Thursday, December 29, 2005

THE NAME OF JESUS: TCL texts for January 1, 2006

FIRST READING: Numbers 6:22-27
Verse 27: If they pronounce my name as a blessing . . .”
What might it mean to pronounce God’s name as a blessing? More particularly, what might it mean to pronounce God’s name as a curse? Though many churches use verses 24-26 as the closing Blessing or Benediction for worship, and though this is probably a good thing, this is, of course not ALL the author had in mind, nor should we attribute magical qualities to the words like some sort of White Magic Incantation. No, the issue of pronouncing blessings goes much deeper than that.

I remember a clergy retreat, a group of suburban Lutherans from Atlanta. We spent a couple of days at the monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, studying Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD with Dr. Ficken from the Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta. One night as part of Evening Prayer we were asked to think about the first time something happened in parish ministry that let us know that this was a mysterious profession. We were to think about it over night.

At morning prayer, one pastor talked about the first time he celebrated Communion and a woman came to see him the next day, demanding to know why he thought she was going to hell. He was “bumfuzzled” until she pointed out he had given her the wafer with the
“little Jesus” upside down. She took it as a sign; a bad sign.

Most of the time, most of us don’t mean to “damn” in the name of the LORD, but sometimes we do. More importantly, we sometimes go through life and our ministries, blithely unaware of the power people give to our words and actions. We must consciously attempt to pronounce Blessing in the name of the LORD.

SECOND READING: Philippians 2: 5-11
“did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped.” The TEV renders this verse,
“did not think that by force he should try to become equal with God.”

We are so often a grabbing, grasping, position claiming people. We live in a competitive world, from sports to schools, to jobs, to our politics, everything. We don not often notice it any more than we notice air or a fish notices water. Everything with us is to be grabbed, grasped, striven after, competed for, we attempt by force to get not just equality but superiority. Not usually by dint of physical force, but by force of personality, or intellect or hard work, etc.

The people we resent are the ones whom we perceive to have acquired their jobs, their positions, their wealth by relationships and inheritance rather than by the “sweat of their brows”. Which is why the Gospel is so often so foreign to us. We continually try to figure out what it is we must do to be saved, and the thing we must do is let go of trying to save ourselves. We must imitate Christ and release ourselves from all striving, and let God love us. As a non-recovering workaholic, let me be the first to say, I get this in my head, getting it in my heart and soul has been only occasionally realized.

GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 2:15-21
“And He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel . . . “
When I was kid, like 3 or 4, I had serious trouble pronouncing L’s and W’s. I got them backwards. My mother says she has tried for almost 50 years to recreate the sounds I made when trying to say “pickle” and “pillow”.

My father’s name was Lowell, Lowell Chilton. You can see the potential disaster looming. There was a man at our church who loved to ask me who my Daddy was, just so he could hear me mangle “Lowell Chilton’s boy.” He would ask me several times, so I would get exasperated, put my hands on my hips and exclaim, “I said, I’m Woleww Chiwton’s boy.” (or something like that.)

I grew up in the country outside Mt. Airy NC. In many ways, it is the quintessential
American small town. Though not really Mayberry, it was where Andy Griffith grew up and I’m sure it fed his creative imagination. Anyway, after I went off to college and then to seminary and ministry in far off places like Charlotte and Atlanta and Nashville, places where I had difficulty getting businesses in sight of my house of church to take a personal check, in Mt. Airy, things were different. No, they didn’t remember me, but they did know my Daddy.

Daddy was not a wealthy man, or a prominent man, or an important man, just a small time farmer and mill-worker. But he was an honest man, a good man, a good neighbor and friend who always paid his debts, which was enough for them. At the right places, all I had to do was say I was “Lowell Chilton’s boy,” and they took my out-of-town, indeed, out-of-state (may as well be out of the country) check, no questions asked.
Well, they did ask how Mama and Aunt Mildred and them were getting along, but not financial questions asked.

Just wondering, what is the power of Jesus’ name in our lives. Can we be proud to say we are a child of God? Thinking back to the first lesson, ha so much damning and hurting been done in the LORD’s name that it no longer carries implications of goodness and trustworthiness in the world. Is it our calling to restore the good name of Jesus, rescuing it from the clutches of those who use it to bludgeon others with their vision of a righteous America? I think so.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

CHRISTMAS: RCL Texts for Dec. 24

FIRST LESSON: Isaiah 9:2-7: verse 2 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them the light has shined.”

I grew up on a farm and I used to know what true darkness was, but then I went off to college and eventually spent years living in small towns, suburbs and cities and forgot.
Too many street lights and well-lit parking lots for true darkness to exist.

Then I moved to Clay County, North Carolina. We are, the saying goes, “two hours from anything and darned glad of it.” I have become reacquainted with true darkness, a dark so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Believe you me, walking in such darkness is frightening and genuinely dangerous.

We have motion detector lights on the house, ready to come on when you drive up and to go off a few minutes later. One night I arrived home and discovered the lights would not come on and I had no flashlight in the car. I turned on the headlights to see my way to the house, then flipped the porch light switch. Nothing. Well, I couldn’t let the car lights burn all night and run down the battery. I went and turned them off and felt my way into the house and over to the couch. Complete and total darkness, I was a afraid to move, afraid of misunderstanding where I was and falling down the steps to the basement, of tripping over furniture. And then the lights came on. The power had been restored.
And I was safe again.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them the light had shined.” Without the light of Holy Love, our world is dark indeed.

SECOND LESSON: Titus 2:11-14: “For the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” There is an interesting textual footnote in the Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV edition. After “all” there is a footnote indicator and the note says “Or has appeared to all, bringing salvation.”

It’s an interesting difference and may delineate the world of Christianity as well as any other dividing line. It all depends on where you put the “to all.” Did the Grace of God appear to all, saving some; or did the Grace of God appear, saving all?

It is a revealing template to place on top of our differences of theology in the Christian world. Its not just about limited versus universal atonement; its about how genuinely inclusive is God’s grace? At Christmas time, at least, most of us are universalists, proclaiming God’s grace appeared to all, saving all. The rest of the year, some of us hedge our bets, trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out; and even if God’s Grace did appear to all, maybe some have rejected it, or been rejected by it; etc. etc.

Just for the sake of simplicity of thought, I’ve decided to go with the “appeared, bringing salvation to all.” I have enough trouble deciding what kind of toothpaste to buy without the added pressure of figuring out who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. I’ll just assume they’re all going to heaven and treat them accordingly and let God worry about it.

GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 21-20 – After twenty-five Christmas Eve’s, I don’t know that I have any fresh new ideas left. I’ve preached this thing from Mary’s point of view, Joseph’s point of view, the Inn keeper’s point of view, even the donkey’s version. After a while, it’s hard to think of a new angle. So I won’t. I’ll just tell you a story.

When I was a little kid, we lived in a four-room house: Living room, Kitchen, Parent’s Bedroom, Children’s bedroom, outhouse in the woods. On Christmas Eve, we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s for dinner, then we came home and went to bed by 9 o’clock, the four of us in one room, all of us under ten.

Daddy always reminded us that if we heard noise in the night we should stay in bed, because Santa would take our presents back if he caught us peeking.

Early on Christmas morning, long before dawn, we slipped from our bedroom to the living room next door. We opened our presents and squealed with delight, our mouths full of candy we found in our stockings. Suddenly we were aware of a presence in the room, then we heard a loud noise, like a cow stuck in a barbed wire fence.

We turned a saw upon the couch a large man with white hair and a beard, tall black boots sitting on the floor, he was asleep snoring loudly, his huge belly going u and down in fretful rhythm. We were, to use a Biblical phrase, “sore afraid”, for we were sure we knew who this visitor was. We did the only thing we could do:

We gathered up all the toys and candy and hid them in our beds, then we retired there too, cowering in the dark and cold, waiting for him to leave.

A couple of hours later our parents came to see why we were not around the tree. “Is he gone?” we asked. “Is who gone?” they said. “You know, Him. Santa,” we said. I thought my mother would die laughing, I really did.

Our visitor was her Uncle James, her mother’s brother, a man once described by her own brother as “the most worthless human being God ever devised.” James had showed up around midnight, on foot and a bit tipsy, on Christmas Eve with nowhere to go. And my parents put him to bed in the only place they had, the living Room couch in front of the Christmas Tree.

I have seen many Christmas plays and movies, I have heard and preached many Christmas Eve sermons, but none has taught me more than the night my parents made sure there was room for one in need, even if he didn’t deserve it.

Merry Christmas,


Thursday, December 15, 2005

ADVENT IV: RCL Texts for Dec. 18, 2005

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 "Vs. 2" . . .the king (David) said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."

The standard understanding of this text and its connection with Advent is pretty simple. It plays on the usages of the word HOUSE. David lives in a house of cedar and offfers to build God a House (TEMPLE) of cedar or stone, but God counter-offers with the promise of making of David a great house (DYNASTY, heriditary kingdom). The people of Israel remembered this promise in the post-exilic time and it became a part of the messianic hope. Okay.

But when I read the verse above, I thought of my days working for my future father in law on his farm in Eastern North Carolina, down between Raleigh and the coast. I'm from the Northwest mountains, an area which had no plantations and subsequently had few African-Americans. The North Carolina Coastal plain was Plantation country, mostly tobacco, and had a large African-American population. My work on the farm during college was my introduction to the southern, rural, African-American subculture.

One of my duties was to pick up the day laborers around 6 AM and take them back home at the end of the day. Whenever I asked a rider for directions I would say, "Where do you LIVE?" and they would reply, "I STAY on Oak Street." or "I STAY at Mr. Willie Thomas' place." None of them LIVED anywhere, they all STAYED places.

I pondered this language often. It was, of course, a result of slavery and then share-cropping and lack of home ownership and frequent change of rental properties and tenant arrangements.
I noticed that middle-class African-Americans did not use the term referencing their own homes, but still used it in relation to various ancestors or relatives living in the country.

So the phrase "I LIVE in a house made of cedar, while the ark of God STAYS in a tent," really grabbed me. It cast me back to the days of hauling around day-laborers and poor folks, people who didn't count for much in the culture in which they lived, and it made me think of our Gospel lesson for Christ the King, just a month ago, where Jesus reminded us of our duty to ". . . .the least of these my brethren," and it made me think of the ARK of God and where does it stay?, and it does, of course, stay with the poor and the needy, those housed in tents and under bridges and those who get kicked out of houses, and those who don't count in the society and culture in which they exist, those who do not LIVE here, they just STAY here, in America. And it made me think of a little boy born so many years ago, who stayed in an open lean-to shed because there was no room for him to live inside the house.

And what kind of HOUSE are we called to build for those who are forced to STAY out in the cold in America? Well, we are called to the simple task, the concrete job, of finding ways to house these folks, through Habitat for Humanity, or Hinton Center's Affordable Housing Program, or hundreds of other hands-on projects around the country.

But we are also called to help in building another kind of house, a DYNASTY if you will. I believe we are called to be a part of the political process and to find a way to reverse the trends of recent years which have allowed the rich to grow richer while the poor grow poorer. In America, we the people are the Government, we are the rulers of this land, and we have a moral, ethical obligation to tend to the needs of those who are being sytematically pushed out of
a living place in this society, those who are being forced to a life of staying here and there and living, really living, nowhere. (And No, I'm not a Democrat, or a Republican, I'm a Christian.)

GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 1:26-38 Vs. 29 " . . .But she was much PERPLEXED by his words and PONDERED what sort of greeting this might be."

I love Biblical understatement. If an angel showed up in my room and and made thinly veiled intimations of Divine, er, intervention, in my life, I would be a bit more than perplexed; I would be down right terrified and seriously concerned about my sanity. I would be pondering a visit to my friendly neighbourhood psychiatrist.

There are other things about the first noel which give me cause to pause, which perplex me and provoke me to pondering. Every year, I find myself perplexed once again by the very good question often posed to me by a dear Jewish friend. I will put it in his irrreverent form;
"If Jesus was the Messiah, why does the world still suck?"

You have to admit, it's a good question. If Jesus was the Messiah, why all the wars and violence and evil and heartache etc. etc. The Messianic promise was for someone to come and set things aright. Well, things are not right, they are still horribly awry. Millions died in the 20th century in two world wars and in the holocaust and brutal annilation and genocide campaigns and epidemics, etc. You get the picture, you read the news.

If Jesus was, is, our savior, why doesn't the world look more saved? Can we make do with the answer that its not about changing the world, its about saving our souls? An internal, not external salvation? Do you really think that explanation is sufficient for the woman dying of aids in Africa or the child starving to death in Bangladesh?

If you are going to preach that Jesus is the saviour of the world, realize the world doesn't look very saved and define how the Christ has come and does save, or keep your mouth shut. The last thing the world needs is a bunch of sentimental blather about "the Christmas Spirit".

As I said, it's a perplexing question, and the only way out is not an answer but a commitment.
The PSALMODY for today is the MAGNIFICAT, the song of Mary in Luke 1:47-55.
If we are to say that Jesus is the Saviour of the world, we are called to join with Jesus in his saving activity which means being a part of the work of God described in vs. 52-53; "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

If the Baby born in Bethlehem is the saviour of the world, the Kings of kings and Lord of lords,
then it behooves us to be about our Saviour's business.



Wednesday, December 07, 2005

ADVENT III: RCL texts for Dec. 11

FIRST READING: Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
Verse 1: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. . . “

Every time I read this lesson, I think of Jesus first sermon in the synagogue in Nazereth, how he read this text and then said, “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.” I also think of how this text and those words were the theme of his ministry for the time he had left.

This time, when I read this text I thought of my first sermon. I was 22, a recent UNC-chapel Hill graduate, preparing to enter seminary in September. It was a hot August day in Eastern North Carolina, Asbury United Methodist, Washington NC. I wore a seersucker suit, what I later took to calling a “Matlock” suit.

I don’t know if the sermon was any good. It was the best I could do with no training and no experience. I found the one page outline the other day, (yes, I’m a pack-rat, but only of academic and theological stuff) one page, typed on onion skin paper, marginal notes in my ever present fountain pen scrawl.

It was on faith in the midst of doubt, of hanging on to faith in God in the midst of evidence to the contrary.

What is interesting to me is how that has been the theme of my preaching and my ministry for over almost 30 years; almost every time I look at a text I think, how can I believe that, why should I believe that; even if its true, why does it matter NOW, to ME?
Those are my eternal questions, the questions which drive my preaching and my life.

Here’s question for you: what is YOUR question? What inquiry keeps you going? What do you seek to know that keeps you going, looking, seeking? And where does God fit in to that? Those are the bedrock questions of the spiritual life, without which there is no life, only existence. I guess I would say “The spirit of the Lord God has anointed me TO ASK QUESTIONS . . .”

SECOND READING: I Thessalonians 5:16-24
I got nothing. When Paul gets all exuberant with the exhortations, I just zone out. I’ve read this over four or five times this week, I understand the words, I get the drift, it just leaves me flat. All I can say is, some people like religious talk and others don’t. I don’t .

GOSPEL READING: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Verse 8: “He (John) himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light . . “

Back in the early 80’s, I spent a year doing post-M.Div. studies at the Lutheran Seminary in Columbia SC. One Sunday I was scheduled to preach in Pomaria SC. If you’re not familiar with the area, the Dutch Fork is the area the German Lutherans settled in the 1700’s and its just full of Lutheran churches just west and north west of Columbia.

I couldn’t find the town or the church. Every road had a couple of brick Lutheran Churches. It was less than 15 minutes before the service and I still couldn’t find the church.

My moment of ultimate frustration came at a T crossroads. Their were two signs facing me, pointing in opposite directions, each saying Pomaria 5 miles. There was a farmer in the corner of the field, working on his tractor. I rolled down the window and asked,
“Does it matter which may I go to Pomaria?” He looked at me, he looked at the signs, he spat on the ground and looked back at me, “Not to me it don’t.”

One thing you can say about John, it mattered to him which way people went; he was a sign pointing to Christ. That was is role and he knew it, and he was constantly deflecting attention from himself to Christ, pointing to Christ as the light.

Put another way, John was an icon. I have recently been doing some reading in Orthodox spirituality. In LIGHT THROUGH DARKNESS, John Chryssavgis says, “In the Orthodox tradition, doctrines are merely signposts (otherwise known as icons) in our journey towards God, pointers to (and never propositions about) the divine reality.” P. 58.

We preachers are icons, all Christians are called to be icons, really. We are all pointers to Christ, and the way we point is by the way we live, living out our faith in the world in such a way that people see the light in us and on us and through us.

In his book, THE GREAT GIVEAWAY, David E. Fitch takes on the culture of church growth which has sold out to modernity. He says, in part, “Postmoderns, however, suspect the machinations of consumer oriented messages to have power over them to make “buying” decisions. Instead, postmoderns recognize truth most where it is lived day-to-day one with another.” P.54

It is not our calling to say who Christ is definitively. It is our role to point to the story and to live out the story in our lives. The rest is up to God.