Saturday, July 22, 2017

Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30
July 23, 2017
William G. Carter

Last week, we heard Jesus say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a sower who throws seed all over the place.” The sower is generous, casting about the seed without restriction or preparation. Some of the seed grows, some does not. So here is the next parable of the kingdom:

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”


With all the summer rain and a full schedule, it has been a while since I’ve been on the riding mower. So on Friday afternoon, I took my turn to mow the yard. The dew had burned off, the grass was dry. I fired up the Briggs and Stratton, lowered the blade, and took it for a spin. The job took about 45 minutes and it was done.

Yet as I circled the front yard for the first time, I realized my lawn is full of weeds. Now I knew there were a few. A weed-and-feed expedition earlier in the spring eliminated most of the dandelions. It seems other undesirables have invaded our plot of land.

That’s a big deal in the suburbs. Everybody wants a perfect yard. A perfect yard represents a perfect home. Some neighbors spend a lot of money to have professional chemists spray their soil. Most of these consumers want a guarantee that they will remain weed-free. That’s what they are paying for, after all. You know as well as I, if there is a guarantee, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

One man I know tried a number of lawn services, to no avail. Being a tightly controlled sort, the weeds greatly upset him. So one year, in a scorched earth attempt, he killed all the vegetation on his lawn. He wiped it all out, grass included. Then he trucked in a lot of top soil and spread it around. With the best Scotts Premium tall fescue he could buy, he reseeded the entire yard. Guess what? The grass came up. It was beautiful. And then the weeds came back. They had to send him to a padded room for a short vacation.

Where do the weeds come from? It’s the recurring question in lawn care and life. If Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a gardener who throws around a lot of seed,” his very next episode is about the reality of weeds.

There are weeds in every field. Weeds in every family: even if the kids are raised with safety and good nutrition and the grandparents are healthy, somebody gets sick, somebody else goes off the rails, and somehow there is always a crazy uncle. It would be nice to think every family is perfect, but we know better. There are weeds.

There are weeds in every business. The enterprise is created, the product identified, the factory built, the workers are trained. And then a machine breaks down, or one of the workers sneaks out a product under his shirt, or somebody in the financial department is caught cooking the books. Weeds!

There are weeds in every church. We don’t want to believe that, but it’s true. Good people respond to the casting about of the seed of the Gospel. They congregate, they sing, they worship, they declare their love for Jesus and one another. Suddenly a bit of gossip invades like a pestilence. Or a weak soul is tempted by all that goodness. Or something sinister happens in the dark shadows of the choir room. Weeds.

It’s difficult to deal with the reality of weeds. When a young adult went looking for his first house, he found a possible home in a nearby village, took a tour, and came back laughing. “I crossed it off the list immediately,” he said. “The owner had paved over the front yard.” That’s one response to the weeds, I suppose.

Somebody told me about a middle aged minister of a church. They said he was “seasoned;” I think they mean “worn out.” He said he was going to start a new church. There would be a steeple, a sanctuary, and one pew large enough for only one person: him. “That’s the kind of church I want,” he said. “Just me and God, nobody else.” No weeds in the garden.

In the parable that we’ve heard, the servants come to the owner of the house and ask, “Should we pull up the weeds?” It’s a reasonable question. The landowner is the Sower who has cast about “the good seed.” It was pure and perfect as he threw it about. But then something happened, some kind of corruption crept in.

It’s easy to ascribe that to an enemy, to some unseen villain who sneaks in late at night and taints a perfect crop. Now, I know – that’s ridiculous in real life. My next door neighbor throws broken tree branches back into my yard, but I don’t believe she would ever sneak over and blow dandelion seeds in our direction. Well, she might – but I don’t perceive her as “an enemy.”

So I wonder if the landowner is overstating the case. There are some weak-hearted Christians who think the devil is as powerful as God, but that’s nonsense. God made the world. God made the squirrels and the pine cones and the sea turtles and the silver mountains. Then God called it all of it “good.” There’s no devil with that kind of power. The devil is a liar; he’s never as important as he says he is.

But there is corruption. God's good creation is mysteriously tainted. The Psalmist knew that; we recited Psalm 12 today. Remember the final verse: “On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind.” Maybe you came to church to forget about that, but church is about reality. And the reality is there are some weeds in the wheat. The parable says, “When the wheat bears its grain, that’s when the weeds become obvious.”

And the question is what do we do about that? If there is good and there is evil, some want to pluck out the evil. Pull the weeds. That is an understandable response.

Every once in a while, you hear about somebody who wants to purify the world, or at least their corner of it. They will go in there and separate the weeds from the wheat, the tainted from the pure, the evil from the good, the goats from the sheep, the left from the right. They are on a crusade to restore things to the way they were intended to be. We might even hear somebody come along and say, “I’m going to drain the swamp.”

Well, how is that working out? It doesn’t work out so well if the swamp is already inside of you. It is impossible to clean up the world if your own hands are dirty. And do you know why that is? Because the enticements of corruption are always greater than the purity who think they are good.

Nevertheless, every once in a while, someone will try to start pulling the weeds. A church leader may look around, see some empty seats, and say, “We are carrying some people on the membership list who do not come, do not participate, or do not give. It’s time to clear the roll.” Now this is usually said with the best of intentions. But if there’s a problem with the initiative, it’s the presumption that “I alone” – or “we alone” – can call ourselves pure, and point to “they” who are not. With all pastoral authority, I say get off it.

Every so often in my pastoral work, I come across a dear soul who wishes to divide the world into two categories: “Christian” and “Everybody else.” And they are absolutely convinced that they know what “Christian” means. There is usually a checklist of a lot of observable behaviors, like “don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t chew, or date the girls that do.” Why do we have to reduce the Christian faith to observable behaviors? Should we ever make decisions based on mercy? Forgiveness? Love? A second chance?

And then, the dear soul might say, “We shouldn’t put that person on a committee because he’s not Christian.” Or because “she’s not Christian enough.” You know what that is? It’s a desire to pull the weeds, to keep the field pure, to present the church to Christ spotless and without blemish.

It sounds so right, but it can go so wrong. Because for one thing, all of us are a work in progress. It is not harvest time yet. And for another thing, who made any of us the arbiter of who is Christian and who is not? Who gets to decide who belongs to God and who does not? Who has enough purity to weed the garden?

According to the New Testament, it is Jesus Christ alone who will present the church spotless and without blemish. And do you know how he can do it? Because he has forgiven every sin.[1] So Jesus is the one who says, “Leave the weeds alone. Don’t touch them. Don’t uproot the good wheat by presuming you can identify and extract a weed.”

One of the intriguing details of this parable is that the “weeds” actually have a proper name. In Greek, they are called “zizania” What’s zizania? It is a plant that looks just like wheat, probably what contemporary botanists call “darnel.” The point is when zizania grows alongside wheat, you can’t tell the difference. You cannot distinguish. You cannot differentiate.

So one of the points of the parable is “do not judge, lest you be judged.” Our own vision is not clear. Our own clarity is more obscured than we realize. And maybe, at least for the time being, there are a few weeds in our own garden. And maybe God still has to do some work in us.

See, this is how I know that Jesus is a Calvinist. For all his righteousness and clarity, John Calvin would never finally conclude that he himself was righteous or clear. He would say that everybody, no matter how pure they believe themselves to be, that everybody bears the seed of corruption. Even our best efforts can be tainted by self-interest and twisted out of shape by evil.

So if you think you might be pulling up the weeds, you could end up destroying the wheat, the good crop of wheat. This is why we need a Savior, somebody who sees clearly and ultimately will do the final sorting. The day will come, says Christ, when the fisherman’s net has caught all kinds of fish, and the good will be separated from the bad.[2] The day will come, he says, when the sheep will be separated from the goats, all on the basis of whether or not they learned to show compassion and care.[3]

So Jesus says, “Leave it alone.” When it’s harvest time, better hands than ours will handle it.

Is he saying, “leave it alone”? Well, in a sense, yes. But Jesus never says we should acquiesce to “the evils that we deplore.” Faithful Christian discipleship always works for good. It works for God’s good, and it works for the the public good. We must never be naïve and declare “everything is beautiful.” Neither must we give in to the evil and say with cyncism, “There’s nothing we can do.”

Ten years ago, columnist David Brooks interviewed a young politician named Barack Obama. It was a genial conversation, and Brooks discerned that Mr. Obama read a lot of books. Suddenly Brooks asked out of the blue, “Have you ever read the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr?”

Obama sat up straight and said, “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” Brooks said, “What do you take away from him?”

With a rush of words, Obama said, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard. We cannot swing from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”[4]

So I was thinking about all of this while I was mowing my heavily weed-filled lawn. It gave me a lot to think about. It was a hot day, so when I was finished, I asked Jesus if he wanted to join me for a cup of cold water. We sat down on my front porch and had a little chat.

He looked at the front yard and said, “It looks pretty good. Your wife will be proud of you.” I said, “Thanks, Lord. It’s a job that needed to get done.”

We sat for a minute. I took a sip of that delicious cup of water. Then I got up the courage to ask, “But what about the weeds? There are so many weeds. Even if I had the energy or the inclination, I could never get rid of the weeds.”

He smiled and said, “Leave them alone.”

I started to say, “But the weeds…” He interrupted me to say, “It’s my field.”[5]



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


[1] Ephesians 5:25-27
[2] Matthew 13:47-50
[3] Matthew 25:31-46
[5] A true vignette, borrowed from another preacher, who probably borrowed from somebody else.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Seeds

Matthew 13:1-9
July 16, 2017
William G. Carter

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”


I am always astonished at the tenacity of vegetation. The dandelion pops up overnight, blossoms in a burst of yellow, then explodes in a puff and scatters across the yard. There’s a vine that wraps itself around the back fence. Every year it gets snipped down to the soil, but every year it returns and grows taller. It’s well planted. Or there’s the blade of grass that pokes its head out of the crack in the driveway – how did the seed get there?

It appears a good seed, given the right conditions, can grow just about anywhere. A few years ago, my mother gave us some a few spearmint plants for the front garden. They took over. Now there’s no room for anything else. The few daisies that our friend Carol shared were planted in our rocky backyard and they are doing just fine. While I sipped my morning coffee, I saw them greeting the morning sun and singing alleluia.

A good seed can grow just about anywhere – but not everywhere. The rocky mountain has a bald spot somewhere around ten thousand feet. The grass grows in the crack of my driveway, but not on the driveway itself. And if it ever stops raining this summer, the sun might eventually burn out the well-lit lawn.

So Jesus tosses this familiar parable toward the ears of his hearers, uncertain where it will land. There is no telling which response will happen this time.

Some of us will race ahead a paragraph or two, and find a freeze-dried, just-add-water explanation of the parable. It’s given in the same style as Saint Augustine, who taught that the parables can function like a hidden code. He liked to say that every detail of the parable stood for something else. The Word of God’s kingdom equals the seed. Each patch of soil equals the individual listener. Rocky soil is the person with no depth. The scorching sun equals the troubles of this life. The thorns that choke out the seed are cares of the world and the lure of wealth, and so on.

This is how the early church understood the parable. It is an obvious interpretation that comes by observation. Just watch who shows up on a Sunday, and the following Sunday. Take note of who is flourishing. The Gospel seed is thrown into all kinds of soil.

There are people who stumble into a church, sit down and listen, and quickly discover a life-giving Word from God. They are excited. They return early the next week. They sit down front. But should they lose a job, have trouble at home, get snubbed at coffee hour, or discover that all the Christians have flaws, they may slip away. And if they hear something challenging in a sermon or a Bible study, they evaporate. Nothing grows. They are only around for the excitement, not the growth. It’s easy to call that shallow soil.

Or consider the people who move into town, buy the big house, have 2.3 perfect children, and drive the big car. They come to First Presbyterian Church, because it would never occur to them to go to Last Presbyterian Church. The music is stunning, the building is well-kept, the preacher went to Princeton, and most of the people look just like them.

But then, some friends at the Club mention some wonderful vacation spots. The kids get involved in weekend sports, not because they’re great athletes, but there’s where their friends are. Time passes, and one of the deacons seems them in the grocery store on a Tuesday night. “It’s been forever since we’ve been in church,” they confess. “Our weekends are just so busy.” The Bible says, “Cares of the world, the lure of wealth, it yields nothing.”

It’s easy to evaluate by the results. That’s how John Calvin developed his views on predestination. Calvin was preaching the Gospel twice a day, every day. He noticed that some people got it and others fell asleep. Some people grew in the faith while others daydreamed. Calvin said, “Obviously God has turned on the lights for some and kept the lights off for others.” It never occurred to him to evaluate the quality of his sermons, but, well, he was noticing the results.

American church people love to look at the results. Where is the growth happening? Where is there a thirty-fold, sixty-fold, hundred-fold return? Where are the other churches growing? What are they doing? What fresh ideas can we steal from them? After all, they’ve been stealing our members; we should up our game and steal some of theirs.

It’s tempting to look at the results. If you look at the results, you never ask what kind of soil you are. Is this acidic soil? Are there some rocks here? Has it been paved over?

Even tougher: have I allowed the crows to snatch the seed away from me? Are there thorns of privilege and affluence wrapping themselves around my legs?

It’s a hundred times easier to look out there than it is to reflect in the mirror and ask, “Why isn’t the seed of God’s kingdom growing and flourishing in me?” It is a worthy question - - but I don’t think it has a lot to do with the parable.

This is the parable of the Sower. The Sower went out to sow. And what does he do? He throws the seed all over the place. He shows no caution, no preparation, no hesitation, and so the seed goes everywhere. He does not prepare the ground, pull up the weeds, or remove the stones. He doesn’t chase away the birds, block the sun, or chop down the thorns. No, he’s not the gardener. He is the Sower.

So let’s pay attention to what we learn about him. I have made a list.

First item on the list: he has a lot of seed. He never runs out of seed. You might say he’s the source of all the seed. Never has a shortage when it comes to sowing the seed.

Second item on the list: this Sower is terrifically generous. He throws the seed all over the place. It’s not restricted to carefully dug furrows. The seed is thrown everywhere. It doesn’t matter if the soil is rough or welcoming. There is always fertile seed which carries its own promise within its own shell.

Third item on the list: the Sower is not interested in controlling the outcome. All he wants to do is spread the seed around as far as he can. There are all kinds of soil; for all we know, the Sower may have created all that soil too. But for now, it is the season for seeding, and he is doing a marvelous job. The seed is all over.

Fourth, and maybe the most important item on the list: the Sower knows if that seed is going to grow, it’s going to grow. It’s good quality seed, the best seed possible. In fact, it might be the only seed there is. Its source is in the Sower. It is his seed, and his seed alone.

As I reflected on this, I remembered the prophetic poem of Isaiah which we included as one of the readings for today. Let me remind us of the pithy parts:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Do you know what I hear emerge in those words? That God is responsible for God’s own kingdom. That God gives life to the soil and the soul. That God’s own Word will take root and flourish. That God is not concerned with wasting words but creating bread, specifically the Bread of Life.

So I think about this. I don’t believe our job is to be selective, restrictive, or evaluative. No, in the name of the Sower, we are called to be generous. Keep spreading the seed of God’s kingdom.

I recall a conversation with a youth group leader. She was feeling worn out. Plans would be made for the youth of our community, and few of the kids would show up. She would say, “I don’t know what to do.” I responded, “Keep going. You never know when the seed might take root.” So she would try again. There would be little, if no response.

One day, she was getting ready to send out some information and she had two sets of labels. I said, “Why two sets of labels?” Well, one was the A List, and the other was the B List. The A List comprised the few kids who were a sure bet to come – they loved the program, or their parents forced them to come, or maybe both. The B List named the kids who never came. The information was only going to get sent to the A List. She said, “Why should we waste the invitation on the ones who never come?”

I simply responded, “Because you never know.” You never really know. This is not harvest time yet. It’s sowing time. And God has a way of creating life where you can’t imagine it possible. Come over and look at the grass sprouting up in the cracks of my driveway.

Now if you have ears to hear, and you hear this parable of Jesus, and if you flinch when you hear him speak of “shallow soil” or “the thorns that choke out the seed, due to the cares of the world or the lure of wealth,” pay attention to that. Make the necessary changes that you might welcome “the life that really is life.”[1] (1 Timothy 6:19)

Every week, I meet people on the street or in the stores, and they say, “Oh, I don’t get to church as much as I should.” Or “it’s been a while since I’ve been to church.” Or “Hey stranger, I bet you’ve been missing me.” Well, of course I’ve been missing you. To quote a favorite poet, “What life have you if you have not life together?”[2] It’s good for us to be together, if only for an hour a week.

But I cannot change anybody’s schedule for them. I am powerless to rearrange anybody else’s priorities. It is not my role to cancel somebody’s trip to the shore or declare that travel soccer is the bane of all Christian educators. It’s up to each of us to consider what we might do to welcome the Word that God speaks, to nourish it in our hearts, and take part in the fruitfulness of the Gospel of God.

And let's keep our eyes on the Sower. As for me, I want to sow the seed of the kingdom, as God sows the seed: generously, lovingly, without restriction, because I have seen what happens when the love of God takes root in a person’s life. The hopeless brighten like the summer daisies. The drunkard sells his beer and buys furniture. The self-centered suburbanite befriends the poor. The old crank transforms into Santa Claus. The fractured souls are healed.

The Gospel bears abundant fruit. Just as the Sower intended.



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


[1] 1 Timothy 6:19
[2] T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Rest

Matthew 11:28-30
July 2, 2017
William G. Carter

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”


I don’t know of a more inviting invitation. “Come to me and I will give you rest.” He speaks to the woman who cannot sleep, to the child who is anxious, and to the man is bone-tired. Come . . . rest. The invitation is gentle, not forceful. He speaks from a level place, a humble place. And his invitation includes all: “all you,” or as they say in the South, “you all.” There’s not a single person excluded. Everybody come, come and rest.

What intrigues me is why so many people turn him down. Have you ever noticed that?

As a kid, I learned from my father. He knew how to put in a long day’s work. At his desk by eight every morning, home for supper by six, then he would change his clothes and go outside for a few more hours of labor. Dad came from a family of farmers. They didn’t sit very much, unless Grandpa was riding the red tractor in his straw hat and a strand of timothy grass in his teeth. Even then, the days were long and there was precious little rest.

When we would visit those grandparents, we’d leave at the end of an IBM workday. Mom would have the kids bundled up and ready go. Dad would roar up the street, run in and change his clothes, and off we’d go, six hours in the car, along endless Route 6. Next morning, he would wake early on his parents’ farm, slug down some coffee, and ask if there was anything he could do to help. He didn’t rest when he went on vacation.

I know a lot of people like that. They can quote the Bible: “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” says one version of a verse from the book of Proverbs.[1] Or there is that section that somebody read to us at the teenage Bible camp:

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her food in summer,

    and gathers her sustenance in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond, and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:6-11, RSV)

It’s a compelling lesson from nature. And in case you don’t know what a “sluggard” is, the New Revised Standard translates the word as “lazybones.” Go to the hard working ant, O lazybones, and learn your lesson. Work hard. Don’t ever sit still. The Calvinists didn’t invent a hard work ethic. They found it in their Bibles.

But there’s also the invitation to rest. According to the Greek dictionary, to rest is “to cease from movement or labor in order to recover and collect (one’s) strength.” Now, we don’t need a dictionary to tell us that. We already know what rest is. It’s just that we don’t do it very well. 

And do you know why that is? As Jesus suggests, it’s a matter of the soul. “Come to me,” he says, “and I will give you rest for your souls.” The soul is the part of us that’s alive. It’s the intersection of thought, feeling, and breath. It’s the gift breathed into us by God’s Spirit that makes us human. The soul is the wellspring of our dreams, the anchor for our imagination, the seat of all passion and hope.

And the soul is the part of us that can be traumatized, anxious, and fearful. When the soul is wounded, one of the typical responses is to keep pushing on, persisting through, often in the vain hope that if we just add another inch to the span of our day, we will speed by or gloss over the deep wound that we are trying to avoid.

That’s what Wayne Muller identified as he reflected the practice of keeping Sabbath – and why so many people resist it. He writes:

This is one of our fears of quiet; if we stop and listen, we will hear this emptiness. If we worry we are not good or whole inside, we will be reluctant to stop and rest, afraid we will find a lurking emptiness terrible, aching void with nothing to fill it, as if it will corrode an destroy us like some horrible, insatiable monster. If we are terrified of what we will find in rest, we will refuse to look up from our work, refuse to stop loving. We quickly fill all the blanks on our calendar with tasks, accomplishments, errands, things to be done . . . anything to fill the time, the empty space.[2]  

He’s right about that. Go to a restaurant and watch the people around you. Some of them would rather stay attached to their smart phones than have an intelligent conversation. Go the shore to get away from it all, and when you realize that others had the same idea, take note of how many of them are staying tethered to email and internet.

It is simply the next extension of what I discovered about two weeks after I bought my first laptop computer some twenty-five years ago: because we can do work anywhere, we never stop working, especially if the work is mental, or emotional, or virtual, or expected of us. Let me tell you it was interesting to spend four days last week in a place in the New Mexico desert where there was little internet service, and you only got cell phone service if you stood on a table with your left arm in the air as an antenna. Don’t ask how I discovered about the cell phone service.

So what is the rest that restores our souls? That is the invitation of Jesus Christ. We find it by “coming to him.” And what is that? Coming to a church? No, we come to him. If you merely come to church, it will exhaust you.

But we can’t see him. How do we come to him?  I think we come by paying attention to his grace. We come by listening to Jesus say that every one of us has inestimable value. We come by chewing on his promise that we “do not live by bread alone,” but by the life-giving words that come from the mouth of God. We come by observing the birds of the air and how they are cared for by an Unseen Benevolence. We come by admiring the wildflowers which bring beauty to life’s path and we did not plant them.

It’s all about grace, the invisible goodness and favor which give us our lives in the first place. If we’re convinced that life is only weariness and burden, then we’re missing how everything is really a gift, a generous gift. If we are obsessed with the latest stupid stunt of some public figure, then we’re missing what a wonderful blessing it is to be together, to pursue the dreams we have in common, to work for the benefit of all of us.

Maybe the saddest addiction of all is to be consumed only with myself – my views, my fears, my worries, my hurts, my anger, my wounds. I don’t know if there is a heavier burden than that. There is only one way to have that burden lifted from our shoulders. It is to come to Christ, who alone is saving the world as an expression of the goodness and grace of God. We really do have to give up the burden of being addicted to ourselves.

I recently picked up the latest collection of Sabbath poems by Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer. For forty years, he has spent Sundays resting, going for a walk, and writing short poems on Sabbath themes. He pays attention to the world that thrives even on his Sabbath day off. In the book’s preface he writes these words:

We are to rest on the Sabbath in order to understand that the providence or the productivity of the living world, the most essential work, continues while we rest. This work is entirely independent of our work, and is far more complex and wonderful than any work we have ever done or will ever do. It is more complex and beautiful than we will ever understand.[3]

The world doesn’t revolve around us. Maybe it’s better for us to orbit around the One who made it all, the One who fills it with life and brings it to such abundance.

“Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.” That’s why the invitation persists. We don’t rest once and then think we’re done with it. Neither do we sit on our hands while others labor to benefit us. A full life is a rhythm of work and rest, of task and reflection. And if life is out of balance, if the rhythm is limping, the invitation is to come. To keep coming. To persist in coming to the grace of Jesus Christ.

At its heart, this kind of rest is about one thing: what will fill me with God’s abundant life? What will restore my soul?  What are the practices that create a song in my heart? What is it, for you, that brings you totally alive? That’s the kind of rest we’re talking about.

Every one of us has an answer unique based on who they are, how they are growing, and how they are wondrously made. In my house, one of us picks up yarn and needles, and imagines a hat for a premature infant; although these days, she is just as likely to design and create a kitchen table or a backyard deck. (It is an awesome thing to be married to a woman with a nailgun.) Meanwhile I sit in my blue chair, juggling metaphors or scratching out a new jazz melody. All of us are wired differently.

The lady up the street has an enormous flower garden; tending it is what gives her life. Or there’s the man who persists in welcoming cast-off puppies; they keep him company and he returns the favor.

For some people, it’s running marathons (which I can’t understand) or singing difficult songs (which I do). For other people, it’s providing a happy table, where joy is the main course.

For some people, it’s the solitary work of quiet prayer for the needs of the world. For others, it’s translating those prayers into acts of mercy and justice. It gives life to them and to others.

This is what it means to come to Christ in restorative rest. In the grace of God, we find what gives us life and we pursue it. And we keep pursuing it, not for the sake of indulgence, but in the pursuit of a greater integration and health. It’s a different kind of yoke to be placed upon our shoulders. We give up all the other slaveries and take on the disciplines that heal our souls.

And that’s why we keep coming into this place and gathering at this Table. For this is where we hear once again how much we are loved, how deeply we are saved, and how greatly the world is kept in hands far more gracious and just than our own.

May you have a blessed Sabbath, again and again.


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


[1] Proverbs 16:23, The Living Bible
[2] Wayne Muller, Sabbath (New York: Bantam, 1999) p. 51-52
[3] Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2013), introduction.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Much Should We Pack?

Ordinary 11
June 18, 2017
William G. Carter

As much as I like to travel, I’m never sure how much to pack. When my wife and I fly out to Albuquerque for vacation this Friday, we will do our best to keep a week’s worth of possessions down to one suitcase. That’s the goal. It’s not certain that will happen.

Packing is determined by two contradictory principles: how do we move quickly? How can we be prepared for every contingency? How many pairs of pants can we take, or in my wife’s case, how many pairs of shoes? Should we pack an umbrella? Does it rain in New Mexico? How about a suit jacket, in case our hosts take us out to dinner? Meanwhile, we booked a very small rental car – will the suitcase fit in the back?

Packing is an art form. For wisdom, I recently printed off an article: “How to pack like a Ninja.” There’s great advice: roll up your t-shirts, and take one less than you think you’ll need. Roll up your socks and stick them in your shoes. To save space, wear a jacket onto the plane. Don’t waste valuable suitcase space.

On the other hand, it’s possible to forget the essentials. Like the kid who was in such a hurry to get out of the house and spend a Friday night with friends. Around eleven that night, I got a phone call. A sheepish voice whispered, “Dad, could you bring over some underwear? I forgot to bring some. But whatever you do, don’t tell me friends.” Of course I won’t tell your friends; I’ll save that story for a sermon. Ah, Father’s Day!

So I was paying close attention when Jesus sent out twelve of his followers. He gave them the authority to do his work, and sent them out to travel around as he has been traveling around. And what’s the best advice at the heart of his commission? Don’t take anything with you.

In Eugene Peterson’s translation, Jesus says, “Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood… Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously… travel light.”

Well, of course. Too much baggage can get in the way. Like that family trip years ago to attend a cousin’s wedding. On the way through the Mojave Desert, our rental car got a flat tire, about a hundred miles shy of Barstow, California. The tire was changed with a spare, but the punctured tire wouldn’t fit underneath where the spare came from. And there was no room for the tire inside the car because there was too much luggage, so it had to go on somebody’s lap.  

“Travel light is good advice.” Yet Jesus pushes it to extremes: “Carry no bag for your journey. Take no sandals, no walking stick. Forget about an extra shirt. And most of all, take no money.”

That reminds me of the hazing story when my father joined a college fraternity. They blindfolded him late one night and put him in the trunk of a car. Then they drove around for forty five minutes, stopped somewhere, and told him to get out. He had no wallet, no money, no compass, no flashlight. And they said, “See you back at the fraternity house. Figure out how you’re going to get there,” and sped away.

Obviously he made it back, or I wouldn’t be telling the story. He never said how he did it, but he did say it wasn’t easy.

And Jesus isn’t hazing anybody. He’s sending them out to do ministry. He has been healing a lot of people, an awful lot of people, and there’s more work to get done than he can get done. He’s a human being, not a Superman. A human being can only put in so many eighteen hour days, can only be in one place at a time. So he calls out twelve of his followers to extend the work. Jesus gives them direction, commissions them to go, and says, “Don’t pack anything.”

Well, that’s not to say he doesn’t give them something. You know what he gives them? You know what he gives us? A small little sack of words.

“When you go somewhere, say, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” That is, God is ruling over heaven and earth, and God is right here. And the second thing you say is ‘Peace be to this house!' That’s what I give you. That’s all you have to carry. Nothing else is necessary. You are sent into the world with a handful of words."

In a way, that is a relief. The words Jesus gives are simple words. They're easy to remember. Not too burdensome to carry.  And it's good to know that God's work can be done without a lot of props. We need no bag, no sandals, no purse.  We need no flip-charts, no brochures, no PowerPoint presentations. That's good to hear, because the props can get in the way.

Years ago, when my sister worked at a Presbyterian summer camp, she brought back a book that they used for devotions. It’s a snarky little book, full of wisecracking little parables, which is probably why it is still on my shelf. Here’s one of my favorites:

 In a certain town, an advertising executive decided to sell God.  She invited some clients to a presentation.  Then she got busy.  First she converted the "God message" to a variety of abstract images projected onto a screen.  Next she added a catchy soundtrack with guitars and drums. Finally she hired a caterer to serve drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the softly-lit room. As her clients arrived, she chatted with them casually. Then came the visual pitch. Afterwards people complimented her creative approach. She was pleased and said she was glad they liked it.  With a chuckle she added, "I hope you'll buy my product."  People looked confused and uncomfortable.  Finally someone said, "Oh, are you selling something?"[1]

The props can get in the way. Contrast that to what writer Frederick Buechner reminds us about Alcoholics Anonymous: They meet in basements and spare rooms, because an addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. They have no budget, no hierarchy, no building of their own. They simply tell their own stories, where they went wrong, how they are trying to go right, how they find the strength and hope to keep going on. There’s not much more to it than that and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.[2]

This is what Church is meant to be, he says. Sinners Anonymous.

"I send you without a bag or sandals or purse," says Jesus, for God's work is best done with words. At the bottom of it all, we need no steeple, no pulpit, no organ, no blackboard, no office. In fact, we don't even need a coffee pot. Don't get me wrong; these things are nice, but in the ultimate economy of God, all we are given are a few words.  I, for one, find that refreshing.

What delights me even more is that Jesus implies that our words can carry the freight of the Gospel.  I had forgotten that words have such power.  Of course, not just any words will do.  Jesus gives us the right kind of words. He gives us words of blessing and words of truth.

Whenever you go into a house, said Jesus, say a blessing.  Say "Peace be to this house!"  It makes no demand.  It requires no decision.  It simply announces the salvation that Jesus came to bring.  As one scholar puts it, “When you speak like that, you release God's good news into the air.  God offers peace to all within hearing.  Anyone hungering for such wholeness is free to respond on their own terms.[3]

And when you go into a town, said Jesus, tell people the truth.  Oh, you can eat with people and heal the sick.  You can paint their houses and mow their lawns.  But don't forget to speak up and say, "God's kingdom has come near to you."  You see, that's the truth!  Regardless of how effective your good deeds, regardless of whether or not anybody wants you around, you need to speak up and say, "God's kingdom has come near to you." 

After all, it's God's kingdom, not yours, mine, or theirs. Its coming doesn't depend on you. The kingdom is at hand, regardless of how many good deeds we do along the way.  God's reign has broken into human history.  So speak up and say so.  Announce that God is here, that new possibilities for life are at hand.

It encourages me to hear such good news, especially given our circumstances.  The plain fact is that the world is not knocking down our door to hear the gospel.  I checked this morning's newspaper and there's as much pain and suffering as there was yesterday.  All the more reason for Jesus to send us out into the world.  He allows us no bag, no sandals, no purse, and no props.  He sends us out as lambs in the midst of wolves, carrying only a few fragile words. Still the question remains: Are words enough? Do they have sufficient power?  Is there anything we can say in God's name to make a tangible difference in a painful world?  What do you think?

Walt Wangerin, the Lutheran storyteller, tells about his church organist, an imposing woman named Joselyn Fields.  At forty-seven, she was stricken with cancer.  Spring, summer, and autumn, he went out to visit the woman.

He said he didn't know what to say, nor did he understand what he had the right to say.  He wore out the Psalms; the Psalms were safe. He prayed that the Lord's will be done, scared to tell either the Lord or Joselyn what the Lord's will ought to be. By his own estimation, he bumbled.

One day when she awoke from surgery, he decided to be cheerful, to enliven her and to avoid the specter that unsettled him -- the death.  He chattered. He spoke brightly of the sunlight outside, and vigorously of the tennis he had played that morning, sweetly of the flowers, hopefully of the day she would sit again at the organ, reading music during his sermon.  But Joselyn rolled a black eye his way.  She raised one bony finger to his face. And she said, "Shut up."  He shut up.  He kept visiting her.

And so he writes, "The autumn whitened into winter; and Joselyn became no more than bones; her rich skin turned ashy; her breath filled the room with a close odor which ever thereafter has meant dying to my nostrils.  And the day came when I had nothing, absolutely nothing to say to Joselyn."

He said, "I entered her room at noon, saying nothing. I sat beside her through the afternoon, saying nothing.  She lay awake, her eyelids paper-thin and drooping, watchful eyes -- we, neither of us, saying anything.  But with the evening came the Holy Spirit.  The words I finally said were not my own."

Walt said, "I turned to Joselyn. I opened my mouth and said, `I love you.'  And Joselyn widened her ebony eye. And that lady, she put out her arms. She hugged me. And I hugged those dying bones. She whispered, `I love you, too.'  That was all we said. But that was the power from on high, cloaking both of us in astonished simplicity, even as Jesus had said it would.

Joselyn died. And Walt says he did not grieve.  For the yellow fingers of death had already lost their grip.[4]

"Behold," Jesus said, "I send you into the world to do my work.  You don't need a fat purse, or a bag, or brand new sandals." All he gives us are a handful of words. Words of blessing: "Peace be with you!" Words of truth: "God is ruling, and close at hand." Above all else, they are words of love. That's all we need. That's all we're given. 

They are enough.



William G. Carter. All rights reserved.


[1] Lois Cheney, God Is No Fool, publisher unknown
[2] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark
[3] Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel of Luke, p. 848
[4] Told in his wonderful book Ragman (New York: Harper and Row)