits and keeping you from giving yourself completely to Christ and the Kingdom of God?  Is it something so valuable that you cannot bear to part from it?  Even if keeping it means losing your very soul?

Lent is only a month away; Ash Wednesday is March 1.  Perhaps now is a time for all of us to take an inventory of our lives, to see where it is that we are living by the letter and not the spirit of God’s way; to discover what things are weighing us down and keeping us back from living fully into the joy and hope of our new life in Christ.

Rather than giving up chocolate, or red meat, or drinking, or smoking –  perhaps we could consider giving up some lingering hurt, or an unresolved anger, or a judgmental and critical attitude, or a closely nurtured resentment, or a festering hurt, or an inappropriate desire, or anything else that we hold so close and dear so that our hands and hearts are not free to reach out to God and to one another in love.

Amen and amen.

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

For February 5, 2017

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  1 Corinthians 2:1-2

I have struggled with my weight most of my adult life. I frequently launch a new plan to create a thinner, healthier me – especially around New Year’s, or after Thanksgiving, or after Christmas, or after the Super Bowl – well, actually, pretty much all the time. I have read a lot of diet books and have gone on a lot of web sites. As my young nephew used to say – “Here’s the deal!” – ninety percent of what they say about fitness and diet can be summed up in four words: “Eat less. Move more.”

There is a scene in the movie Bull Durham where the manager goes on a locker room rant, screaming at his losing minor league baseball team.  After he calls them a series of unprintable names, he says “This is a simple game.  Hit the ball. Catch the ball. Throw the ball.”

In our second lesson, Paul has come to an “eat less, move more” moment. He tells the church in Corinth that his message is simple – “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  To me this sounds a lot like, “Eat less. Move more.” Or “Hit the ball.  Catch the ball.  Throw the ball.”

I have now been a pastor for almost forty years. In that time I have been inundated, year after year, with new programs guaranteed to make the church grow, or expand the Christian Education program, or revitalize the worship service, or get people to give a lot more money, or grow a vital youth group, or, or, or . . . .  While I am sure that one or two of these ideas worked somewhere else, some other time, for someone else – none of them has ever worked anywhere for me. I don’t know; maybe my heart wasn’t in it.

What I have learned is this: if the gospel of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, is at the heart and core of a church’s life within the walls; and is the motivation and content of its proclamation and service outside the walls – the church will be a happening place full of joyful and motivated people.

And if some other agenda takes center place in a church’s life together, and forms its mission and message to the world; it won’t matter what programs they try; the church will be somewhat unhappy and struggling.  “Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” is the “Eat Less. Move more,” the “simple game,” of the church.

What gets us off base is the fact that we do not trust the simplicity of the gospel. We think we need to jazz it up and make it more appealing and, in the process, we risk hiding the truth in the barrage of hype. This is what Paul warns us about in First Corinthians. We have to be careful about adding things to the basics of the gospel in an attempt to dress it up and make it more exciting.  What is there is exciting enough.

English mystery writer and lay theologian Dorothy Sayers said it best in her book Creed or Chaos: “We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine – “dull dogma,” as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination…and the dogma IS the drama.”

(Sayers, Sophia Institute Press, 1949, p.3)

The very words “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” say to us that the God who made us has not abandoned us, the God who made us loves us and wants to be in relationship with us; indeed, wants it so badly that this Holy One, this divine Creator of all that is, came to be with us as one of us, a human being who ate and slept and learned and worked and talked and listened and healed and loved just as we do. We had to learn how much we are loved and how we are invited and inspired to go about loving each other.  Telling us was not enough; we had to be shown.

And so, this humble holy one, in a mystery that it is impossible to unravel, with a wisdom too deep for words, died upon the cross for us – in the place of us, because of us – to show us how to live and how to die, and how to live and die for each other – how to love one another.

“Jesus Christ, and him crucified” is the “eat less and move more” of the church. It is the story with which we will catch the attention, and the hearts, of the world. It is the simple game at the center of our faith, our life together, and our life together in the world.

Amen and amen.