Saturday, August 23, 2008

August 24, 2008

August 24, 2008
A sermon preached at Messiah Lutheran, Madison, AL.

Matthew 16:13-19

I have often wondered why Jesus decided to give “Simon-bar-Jona” the nickname Rocky, for that is what the name Peter means. It comes from the Latin “petra” meaning rock or stone. The most familiar English usage is in the word “petrified,” meaning “turned to stone”.

Most of the time people who are nicknamed Rocky are stalwart, unmovable, straight-ahead, no-nonsense kind of guys, like Rocky Balboa. Somehow the name Rocky doesn’t seem to fit Simon son of Jona.

For this Rocky, this Peter, was, to put it bluntly, not very dependable. He was hot one minute, cold the next.

I’ll walk on water, Lord. Oops, I’m sinking!

I’ll never let them take you Lord, give me that Sword. Jesus? Never heard of him.

Lord, I’ll stand by you forever. Well, Jesus is dead, I’m going fishing.

Was Jesus making fun of Simon by calling him Peter? Was Jesus joking when he said that on this rock of questioning, unstable, doubting and undependable faith I will build my church?

Or was Jesus being both more realistic and more daring than we can ever imagine?

When Jesus picked someone like Simon bar Jona to be the backbone of the church, Jesus picked someone remarkably like us. We are all probably more like Peter than we would like to admit.

We grow hot and cold in our enthusiasm for God; we are often confused about our faith, about what it means to be a follower of Jesus; we continually stumble on our journey to Jerusalem.

There are TWO great confessions of faith in today’s Gospel Lesson:

One is Simon saying to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The other is Jesus saying to Simon, “You are Rocky and on this Rock I will build my church.”

Ever since I was a little kid I have found many things in the Bible hard to understand. Mostly Old Testament stories that conflicted with the science I was being taught in school and stories of God killing people or telling the Israelites to kill people in God’s name, stories that conflicted with the God of Love I believed in.

I have spent my adult life sorting out answers to those questions.
But I have to tell you that the thing that has astounded and befuddled me the most is how on earth God could place the most precious Jewel of Eternity; the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; into the weak and fragile hands of people like us, like you and me.

But, that is indeed what God has done.

When Jesus says to Simon, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church . . . . “

We should hear, “Members of Messiah Lutheran Church, you are Rocky and on this rock, I will build my church.”

There are many things that come to mind when one says “Church;”
Building. Worship Service. Sunday School Classes and Women’s Circles and Youth Groups and Men’s Breakfasts and Social Ministry Projects and council Meetings and Offering Envelopes and Annual Meetings and Stewardship Campaigns.

All those aspects of being the church are built on just two things:
1) Our Faith in God; and
2) God’s faith in us.

A better way to say that would be that the church is built on just one thing; the relationship of love that exists between God and God’s people.

God chose to build the church on the somewhat uncertain rock of our faith and our discipleship and our commitment to Christ and the Gospel.

God risked everything by trusting us with “the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I have two grown sons. I did not realize what a tremendous thing God had done in giving us the keys until I had to give my oldest son the keys to the family car when he turned sixteen. But, after a few speeding tickets and small fender benders he began to live into that trust.

God has handed to us the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. God has shown a tremendous amount of faith in us. And let’s be clear. It is not trust that we have earned; it is trust that we have been given in the fervent hope and belief that we will grow up enough to handle it.

It is a scary thought, and a humbling one, to realize that God has put the Gospel, the Keys to the Kingdom, into our hands. It is a thing that is so, so big, and we are so, so small; that we don’t even know where to start.


Those are the first words of what is being called “The Prayer of Oscar Romero.” It has circulated on the internet and printed on posters, etc.

Romero was the Archbishop of El Salvador who was killed at the Altar during Mass by a government death squad. The words were actually spoken by another bishop, a Cardinal, at a Mass for priests who had recently died, but they speak for all of us about our place in the work of the Kingdom, God’s hand in all eternity, and God’s hand on us.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

August 2008

August 17, 2008
A sermon preached at Holy Cross Lutheran, Athens, GA

Matthew 15: 21-28

Title: I Don’t Know

I have two sons, ages 22 and 25. When the boys were little, they thought I knew everything. And I must confess that I did little to dissuade them from this highly flattering delusion.

I am sure that somewhere in the recesses of their minds there is a file of totally incorrect information about why the sky is blue or how come the people in Australia don’t fall off. (God is a Tarheel and people in Australia wear special shoes with suction cups on the bottom.)

Anyway, as time goes by, and there comes a day when the delusion that Daddy knows everything is replaced with the equally powerful assumption that Daddy knows nothing. As Mark Twain famously said,

When I was 14, my father was the most ignorant man in America. When I turned 21 I was surprised at how much HE had learned in seven years.

In between the stages of DADDY KNOWS EVERYTHING and DADDY KNOWS NOTHING there falls the short stage of WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T KNOW?

A period of genuine astonishment that sometimes Dad answers questions with a sincere and unfeigned Gee son, I don’t know.

The idea that Daddy doesn’t know and is willing to admit he doesn’t know takes some getting used to for most children.

In the last thirty years I have discovered that a similar relationship between Pastor and parishioners. In matters religious, there is an assumption that the pastor knows.

Sometimes at social gatherings, someone I’ve just met follows up the What do you do? question with what they perceive to be a real zinger,

If Adam and Eve were the first people and Cain and Abel were their children, after Cain killed Abel and was banished to the Land of Nod, where did Cain’s wife come from?

Without an hour to go into the rudiments of Hebrew Bible higher and lower criticism to establish the basis for an intelligent answer, I usually just shrug and say, I don’t know. How ‘bout them Bulldogs? Somehow, that doesn’t seem to satisfy them.

Now, as I hinted, we pastors play into this whole PASTOR KNOWS game by sometimes acting like we’re the only ones capable of understanding a particular Biblical passage. We mumble about Hebrew and Greek and Contextualization, etc. etc. but, truthfully, some of our answers are about as accurate as the whole suction cups on the shoes thing.

Take today’s Gospel Lesson. Here we find Jesus behaving in what seems to us a totally unChristlike manner.

There is really no way to see what Jesus said to the woman about taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs as anything other than insulting and demeaning to her, both as a woman and a Canaanite.

And, insult aside, we have a hard time reconciling the understanding we have of Jesus as Saviour of the world with his statement that he came only to the lost sheep of Israel.

So many pastors and Biblical scholars have, at times, turned to a series of “explanations” that get Jesus off the hook, so to speak, sort of.

1) There are those who see this as an acted out parable. They say that Jesus was just saying what he knew his followers thought in order to correct it. This is the

He didn’t really mean it approach.

2) Some Bible Scholars opine that this is an unauthentic saying, that the whole thing is a creation of the early church. For them, the question is one of the theological needs of the early church and why did they include such a story but the story itself doesn’t reflect on Jesus because

He didn’t really say it.

3) Others say that Jesus was not referring to her in a negative or insulting way at all but was simply using a Jewish adage, like our the early bird gets the worm. Does anyone get offended if they happen to be the worm in the analogy? Of course not. This is the

We don’t really get it answer.

Now that I’ve set it up, you all look at me expectantly and say, Okay Pastor, which is it? And I get to say,

Gee, I don’t know.

Really, I don’t know. Did Jesus have an authentic conversion experience here? A conversion to seeing his mission as going beyond Israel to the whole world?

I don’t know.

Did Jesus already know that his mission was to the whole world and just used this encounter as a brilliantly ad-libbed teachable moment?

I don’t know.

There is one important thing that I do know. This text defines for us the mission of Jesus as going beyond the geographic and ethnic limits of Israel and Judaism to the whole world and for all people.

However he got there, from this moment forth Jesus is shown to us as one who understands himself as having a mission to ALL God’s children.

As I said, I don’t know if Jesus had a conversion moment in this encounter or not, but the text certainly makes it looks as though he did. And if Jesus has conversion moments, perhaps we need to look to ourselves and see if there are any places where conversions are necessary to our understanding of the wideness of God’s Mercy.

Several years ago, at an Episcopal/Lutheran clergy gathering in Nashville TN, the Episcopal Bishop told of being elected by the diocese of Nashville and moving from Detroit for his first experience of the South.

He said the Catholic Bishop, a native Southerner, took him to lunch and told him, The first thing you have to learn, Bishop, is that here in the South we’re all Baptists. You’ve got your Baptist Baptists of course, but you’ve also got the Methodist Baptists, the Presbyterian Baptists, the Lutheran Baptists, and yes the Episcopal and Catholic Baptists. Different name on the sign, but somewhere deep within, we’re all Baptists.

The Bishop was joking around, but at core he had an important point. One of the realities of living in the Baptist dominated South is that Southern evangelical religion is dominated by issues of conversion. Are you saved? is Evangelical for Have you been converted?

We Lutherans have a tendency to shy away from that question for it is not the way we think and talk about our faith so we’re unsure what to say.

We don’t want to say I don’t know, yet what we do say often sounds like that, and our reliance on our baptism and confirmation doesn’t sound much like conversion to the people asking.

I have finally decided on my answer to that question. When someone asks me if I’ve been saved, I usually reply,

Yes, many times.

As I look back on it now, I realize that my life has been a series of conversions, of times when my ideas about the nature of God were dashed on the rock of God’s Word of hope and promise to all people.

Out of that collision of my hard head with God’s firm Law and Gospel a new understanding of myself, of others and of God’s love and mercy were constantly emerging.

I think I count my first conversion as a conversion from racism, in an incident too embarrassing and shaming for me to tell except that when I was in high school hurt a good person and a dear friend very, very deeply and in the process I learned the depths of the evil of which I was capable and also I learned that only God’s love could put it right and it did.

Over the years, I have had numerous conversions. Conversions about Liberals and Conservatives and Communists and Asians and Hispanic and Jewish people and women and Yankees and rednecks and intellectuals and homosexuals and, and, and . . .

Every time I have come to a place where I think I’m okay, I’m finished converting; God opens up another area where I am attempting to limit God’s love and grace, mercy and power to people like me, leaving out people “not like me.”

And one more time I have to go through the process of being broken down and rebuilt through the power of God’s love and redemptive power.

It’s like this. I bought a pair of clip-on Sunglasses recently. For two weeks I fretted and fussed because they didn’t fit right. Finally I discovered it wasn’t the clip-ons, it was my glasses that were crooked.

It’s like that with the Word of God in our lives. We continually try to bend God’s Word to fit the shape of our lives, and it continues to be an uneven fit.

The salvific moment, the moment of salvation and conversion, comes when we begin to bend our lives to conform to the shape of God’s Word.

This is not something that happens in a moment, in an instant. This is something that takes place over the course of a lifetime.

Did Jesus have a genuine conversion with the Canaanite woman?

Still, I don’t know.

Are we called to spread the love of God in word and deed to all those around us?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

Amen and Amen.

Friday, August 08, 2008

August 10, 2008

August 10, 2008
Holy Trinity Lutheran, Kingsport, TN

Texts: I Kings 19:9-18, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14: 22-33

Almost 40 years ago I stood in the hallway outside a College Admissions office, sweating uncomfortably in my Sunday Suit and twisting the postcard with the time and place of my appointment in my hands.

I pushed the door open slowly and looked around. I saw a man sitting at his desk, seemingly absorbed in his paperwork. I eased into the room, looking for a place to sit when suddenly he looked up and barked at me, “What are you doing here?”

Startled, I stammered out that I was looking for the Admissions office. He said, “This is it. What are you doing here?”

Again I attempted to answer. “I’m Delmer Chilton and I have an appointment.”

He grunted and said, “I know that, but what are you doing here?”

Know that expression, “Look like a deer in the headlights?” That was me. I was completely bumfuzzled. (My grandma used to say that. I really like that word; bumfuzzled.)

Finally I shrugged my shoulders threw up my hands and said, “I don’t understand the question. You’ve got to help me out here?’

Again the man grunted and said, “What are you doing here? Not here in this room but here in this life? Why do you want to go to college? What is your calling, your purpose, your passion? What ARE YOU doing here?”

I don’t know how good that man was at recruiting students; but he sure was good at asking the important questions.

Did you notice that his question was the same question that God asked Elijah on the mountain, “What are you doing here?”

At one level it’s a question about why Elijah is hiding in a cave far from where he’s supposed to be. At another level it’s a question about what Elijah’s calling in life is.

Without going too deeply into the history, Elijah had been called by God to oppose Ahab and Jezebel, the rulers of Israel. Ahab, under the influence of his wife had reintroduced Baal worship and many of the people were adopting it.

There was a big confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal that involved the sacrifice of a bull and the calling down of fire from heaven. It’s a real interesting story. It’s in I Kings 18:20-40. You should read it some time.

Anyway, The 400 priests of Baal failed and Elijah succeeded in calling down fire from heaven and the 400 Baal priests were killed, but instead of proving anything to Jezebel and she got mad and decided to have Elijah killed.

And here’s the interesting thing. Elijah had just successfully called down fire from heaven and now he turns tail and runs. After that gigantic demonstration of God’s power, at the first sign of trouble he gives up.

And God comes and finds him in the cave and asks him, “What are you doing here?” “Why did you run away?” Elijah’s answer says it all, because his answer is not about God, it’s all about him,

“I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with a sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Elijah’s fatal flaw at this moment is that he believes that he is the one who has done good things for God; when in reality it is God who has done good things for the world through Elijah. (Repeat)

This moves to the second meaning of the question, the meaning my College Admissions Officer was getting at. What is your calling, your purpose in life?

Elijah had forgotten that his calling was to serve God and to allow God to work in and through him for the benefit of Israel and ultimately the world.

Moving for a moment to our New Testament story of Jesus walking on the water; we discover that Peter had a similar problem. When he looked at the problems around him, the storm, he forgot that it was God who was holding him up. He began to think, “I can’t do this, I’m walking on water,” and thus began to sink.

Now, let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about some form of “positive thinking” of “look deep within your self and BELIEVE!” pseudo-psycho-babble.

What I’m talking about is remembering that we DON”T do great things for God. God does great things for us, and God does great things through us for the salvation of the world.

Remember when the little WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets were all the rage? I used to joke about needing a WWPD bracelet; What Would Peter Do? Now there’s a standard I can live up to.

But I was sort of serious about that. The trouble with WWJD is we are not Jesus, so we can’t do what Jesus would do. That is precisely the point of these stories; we are dependant on God, and God is trustworthy.

Jesus could walk on water, Peter couldn’t except with God’s help. Elijah didn’t make God send fire from heaven, God sent Elijah to call for the fire.

Way too often we in the church think it’s our job to do great things for God. We want to build big buildings, attract huge crowds, be a “significant” and “important” congregation in our community and Synod.

None of which is bad except if we think that we do those things on our own, as a service to God. We don’t. It is not our calling to be successful, as the world defines success. Rather it is our calling to be faithful, as God defines faith.

It is our calling as the church to Proclaim the Word and Administer the Sacraments, to serve the world in the name of the one who came and served us.

It is our calling to be proclaimers, in words and deeds of the Glorious Good News of the love and Grace of God. How are they to hear without someone to tell them? (Romans 10: 14)

That may result in size and significance in the eyes of the world, and it may not. But that is not the issue.

The issue is remembering that to say “Jesus is LORD,” is also to say “And I am not.”

The issue is remembering the words of Martin Luther in the Small Catechism, “Not by my own reason and strength can I believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him,” and I would add “or serve him.”

The issue is remembering what we’re doing here.

The issue is remembering that our calling is to be a means of grace in the world, a place and a people through whom God can love and serve the world.

Amen and Amen.

Friday, August 01, 2008

August 3, 2008

August 3, 2009
A Sermon preached at Peace Lutheran, Knoxville, TN.
Text: Matthew 14:13-21

The first line of our Gospel lesson is WHEN JESUS HEARD THIS. “This” is the execution by beheading of his cousin John, John the Baptist, by the evil King Herod.

The shock of bad news stays with us a long time, doesn’t it. I’m sure there are people here old enough to remember where they were when they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Two bits of bad news stick in my memory as clearly as if they happened yesterday; the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the 9/11.

For anyone who was in and around Knoxville last Sunday, the shootings at the Tennessee Valley UU Church will probably be another one of those events we will all remember in clear detail.

WHEN JESUS HEARD THIS; When Jesus learned that John was dead, I’m sure his heart sank and his eyes swelled up with tears and his stomach hurt and all he wanted was some time and space to think and pray and be alone with his friends. There’s nothing in the Bible to back it up, but I’ve always enjoyed imagining Jesus and John playing together as boys, at family reunions and such.

After all they were practically the same age; surely they saw each other at Grandma’s house and maybe hung out together as teenagers; maybe fishing and swimming with the gang. Like I said; there’s nothing in the Bible to back it up, but it’s at least likely, don’t you think?

Of course, as adults they went their separate ways. Apparently Jesus stayed near home, working in the carpenter shop while John “got religion” and went of in the desert to study at the Essene Bible College.

Now when John started making a name for himself preaching and baptizing down at the Jordan River, Jesus heard about and decided to go see what Cousin John was up to. And when he got there he was baptized by John and his life changed forever. Jesus came up out of that water, and the Holy Spirit spoke to him and his ministry began.

WHEN JESUS HEARD THIS; he was deeply, deeply hurt. He needed time, time to be alone, time to pray, time to gather himself, time to grieve and time to cry. So, he got in a boat and headed out across the water to a deserted, lonely place. But, for Jesus, there was no getting away. There was no opportunity for grief, no time to pray. The people followed him, ran around the lake to meet him.
When Jesus got out of the boat, there they were, thousands of them, waiting for him.

Now, if Jesus had sent them away, asked them to leave him alone; well, that would have been understandable, wouldn’t it? But that’s NOT what he did. Jesus looked at them, and the Bible says, HE HAD COMPASSION FOR THEM. Maybe he looked at their faces, stared deep into their eyes and saw there the same sadness and loneliness and yearning for healing that he felt deep within his own soul. That’s what the word compassion means, to “suffer with” another person.

So Jesus sat down with them and had a healing service. He CURED THE SICK though out the long afternoon. The dinner hour came and went and finally the disciples got hungry. They went to Jesus and said, in essence, UH, LOOK JESUS, WHY DON’T WE CALL A BREAK. IT’S GETTING LATE AND THESE PEOPLE NEED TO EAT. IF WE STOP NOW, THEY’LL HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO WALK BACK TO TOWN BEFORE THE STORES CLOSE.

Apparently the long afternoon had restored Jesus’ spirits. He started teasing the disciples. HEY GUYS, WHY DON’T YOU FEED THEM YOURSELVES? Jesus was probably grinning while the disciples protested, BUT, BUT, LORD, ALL WE’VE GOT IS FIVE LOVES AND TWO FISH.

Could it be that the disciples were saying, “ All we’ve got is what we brought for our own supper. We’ve only got enough to take care of our own needs. We care about these people and their hunger; but, HEY, we’ve got to take care of ourselves first, don’t we?

Jesus smiled and said, BRING ME WHAT YOU’VE GOT. Then he had everyone sit down and he said the blessing and he started breaking the food into pieces and had the disciples give it out to the people. And it was enough. Actually, it was more than enough; they had more left over than they had when they started. Then and only then did Jesus dismiss the crowd, send the disciples away in the boat and slip away into the mountains to pray.

AND HE HAD COMPASSION. In the middle of the world’s trials and tribulations, pains and sorrows, mis-steps and mis-deeds, dis-appointments and despair; these four words, AND HE HAD COMPASSION ,reveal to us the heart and soul of the Gospel.

The assurance that God knows and God cares, the promise that God understands and God heals is the one thing that can keep us going when all else fails. Jesus’ response to John’s death and the crowd’s need is a gentle whisper across the centuries that the God of our salvation IS a very present help in time of trouble.

Jesus knew through personal experience, the pain of loss, the emptiness of the death of a loved one.

Jesus felt the shock and hurt of betrayal and misunderstanding. Jesus experienced first hand the utter loneliness of feeling abandoned by God. Jesus knew the confusion when you do your best, but your best doesn’t seem to be good enough. Jesus compassion for us is rooted in his own experience of the troubles we face in life.

The Incarnation, the belief that Jesus was God in the flesh, is NOT important because it is a miracle that proves that Jesus is God’s Son. It is important because it teaches us that GOD is not distant and removed from us; but is here in the midst of life with us, not judging and critical but caring and compassionate. Jesus’ acts of compassion, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, teach us how to BE the body of Christ in the world. What Jesus began then he continues in us today.

All too often we are like the disciples. We recognize the needs of others, we shake our heads and fret over their troubles; perhaps we even offer them suggestions as to how they can fix themselves.

But when it comes to going beyond that, well we say, WE’VE ONLY GOT ENOUGH HERE TO TAKE CARE OF OURSELVES.

The important thing about the feeding of the 5000 is not the miracle of Jesus turning those five loaves and those two fish into a meal for the multitude. The important thing is that this story calls us to raise our eyes above our own needs and above the limits of our own resources so that we can see the needs of the world around us and the power of a compassionate God who will take what we freely give and turn it into enough and more.

We are called to be a community of compassion; a place and a people who show the world that God is alive and God is love. Amen and amen.