Saturday, October 12, 2019

Our Primary Pursuits

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Ordinary 28
October 13, 2019

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him, but Benny Hinn recently made big news in Christian circles. He is one of those televangelists, a longtime proponent of the prosperity gospel. His message that if you give his church a lot of money, Jesus will make you rich. For years, Benny laid the same sermon on his people: “Give God a thousand dollars, and it will come back to you tenfold.” Then he flew off in his private jet and preached the same sermon somewhere else.

Well, here’s the news: Benny Hinn has decided to stop asking people for money. “I don’t see the Bible in the same eyes I saw 20 years ago. I think it’s an offense to the Lord to say, ‘Give $1000,’ so I’m not going to do it anymore, because I think the Holy Ghost is fed up with it.”[1]

Now, this is big news in the TV Church world: a preacher in a white suit who has been preaching wealth and success for thirty years has started reading the rest of the Bible. He discovered the Bible is more interested in how you live than what you have.

There’s nothing new about this, except for Benny and his bunch. As we read the first letter to Timothy, we have heard Paul say the bishops of the church should not be “lovers of money,” and the deacons should not “be greedy.” And immediately before our text, Paul warns against the wacky Bible teachers of his own day, particularly those, he says, “who imagine that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Tim 6:5). To put that in plain speech: they will tell you whatever you want to hear, in order to gain a profit.

The underlying assumption is that more money will make us more happy. It’s an enticing thought. Someone said to me the other day, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be a billionaire?” Well, it’s appealing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, indeed, if every person we know could be a billionaire. It could repair poor roads, improve tough schools, and pay off college tuition bills. All of this swirls around. Here’s the assumption: if I could get money, even if it’s at the expense of other people, than I won’t have the same difficulties that they do.

In the late part of the first century, some people were coming along and saying, “You know, this has been a strand in Jewish thinking.” For instance, there’s a verse in the Psalms that says, “I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (37:25). If you take God seriously, things will go well for you.

Perhaps we would like to believe it: the Christian faith promotes a generosity of spirit and says we should expect that generosity from God. If I show up for worship, my life will improve, right? If I keep praying, all my worries – particularly my financial worries – will drop away.

I may regret saying this, but I will say it anyway: nothing is ever as easy as the preachers would want us to believe. Write that one down in the margin of your worship bulletin. Nothing is ever as easy as the preachers would want us to believe.

For one thing, riches are unpredictable. Anybody doubt that? Paul knew it at the end of the first century, and the Jews knew it and wrote that down in their Bibles, too. The apostle quotes from the book of Ecclesiastes, written a few hundred years before him: “As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. This is also a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; what gain do they have from toiling for the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 5:15-16)

500 years ago, John Calvin could declare, on behalf of all the Calvinists who would follow him, that hard work produces its own reward. According to Calvin and his bunch, a full day of work is what we need to put in, so that idleness would never taint our spirits. If we don’t have enough to do, or if we are between jobs, there’s always something to do – a neighbor to assist, a home to improve, a skill to develop. Hard work produces its rewards.

But sometimes it gets foggy, especially if you try to onnect such rewards to faith in Jesus Christ. Like I said, things are never as easy as the preachers would want us to believe.

Paul joins the conversation at this point. He is instructing Timothy to scratch below the surface of these causal connections between God’s love and financial blessing. There is no simplistic connection. He reminds Timothy of the same theme he has developed throughout this entire letter: that there is a quality of life that is independent of how well off we are, or how financially settled we are. He calls it “the life that really is life.” Or to be blunt about it -- “real life.” That is what the Gospel of the Living Christ offers us: real life.

It’s worth reflecting on what real life might be. What does it look like? Sometime back, David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times. “The 21st century will come to be known as the great age of headroom,” he said. People have built enormous houses and driven oversized cars. As he describes a town like Clarks Summit, the rule seems to be the Smaller the Woman, the Larger the Car.

He writes, “So you would see a 90-pound lady in tennis whites driving a 4-ton truck with enough headroom to allow her to drive with her doubles partner perched atop her shoulders. When future archeologists dig up the remains of that epoch, they will likely conclude that the U.S. was afflicted by a plague of claustrophobia and drove itself bankrupt in search of relief.”

That approach doesn’t seem to be working for many of us. Not anymore, if it ever did. And it raises the question, “What is real life?” As Paul writes to Timothy, he sets up a checklist. Food and clothing, check; they are good. Temptation, trapped by senseless desires, not so good. Love of God and contentment with what God gives, those are good. The love of money, that’s the root of all evil. Righteousness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness, put them on your list of good pursuits. Wandering away from the faith and piercing yourselves with many pains, not a good idea.

What is the life that really is life? I’m at the point in my life where I notice how all my high school classmates are turning out. Two of them went to nursing school. One married a software engineer who sold off his company and they now live in a 5100 square-foot house in the suburbs. Another heard the call to the mission field and started a health mission in the Dominican Republic. Both of them are Christians, but I’m guessing real life is different for each of them. The first one is very settled, has everything in place, and wants no disruptions of her affluence. She looks weary. The other has taken great risks for Jesus. Her eyes are crinkled from smiling so much.

Paul says to Timothy, “Look around! Pay attention to the pursuits of the people around you.” Pretty soon, the truth of their lives will be revealed. If all a person does is chase after money, they may get what they pursue, but they won’t have much of a life. Maybe that’s why some of the unhappiest people I have ever met are those who touched everything and turned it to gold, only to have their life tarnished. I wonder why that is.

And then there’s that monk in the New Mexico monastery. He walked away from a successful and lucrative career as an engineer. He gave up all his stuff and signed it over to the monastic community. Why? He said, “All my success was killing me. It robbed me of everything and everybody I loved.” So he gave up everything but God and devoted himself to a life of prayer. These days he just glows with the Holy Spirit.

Or how about that family we met on one of our church’s mission trips? There were nine family members bunking in a small home that had barely survived a hurricane. The grandfather invited me in and told the story. He said, “We lost everything, but we have one another, and most important, the Lord still has us.” His face lit up when I mentioned I was a preacher, and he asked me to sit down so we could talk about scripture. Is there a connection between his faith and his life? A life that really is life?

There is a connection, and it’s never as easy as any preacher wants us to believe. But the ancient insights of this New Testament letter raises the question of what we really value.

To the person who wants to be rich, the Bible has to ask: “What would you do with all of that money?” Would you get a big house, build a tall fence, install a security system to keep your stuff safe? And would you spend every night worrying that people valued you only for your money? What kind of life is that?

It reminds me of the fortune cookie that my friend Andy opened one day at lunch. He cracked it open and found the ancient wisdom in four words: “Greed leads to poverty.”

By contrast, Timothy is given the Christian charge. Paul writes, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather to set their hopes on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

So Paul extends it into ethics: “Do good, be rich in good works, be generous and ready to share.” This is the invitation for every baptized person, every week, every day. We do not live only for ourselves. We live for God and God’s entire world. That is the good life. That is the real life. When we look at the bank statement, we may have a lot or we may have a little. But when you get right down to it, here is the truth. We are only as good as the good that we do.

Do good. Be rich in good works. Be generous and ready to share. This is how we store up “the treasure of a good foundation for God’s future.” This is how we “take hold of the life that really is life.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] “Benny Hinn renounces prosperity gospel,”

Saturday, September 28, 2019

A Good Standing

1 Timothy 3:1-13
Ordinary 26
September 29, 2019
William G. Carter

The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

The topic today is leadership. What kind of leaders should we have? If you have paid attention to the news, you can read into this matter whatever you wish. But Paul is talking about leadership in the church.

The apostle must have been pretty old at the time because he mentions church offices that took a while to develop and become widespread: “bishops (or “overseers”), deacons,” and later in the letter, “elders.” The young Christian movement called the “church” had developed to the point of becoming an organization with forms of hierarchy. That took a while. So we think this letter came late in the New Testament.

In our Presbyterian preliminary principles, we hold that any association of Christians can decide how to organize themselves. Church organization is not “one size fits all.” The people who are governed must decide how that will work.

Years ago, I was reminded of this when our presbytery asked me to moderate the Session of a small church nearby. We opened the meeting in prayer, approved the minutes, and then I asked for a report from the Christian Education committee. The elders around the table began to laugh. “We only have thirty-five members,” they said. “We don’t have any committees.” Sure enough. They made all their decisions in the parking lot, and I, as the visiting moderator, was there to rubber stamp whatever they had already decided.

Likewise, we Presbyterians have never thought much of bishops. Paul and Timothy may have had them in their churches, but we don’t. Bishops move your preacher to another church about the time they are learning your names. Bishops tell others what to do, a top-down model, while Presbyterians make decisions as a group. The issues are decided on the floor, and then voted upstairs to reach a broader constituency.

But to hear Paul talk about bishops doesn’t sound all that interesting. Bishops? Do we really care about bishops? Well, maybe.

Paul says if you’re a bishop, you should not be a drunkard. Likewise, the deacons should not indulge in too much wine. Now, why do you suppose he had to say that?

Or there’s the repeated warning that neither bishop nor deacon should be greedy, that church leaders must not be in love with money. Hmm… do you think that’s a problem? You tell me. How about Joel Osteen, that television evangelist in Houston? Does he really need a 17,000 square foot tax-free mansion with three elevators?

And what about the recent financial reports about Liberty University and its president, Jerry Falwell, Jr.?  Under his leadership, the school has been buying up an enormous amount of real estate with the money it receives from its students.[1] Not only that; the Baptist has been photographed in Florida dance clubs where alcohol is served. Say it isn’t so.

The topic today is leadership, Christian leadership in the Christian church. What kind of leaders do we need? Paul has his list of character traits: temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, gentle, not quarrelsome, and above reproach. And he says, “married only once.” It’s a line that causes divorced leaders to flinch, especially if they had their hearts set on serving as a bishop in Paul’s church.

It’s also a line that kept at least one single person from agreeing to serve as a deacon. She said, “How can I serve as a deacon if I’ve never been married only once?” Good point.

The sense of that text is in the old King James translation, where it declares bishops and deacons should be married “to one wife.” Ah, that makes it much clearer! The rule is about fidelity and faithfulness. If you’re not faithful at home, how can you be faithful to the flock? If your home life is not well ordered, you will almost certainly make a mess of the church.

This is important. One of the most painful conversations that I will ever remember was on the front porch of a summer conference center. A man from Florida told me why he left his church and would never go back. His pastor was a very prominent preacher and a good friend, he said. He was well spoken, well loved, well paid - - - and then the voicemail recordings surfaced. The text messages were posted on a website.

It seems he had a string of lady friends in addition to his third wife. All the women found out about one another. When the church authorities found out and confronted him, he immediately quit the ministry to avoid taking responsibility and blamed the authorities for what he had done. It was settled with a lot of hush money, but everybody knew what happened. The elder said to me, “I’m never going back to church ever again.”

In a recent New York Times article titled, “Why People Hate Religion,” Timothy Egan calls out the issue.[2] It’s hypocrisy, especially among the leadership. We know what that means: it’s pretending to be something you are not. It’s parading your virtues when you are not a virtuous person. It’s purporting to love Jesus and then hating the people whom he loves. It’s looking for Bible verses to justify cutting food assistance to the poor.

By the way, we are never going to find verses like that in the Bible, even if we wrench them out of context.

There is great wisdom in Paul’s ancient advice to the church. Should we have leaders who are temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, and gentle? Yes! Of course! Our leaders are called to be consistent with the Christ they are following. I hope that’s not too much to ask.

But just to be fair, there’s no reason to restrict these expectations of our leaders. We should expect good character and consistent behavior of one another. Others should expect these things of us, all in the name of Christ.

It is all too easy to put leaders up on a pedestal, a half-step above the crowd. All that does is to make them an easier target. It also sets them up for a greater fall. None of us have perfected the temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, gentle, and faithful life. Nope. That’s why we need Christ to pick us up when we fall, to help us to continually improve. Indeed we are forgiven; that is the essence of the Gospel. But forgiveness doesn’t let anybody off the hook. We are called to lives of increasing goodness and generosity.

So I wish Paul could have mentioned that, too. He seems to give us a scorecard for selecting our leaders. There have been occasions when a nominating committee asks someone to be a church leader and points toward this chapter in 1 Timothy 3. There have been many situations when the candidate looked it over and said, “I’m not that good.”

To that, I reply that the life of faith is the school of character. Perhaps we might surprise ourselves if we step up when the need arises or the invitation comes. The first qualification of taking on a big job is feeling disqualified. If we serve with our feet on the ground, we will not fly off in some vain fantasy. Sometimes we can actually grow into the leadership role once we become leaders.

There’s a new book by David Brooks that some of you have recommended to me. It’s called The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. It follows up on a previous book on The Road to Character. The irony, Brooks tells us, is that when he wrote the book about character, he didn’t really know what character is.

As the book on character soared to the top of best-seller lists, his life was falling apart. A 27-year marriage crumbled. He thought he has a lot of friends, but the friendships were an inch deep and those people evaporated. He had now realized that his climb to become a nationally syndicated columnist and best-selling author had poisoned his own character. “I was aloof, invulnerable, and uncommunicative,” he said, in all the relationships that mattered.

By his account, he had had to fake his way through a lot of interviews. He understood the importance of a strong personal character – but only from a distance. Brooks successfully climbed the mountain of personal success, only to discover it wasn’t the mountain that mattered. What was far more important was climbing the second mountain: the mountain of commitment to others, a deeper vocation of service, a consistent faith in something greater than his own ego, and the building of an interdependent community.

I have just started the book, but I can already tell it’s an important one. So I commend it to you – The Second Mountain by David Brooks. (New York: Random House, 2019)

And I can already hear a few echoes of the advice Paul gives through Timothy to all of us: Don’t be puffed up with conceit. Don’t fall into condemnation and disgrace. Be well thought of by outsiders. Most of all, serve well. For the good leader knows, “It’s not about me; it’s all about them.” How can my leadership be an act of service?

So I think about these things and hope you will too. We are called by Christ to live honestly for the benefit of those around us. If we are called to leadership, it is a blessing – but only if it becomes a blessing for those we serve.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] See the recent expose in Politico:

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Praying for All

1 Timothy 2:1-7
Ordinary 25
September 22, 2019
Commissioning for Worship Through Service Weekend

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

In a gathering of church kids, I was once asked my favorite chapter of the Bible. Without hesitation, I replied, “Psalm 117.” It caught everybody’s attention. They didn’t know that one. Somebody quickly looked it up, and then looked at me curiously.

Here it is, my favorite chapter of the Bible, Psalm 117:

Praise the Lord, all you nations! Extol him, all you peoples!
For great is his steadfast love towards us, and the faithfulness of the 
Lord endures for ever.
Praise the Lord!

They looked at one another. “That’s your favorite chapter? Why do you like Psalm 117?” I’ll bet some of you know the answer: because it’s the shortest. It’s only two verses long.

And yet it is one of the largest texts of the whole Bible. Did you hear what it summons? “Praise the Lord, all you nations! Extol God, all you peoples.” It’s an invitation for everybody. All nations, all peoples.

In the same way, our brief passage from 1 Timothy goes by quickly. But don’t miss how big it is. Repeatedly the apostle Paul speaks of “everybody” and “all.” Everybody in the human race has one mediator between them and God and it is Jesus. This Jesus is the one who has given his life as a ransom for all. No one is exempt from the reach of God's love. No one is excluded from the embrace that God offers.

I have known people who have a hard time with that. I remember the old cranky priest who lived a few blocks up the street from my first congregation. I don’t remember his name, but I remember what he said. He proudly reported how somebody knocked on his door and asked for a gift of food. The priest looked at him and said, “Are you a member of my congregation?” The man said, “No,” to which the priest said, “Get your foot off my porch.”

I suppose if you are trying to protect the holiness of God from getting tarshished, that is one option. But the more biblical approach, the Christ-like, is to offer love and mercy to all. To everyone.

Paul is reminding us of the scope of God's salvation. It is greater than one tiny single soul or even one needy person. Paul's Jewish Bible never offered such restriction. No, in his Bible, the great visions of salvation have to do with the redemption of the whole world. The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the fatling and the ox together, the little child in his meekness shall lead them all. The mountains of pride are brought low, the valleys of despair are  lifted up. All flesh shall see the glory of God. This is big.

So we never can restrict how far God can reach, and that’s what Paul says in today’s text. So after today’s benediction, some friends will stitch together quilts for the homeless downstairs. When they finish one, they pray that the one receiving their quilt will know that he or she is loved. They are not dispensing these quilts nearly to the Presbyterians. If anyone needs a warm sleeping bag, here it is.

Everyone.  All. That is God's great desire, to save everyone. To bring all to a knowledge of the Gospel truth. It is God’s deepest desire to embrace every one of heaven’s children, beginning with those the world might otherwise deem unworthy.

So this is the grand purpose we undertake today. We step beyond the safe and careful walls of a church building to be God's people in the world. As someone says about the text from 1 Timothy,

God is at work doing saving work – calling all human beings to their full humanity, summoning worldly rulers to their proper place for justice, healing the estrangement between humanity and God. (Tom Long, p. 63)

We pray for that. We work for that. Not much more needs to be said today. Even if the message is short, it’s still enormous. God is calling us to take part in the saving work of heaven here on earth. Do what you can. Pray, pray, pray. And get to work on the matters for which you are praying.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

What Grace Can Accomplish

1 Timothy 1:12-17
Ordinary 25
September 22, 2019
William G. Carter

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

When new people get involved in the church, one of the troubling discoveries is who is sitting around them. Church people clean up pretty well. But when you find out who they actually are, it can be upsetting.

Eagles fans sit in the same pews with Steelers fans, and maybe a Patriots fan even got in without a ticket. You may have noticed this is a purple church (just look at the cover of our hymnal). That’s because red and blue are singing out of the same book. Within this room there are all ages, all genders, right-handed and left-handed, tall and short. But the question I have is this, “Who wants the apostle Paul to be in the same church with them?”

It’s not just his first century views. Some of us can forgive him for his assumption that the institution of slavery would always continue. A lot of us observe his views on the roles of women were shaped by the time and culture when he lived. Even his perspective on human sexuality was influenced by the fractures and abuses that he saw in his own time. Paul never left behind the Jewish formation of his soul; that’s who he is.

But it’s more than all of that. What troubles a lot of people is his past. Paul killed Christians, and now he is one. Anybody who gives that a serious thought will flinch.

Some would say, “That was then, this is now.” Give him some room to wake up and change his ways. Look at what he has done: traveling around the Mediterranean world, starting churches, preaching Jesus as Lord, persevering through conflict, and keeping in touch with all of his letters. He is a remarkable man.

But do you want him to sit in your pew?

I enjoy reading the stories of Flannery O’Connor. She was a Roman Catholic, lived on a farm in Georgia, died early from lupus about 50 years ago. And she wrote outrageous stories from a southern town where women wore hats in church. They stitched their own dresses, wore white gloves, and implored their children, “You be good now, you hear?” By contrast, Ms. O’Connor filled her stories with “freaks and frauds,” and the properly righteous church was horrified.

As someone observes about her stories, “Most of them follow one basic Biblical narrative: St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Again and again, she depicts an event of searing violence in which divine grace shocks a hard-hearted, wicked, or selfish person into a moment of recognition. In this terrible moment O’Connor offers her characters a choice, a flash of self-knowledge, and an encounter with God that utterly burns away their illusions.”[1]

That’s all well and good. But do we want somebody like that in church with us?

Today we hear the apostle say, “Hey, remember me? Remember what I did? I was the one who organized a pogrom. I was the one who dragged Christians out of their houses and tried to eradicate them. Before I saw the light, that was me.” He calls himself, “the chief of sinners.” And one day, he comes into the church a changed man.

Maybe the one thing harder than welcoming someone like that is seeing his story as the shape of the whole Gospel. By Paul’s own admission, he was a religious bigot. He worshiped his own certainty and then claimed it was the will of God. He was so convinced he was right that his convictions blinded him.

Remember his story? A child of God’s covenant, trained as an expert in the Bible, he hears about people who are telling Jesus stories, how Jesus was put to a shameful death, how that death took away human sins, and how this Jesus is now invisibly alive. It angered him. It infuriated him. He was convinced this was all wrong. When another troublemaker appeared, a Jesus-follower named Stephen, Paul approved of killing him – and then led the charge to get rid of people like him, all in the name of God.

It was working – until one day, about noon, on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Paul and stopped him in his tracks. Jesus called him by name and said, “Why? Why are you doing this?” And the light of glory not only blinded his sight; it revealed Paul’s inability to see. There’s nothing more terrible than a moment like that.

Arrogance is exposed. Presumption unravels. Privilege is punctured. Cruelty is dismantled. Paul is a bigot and Christ calls him out. It all happened in broad daylight. Unable to see, Paul was led away by the hand and commended to the care of the same Christian people he had been trying to destroy.

Next thing you know, he’s back. He’s talking about Jesus. He’s praying to Jesus. He’s finding Jesus in the pages of his Jewish Bible. His reputation spreads. As he famously describes in one of his letters, “The one who was formerly persecuting (the church) is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” (Galatians 1:23)

The question persists: do we want someone like that in our church? The former bigot? The apologetic murderer?

Well, we don’t have a choice because God is the One who puts him among us. Like a risky shepherd chasing after a lost sheep, God in Christ rescues Paul, saves him from a life of destruction, saves him from himself – and this is the shape of the Gospel!

He says, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord even though I was a blasphemer and a man of violence. I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly.” He didn’t have to straighten before God came; no, God just came. He was misguided, self-absorbed, arrogant, and independent. Then God intervened.

So he says to us today, in words we have heard many times, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  Then he adds a few more winners, “to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost.” Something has happened to him from the outside, and it is changing him on the inside.

Now we can bless that from a distance and declare how good it is for God to interrupt the arrogant. The much harder thing is to look at ourselves in God’s blinding light. Sometimes during our weekly prayer of confession, I do a little self review. Fortunately for my self-esteem, a lot of our worship leaders rush through the silent prayer of confession. I am glad for that, because I don’t always like I what I see in myself.

And should I take the time for some honest self-review, like late at night when I can’t sleep, or in the aftermath of something horrible or hurtful that I’ve done, confession tastes like chewing on a piece of used charcoal. Not a pleasant experience!

It’s not just the childhood bullying of which I took part, nor the shadowy things I did as a teenager, nor adult maneuvers that I’m not going to tell any of you about. It’s also the deep-rooted resistance in my soul. It’s the way I push away God, the God who loves everybody and wishes them to flourish. Paul doesn’t have any moral advantage on me.

It can cleanse us if we admit who we are. There have been times when I firmly believed that, as a male, I am superior. Fortunately two sisters, three daughters, and two wives have kicked that out of me. Yet arrogance takes other forms. Am I the only one here who has thought that people like me are better than people who are not like me? Or that buying a house in an overpriced suburb is superior to living in a struggling city?  

So here is Paul confessing how he believed that Jews like him were better than the new Christians. I go one better than that, thinking believing Christians like me are better than the Christians like Paul. I stop short of murder, but the arrogance still infects me. And this reveals who we are. Sin is more than what we do or what we neglect to do. It’s our chronic incompleteness, evident in our splintered life, and we never really outrun this.  

That’s why Paul says, “I am the foremost sinner!” Because he knows he is never going to be any better than that. He tries so hard to be so good yet falls so far short. As much as he has achieved, he remained unfinished. When I hear him like this, I breathe a sigh of relief, because it’s hard labor to dress up, put on white gloves, and pretend your own hands are not dirty.

In the thick of it all, here’s the good news: God works with all of this. God made us incomplete that we would depend on him. In perfect love, God made us imperfect that we might lean on him for help. And when we are at our weakest moral level, that’s precisely when God comes to us, chases after us, and offers to set us free from ourselves – that’s what sin is, my friends: it’s bondage to ourselves.

And God breaks in. That’s what happens on the cross of Christ, the darkest day of our species. God comes to us in Jesus and what do we do? We execute him in public between two thieves and gamble for his clothes. Yet in the mystery of eternal patience, God does not punish us for what we do. Rather, God releases us from the prospect of punishment and cancels our crime.

Then God raises Jesus from the dead to keep speaking to us through scripture, Word, and Spirit, and to keep working with us until we are free from ourselves, free to welcome the mercy of the Risen Christ. That’s when everything begins again.

This is the mystery of grace, that miraculous holy favor that comes before everything, lies beneath everything, and finishes everything. Life comes from God. Life will go to God. In between, we may as well live for God and no longer be captives to ourselves. That’s the Good News.

I was trying to think what I might say about this, and then we had a baptism of a baby last week. Did I ever tell you what the Episcopalian priest Robert Farrar Capon said about baptizing little babies? “It’s brilliant,” he said, because baptism announces the grace of God before, during, and after our sins.

As Capon says it, “Babies can do absolutely nothing to earn, accept, or believe in forgiveness; the church, in baptizing them, simply declares that (in Christ) they have it. We are not forgiven because we made ourselves forgivable or even because we had faith; we are forgiven solely because there is a Forgiver.”[2]

Take heart, my friends. Our unfinished lives are Christ’s opportunity. We can stand because his grace is beneath our feet.

(c) William G. Carter   All rights reserved.

[1] “Reading Flannery O’Connor for the first time,” Catholic World Report, 5/20/2016.
[2] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans)  p. 141

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Aim of Instruction

1 Timothy 1:1-7
September 8, 2019
William G. Carter

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, To Timothy, my loyal child in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 

I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.

The big yellow buses are running again on my street. When I passed by the bus stop at 8:15 the other morning, there was a lot more activity than the day before. All the kids were dressed up for school. Some of them had new backpacks. Most of them were chattering and laughing, even if it means the summer is over. With a new school year beginning, there is a lot of excitement in the air.

Our kind of Presbyterians believe strongly in public education. That’s one of our trademarks. Wherever we established a church, we built a school. It is one way we invest in the public good. A good education unlocks the hidden treasures in books. It introduces the students to a larger world than they knew existed, and it provides skills so they can function and flourish in society. It teaches how a government runs – or how it is supposed to run – and it cultivates public responsibility. All of that is good. Very good.

Learning starts early. By the time you get to kindergarten, someone will show you how to tie your shoes or at least to pull the Velcro shut. You learn the letters and how to combine them, the numbers and how to count them. There are also the basic manners: how to share, the importance of blowing your nose, and the essential words of “please” and “thank you.” The lessons fill in the lapses of what you didn’t learn at home, and they teach you how to function as a fellow human being. These are good things. Very good.

So I’m thinking this week about learning, and specifically what we must learn in order to follow Jesus Christ.

Certainly there’s some overlap. It’s good to share, important to read and think, and a good practice to wipe your nose. Yet there are also some distinctions. One of my education professors taught that public education equips us to live in public. It’s all about socialization and fitting in.

By contrast, the purpose of a distinctively Christian education is not to make American citizens. It is to make people who are capable of following Jesus. It is making souls who will resemble Jesus in what they say and how they say it, who will care about the things that he cares about, and who will love the otherwise unlovable people that he loves. To follow Jesus is to live as he lived, and as he lives again today.

The life in Christ is a life free from the addictions to possessions and hatred. It is to stand with the neighbor as a fellow soul on a journey, a fellow soul who could really use a friend. To live as Jesus is to befriend rich and poor while remaining indifferent about whether they are poor or rich. To learn Jesus, so to speak, is to persist in discerning the right thing to do and to do it, even if everybody else is doing something else. It is to forgive others when if they drive nails through your wrists. It is to soak every moment in prayer.

How do we learn these things? For some people, it’s enough to just read the book, the Good Book, the Bible. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the Bible is a thick book. Many homes have Bibles that never get opened. So we need more than a Bible; we need a tribe.

The apostle Paul, old and rickety yet experienced, is writing to young buck named Timothy. He is writing as a member of the Christian tribe to one who is newer, younger, and less experienced. With the first paragraph of the letter that we heard, as well as the letter that immediately follows it, Paul passes along some embodied wisdom. It’s wisdom that he’s learned the hard way, which is the only kind of wisdom that sticks.

He knows there are plenty of other voices out there whistling in the wind, and not merely the voices of the surrounding culture. The Christian movement is new. They have had experiences of God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit, but they haven’t figured out the right words to speak of Trinity. They heard Paul declare Jesus was coming back very soon, but they are getting tired of waiting.

They are anxious to build the Jesus movement and grow the church, so anxious that they’ve dragged people into church leadership who don’t know an introit from a benediction, people who haven’t given up all their bad habits yet, people who will get upset that church attendance will goof up their weekends and holidays.

I recall the new believer in my first congregation. He was full of enthusiasm, so full that it made him a standout, and they immediately made him an elder. Imagine his dismay that year when he realized December 25 would fall on a Sunday, and the rest of the elders had no intention of cancelling worship. “But Christmas falls on a Sunday!” he protested. “We have to cancel church.”

One of the old-timers said, “Bob, Easter falls on a Sunday, too, but we never cancel for that.” This is the wisdom of the tribe.

When I heard the apostle Paul write some of these words, I tried to imagine what he was addressing. For instance, the very first full sentence of the letter after he says hello: “Timothy, I want you to stay on in Ephesus to instruct certain people not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith.” What was that all about?

And then Thursday’s mail brought a slick flyer from some group I’ve never heard of, purporting to explain how the end of the world is going to unfold. Oh, those people have always been around, cherry-picking Bible verses out of context, gluing together some elaborate scenario in coded language, rather than loving their enemies and working for the reconciliation of the world.

Suddenly Paul’s words came back into focus: “they occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith.” Ah yes, the wisdom of the tribe! All the so-called “hidden knowledge” and ungrounded conspiracy theories will not lead anybody to follow Jesus or to love the people that he loves. Paul calls this “meaningless talk from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”  

So what are we talking about? We are talking about following Jesus, the real Jesus, the Jesus who forgives the ignorant people who put nails in his wrist and forgives the religious people who were egging them on. We are talking about learning how to live like the Christ who lives abundantly, always a work of three steps forward and two steps back, yet still stepping forward as we are able.

That’s why we come on Sundays. That’s why we study and rehearse and eat together on Wednesday church nights. That’s why we keep these hallways and meeting rooms hopping with activity. It’s why we go out to serve the neighborhood two weeks from today. It’s why we welcome all people to the study and service of this Presbyterian part of the greater Christian tribe.

Paul says it well: “the aim of such instruction is love.” He’s talking about the love of Christ, love that is lived out in lives like yours and mine. This is a work in progress, a lifelong pursuit. And he declares, it “comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.”

These are good words to rally us as we begin the fall season at the Church on the Hill. They are excellent words on a day when we welcome two new friends to the tribe, enjoy new voices in the choir loft, and baptize one more precious child of God. It’s all about love – the love of Christ for every last one of us.

Let’s keep growing into that love with a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.