Friday, February 26, 2010

Epiphany 2, Feb. 28, 2010

The Second Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 13:31-35

My Grandma Hubbard used to get eggs from the Hodges who lived down the dirt road about a mile. When I was about 5 or 6, Grandma and I would walk down there on a cool summer’s evening.

We would sit on the porch and talk and drink lemonade; sometimes I could persuade Mrs. Hodges to play the little pump organ in the living room by agreeing to pump the pedals for her. (Her legs hurt.)

Eventually we would go with Mr. Hodges out past the hen-house to the spring-house, where he kept his eggs (and the family’s milk and butter) in little wire cages submerged in a concrete tank feed by a mountain spring.

We put the eggs in little pails padded with dishcloths and walked home for supper, probably bacon and eggs with biscuit, ‘cause grandma wasn’t particular about exactly when she had breakfast.

She only put a few in my basket, because I was famous for not ever making it home without breaking all the eggs in my pail.

One day we came out of the spring-house and an awful fuss arose in the chicken yard.

There was a raising of dust, and a flurry of feathers and a scattering of hens and chickens, and much screeching and squawking, and then, just as suddenly, things calmed down and an old gray hen emerged with a large black snake in her mouth.

I thought of that day again when I read today’s Gospel lesson. The first thing that leapt out at me was Jesus’ barnyard imagery;

Herod, the king, the worldly power portrayed as a fox in the chicken yard, with Messiah, the Christ, portrayed as a Bold Female, risking all to protect her chicks. It’s an interesting play of images.

As our Gospel lesson begins, Jesus is told that he should be afraid, he should watch out, that the evil King Herod is out to get him.

Jesus appears to be unafraid, of either Herod or dying. It would be appropriate for Jesus to be scared, but Jesus shows no fear, instead he taunts Herod, saying, come and get me, or better yet, I’ll come to you.

No true prophet can die outside Jerusalem.

At the mention of Jerusalem, Jesus’ tone changes.

He cries over the people, laments their misguided rejection of God’s messengers of truth and love.

And then comes this most startling image: God, Christ, as a Mother Hen protecting her children from the evil fox in their midst.

Jerusalem is Israel and Israel is us, all of us, all of humanity.

The truth is that God has loved us, all of us,
from the very beginning,
from the time of creation,
from the time of Noah and the flood,
from the time of Abram and Sari and the Promise, from the time of Moses and Miriam and the Exodus, from the time of Deborah
and the other judges of Israel
and the kings and queens
and prophets and psalmists,
God has loved the world
and sent us signs and wonders
and messages of that love.

And all too often, we have failed to understand or respond to that love.

All too often, we have turned God’s Word of love into a life of hate, we have turned God’s call to repentance into pointing fingers and a call to arms.

The sly fox of the world has turned us away from that which is good and eternal and has pulled us in the direction of those things which satisfy now but do not linger and live with us for an eternity with God.

If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the sadness in Jesus’ voice here.

If you’ve ever watched someone waste their life away on drugs or booze or bad relationships or chasing after material possessions or honors or notoriety or celebrity, or something.

Something undefined but just around the corner that will, they hope, make them whole and complete and healed, but which is never there; then you know the pain Jesus feels.

For you cannot save them, you cannot make them change, you cannot make anyone give up the things that are ruining them.

All you can do is open your arms, you cannot make anyone walk into them. (Repeat)

And, it is the most vulnerable posture in the world, arms spread, chest exposed.

Or, to continue Jesus’ Mother Hen imagery, Wings spread, Breast exposed.
It is interesting that this turns out to be the way Jesus died in Jerusalem, Wings spread, Breast exposed.

Jesus was able to face down and laugh at Herod the fox because he had faith in the God of Promise, the God who promises and follows through, Jesus had faith in the God who promised Abram and Sarai that they would have a Son and that they would be the parents of a people who filled the earth.

Jesus was able to go to the cross because he believed the Psalmists when he said,

The LORD is my light and my salvation - whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life - of whom shall I be afraid?

In the middle of the night, when the fox is loose in the henhouse of our lives, we grow fearful and we wonder: where is God, will God come?

And Jesus is the promise that YES! God comes.

She boldly comes across the chickenyard - clucking and screeching, Wings spread, Breast Exposed!

She comes, to rescue, protect, save her children.

Yes, God comes, that is the promise Jesus made and that is the promise Jesus kept upon the cross,

where he sheltered us from the devil’s wrath and saved us from ourselves so that we might live forever in God’s love.

Amen and Amen.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lent 1, Feb. 21, 2010

LENT I
February 21, 2010
Text: Luke 4:1-13

(A sermon preached at Christ Lutheran Church, Prattville, AL.)

Several years ago someone gave me a tee-shirt that I absolutely loved. I wore it so much I wore it out.

Just the other day, I was dusting the furniture and found its remnants in the rag box. It read:

“To do is to be” – PLATO
“To be is to do” – DESCARTES
“Dobedobedo” - SINATRA

What we do, how be behave, what we believe; is a large part of how others define us.

Pastor, teacher, housewife, student, musician, funny, quiet, aggressive, talkative, etc.

And how we define ourselves has a major effect on how we behave.

It is, at times, a chicken and the egg question.

Which came first? Am I a Pastor because I do pastoral things; or do I do pastoral things because I am a Pastor?

The biblical position is that we act out of our identity; that who we believe ourselves to be is the determining factor in what we choose to do.

Have you ever noticed that when someone behaves in an outrageous or improper or, most often, horribly RUDE manner, the first thing people say is: “Well, just who do you think you are?”

That is the right question. Who we think we are shapes our behavior.

And the Bible shows us that Satan knew this. That is why he challenged Jesus on the point of identity in today’s Gospel lesson.

The key to understanding the story of the temptations lies in the THREE little words: IF YOU ARE.

In the last verse of Chapter Three, verse 22, following Jesus’ baptism, a voice comes from heaven and says,

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And here just a few days later, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God.”

Satan presents Jesus with the opportunity to define what it means to be the Son of God;

He is given the opportunity to win popularity by turning stones into bread,
feeding the masses and feeding his ego at the same time,

He is given the opportunity to achieve great power by worshipping the devil and turning his back on trusting God to provide.

He is given the opportunity to achieve great fame by throwing himself off the temple and showing himself to be God’s Chosen One by letting the angels catch him.

These temptations invite Jesus to imitate the Emperors in Rome who secured power by giving the people free food and free entertainment, winning their favor with bread and gladiators.

The temptations with which Jesus was faced are the very ones we, you and I, fall victim to on a regular, I would almost say, a daily basis.

In little subtle ways we seek popularity or power or possessions as a way of hedging our bets against the uncertainty of the world.

After all, we live in an age in which terrorists strap on bombs and blow up innocent people, stock markets plunge and housing prices fall, where wars rage and tornados strike and earthquakes break open the very ground beneath our feet.

A little control over our own lives and a bit of money securely invested, what’s wrong with that?

It comes down to a matter of faith, of trust, of belief and confidence in the promises of God to love and care for us throughout life’s trials and temptations.

The problem is: the things the Devil wanted Jesus to do as the Son of God are selfish, and self-serving and ultimately self-glorifying.

And Jesus rejected them because being centered on self is inconsistent with being the Christ, the Beloved, the Son of God, the one sent to save others.

It was during the forty days in the wilderness that Jesus struggled with what it meant to be the Son of God.

When he became clear about that identity, he came out of the wilderness, and began to preach the Kingdom of God and to perform mighty acts of healing and exorcism.

In the forty days in the wilderness, Jesus found out who he was and came forth ready to behave in accord with his identity.

When Jesus knew who he was, the question of what he was to do was already answered.

To be the Christ, the Son of God, laid out for him a path to follow, a way of being in the world that led to certain things to do.

Preaching. Healing. Confronting Evil.

Throughout these forty days of Lent we are called to contemplate the life of Jesus, his path of service and obedience to God, his living out his identity as the Son of God.

As we do that, we must ask ourselves some identity questions, personally and congregationally.

Who am I? Who am I, really? And what is God calling me to do?

Who are we? Who are we, really? And what is God calling us to do?

Not too long ago I turned on the TV to watch a ballgame and caught the tail end of an old episode of LAW AND ORDER.

Two lawyers, one white, one black, were sitting in a book lined office, having a drink and discussing the just ended case.

The Black lawyer said, “I used to think I was a lawyer who happened to be Black. Now I feel more like a Black man who happens to be a lawyer.”

It is a question of identity that will shape his life and work.

Who am I? Am I a lawyer, or doctor, or policeman, or office manager, or teacher, or truck-driver or nurse, or retiree who happens to be a Christian?

Or am I a Christian; who happens to be a lawyer or doctor or policeman, etc.

It is an important question, and the answer will shape your life.

Likewise, as a congregation, as a community, we struggle with identity questions.

Who are we, really? Are we a gathering of like-minded people, a little ELCA Lutheran enclave in Prattville?

If so, then the things we do should be designed to take care of ourselves.

Or are we a people whom God has called together to be the Body of Christ, as Luther says in the Small Catechism: Called, gathered, empowered and sent?

Called to be a Christian, gathered around Word and Sacrament, Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Sent into the world to spread the Love of God.

If that is who we are (and I believe it is) then the things we do will be designed to care for others.

Jesus spent forty days in the Wilderness struggling with the question of identity, struggling to discover what it meant to be the Son of God.

Throughout the forty days of Lent, we are called to do the same.

We must ask ourselves,

If we are the beloved children of God, what is God calling us to do?

Christ Church, Prattville; just WHO do you think you are?

Amen and amen.

Monday, February 15, 2010

To my readers

The title "To My Readers," seems a bit pretentious to me, especially since I am generally surprised to find out I have readers!

I preached Epiphany 4 and 5 at the Episcopal Church here in Hayesville and the second week someone asked why I had not posted the previous week's sermon.

So, tonight, I have caught up by posting Epiphany 4 and Transfiguaration and a little serio-comic piece I did on Shrove Tuesday and Mardi Gras.

Thing is, I'm not smart enough to do them in correct chronological order, but you all are smart enough to figure it out.

I really would like to know who's reading this and if it is something I should keep doing. So, please email me at delmer.chilton@gmail.com and let me know you're reading and whether you'd like me to continue writing.

thanks,

delmer

Epiphany Four

Epiphany Four, January 31, 2010
Luke 4:21-30

My friend Sam Dixon died in the Earthquake in Haiti. He was a UMC minister who was the Director of the UM Relief agency UMCOR.

At his Memorial Service in Raleigh last week, a Methodist lay preacher used an illustration that really struck me.

He said that he and the Rev. Dixon had attended a workshop on Church Growth and that the presenter had talked about the familiar paintings of Jesus Knocking at the Door

We've all seen them in homes and in churches; Jesus knocking at the door of a 18th century cottage.

Most of us, most of the time, have seen that painting as symbolic of Jesus knocking at the door of our hearts, seeking to come in.

At this workshop, the Presenter, Professor Ken Callahan from Candler School of Theology, had suggested that while that was true, there was also another way to think about that painting.

"Perhaps", he said, "Jesus is knocking at the door of our lives, inviting us to come out of our private concerns and to get ourselves involved in the world's needs and hurts and pains."

GOOD NEWS TO THE POOR
RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES
RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND
THE OPPRESSED GO FREE
THE YEAR OF THE LORD'S FAVOR

As we heard in last week's Gospel lesson; that is Jesus' self-identified job description.
It is our job description too.

To understand what happened in today's Gospel Lesson, we have to go back to the middle of chapter three and recall what has been going on in Jesus' life.

Jesus had responded to the call of John by getting baptized,
the Holy Spirit came upon him,
he is declared the Beloved Son of God.
Then the Spirit leads him into the Wilderness,
where he resists the Devil’s temptations to fame and power,
then, still full of the Spirit,
he returns to Galilee and begins preaching and healing.



Then he comes to Nazareth, his hometown, and goes to the Synagogue and reads the text from Isaiah about being the Lord’s anointed, and then, our scripture begins.

Jesus says - Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Many commentators believe that this is not all that he said, but rather it is a synopsis of what he said; a summary of the short homily, or talk, or teaching Jesus gave in the synagogue that day.

At first people were pretty impressed. Verse 22 says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” They are simply impressed, and not a little surprised.

Like the old men in Mount Airy will tell you about going to school with Andy Griffith, “Shoot, I knew him when he was a snot-nosed kid. We went to school together over there on Rockford Street. He warn’t nothing special. A little prissy to tell you the truth, always singing and acting and playing that trombone and such.”

It is in verses 23-27 that he makes them mad. Again, this is a shortened version of the discussion. Apparently they were pleased with his preaching, but they had heard that he had done miracles and healings elsewhere and they wanted him to do some for them.

And Jesus refused, Why? Because all they wanted was a show, an exhibition.
They weren’t interested in people being healed, they wanted to be entertained,
Jesus was having none of it.

And so, we can read between the lines and hear them saying things like, Who do you think you are? What’s the matter, you too good for us now? You gone off to the city and now you’re too big to do miracles for us?

This is where a nasty line from Mark’s version of the story comes into play, instead of Son of Joseph, Mark has them call him “Mary’s boy.” That’s another way of saying, "We haven't forgotten about the questions about who your Daddy is." Small towns are all alike in some things.

Jesus responds with two Hebrew Bible stories of healing. Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath
and Elisha and Namaan. What’s important here is that both the widow of Zarephath and Namaan were gentiles, foreigners, aliens.

Jesus points out that there were many widows and lepers in Israel, but God chose to use Elijah and Elisha to heal the outsiders, and God has chosen Jesus to bring God’s love to everybody, not just the Children of Israel.

This made them really mad. So mad that they ran him out of town and tried to kill him, but he mysteriously got away

Now, here’s the question for us today.

Are we like the people of Nazareth, pleased with Jesus as long as what he says sounds good to us, but turning our backs on him when he says things we don’t like?

Now, most of us would never come right out and say we disagree with Jesus, so we basically use wiggle room to avoid it.

Whenever we hear something we don’t like coming out of Jesus’ mouth, we blame it on somebody other than Jesus: the professors, the liberals, the over-educated preachers, the bleeding hearts, the conservatives,the fundamentalists.

Anything but admitting that Jesus said it, and I’m supposed to deal with it. For example, I’ll admit it; I’m a little hard-hearted about poor people and homeless people. My heart sneers; get a job, go to work, get busy. If you’re poor, it’s your own fault.

Despite a UNC and Duke education and years of prayer and Bible study and living with a Social Worker for 35 years, somewhere in a place I don’t visit very often, deep in my soul,
I still feel that way.

And yet Jesus said The Holy Spirit had anointed him to preach Good News to the poor.

He told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor.

There is the great judgment parable in which Jesus said, “If you did unto one of the least of these, the cold, the hungry, the naked, the poor, you did it unto me.”

And many more things about the poor and my, our obligation to them.

We have to deal with that.

Do we sort of ignore it or do we get mad about it, and turn our backs on Jesus, like the people of Nazareth?

Or do we swallow our pride and obey our master?

Have we stopped listening to Jesus?

He says many things about loving the stranger and the foreigner, about turning the other cheek, about living a life of prayer, about selling what we have and giving it to the poor, about the Kingdom of God being inside us, etc. etc.




Here’s the question, do we take Jesus seriously?

Or are we giving him the yada, yada treatment, nodding and smiling, but not really listening, putting him off and putting him on?

I hope not. I really hope not. But listening to Jesus is hard. Many things he says challenge us; challenge our ideas and our prejudices and our actions.

But Jesus also invites us, invites us to think about things in a new way, to think about others in a new way, to act toward others in a new way.

Jesus invites us to join him in living in the world by the rules of the Kingdom of God, not the rules of earthly success and happiness.

Jesus invites us to join him in blessing the world with God’s grace and acts of healing and love.

Jesus invites us to join him in going out to all lands and all peoples with the great Good News that the Kingdom of God has come and we are all invited to be a part of it.

So, Jesus invites us to walk the way of the cross; are you coming?

Amen and amen.

Transfiguration

TEXTS: Exodus 34:29-35,
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

TITLE: The Hidden-ness of the Holy

Almost every Saturday afternoon, I listen to the opera on the Public Radio Station.

Don’t look so surprised. I like opera; not as much as I like Lynard Skynard or ZZ Topp, but I like opera.

Well, actually I don’t like opera, but I do like the idea of liking opera; deep down inside I fell like an educated person SHOULD like opera, and sooo;

On Saturday afternoon’s I listen to opera; kind of on the same theory as your mother had when she kept feeding you liver and asparagus,

hoping that one day you would come in and when she said, “What would you like for dinner?,” you would say, “How about some yummy liver and asparagus?”

Not gonna happen, but hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Anyway, I listen to opera in the vague hope that someday I’ll like it and can then count myself as a genuinely educated and cultured person.

Every once in a while, I find myself liking a piece, nodding along and getting into it and thinking, “Gee, I beginning to like this opera stuff.”

But then I realized that the opera pieces I liked were the ones they used as soundtracks for Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoons, and I was back to square one;

I still didn’t like opera; I was just engaging in nostalgia about my childhood.

It seems to me that many people are seeking after Spiritual Enlightenment in much the same way that I have been seeking Musical Enlightenment; it’s something they’ve heard about, many of the better people have had these experiences, so they believe they ought to have them too.

So, they go seeking after the next new thing; the latest prayer techniques and the different churches and the praise bands and labyrinth walks and Alpha Bible Study and the Men’s drum-beating Sweat Lodge, and I don’t know what all.

Whatever they’re looking for, it isn’t where they are, it must be over the hill or around the next corner.

Some of this can be traced to biblical stories like today’s scripture lessons, which tell us about extra-ordinary spiritual events.

In our First Lesson, Moses goes up on the mountain and meets God in cloud and devouring fire.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James and John; and while there is TRANSFIGURED, whatever that means.

And in our Second Lesson, Paul refers to Moses and the veil.

Somehow, some people are always looking for something more, something electric and kinetic and spine tingling to happen to them religiously.

Which is okay, those things do happen, sometimes, to some people.

What is not okay is when one believes that such experiences are what religion in general and Christianity in particular are all about.

What is not okay is when people think that unless one has had such an experience, one has not really encountered the HOLY.


The truth of the matter is that religion is NOT about seeking after the extraordinary, not about the quest for the next new spiritual high, not about looking for an experiential fix of the Holy to carry one through another drab and ordinary week.

NO! Religion is about seeing, and feeling and hearing and respecting the Holy in, with and under the ordinary-ness of our daily lives.

To be religious is not a matter of being otherworldly;

to be religious is to be uniquely grounded in this world, seeing the very stuff of life as the very stuff of God.

Where are we to find the Holy?

On Mountaintops and in Sweat Lodges?

Where are we to look for God’s presence in our lives?

Well, you don’t have to go to the mountaintop; it’s all around you, all the time. We know this. It’s shown to us in our sacraments.

The water in the font, the water in which we baptize.
It’s ordinary water. It’s the same water that goes into the drinking fountain, the same water that flushes the toilet.
It’s just water.

What makes it holy? The use makes it holy. We use it to baptize a child, we speak the promise of Christ, and in with that water we bring a new child into Covenant with God and into Community with us.

Look at this wafer. It’s just a little whole-wheat flour and water. We buy them by the thousands. It’s not very good to eat; if you’re not careful, it will stick to the roof of your mouth.

And this, its just wine, grapes fermented and bottled and sold at the liquor store along with Budweiser Beer and Jack Daniel's Whiskey.

It’s good wine, good with dinner, but it’s nothing special or extraordinary, not until we make Eucharist out of it.

What makes it holy? What turns this ordinary stuff into the Body and Blood of Christ? Not me, not Pastors Scott and Mark.
I don’t have magical powers, and neither do they.

It’s us; us and God together; God promising and acting and our believing and celebrating which reveals the Holy within the ordinary.

That’s what happened to Jesus up on that mountain.

Jesus was a man, just like every other man; smarter, holier than most perhaps, but still very much a fully human person.
Even though the disciples called him Rabbi, Christ even, they still saw him as a man. And then this thing happened. And then they knew; Peter James and John knew; that here was the Divine, the Holy, in human form.

And we too are ordinary people, doing ordinary things. We too, as a church, as a community of faith, as the Body of Christ in the world, we too carry in, with and under our human-ness, the brightness of the Holy-ness of God.

We don’t have to go looking for it; we don’t have to struggle after extraordinary spiritual experiences. God is here with us in all that we do.

Our calling is to pay attention; to listen, look, feel and know that God is here, in this place, and in all our places:

at home, at work, at church, at school. God is present with us in the world, all we have to do is lift the veil and look for the Holy with the eyes of the heart.

AMEN AND AMEN.

Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras

Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras Meditation
Text: Romans 7: 14-25
Title: Shriven or Fat?

OPENING:
When I was a kid growing up in Mount Airy, NC; I had absolutely no knowledge or experience of the church year. We had a Christmas play on the Sunday night before Christmas and Easter just kind of showed up one Sunday with no preliminaries and had more to do with Sunrise Service at the Moravian Cemetery and the Easter Egg Hunt during Sunday School and my sisters and mother having new dresses than anything else. We were not a liturgical people.

My favorite place to shop when I was a kid was the Robby's Army/Navy Surplus store on Main Street. Most Fridays I went to town with Mama when she went to "get her hair fixed," and went to Robby's to look at manly men stuff and to occasionally buy a knife or a shirt or something.

Across the street from Robby's was Trinity Episcopal Church; a tiny stone building that seated maybe 50 people and had a Fellowship Hall downstairs. Every year I was fascinated to see the sign go up in their yard advertising "Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner and Ash Wednesday Service" Two different days; one sign.

Nobody I knew could tell me what that was all about; not parents or teachers or even my preacher. The best anyone could do was my Baptist Deacon Grandaddy who said, "I reckon it's the way them 'Piskipalians has a revival and a fellowship dinner." Close enough, I'd say, for an opinion formed out of almost complete ignorance of the subject; a technique I have inherited and exploited with children over the years.

At about the same time, I became acquainted with the New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras, mostly through my devout Aunt Ethel; who gave me Evangelical Tracts and Paperback books for Birthday and Christmas presents until she died when I was forty. (She was still hoping I would turn my back on my obvious crypto-Catholicism and accept Jesus.)

It was in a somewhat lurid paperback description of the soul-saving work of the Rev. Bob Harrington, known to his admirers as the "Chaplain of Bourbon Street." The only religious effect it had on me was making me consider going into the Baptist Ministry just so I could attend New Orleans Baptist Seminary.

It was only in Seminary that I began to connect the dots between Shrove Tuesday and Mardi Gras. Here's this from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Christianity.


On the eve of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the season of fasting, people first went to confession, to be "shriven," hence Shrove Tuesday, and then ate pancakes, to use up the ingredients forbidden during Lent. This turned into a longer period of pre-Lent celebration, known as Carnival or Mardi Gras. P. 468


Although I admit to having a little fun with this, I don't think it far-fetched of me to see the two different ways of observing this day as being more than a cultural difference between the repressed and dour English and Northern Europeans on the one hand and the more "party-hearty" attitude of the French and the other Mediterranean peoples on the other.

We all find it difficult to figure out how seriously to take sin; our own and that of others. We know we're not as good as we could be; or maybe should be.

But also, most of us are unwilling to admit being as bad as some other people think we are; or conversely, as bad as we think some other people are.

No matter how we have failed our own ethical and moral standards, we are all of us more than willing to look around and say, "Well, Lord, at least I'm not as bad as that person. At least I didn't do THAT!"

And so, we come up to Lent with two attitudes:

One is represented by being Shriven. We look at Lent as a time to grow spiritually, to pray, and read and draw closer to God. We see this time before Lent as a time of solemn contemplation and sober reflection; well represented by eating damp and tepid pancakes and half-cooked sausage on a paper plate that folds up and spills syrup on the Fellowship Hall table as you sit uncomfortably in your folding chair and sip bad coffee from a Styrofoam Cup.

The other is represented by getting FAT. By the wonderful phrase "Let the good times Roll!"
We have to go through this Lenten time of restriction and restraint, so we'd best get the partying out of our system before it starts.

To tell you the truth, I'm not exactly sure which of these represents Saint and which Sinner in Luther's famous simul Justus et Peccator; saint and sinner at the same time.

What I am really clear about is that each of us is just that; saint and sinner at the same time,
each of us struggles with it; each of us seeks the good, and all too often fails; fails to see it in others or to achieve it in ourselves.

And the gospel is; God loves us anyway, yes indeed, God loves us anyway;
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL!

Amen and amen.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Epiphany 5 - Feb. 7, 2010

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 7, 2010

A Sermon Preached at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Hayesville, NC

It was during Lent, 25 years ago. I was the pastor of a very old Lutheran church in north of Charlotte. North Carolina.

On the wall of the apse, above the altar, there was a stained glass window in the shape of a cross lit by light bulbs.

One Wednesday afternoon I was putzing around the altar getting things ready for mid-week service when I noticed that one of the bulbs had gone out.

I resolved to change it, but, as often happens with me, I got distracted and forgot about it until the middle of the pre-service Fellowship Meal.

I excused myself and went into the church and then upstairs and opened a little door in the hall like the door Alice went through in Wonderland, got down on my knees to change the bulb. This is when I saw Seth.

Seth wasn't a bad kid; he was just six, and mischievous, he got into things.

This night Seth had gone into the church alone and he was pulling the big, heavy pulpit chair over to the front of the altar.

The altar was set for Communion, in country Lutheran fashion; with a plate full of wafers, a stack of trays and a cup of wine already set out under a sheer, white veil.

In a moment I realized what Seth was doing; he wanted to get a look at that table, and I visualized him pulling everything down on his head and falling out of the chair, etc. etc.

So, without thinking I barked out; "Seth, get down from there, you're going to hurt yourself!"

I will never forget the look of sheer terror that washed over Seth's face as he jerked his head up and looked into the face of Jesus staring down at him from above the Altar.

He started crying and yelling "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" and ran out of the room.

I left what I was doing and followed Seth out of the Church, across the parking lot into the Fellowship Hall, where he was weeping into his grandmother's large and welcoming lap.

Grandma, Grandma, Grandma; Jesus yelled at me. I want to go home NOW!

Isaiah said, Woe is me!. . I am LOST, for I am a man of unclean lips! . . .

And Peter, falling at Jesus' knees, says, Go away from me LORD, for I am a sinful man.

IT IS A FEARFUL THING TO FALL INTO THE HANDS OF THE LIVING GOD.
So says the writer of the book of Hebrews. A fearful thing. Be careful.

Coming to church would be easy if we could think of it as the weekly meeting of the religiously inclined.

A musically augmented study group to examine the latest findings of the theologians and scholars of antiquity.

Or perhaps a ritual dinner to keep alive the memory of a departed and influential leader and hero.

BUT NO. That is not what we do here. To gather here is to take the risk of falling into the hands of the Living God.

Make no mistake about it; the love of the living God can blow your life to bits, can turn your world upside down, can turn you inside out; can send you screaming into the arms of your Grandma, GET ME OUT OF HERE NOW!

This may be why we often tiptoe around in God's presence, why we turn our churches into carpeted living rooms, our pews into padded sofas.

We are fearful that if we talk too loudly we might wake up this Living God, so we form our worship into a comfortable thing, a friendly thing, a reassuring thing.

It's only church, it's only Sunday, it's only Jesus, meek and mild; nothing to worry about.

Isaiah knew better, and in our better moments, so do we. We know that to really stand in the presence of the Living God is to be brought to your knees.

Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips . . .

Here in this room, facing this Altar, and this Cross, singing a hymn, praying the liturgy; our defenses begin to crumble.

Our pretensions melt away and we realize that we ARE, right now and right here; in the presence of the Living God,

And that it is both a wonderful and a fearful thing.

Standing here, face to face with God, with one who is so good, so just, so holy, we like Peter fall to our knees and cry out:

Go away from me, LORD, for I am sinful. .

It is not any particular sin that brings us to our knees, no long forgotten indiscretion or well hidden peccadillo. It is not our sins and faults and failures that slay us.

It is rather the sudden awareness of the great and unbridgeable distance between who we are and who God is.

UMC bishop Will Willimon says that there are two ways to be terrified of God.
1 - You can be afraid of God because you believe God is cruel and harsh and you must not slip up for fear of punishment; or 2 - God is so wonderfully loving that you deeply regret all the ways you have betrayed that love.

As we gaze into the face of God, we see our reflection in God's eyes. We see every moment of our lives, every secret thought, all the good little things we have done for bad little reasons, all the pain and hurt and sorrow we have endured in ourselves and produced in others. Face to face with God, we see every second of our lives tick, tick, tick away.

And in that moment, we cannot stand to stand there in front of God. It is too much; it is too brutally honest and holy. We seek to flee back into the comfortable fa├žade of normality. We cry out to God;

Depart from me, leave me; Grandma, I want to go home, NOW!

But God refuses to leave us or let us go. God looks at us with tender eyes; god examines us with what the writer of Ephesians calls "the eyes of the heart,"
God casts upon us a look of mercy and release.

The Living God is no cold mirror of judgment. NO, the Living God is the Lord of love. God touched the unclean lips of Isaiah and turned him into a great prophet.

Isaiah was wrong, he was not lost; when he met God in the temple, he had just that moment been found.

Jesus called Peter to be a disciple, to be a catcher of people. Jesus refuses to leave this self-proclaimed sinful man.

Jesus forgives this sinful man.

Jesus even forgives this sinful man when he denies Jesus three times.

Why? Because when the Living God gets hold of you, you are not going to get loose.

We are called today into the presence of the living God. It is truly a fearful thing to be called into that presence; to be summoned into a meeting with your Creator.

It is a fearful thing; but it is not a bad thing. Indeed it may be the best thing that ever happens to any of us.

Standing there, face to face with Good, we will discover how very much we are loved, how very precious we are to God, and what a very important job God has for us to do.

For we, like Isaiah, are called to go into the world bearing in our lives and on our lips the message of the Living God's unending love.

And we, like Peter, are called upon to become catchers of people, snaring them from the depths of despair and bringing them into God's fearful, yet wonderful, presence.

And the only question is, will we, like Isaiah, say,

Here I am Lord, SEND ME!

Amen and amen.