The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (July 5, 2020)

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Methodist Scholar of World religion Huston Smith ften told this Hindu story: The disciple said to the master, “How can I find God?” 

Instead of answering the question, the master led the student down to the river.  After staring out over the water a while, the master grabbed the student pushed his head under the water,holding him there for several minutes while the student struggled. Finally, the master let him go. The student emerged from the water sputtering and gasping for air.

After a few minutes, the master said, “So how did it feel down there?” The student glared at the master and said. “It was awful. I thought I was going to die.”  The master said, “When you want God as much as you wanted air, when you feel like you cannot live without God in your life; then – you will find God. 

Matthew 11 reads:

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

Jesus’ point in this text is simple – people aren’t really serious about finding God, so they avoid God by complaining about God’s messengers.  The ones complaining about both John and Jesus purport to be serious seekers after God – but what they are really looking for is a God made in their own image, not the God in whose image they were made.  They are seeking a religious experience that will fit appropriately into their lifestyle, spiritual moment that they can control and regularize. 

Yes, Jesus would agree with the Hindu master, when people want a relationship with God as much as a drowning man wants air; when we believe we will die without God, then our inherent will pettiness will cease and we will look up and discover God and holiness all around us.

In Matthew, the character of Jesus is drawn in sharp contrast to the scribes and Pharisees and their way of approaching God.  They have taken the Torah, the teaching from God, the revealed will of God, and transformed it from a living and exciting invitation to holy living into a heavy, joyless, burden on the people.  They have expanded it into law after law, long lists of that which is clean and unclean, exact formulas for ritual observance that one must follow to a T. They have turned God’s word of steadfast love into a word of perpetual judgment and duty. The yoke of the Law, the call to work in the Kingdom of God, has become an albatross around their necks, weighing them down and holding them back.

 The scribes and Pharisees were not unique in these attempts to corral and control God; these efforts to bring some sort of order into the wildness and chaos of God’s ways with the world.  Down through the years, we human beings have habitually sought to create systems

by which we can assure ourselves we are all right, all right with each other and all right with God.

The Lutherans have the Book of Theological Concord, the Episcopalians have the Book of Common Prayer. (Remarkable how similar they are in size and “weightiness.”) Presbyterians have a Book of Order, and the Methodists have The Discipline, And in terms of making us “right with God,” none of it ever works, not really. At some point all our systems fail, because we fail.  No matter how cleverly we put the system together, there is always a flaw in it.  And the flaw is us.

Paul gives clear voice to this flaw in Romans 7:23: “but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin” The problem with all the human ideas about how to be religious is not that they are failures of logic or that they are inconsistent systems of ethics or even that they ask too much of us. The problem is, as the old comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”

WE ARE THE PROBLEM!

When Paul says in Romans; “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” and again, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it;” we are all forced to nod with sad and rueful recognition.  Our behaviors big and small are very seldom completely consistent with our better selves and we, like Paul, long to know not only why we are bad, but also how we will ever get off this endless cycle of good intentions and bad results, of consistent failure and guilt?

The promise of the gospel is that Jesus has come to rescue us from ourselves. In verses 25-30 of our Matthew 11, Jesus proclaims: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In the midst of all our current confusion and despair, God still comes to us in the person of Jesus the Christ.  God comes to us and reminds us that the divine/human encounter is controlled not by us, but by God. We do not find God through wisdom and intelligence; God finds us and reveals God’s self to us when helpless as a baby, we need and want God the way we need and want air to breathe.

Jesus invites us to lay our burden down and take up the yoke of the Gospel with him. I wonder what burden each of us might need to put down this day in order to take up the yoke of Jesus, the cross of Christ?  What sin of our past haunts our present?  What doubt in our mind troubles our spirit?  What feeling of inadequacy or unworthiness keeps us from offering ourselves as a fellow laborer with Jesus in the Kingdom of God? 

Whatever it is that is holding us back and getting in our way; Jesus invites us to put it down,lay it aside, kick it to the curb, leave it behind as we embrace the opportunity to share in the work of the Kingdom, the work of sharing with the world God’s grace, God’s goodness, God’s love.

Take a deep breath, feel the air enter your lungs.  Now, take another breath and breathe God in, feel God come into you with forgiveness and love and holiness.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” 

Amen and amen.

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (June 28, 2020)

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Fourth Sunday of Pentecost                                                                       

  Text: Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Don Shula was the longtime and very successful head coach of the Miami Dolphins football team.  One time he was on vacation in a very rural part of Maine.  The local library advertised the showing of a recently popular movie on a Saturday night. This was in the days before the internet and the TV reception was almost non-existent in those woods, so the Shula family was very excited to go to the movies that night.  They walked in just a few minutes before it was to start.  Everyone stood up and gave them a standing ovation. Shula thought, “isn’t that something.  Even way out here they know me!” His excitement only lasted a few minutes.  Someone told him, “We have to have 15 people or they won’t show the movie.  Your family pushed the crowd to 17.”  The welcome really wasn’t for Don Shula.

Our text comes at the end of a sequence in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus has been preparing his disciples to go out into the world to preach the Kingdom.  He is telling them how to respond to the many ways their efforts will be received. When he says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus is drawing a straight line from the disciples through himself to the creator God.  To welcome a disciple is the same as welcoming Jesus, which is the same as welcoming God.  This is a twofold promise.

One the one hand – it reminds the disciples to be humble about the reception they receive, for that welcome is not for them, it is for God.

On the other hand – it reminds them that they do not go out representing themselves and their own wisdom and their own power; they go out representing God.

We all must remember this as we go about our business of being Christians, disciples of Jesus in the world.  It is not about us; it is about God. In verse 41, Jesus drives home his point by reminding the disciples of the many biblical stories of prophets and other righteous people being received NOT because they themselves are so special, but because in receiving them the people are receiving and honoring and serving God. And then, in verse 42, Jesus makes one of his classic reversals, turning things upside down and inside out, rearranging our preconceptions and expectations. 

Just as we have begun to understand the idea that honoring important people, like disciples and prophets and pastors, is a way of honoring God – Jesus switches things up on us. He begins to talk about honoring ‘little ones’ “And whoever gives even a cup of water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple.”

See what he did there? The disciples were feeling really proud, seeing themselves connected to the prophets, and to Jesus, and even to God; and then the tables are turned – and they are reminded that they are “little ones” in the kingdom of God.

The message of Jesus, the message of the Kingdom, the message of the Gospel – is a message of reversal, of things turned upside down and sideways, of those who are seen by the world to be on top are known to really be on the bottom, and on the bottom are esteemed by God as the most important of all.

In these three short verses, Jesus subtly moves his disciples through a sequence that leads them away from thinking about how important they are to pondering their call to TO BE the least important people in the kingdom in order to serve the least important people in the world in the name of Jesus.

When Jesus bestows upon little ones, disciples, the same worth as prophets and righteous persons, even the same value as God; when Jesus does this – he has done an incredibly radical and un-heard of thing.

And it is to just this sort of radical and unheard-of thing which we modern day disciples and sent ones, we 21st century prophets and persons who aspire to be righteous, have been called.

We have been called to go out in the name of Jesus Christ to share our stuff and God’s love with those whom the world rejects and turns its back on.

We have been called to give radical hospitality to illegal aliens and people who keep failing in life and to those who are unable to work and take care of themselves. We have been called to look at people not with our own eyes but with the loving and gracious eyes of Christ.

We have been called to love the loveless, not with our cold and shriveled hearts, but with the warm heart of Christ which overflows with love for all. We have been called to care for others whether they deserve it or not.

Because none of us is disciplined and righteous and prophetic enough to deserve the love of God; it has been given  to us as a gift, and we are called to give it to others free of charge and free of judgement. Yes, sisters and brothers, we have been called to the ministry of welcoming and receiving and giving and loving and giving standing ovations to people whether we know them or not,

Amen and amen

The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (June 21, 2020)

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton


“. . . I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will loves it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
(Mt.10:34-39

Let’s be honest, if these words did not have Jesus’ name on them, we would consider them the ridiculous demands of an evil person – possibly the leader of some crazy cult.

A few years ago, a young woman who had an appointment with me arrived a little early and was shown into my office to wait while I finished up a meeting down the hall.  As I came into my office she turned from the wall where she had been examining my diplomas and certificates.  She pointed at one of them and said, “What is ‘Spiritual Direction’?”

I fumbled around for an answer and finally said something like, “People come in to see me and I listen to them talk about their life, sort of like going to a counselor but, instead of whatever therapist might say, a spiritual director tries to help people find where God is in their life.”

“That’s funny,” she said, “I should think it would be more important for them to figure out where they are in God’s life.”  (I was tempted to take the diploma off the wall and give it to her – with my name scratched out and hers written in.) Things change when we turn the question around.  Instead of thinking, “What is God doing to make my life better, more whole, more spiritual, etc.”  what if we were to wonder, “What am I doing to involve myself in the work and will of God in the world today?”

Seen in this light, the scary things Jesus said make perfect sense.  If you are going to go with Jesus, you have to be ready to go all the way.  If you are going to go with Jesus, you have to be prepared to choose the Kingdom of God over your neighbors and your family and most especially over yourself. It is not an easy choice to make.  Indeed, in both the Gospel and in Romans, it is a choice that is compared to death.  Matthew says“. . . those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” and Paul writes, “(we) were baptized into his death . . .” and “. . . our old self was crucified with him . . .” and “. . . if we have been united with him in a death like his . . .”

Yes, following Jesus is not so much about finding where God is in our life; it is more about finding those places where we are called to be in God’s life, what we are called to do in the Kingdom of God. Ultimately – the hard, crazy, scary things Jesus says in this text are still hard, but maybe not so crazy or scary after all.

They are not crazy because they tell us a true thing about life, a thing that everyone needs to learn in order to be truly and completely human. That thing is this, “It’s not about you.” 

It’s not about you and how many people like you, it’s not about you and your wonderful family, it’s not about you and your successful and prosperous life; it’s just not. 

No, it’s not about you -it’s about God. It’s about God and God’s love for the entire world, the whole creation.  From the hairs of our heads and the lives of sparrows to the fate of the earth and the future of the human race, it’s all about God and God’s will and God’s way and our place in that grand movement into God’s promised tomorrow.  We are called to be a part of the new heaven and the new earth God is actively creating now. And it is a very hard thing to hear, and a very difficult thing to do.

In these days of argumentation and dispute about Covid-19, and masks, and social distancing, and Black Lives Matter, and Blue Lives Matter, and All Lives Matter, and, and, and . . . we all find ourselves more and more pulled into deciding who our true group is, and then standing with our political, social, communal, religious, ethnic, racial group over against all those other groups: and Jesus says – “NO! You must let go of all that and cling to the cross.” This act of saying no and grabbing onto the cross is the most difficult thing Christ calls us to do, and we must do it every day, all day long.

Once, when I was maybe five or six years old, my grandfather tried to teach me how to prepare a bundle of tobacco leaves for market.  The adults in my family spent several months in the fall doing this.  It was a very hands-on, time consuming, traditional craft.  The farmer took a handful of cured leaves, arranged the stems evenly, then wrapped a leaf around the top, binding the whole thing together. Every time I tried it quickly fell apart.  After what seemed to me an eternity but, since I was a little kid, was probably only 10 or 15 minutes, I threw my leaves down in disgust and whined, “Come on Grandpa, show me the easy way!”  Grandpa looked at me, chuckled a bit, picked up the leaves, and drew me into his arms, “I’m sorry to tell you this Son, but there just ain’t no easy way.”

In today’s gospel lesson, we hear Jesus say the same thing, “Child of God, I know you want to follow me, and I have to tell you a difficult truth; there is no easy way.  There is only this way, the way of the cross.” And while the way he invites us to follow, the way of putting God in Christ above all, is hard it does not have to be scary. It is not scary because it contains within it the promise of resurrection, the promise that we too will be a part of the new thing God is doing

“. . . those who lose their life will find it,” Matthew 10:39 

 “. . . we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Romans 6: 5

Amen and amen.

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (June 14, 2020)

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“This here battle ain’t got no rear!”

Pentecost 2 – June 14, 2010

Texts: Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7); Matthew 9:35-10:8

“. . .  he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless. . . ” (Matthew 9:36)

If you’ve ever been through Chattanooga, TN, you know that Lookout Mountain looms over the city. On Nov. 24, 1863 one of the most interesting battles of the Civil War took place on that mountain. The Confederates had artillery on top of the mountain, preventing the Union from using the river for supply shipments and troop movements. The Federals were determined to silence those cannons. On the morning of the attack, a deep fog settled over the mountain. The two armies kept out-flanking and circling each other in the mist. The story is told that a general happened upon a severely wounded private and ordered him to “get to the rear,” out of harm’s way. The private saluted and replied, “Yes Sir.” A bit later, the general happened upon the private again, “Son, I told you to get to the rear!” Again, the private said, “Yes sir!”  A third time, the same general came across the same wounded private. “Son, why haven’t you gone to the rear?” The private saluted, and said, “Begging the general’s pardon sir, this here battle ain’t got no rear!”

They were harassed and helpless.     This here battle ain’t got no rear!

These are apt descriptions of our lives in the first half of 2020. The year started with the impeachment trial of the president. This was followed by Covid -19 going from a rumor to a reality in record time.  The weekend of March 8, I was in Florida, attending a spring training baseball game and preaching at a friend’s crowded church. By the following Saturday I was back in North Carolina, the church I attend was closed and we were sheltering in place.  We’ve had three months of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, working at home, political wrangling, etc. etc. In the midst of the pandemic in which over a 100,00 people have died, the economy tanked, a record number of people are out of work, and then . . .George Floyd died at the hands of the police on the streets of Minneapolis. Since then, the United States, and the world, has erupted in protests and violence, and confusion, and arguments, and, and, and . . .

We are feeling harassed and helpless because this here battle ain’t got no rear!

Abraham and Sarah knew a little bit about fighting a battle that had no rear.  Reading through their life story in Genesis, one discovers the reality that life as God’s chosen ones – the Holy One’s “Holy Couple – was not an easy job. I’m pretty sure that when the LORD said to them,

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1), trials and tribulations were not what they expected.

They had famine, life as refugees in Egypt, major conflict with the Pharaoh, they got rich, then they got poor, then a major falling out with their nephew Lot, then they had to go to war to rescue Lot,. All the while no child came, and they had no promised land. Add to this the domestic strife and bad decisions, including having a son by another woman and then the conflict in the home, and, and, and . . .  

Abraham and Sarah were feeling harassed and helpless because they were in a lifetime battle that had no real resting place, no rear!

As our Genesis text opens, a weary Abraham sits in the shade of a tree outside his tent. Sarah is in the tent and his workers are tending the sheep. Three strangers approach. Given his life story, one could understand if Abraham were to be a bit wary of these folks. But he is not.  He reaches out to them with traditional hospitality: rest, shade, water, food.  My house is your house, my food is your food. We, the readers, know that this is a visit from the LORD, but Abraham does not.  He just responds to their need with his help.

Our reading from Matthew begins with a line repeated from Chapter 4: 23 “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” After this line is said in chapter 4, Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, and then he personally goes out doing all those things – preaching, and healing and confronting evil.  In todays lesson from Chapter 9, after this line is said, Jesus looks out and sees the crowd “helpless and harassed.” But,instead of going out to help them by himself, this time he gathers his disciples, (10:1) which means “students,” and transforms them into apostles, which means “those who are sent out.” He calls them by name and tells them to go out with the message of the kingdom, with the power and imperative to cure ills and overcome evil.  “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure, the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.'”  (Matthew 10:8)

We are feeling harassed and helpless because this here battle ain’t got no rear!

We – the church, the disciples of Christ, the followers of the Way of the Cross, the apostles of the good news of the kingdom – are feeling a bit harassed, helpless, and battle-worn right now.  The question is “What are we going to do about it?”  How are we to respond to the battle that rages around us, the battle that has no rear? We could “hunker down” in soul as well as in body, we could isolate ourselves not only from the danger of disease but also from the disruption in our society.  Or – we could learn from Abraham and Sarah, and from Jesus and the apostles.

Even though we are feeling harassed and helpless in the midst of this unending battle, we are called to remain open to both the problems of the world around us and to the mission of God given us in our baptism, when the LORD God called us by name and sent us out to proclaim the kingdom.  Like Abraham and Sarah, we must find ways to practice hospitality, even to those we don’t know or don’t understand. We are called to practice open hearts and open minds – keeping open the doors of our spirits even when the actual doors of our church building remain closed for safety’s sake.  We are called to reach out to those in need, going to those who are “helpless and harassed,” doing all we can to bring aid, comfort, and the compassion of our LORD.  And we are called to speak out against evil. To raise our voice with others against cruelty and injustice, wherever we see it raise its ugly head in our world.  In a world that is harassed and helpless, we are called to step up and step out – to bring comfort and confrontation in equal measure, because the love of God in Christ both compels us and carries us as we go.

Amen and amen.