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.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Little Less Than God But Still Hungry

A reverie on the music of Charlie Parker and the human condition
Jazz Communion 2019
William G. Carter

It was a busy night at Billy Berg’s nightclub, especially for a Monday in early December. The Hollywood club was packed with movie stars, raconteurs, hipsters, and glitterati, all of them leaning forward to hear a new kind of jazz.

While America fought a World Ware on two fronts in Europe and the South Seas, there had been another revolution brewing. The pop music of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman lifted the spirits of a nation at war, but a small group of creative souls declared that music boring. So they sped up the tempos, stirred dissonance into the harmonies, and created new melodies that had sharp angles in them. They called it “bebop” or “rebop” or simply “bop.”

People in California had never heard anything like this. So Billy Berg was doing something slick when he invited two New York revolutionaries, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, to bring this new music to his club for an extended engagement. They were the Bee’s knees, the cat’s whiskers, the fox’s socks, and the crème de la creme. In fact, that’s how the beboppers talked.

So it’s opening night in Hollywood. The lights go down, the announcer steps up to the microphone, and Dizzy counts off the first tune. It’s thrilling, it’s fast. But where’s Charlie Parker?

At great expense, Billy Berg had hired Dizzy to bring a quintet to California. He paid for travel and rooms. There are five musicians onstage, but Charlie “the Bird” Parker is not one of them. It seems Dizzy had hired an additional musician, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, to fill in the band. The Bird had a reputation for not showing up. Or at least, not showing up yet.

While the band performs, Bird is backstage in the dressing room. He’s just finished polishing off a huge meal of Mexican food, the Deluxe Comida Conquistador dinner: tacos, enchiladas, tamales, tostadas, black beans and rice, guacamole and two kinds of salsa. There are three empty beer bottles on the counter. Bird wipes his beak, gives a quiet belch, and then orders a second Deluxe Comida Conquistador dinner. “While you’re at it,” he says, “find me a bottle of whiskey.” The band will have to keep going without him. Bird’s still hungry.

Dizzy Gillespie is accustomed to this behavior. That’s why he hired a sixth musician for his quintet. When the second set is almost over, Bird pushes back the empty plates and bottles from his second Mexican banquet, straps on his saxophone, and wanders out to the back of the club. As the musical set builds to a furious climax, suddenly there’s a flurry of saxophone notes. The nightclub air bursts into musical flame as Charlie Parker hurls his notes into the atmosphere.

The tune explodes, then concludes, the crowd leaps to its feet in applause, the musicians nod in appreciation, and Dizzy murmurs to Bird, “Don’t ever pull a stunt like that again.” He knows full well it could happen again tomorrow.[1]

You know, there’s a great risk in playing jazz. You set the tempo and step out on a tightrope. It’s not music for those who want to play it safe.

There’s a greater risk in playing jazz in church. Some onlookers might be drawn like moths to a flame, believing this is edgy and cool; they might not come on a regular Sunday, but they’ll come for something like this. Meanwhile, the pious and upright regulars fear a holy God might blast the whole thing to bits.

For me, the greatest risk of all is playing the jazz of Charlie Parker in church because that great musician had a complex and complicated life. Spiritually speaking, he was a mess. In all kinds of ways, he was a failure as a grownup. He was charming yet manipulative, brilliant yet caustic. Bird blew up every relationship in his life, including his friendship with Dizzy Gillespie.

The gig in Hollywood was cancelled prematurely, partly because of Bird’s stunts. And when Dizzy and the others flew back to New York, Bird never made the flight. He had cashed in his plane ticket to buy a few fixes of heroin. That addiction had enslaved him since the age of fifteen and would last until his death from cirrhosis and alcohol-induced pneumonia at 34.

Yet there was no greater saxophonist in the history of American music. None greater. Even John Coltrane thought so. Can you imagine holding together the paradox of such a life?

After Dizzy Gillespie quit and couldn’t take it anymore, Miles Davis started working with Charlie Parker. In his memoirs, Miles writes,

I never understood why he did all the destructive (stuff) he used to do. Bird knew better. He was an intellectual. He used to read novels, poetry, history, stuff like that. And he could hold a conversation with almost anybody on all kinds of things. So the (guy) wasn’t dumb or ignorant or illiterate or anything like that. He was real sensitive. But he had this destructive streak in him… He was a genius and most geniuses are greedy. [2]

So it’s an appropriate day to reflect on what it means to be human. To be a genius but greedy. To be talented yet needy. To be beautiful but broken. To be enormously capable and deeply flawed. Some of us might see a reflection of ourselves, and I’m here to tell you that’s OK.

We have heard two scripture texts that explain the human situation, as long as we hold them in tension. Psalm 8 offers the most affirming words in the Bible. "Who are we, Lord, that you pay us any attention?” The answer: you are children of the Most High, created in the divine image, endowed with holy creativity. 

As the Psalmist sings to heaven about the human family, “You have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands and put all things under their feet.” (Psalm 8:5-6) 

There isn’t a more noble description of humanity in all of scripture.

Yet, not far from the book of Psalms is the book of Ecclesiastes. A wise old sage reflects on all that he has spent his life scrambling to attain. He concludes, “It’s like reaching for smoke.” It’s been a vain and empty pursuit.

The poet says: I planted vineyards for myself, cheered my body with wine, and created a lot of headaches. I made a lot of money and it never made me happy. I enjoyed the “delights of the flesh” but I never knew love.  So I worked harder, surpassed all others, and did not deny myself any pleasure. Then I watched as it all turned to sand and slipped through my fingers.

A lot of people avoid the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. They say it’s a downer. I disagree. It’s an honest corrective to self-indulgence. It’s a reminder that life is not a banquet of chocolate cake; if you’re going to be healthy, you must eat the broccoli, too. 

Ecclesiastes is a hand raised in objection to the children of God who think they can live without limits, only to find themselves consumed by all the consumption. It is a word of wisdom for those tempted toward the foolishness of burning themselves out. It’s a well-placed Yield sign to those who thought they can speed past the warning signs of self-destruction.

There’s nothing new about this, for the Bible understands who we are. Earlier in the Jewish Bible, the people conspire to reach heaven by building a big tower; heaven laughs, the Tower of Babel falls, and the people end up all the more confused.

It’s not only in the Bible. There’s the old Greek myth of Icarus, who constructs wings of wax to fly into the sky, only to soar too close to the sun where the wax wings melt. Or there’s the more recent question posed by Michael Crichton in his story of Jurassic Park: So you have the technology to clone a tyrannosaurus rex, but why would you want to? What were you thinking?

If we hold all of this together, we hear the invitation to restraint, to build a more measured view of what it means to be a human being. Yes, we were created a little less than God, empowered, equipped, hovering near the pantheon of angels. But we are still hungry, hungry for something that a third Mexican meal or some other quick fix will not satisfy. It’s important to spend some time working through that hunger and to never allow it to overtake us.

At the same time, there is deep pleasure in claiming our dignity, reaching high, taking risks, and seeking enjoyment in the thick of hard work. For in the end, we can only conclude what the wise sage of Ecclesiastes concludes: that life is a gift, not an achievement, and we will endure only by the grace and mercy of the God who is greater and kinder than ourselves.

Let’s chew on this today, as the bread is broken, the wine is poured, and the band breaks into the blues. All of us have a hungry place in our souls. We try to fill it in a hundred ways and that never quite works. So maybe today it’s enough to simply lean back and be carried, to know we are loved, to welcome help from a really good friend, and to give something extravagant to the people around us.

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

[1] The story is recounted by Ross Russell in Bird Lives! (New York: DaCapo Press, 1996)  
[2] Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 76-77.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Support Staff

August 11, 2019
William G. Carter

When the church decided to come up with a list of Bible readings for Sunday worship, they left this one out.

I’ve always thought about the Bible what I believe about the hymnal, namely, if it’s in the book, it’s fair game. Not all of you agree. Just this week, someone objected to a few of the hymns we’ve sung this summer. Don’t know them, or the melodies don’t come easily, or they push into challenging territory. That’s fair. But I still hold that if it’s in the book, it’s fair game. A committee put together the hymnal, on behalf of the whole church. A council decided to compile what belongs in the Bible, subject to the consensus of the rest of the church. These aren’t individual decisions or private preferences. They belong to the whole group.

And yet, when a subcommittee from across denominational lines was appointed to determine what Bible passages that church should hear on Sunday mornings, they left out chapter four of Colossians.

It’s not because of the advice that Paul and Timothy have to offer. No, it is good advice! “Devote yourself to prayer.” “Keep alert in giving thanks.” Nobody has a concern about this. “Let your speech always be gracious. Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.” It’s a reminder that Christian faith runs counter to the empires of the world. This is all good stuff. No reason to pass over this.

Neither should we dismiss the text because of where Paul wrote it. He’s in jail again. We don’t know where. It might have been Caesarea, Ephesus, Rome, or somewhere else. He has written plenty of other letters from jail. He had a lot of time on his hands. He had a lot on his mind.

Some of his best work was written in a prison cell: letters to the Philippians, the Ephesians, Philemon, this letter to the Colossians, perhaps even the letter to the Romans. The church has never dismissed the apostle Paul just because he had been arrested. So this chapter four was left out because it was written in a cell.

No, I think you probably know why no one reads chapter four. In fact, when I read it to you, I watched some of your eyes glaze over. It’s all the names. Eleven names: Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark and Barnabas, Jesus called Justus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, Nympha, and bless his heart, Archippus. We don’t know any of those people. It’s just a list of names. Whenever people read the Bible, they usually skip over the lists of names.

Like the book of Numbers, which offers a census report of ancient Israel: Elizur son of Shedeur, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai, Nahshon son of Amminadab, Nethanel son of Zuar,Eliab son of Helon  It’s hard to get past the first paragraph. They are difficult to pronounce. A mean, old pastor will assign a list like that to a liturgist he doesn’t like. What’s the point of keeping a list?

Or the first scroll of Chronicles. Have you spent any time in Chronicles? There are a lot of names, lists of names. My favorite list of names is in 1 Chronicles 25. Here goes:

Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, Asarelah, Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, Mattithiah, Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel, Jerimoth, Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, Romamti-ezer, Josh-beka-shah, Mallothi, Hothir, and Mahazioth. 

Do you know who those people were? They were members of the Musicians’ Union in old Jerusalem. Chronicles took their names right off the wall of the choir room. They were on the clipboard where the choir robes were assigned. Zaccur was a 42 long, Gedaliah was a 36 short, and Josh-beka-shah was a 52 extra wide. Just listen to that name: Josh-beka-shah.

What’s the deal with the names? Paul and Timothy end their letter to the Colossians by giving us eleven names. Most go by pretty quickly. A couple of them do pop up. Jesus…called Justus. It’s not the Jesus we know. In fact, it’s a reminder that the name Jesus was a common name, a human name. Jesus was in the city of Colossae, but they didn’t want to confuse him with the one we’ve heard about. So they called him Justus.

Or Luke, whom they call “the beloved physician.” I wonder what he’s doing in southwestern Turkey. The two thickest books in the New Testament are said to be written by somebody named Luke. It could be the same person. If so, he is the most prolific author in the whole Bible, which is saying something. This is the only place is says he was a physician.

Or another name, Mark. He shows up for the first time in the book of Acts. Barnabas was taking him around, trying to work him in. Variously he is called “John,” or “John Mark,” or simply “Mark.” Paul says Mark and Barnabas were cousins; not that it matters to you or me, except there’s a tradition that somebody named Mark wrote a Gospel of his own. Same one, different one? We don’t know. What would it matter?

But now, here is something interesting. You know that list of eleven names? Seven of those names appear together in another book of the Bible. It’s the letter that immediately follows this one, the letter to Philemon. Here are the names: Archippus, Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, and Onesimus.

In that letter, we discover that Onesimus is a runaway slave. He must have gotten caught with the silver candlesticks, for he ended up in the next prison cell with Paul. Paul was always preaching, even in prison. Onesimus listened, repented, gave his heart to the Lord. So Paul writes the letter to Philemon, who was the slave owner of Onesimus. He says, “I’m sending him back to you, but he’s now more than a slave. He’s a brother. Receive him back, and when I get out of jail, I’m stopping by to see how things are going.” What we have is a remarkable little slice of redemption from the early church.

What’s more, even though Philemon is not mentioned in the fourth chapter of Colossians, others are. We call that next letter “Philemon,” but it’s not merely to him. Paul and Timothy address the letter to “Philemon our dear friend, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.” (1:1)

So it’s clear why Paul lists all those names. He’s writing to the church. He’s writing from the church, and says, “Aristarchus says hello, and Mark says hello, and so do Jesus Justus, Epaphras, Luke, and Demas.” The greeting is an expression of fellowship, an expression of mutual love in Christ which binds them together even when they are separated by circumstance. It’s a way of saying, “All of us are in this together. We belong to one another because of Christ.”

So don’t call it a list of names. It’s more than a list. It is a fellowship.

That’s a good reminder for us. Across the hall in our office, we maintain a list. It’s a long list. Once in a while, a volunteer may come by, sit at the desk, wait for the phone to ring. If they get bored, they might pick up the list and start to thumb through it. “Who is this person? Who is that person? I don’t know who they are. Do they come? Where do they sit? Do I know them?”

And if they corner me while I’m eating a donut, I might reply, “Are you asking because you’re nosy? Or are you asking because you care?” As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one proper way to respond to me. We are a fellowship in Christ. Every name on the list represents a child of God with a story and a history. Each is worthy of the love of God, and every single one of them is part of the fellowship. It doesn’t matter if they are serving overseas in the military, sitting in a pew or sleeping in, or living around the block. It is Christ’s list, not ours.

A few years back, our nominating team nominated somebody to serve as a deacon. It was a wise choice: smart, caring, good looking as all of our members are. Then our administrator discovered he wasn’t on the list. He was here every week, prayer and sang with the rest of us, put an envelope in the offering plate, but not on the list.

Upon investigation, we discovered a well-intentioned Pharisee had long ago removed this man from the list when he was in college and had never bothered to notify him or his family. That wasn’t right. So we fixed it in a hurry and ordained him as a deacon. Don’t call it a list. It’s more than a list.

In fact, if you give a close look at the names, whether here or the next letter to Philemon, you discover what the church is called to become. Onesimus, considered a slave by the empire, is named “the faithful and beloved brother.” The class distinctions do not matter in church. There is neither slave nor free when you are a hymnal and praise the Lord.

In the book of Acts we learn Aristarchus, Paul’s other fellow prisoner, came from Macedonia; he was a Greek who had fellowship with the Turks in Colossae. These days, most Turks could not possibly imagine getting along with the Greeks. But in church, national distinctions don’t matter to God who made us all.

In fact, Paul says, “Say hello to Nympha and the church that meets in her house.” Not only was she a woman and a leader of a congregation (please take note of that!), she must have been very wealthy to have a home large enough for a congregation to gather. And why not! In the true church of Jesus Christ, there is no discrimination between female and male, no distinction between rich and poor. Everybody belongs because Christ has called them.

One more thing: Paul concludes by saying, “I write this greeting with my own hand.” He autographs the letter – perhaps with a signature that differs from that of Timothy, who most likely did most of the writing. That, in itself, is significant. Biblically speaking, Paul gets a lot of press coverage, a lot of attention, but Timothy did a good bit of the work. Paul gets his name at the top of the page, but Timothy was carrying the load.

Because in church, the true church of Christ, nobody is any better than anybody else. Each of us has work to do. We do it together, we do it for one another, we share life to the glory of God. What would it be like if we looked out for one another? If we were there for one another, if we truly loved one another as part of a grand fellowship?

A couple days ago, I read an interview with Wendell Berry that appeared last month in The New Yorker. Finally someone sent a writer to talk with that extraordinary farmer and poet, whom I would readily call the sanest man in America.

Berry was talking about the neighborhood, in his case a small farming community along the Kentucky River. Pretty soon, he spoke of how much he appreciates his Amish neighbors, specifically an Amish farmer named David Kline. David had a neighbor who is not Amish, and Berry says,

The neighbor is old, and he’s having health problems. He drives his car over to David’s, and David goes to town with him to help him shop, take care of the mail, and do all the things that have to be done in town. Then the neighbor has to go to the hospital, and then he’s in therapy. He’s gone quite a long time and while he’s gone they keep his place going. They fill the bird feeders, they take care of the lawn and the garden and the orchard. They clean his house. They throw away his old scatter rugs and get him some scraps at the rug factory, have them bound and put them down. When he comes home, the mail is sorted.

The point is not just that this is good for the neighbor, it’s also good for David and his family. They’ve enjoyed it. They’ve enjoyed imagining his pleasure in what they’ve done. And this isn’t selfishness. Maybe it’s more elation. Jesus implies this in a way—a limitlessness of neighborliness.[1] 

You know, a lot of us live in this town where nobody knows the names of their neighbors. The neighbors are merely names on a list. But what if we were different? What if we pushed ourselves out of isolation and got to know the people around us? What if we took the time to listen to their stories, weed their gardens, and fill their bird feeders?

What if we began by looking around this room and deciding we would do that for one another? Not merely think about it from a distance, but do something in person.

You know, there’s a name for that. There’s a name for a group of people who take one another seriously, who laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. There’s a name for a gathering of neighbors who are always seeking to expand the circle and bring others in. There’s a name for those who do not distinguish between slave and free, rich and poor, male and female.

There’s a name for those who refuse to live by their own privilege, for those who push themselves beyond the comfort zone to talk to strangers, for those who would do anything to lift up people in trouble, for those who would welcome all whom the world rejects, for those who cannot abide to see children separated from their parents, for those who would empty their own wallets for the person who needs something to eat.

Do you know what they call people like that? They call them “the church.”

(c) William Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Amanda Petrusich, “Going Home with Wendell Berry,” The New Yorker, 14 July 2019.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Life, Hidden and Obvious

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
August 4, 2019
William G. Carter

I noticed that some of you perked up when Paul and Timothy wrote the words, “Wives, be subject to your husbands,” and “Husbands, love your wives.” I wanted you to know that I’m not going to talk about that. There are single people here, too, as you know.

Others of you raised your eyebrows when we heard, “Children, obey your parents,” if only the commandment already said, “Honor your father and mother.” It equates honoring with obeying, which is not always the same thing. And then to say, “Fathers, don’t provoke your children.” What in the world was going on in the Colossian church? I don’t know, and I’m not going to get into that, either.

Somebody over here gasped when the text says, “Slaves, obey your masters.” All of us know that slavery has been outlawed in our nation for 156 years, even though it exists in other nations, and even though there are still forms of economic servitude that are cruel and demeaning. This is not a sermon about slavery, so I’m not going to talk about that.

No, I’m going to talk about the poem on the bulletin cover. It was written over 350 years ago by a Welsh Anglican priest named George Herbert (1593-1633). It is based on a line from our scripture text:

My words and thoughts do both expresse this notion,
That Life hath with the sun a double motion.
The first Is straight, and our diurnall friend,
The other Hid and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapt In flesh, and tends to earth.
The other winds towards Him, whose happy birth
Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
Quitting   with   daily    labor   all    My   pleasure,
To   gain  at   harvest   an   eternal   Treasure.

The scripture text, in case you missed it, is written diagonally in the poem: "My life is hid in Him that is my treasure." It is a paraphrase of Colossians 3:3, "Your life is hidden with Christ in God." The verse itself is hidden within the poem. That’s pretty slick.

According to the poem, life moves in two directions. One direction goes from dawn to dusk, day in, day out. There are routines to maintain, commitments to keep, meals to make, work to do. Presumably there are spouses to love, parents to obey, children to avoid provoking, masters to obey, and slaves to treat fairly. Life is wrapped in flesh and engages in work on earth.

But the Christian life also aims in the direction of Jesus Christ. Jesus lived this life, as we do, and he reigns in it and above it in power and beauty. The true life, the fullness of life, is hidden in Him who is our treasure. We work every day, but we aim elsewhere. Our treasure is woven diagonally from one corner of the day to the other, and it can been seen only when it is highlighted.

That's where I want to shine some light for a few minutes this morning. Paul says, "Your life is hidden with Christ in God."

I've been thinking about the whole business of hiding. If there's something we know how to do, we know how to hide.

On balmy summer nights, the kids in my neighborhood loved to play hide and seek, or the variation “kick the can.” My sister was an expert at hiding. One night she burrowed under a yew bush. It was such a wonderful spot, that she stayed there even when we called out “All-ee, all-ee, in free." She didn’t come. She kept hiding.

She didn’t even show for the homemade ice cream that our father cranked up. About the time we finished the last scoop she emerged out of the shadows, her brow covered with mud. She found out what she missed, and got angry. She stomped up to her room and hid up there for the rest of the night.

We know how to hide. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and what did they do? They went into hiding. They heard God strolling in the garden, so they hid. God said, "Where are you? All-ee, all-ee, in free." Right then they should have known it wasn't Paradise anymore. They were hiding from God. That's about the worst description anybody can give of the human condition: Adam and Eve were hiding from God.

It’s kind of silly, if you think about it. Where did they think they could go?

If there's anything we know how to do, we know how to hide. But how are we at hiding with God? If I understand the poem and the Bible verse within it, there is a part of life which is hidden, a slice of the soul which is out of view, a piece of us which does not belong to public scrutiny.

And if we don't conceal that essence of ourselves with God, every other part of our lives can tumble out of balance. The actions of our bodies will implode in self-destruction. Our words will tear down, rather than build up. Our relationships will be ripped apart, rather than be stitched together.

Two words are important for the writer of Colossians. They are the words "hidden" and "mystery." Paul and Timothy speak of Christ as the mystery hidden throughout the ages (1:26). In Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (2:3) It is not enough to "wrap our lives in flesh" - - we must "wind toward Him."

The apostles point to a set of renunciations and affirmations that distinguish us as children of God. They describe the Christian life as if it’s like shedding an old set of clothes and putting on a new outfit. You choose to do it, not to make yourself pretty, but because God has already considered you beautiful and given you the new outfit. It's been paid for. All you have to do is put it on. And we do this best by spending time with the One who gave it to you.

That's why God gave us the Sabbath. The old Sabbath law is an invitation to dwell abundantly. It works by guarding the tendency to live only in the exterior world. God protects us from having to earn our way, by commanding us to sit still for one day out of seven.

God says, "For a seventh of your time, don't lift a finger - - not because you're lazy, not because you're tired, not because you think you need to earn your keep – but because, in some deep, abiding sense, you are already kept.”

Paul calls upon us to protect a part of our soul so that the world can't snatch it away. "Set your mind on things that are above and kill off the bad habits of down below." The piece of us that matters most is already hidden with God. The passive language is instructive. We don't have to establish a relationship with God. It has already been set up for us. It happened in baptism when the old self was sunk into the water and washed away. The new person was already raised with Christ.

The invitation is not to do anything, at least, not anything more. It’s the invitation to be – to be a baptized soul, to be claimed by Christ, to be sufficiently “hidden with Christ in God" that nothing else can ever snatch us away.

So what would that look like? For me, it’s a few different habits that I work on. I flip on the coffee pot at 7 in the morning, let the dogs out, and enjoy the morning silence. From about 7:15 until 8, I read a couple of Psalms. It’s a time to float, a time to sit on the front porch, enjoy the flowers, watch the bees and the hummingbirds, and receive a day that I didn’t have to make.

And throughout the day, I may push back from the desk and take a five-minute mini-sabbatical. I could light a candle, pray for the person that I just talked with on the phone, or simply be silent for a bit. When the day is over, I’m the last one to go upstairs. I pause to thank God for the day, for the conversations that I’ve had, ask forgiveness for the mistake I made, and drop an unfinished day into the Savior’s hands. Nothing particularly dramatic. Doesn’t seem very spiritual, except that maybe it is. I rest in God’s mercy. I hide with Christ.

So what would it look like for you? Maybe some of these things, or maybe something else.

·         Maybe you need to take a walk in the woods or applaud for a pretty sunset, or maybe you could sit still on Sunday afternoon and let a refreshing Wind bring you back to life.

·         Maybe you could sit in a boat with a fishing pole, in no hurry to catch anything but admiring the dragonflies, or you could read a book that opens your heart and expands your mind.

·         Maybe you could get up early and pray for the people you love, or you could sit by a crackling campfire at night and offer to God the people you find hard to love.

·         Maybe it’s time to make a list of distant friends and pick up the phone, or maybe you need a retreat from the noisy people around you.

·         On my spiritual list is laughter. I need the regular presence of laughter, what Annie Lamott calls “carbonated holiness.” Maybe you need that. Or perhaps you need to make a pilgrimage to a place where the world has experienced pain. The tears that find you could unlock your heart and sharpen your view of God’s justice.

These are all spiritual practices. They keep us in the embrace of God. They can be ways that we steal away to Jesus and hide in the mystery of grace. I don't know what, of any of this, sounds inviting to you. But I do know that we have the capacity to be more than a breathless schedule of activities. And if we take on some of these disciplines, we announce that we belong, not merely to the world, but to Christ.

The only life worth living is a life that is grounded in the grace and mercy of God, whom we know in Christ Jesus. The invitation is always there, to steal away and spend time with the One who is our Treasure.

(c) William Carter. All rights reserved.