Saturday, November 10, 2018

Peeking Into the Offering Plate

Mark 12:38-44
November 11, 2018
William G. Carter

As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

One summer Sunday, one of our ushers didn’t show up. I don’t remember who it was, but there was some consternation in the back of the sanctuary. The list of regulars had been exhausted, and no fresh volunteers were presenting themselves. What I remember is the lead usher looked at me, with a smirk on his face, and said, “Maybe you could help us take up the offering.”

Well, I’m usually up for a challenge. So, after the sermon the offering was announced. Three ushers stepped up with four offering plates, as I stepped down to join them. I have to tell you it was a complete revelation for me.

I noticed what I can’t always see up here, that there are different styles of putting the money in the plate. There is the sideways subtle drop, to suggest this is no big deal. There is the grand flourish. And there is the family bargain gambit, familiar from my childhood, where the parent says, “The quietest child in the pew can do the honors.”

One poor soul hadn’t paid much attention until there I was. He looked up, saw me standing over him, and gasped, “Oh, it’s you.” He reached into his wallet and pulled out a little bit more.

The most difficult part of the job, however, was resisting commentary. I recall a prominent man in an expensive suit. He put in a buck. I wanted to say, “Is that it? Surely you could do better.” The lead usher caught my eye and shook his head, as if to say, “Don’t say a word.” In the next pew sat an older woman, known to be having a difficult time. She had four offering envelopes with a rubber band around them. Each one was stuffed full. I wanted to say, “Are you sure?”

The ushers decided to never ask me again. Some people squirmed with me stepping out of the safe zone of the chancel. Others said, “That’s not his job. I’ll be glad to volunteer whenever you need me.” The universal response, I believe, was a certain unease at having the pastor observe what they were giving.

So I’m interested in this brief story from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is watching people make their donations to the temple. “Many rich people put in large sums.” Is that an affirmation or a critique? Mark doesn’t say. He doesn’t describe how he knew they were rich. Was it the way they dressed or the way they carried themselves? He also doesn’t say how Jesus knew they gave “large sums.” In that day, money came in coins, not paper. I’m guessing the coins jingled and clinked when they dropped in the box.

They didn’t have offering envelopes back then. Nobody was tracking the donations for a tax write-off. And there wasn’t the cultural conspiracy of silence, where giving is considered private and nobody else’s business.

When my first congregation was invited to join in an ecumenical service at a Greek Orthodox church, a lot of them were shocked to walk in, and, even before they smelled the incense, they noticed the bulletin board by the door. Someone had posted a typewritten list of everybody in the congregation and how much they gave. My Pennsylvania Dutch folks were shocked. They were stunned. To have that information right up where everybody could see it – and they did this on purpose! It was horrifying and froze their German blood.

That kind of information can be disturbing. A new person is recruited to count the offering or post the donations on the computer. The finance committee will dispatch me to train them, saying, “Please, please, please, count accurately but forget the name attached to the gift.” Why? Because you might look at people differently if you see what they give. In the words of our most venerable offering counter, “I have the shortest memory in town.”

This can be important. When you notice that loudest and most savage critic is giving only a couple of bucks, you begin to see the hypocrisy. It may soften the effect of their criticism. Yet I can also tell you, after years of observation, that the largest givers to this congregation are not the wealthiest; they are the most committed. I recall the wise words from one of my mentors, “Bring people closer to Christ and their wallets come with them.” Everything comes with them – talents and abilities, time as well as treasures.

And what about Christ? There he sat, watching people put their coins in the offering box. Actually they didn’t have a single box, but rather many containers placed around the temple. These were not intended for outreach or mission work – but for operations, to keep the temple flourishing. The temple was a big operation; arguably, in Jerusalem, it was the only operation in town. It was the only bank as well as the central shrine. The income was enormous. As one historian reports,

There were bequests coming in from all over the world, the world-wide levy of a fixed tax (among the Jews), the animal sacrifices (and the purchase thereof), the redemption of vows, the wood offerings, as well as the produce of the land owned by the Temple. (The income) increased exponentially during the great pilgrim feasts. Every good Jew was committed to spending a tenth of the produce of his land in Jerusalem.[1]

With all that money coming in, Jesus sits down and watches the crowd. There were offering containers all around the Temple precincts. If you believed God was good to you, you could make an additional “thank offering.” Moses encouraged this, as a way of teaching thanks, of directing our gratitude to God who provides all the things. What the people gave depended, as it still does, on the measure of their engagement, the level of their involvement, the extent of their gratitude, and the expression of their values.

Jesus was watching. “The rich put in great sums,” says Mark, because they had great sums, But what Jesus notices is that they give from their excess. These are the leftovers after building a big house, eating a fine meal, purchasing nice clothes. Here’s the leftover, the remainder. If those people are financially blessed, they can tithe because they have an extra ten percent hanging around. It’s not a sacrifice.

But just imagine if you could be generous even if you didn’t have a lot of money. What if God had come into your heart, filled it with light, released you from all fear?

Just then, he sees her. Almost missed her, but there she is. Jesus says, “Look at that woman over there.” They are Jewish men; they’re not supposed to look at women. But there she is, no husband in sight. She is quiet, never calling attention to herself. She has no interest in getting her name on a plaque on the wall. She gives her last two coins, pauses for a brief silent prayer, and moves on.

As far as Jesus is concerned, he knows everything he needs to know about her.

Is it the size of the gift? No, it’s not the size of the gift. She is not going to pay for a single candle with her two pennies. Does he notice that she gives in proportion to what she has? Not really, she’s not giving a ten percent tithe. She’s giving a hundred percent, everything she has to live on. To quote Mark’s Greek text, “She gave her whole living.”

It is an enormous gift. Like the day when Jim was counting our weekly offering and called me over. “Look at this,” he said. There is a cellophane-wrapped lollipop in the offering plate with a note: “LOVE.” “Somebody made a sacrifice today,” he said. We stood in awe of the gift.

Throughout the ages, Christian preachers love to praise this generous widow. They praise her total reliance on God, not knowing where tomorrow’s income will come, but trusting her life to God. As somebody else’s sermon summarizes a lot of other sermons on the text,

Jesus is impressed by her commitment to give “her whole life to God.” At a critical juncture, the widow chooses sacrifice over survival. It should come as no surprise that Jesus highlights the widow’s example. Jesus is forever calling people to give their whole lives to God. It’s central to his vision of discipleship. Put your hand to the plow and don’t turn back. Leave family. Leave friends. Take up your cross and follow me.”[2]

I think I’ve preached that sermon with other words. It’s especially appropriate when we note that this story, the story of the widow’s sacrifice, is placed by Mark as an event from the last week of Jesus’ life. It happens around Tuesday of Holy Week, right before Jesus gives his life. He points out her sacrifice before he makes his own.

But there’s something else that I see when I hear the story this time. Jesus is watching the givers. Not just the woman, but all of the givers. He notices the act of giving reveals what is going on in the giver. Giving can be good for us, if it is generous and it empowers others.  

Thanks to my good friend Virginia Miner, I came across the wisdom of Maimonides. Ever hear of him? Maimonides was a 12th century Egyptian Jew. He taught there are eight ascending steps of righteousness. Every step had to do with generosity.

·         The first step is taken by those who give grudgingly, reluctantly, or with regret.
·         The second: those who give less than is fitting but give graciously.
·         Third: those who give what is fitting, but only after being asked.
·         Fourth: those who give before being asked.

Then it gets interesting:

·        The fifth step: those who give without knowing to whom, although the recipient knows the identity of the donors.
·        Sixth: Those who give without making their identity known to the recipients. Anonymous givers.
·        Seventh: Those who give without knowing to whom, and neither do the recipients know from whom they receive. They are anonymous and give without strings attached.
·        Eighth: Those who help others by giving a gift or loan, thereby helping them to dispense aid to others.[3]

God is on the eighth and highest step of righteousness. So are those who give freely for the benefit of others.

So I bring this up on the week after we have dedicated our financial pledges for 2019. I don’t do that simply to nudge those who haven’t turned in a pledge card yet. Neither do I do this because the lectionary of Bible readings has scheduled this text for today. I do it because stewardship is not primarily about fund raising; it’s about soul-making.

It is good for us to give and to be generous. It is good to think about others and to support the enterprises that we value. It is good to endow our commitment to the generations that will follow us. It is good to provide others a “hand up” and not merely a “hand out.” It is good to give ourselves away, in every possible sense, so that others may flourish, and God’s gift of life can continue beyond us. Jesus said as much: “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8:35)

So that is the Gospel’s invitation to all of us today: to live generously, to love abundantly, to give ourselves away to the glory of God. The mystery of Christ’s Gospel is precisely this: as we give ourselves away, we gain something that the world can never take from us. Even more than that, we begin to look like Jesus Christ.

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

[1] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969) 28.
[2] Brad Roth, “By middle-class American standards, the widow’s decision is questionable,” The Christian Century, 9 October 2018
[3] Virginia Miner, “Don’t Touch the Chicken Until We See If They’re Hungry,” in Speaking of Stewardship, William G. Carter, editor (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1998) 112.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

How Far is 'Not Far'?

Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2018
William G. Carter

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

The scribes didn’t dare ask him any more questions. Who can blame them? Jesus answered the final interrogation in a way they couldn’t refute. What is the summary of our religion? Which of the 613 commandments is the greatest of all? What comes first?

Jesus says, “Love God.” Love the Lord with everything you are and all that you have. And without so much as taking a breath, he tags on a second commandment, from Leviticus 19, “You shall love the neighbor as much as you love yourself.” It is a stunning answer and cannot be argued against.

Those who teach the faith will divide the Ten Commandments this way. The first four commandments are about loving God: no other gods, no attempts to capture God in an image, no misuse of God’s name, remember your creation and redemption by saving a complete day for God every week.

The remaining six commandments constitute loving the neighbor. Honor your parents, for they are your closest neighbors. Don’t take your neighbor’s life, don’t take your neighbor’s spouse, don’t take your neighbor’s stuff. Don’t lie or distort the truth about your neighbor. Don’t desire anything your neighbor possesses.

There it is: love God, love your neighbor. As the scribe babbles back in astonishment, if you keep these, your life will be greater than trying to earn your way into God’s good graces by lighting a candle, sacrificing a sheep, smoking up some incense, writing a check, or sitting in a committee meeting. God looks upon the heart, the soul, the mind, the strength. What God is looking for is any evidence of love: love returned back to God, who is the source of love, the essence of love; and love extended to the neighbor.

The scribe who came to interrogate Jesus says, “You are right, Teacher.” And then Jesus says something a bit quizzical, “You’re not far from the kingdom of God.”

I have always pictured him saying that with a smirk on his face. “You’re not far.” How are is ‘not far’? Would the scribe be a little bit closer if he hadn’t tried to pile on with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and all the other opponents who kept picking at Jesus during that final week in Jerusalem? Would he have been closer to the kingdom if he wasn’t a scribe? After all, immediately after this, Jesus makes fun of the scribes (which the crowd enjoys). Then he warns about the scribes, “They prance around line long robes, claim good seats at banquets, and then fleece the widow’s estates.” Not much love of neighbor there, nor a lot of love for God.

Apparently it’s possible to quote the Bible, then get it wrong. You can agree, “Love God, love neighbor,” without actually loving anybody. This unnamed scribe can recognize the truth of the greatest commandments, but he is going to live those commandments if he wishes to be drawn closer to God and God’s rule over our lives.

Flip a couple pages forward in the Gospel of Mark, and we discover the scribes are in the inner sanctum of religious professionals when Jesus is arrested and condemned (15:1). The scribes are in the group that hand over Jesus to Pontius Pilate. The scribes stand among those who make fun of the Christ when he is on the cross (15:31). It’s one thing to know God teaches us to love; it’s another thing to love.

The distance between is “not far.”

So whom do you love – and whom do you find difficult to love? Loving God may sound difficult because, at least on the surface, nobody can see God. Through the ages, some people have heard God speak, and they have written down some of what they’ve heard in a book. If they keep the teaching, it’s a way to love the Lord. If they show up regularly in the places where God continues to teach, it’s another way to love the Lord.

But I remember a lady with purple eyes. At least when I was a kid, they looked purple to me. She seemed to just understand what God is all about. See an acorn, she said, “God is making another tree.” If you were feeling down and out, she would slide over by you, give you a hug, and say, “God is here with us.” And when the organ would crank up, and she would know the hymn, she would lose herself in singing. She emptied her whole soul to a God she couldn’t even see.

I think that’s the first I ever understood we can’t see God, but we can love him. We can give ourselves to him. When we love God, we are pretty close to the kingdom.

But loving one another, whom we can see, you would think that’s much easier. Here they are, right in front of us, available for us to love. That’s easy, right? It’s not easy at all. People have warts, and opinions, and differences. And if we think for a minute that it’s possible to love the God we cannot see without loving the person we can see, we have the reformer Dorothy Day who said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

So maybe you saw the story in the Washington Post. A week ago, in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital, they wheeled in the gunman who had just shot up the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. He had taken some bullets in the gun fight. When they brought him in, he was still yelling, “Death to the Jews.” Then a man in a white coat came up to him and said, “I’m Dr. Jeffrey Cohen. I’m here to take care of you.” He is president of the hospital.

As Dr. Cohen explained to the news reporters, “We are here to take care of sick people. We’re not here to judge you. We’re not here to ask, ‘Do you have insurance?’ We’re here to take care of people who need our help.” As one reporter noted, “It is a stark reminder that there is something more powerful than caring for one’s own.” It was a “radical demonstration of humanity.”

And where did Dr. Cohen learn this? At the Tree of Life synagogue where he is a member. He lives across the street from the sanctuary, in the same neighborhood where Mister Rogers once lived. He heard the gunfire from his house. And when he heard it, he decided to go right over to the hospital.

An FBI agent watched how Dr. Cohen greeted the gunman, how he sat down next to him, how he talked to him and tried to understand him, and then how he handed him off to the medical team to dress his wounds. The agent said, “I don’t think I could have done what you just did.” Dr. Cohen nodded in understanding; and he just did it anyway.[1]

For we have all been created in the image of God, to love God and to love one another. And if we do not love, as Cohen loves, as Christ loves, we remain captives to the power of death. Do you see what’s at stake?

So let me just say it: this is why we support the church. Like the synagogue, the church teaches us to love God and love one another. And not merely to teach this as a concept or an idea – but as a live-giving, life-saving practice. If we don’t have Someone or Something greater than ourselves to give ourselves to, life grows cold, love grows stingy. We fall into isolation, without purpose, never tasting joy, cut off from the very gifts that God provides for our well-being.

The other night, we welcomed Sister Cor, that remarkable sculptor and artist from Marywood. She’s teaching a Wednesday class here called “Alive to Beauty.” You can still catch her on the next two Wednesdays at 6:15 pm! Here’s one of her great lines: “True spirituality is always directed toward somebody else.” By that, she meant “toward God” or “toward neighbor.”

For what, really, is spirituality – but falling in love. Week after week, day after day, that is exactly our church’s invitation to you and to me: to give our hearts to God and one another. As we give our hearts, everything else follows – time, treasures, talents, all.

So hear again, O Israel, the central invitation of the faith we share: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is not greater word than this. And for all who love, you’re not far from the kingdom. In fact, you’re really close.

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

[1] Eli Rosenberg, “I’m Doctor Cohen,” Washington Post, October 30, 2018.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Begging to See

Mark 10:46-52
October 28, 2018
William G. Carter

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

A number of folks in our church family have been reading the Bible as part of our Immerse program. It’s a wonderful addition to our education program. The participants read large sections of the Bible and then gather in reading groups to talk about what they have read. They tell me this is an enriching approach. They are getting a lot out of it. Our plan is to keep at it! If anybody would like to take part, we would love to have you join.

I like that they are reading pages rather than paragraphs. When we hear the Bible in a worship service, we usually hear it in paragraphs. But when we sweep through a wider section of scripture, we see more than if we selected a single verse or two.

This story of Bartimaeus, for instance. It sounds like any number of healing stories in the New Testament. The plot is fairly standard. There is a person who has an illness or disability. Jesus becomes aware of this person. After a brief conversation, Jesus heals the person. That’s the standard plot: problem-brief conversation-healing. But if you read more of the Gospel of Mark, you see a lot more.

Bartimaeus is the second sightless person to be healed in this Gospel. The first was in the village of Bethsaida, up north near the Sea of Galilee. They lead this man to the Lord. Jesus takes him by the hand and leads him out of the village. He applies the standard healing practice of the day, and asks, “What do you see?” The patient says, “I see people, but not too clearly; they look like trees walking.” So Jesus has to touch him a second time, give him a second dose, and then the man can see (8:22-26).

It’s a curious story because Jesus has to give him a second attempt, a second whammy. It’s not to suggest that Jesus isn’t strong enough to heal him the first time. Rather it seems to suggest that some kinds of blindness are persistent. They linger. They are difficult to heal. That story is back in chapter eight.

By contrast, the healing of Bartimaeus is at the end of chapter ten. This time, the sightless person has a name. He lives in Jericho, the oasis city down south, where he begs for a living. This time, the people in the crowd don’t lead him by the hand to encounter the Christ. Rather, the people in the crowd tell him to be quiet, to shut up, to keep still.

The blind beggar is sitting there, crying out to Jesus at the top of his lungs. With Roman soldiers all around, Bartimaeus is calling out for the “Son of David.” That’s revolutionary talk, Messiah talk. There’s a good chance the Jericho folk don’t want any trouble. They tell him to hush. And Jesus heals his sight, this time on the first attempt.

This is what we see if we read the full sweep of this section of Mark’s Gospel. Two blind men are healed. The first led by the crowd, the second hushed by the crowd. The first needs extra help, the second needs no help and springs up to leave his beggar’s cloak behind. As Jesus moved from success in Galilee to the cross in Jerusalem, a good part of his ministry is equipping people to see.

There is a healing of a blind person in chapter eight. There is a healing of a blind person in chapter ten. The most curious thing is that between the healing of a blind person and the other healing of a blind person, the twelve disciples of Jesus do not see a thing. It’s painfully obvious if we read between the parentheses.

Immediately after the first blind man is healed, Jesus says to the twelve, “I’m going to Jerusalem, where I will be arrested, suffer, and be killed.” The disciples say, “No, not you. That’s never going to happen to you.” From then, it goes downhill from there.

·         They stammer when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, then say the wrong thing.
·         They are inept when they have the opportunity to do a healing on their own.
·         They argue about which one of them is the greatest.
·         They try to stop somebody who is doing Christ’s work but is not part of their little group.
·         They try to chase away the children that Jesus is blessing.
·         They hold on to the notion that earthly riches will save your soul.
·         They push and shove to get to the head of the line.
·         They argue about privilege.

In paragraph after paragraph, the followers of Jesus don’t see a thing. He says, “I am going to Jerusalem to give my life.” In the grand sweep of things, they don’t get it. Do you think this is true?

Somebody was telling me about going out to dinner with her husband on a Saturday night. It was a special celebration. They dressed up, went to a fancy place. Wine, appetizers, the whole thing. The evening was ruined, however, by an obnoxious woman at the bar. She was loud, she was rude. When the couple quietly complained, she heard about it from the waitress, and started yelling obscenities. The couple decided to leave after the woman fell off her barstool and needed to be helped back up. That was Saturday night.

Imagine their surprise when they go to church on Sunday, open the hymnal to sing the first song, look across the aisle, and there she is, singing at full voice. At the door, they recounted the story, shook their heads, and said, “Some people don’t get it.”

Some of you know I spent last week with a group of mid-career clergy. As part of my responsibility to the wider church, I serve two weeks a year as a faculty member for a church conference on wellness. We delve into all the dimensions of what makes us human: spiritual, physical, emotional, financial, vocational. It’s a great program. But after attending the conference as a participant six years ago, and now serving as staff for six conferences, do you know why the emphasis is on wellness? Because so many of us are not well.  

The faculty at that conference has seen it all: fractured relationships, estranged children, teenagers with drug problems, college students with eating disorders, spending out of control, going into debt, emotions spiraling in every direction, serious obesity, anger management issues, loss of faith. And that’s just with the clergy. As one of my colleagues says, “Just like the congregations we serve.” All of us have wounds and scar tissue.

The thing that’s so fascinating is the level of denial, the inability to see. Ask the woman whose credit score is shredded, and she says, “I guess I should have paid more of my bills.” Ask the man with hypertension and diabetes who carries an extra two hundred pounds, and he replies, “I really don’t have a weight problem.” It’s astonishing what blind spots some people can have.

The only thing more astonishing is how easy it is to see the blind spots of others when we can’t see our own.

Jesus says, “What do you want, Bartimaeus? What can I do for you?” The blind man says, “I want to see.” It is a remarkable request. He has been sitting on that street corner for a long, long time. Every day he parks himself in a high traffic location. He rolls out the cloak to catch whatever donations people will give out of pity. He cries out for help whenever anyone passes by.

He says, “I want to see.” He doesn’t say, “I want your money.” He doesn’t say, “I want your pity.” He doesn’t say, “Give me a little something so you can assuage your guilt, hurry by, and put me out of your sight.” He says he wants to see, and Jesus honors that request.

Unlike the sightless person in chapter eight, we are never told that Jesus touches him. That’s interesting. It seems to suggest that the desire to see is the first step to seeing. No more denial. No more begging. No more pathetic ignorance. With complete trust, with determined clarity to stop living as he has, he throws off the cloak that captures the pity-donations and goes face to face with Jesus. Then he says, “I want to see.”

Anybody here want to see? Good question. The problem with seeing is you can’t pretend you didn’t. As one of my Christian Education professors once said, “Once you wise up, you can’t wise down.”

Just picture the husband who decides to see that his wife is drinking too much. He’s had enough of embarrassment at parties, or the legal bills at his wife’s DUI arrests. He doesn’t like that the kids hide from their mother, or that she shrugs off or argues about his concerns. He has decided to see it – to really see it. Now the question is, will he have the clarity and courage to take necessary steps to improve the situation, however he can? Come what may?

Or the school nurse, who sees evidence of neglect or abuse? Or the accountant who has a client with dark secrets? Or the Christian who is weary of words of defamation, acts of violence, and a hundred ways that the Christian faith is twisted out of shape by people who don’t look a thing like Jesus?

We live in odd times. Clear vision is a rare gift, and we need one another to keep our vision from going out of focus. One of my teachers is a Presbyterian minister who died last Monday. You have heard me speak of Eugene Peterson before, and you will hear me speak of him again and again. He is the mentor who taught that megachurches worship size and manufactured experience, rather than the Jesus who gives his life on the cross. Gene also said, “A pastor should never serve a congregation that is so big that he or she doesn’t know the names and stories of his people.” Good advice, Christ-centered advice.

In his obituary in the New York Times, he also had this to say: “American culture is probably the least Christian culture that we’ve ever had, because it’s so materialistic and it’s so full of lies. The whole advertising world is just intertwined with lies, appealing to the worst instincts we have. The problem is, people have been treated as consumers for so long they don’t know any other way to live.”[1]

What he’s talking about is seeing people as children of God, and not as commodities to be plundered. What he’s talking about is loving every neighbor, not pushing them away. What he’s talking about is treasuring this wonderful gift of life and not cheapening it in any way. What he’s talking about is seeing ourselves as Jesus sees us.

Bartimaeus asks to see, to truly see. As somebody notes, right before this paragraph, two of Jesus’ own disciples “wished for status and privilege; Bartimaeus simply asks for ‘his vision.’ The one Jesus cannot grant, the other he can. It is Bartimaeus who is told to ‘take courage.’”[2] Courage is exactly what he needs – and what we need. For if his eyes are opened, he will see Jesus. And if he sees Jesus, he will need courage to follow him.

Remember how the story ends? Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.  He followed Jesus all the way to the cross…because he could see him.

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

[2] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1988) 282.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Lover's Quarrel with the World

James 4:1-10
October 14, 2018
William G. Carter

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

The title of today's sermon comes from a tombstone. I had heard about it for many years, and one day was traveling through Bennington, Vermont. Old First Congregational Church is on the corner as you enter town. On the left side of the building is ancient graveyard. A few steps in, there is the grave of poet Robert Frost. The epitaph under his name reads, "I had a lover's quarrel with the world."

It's an evocative phrase, and not only for a poet who had a way with words. By all appearances, Robert Frost loved the world. He made all the difference by taking the road last traveled and could enjoy stopping in the woods during a snowy evening. He knew to question the wisdom of his country neighbor, that "Good fences make good neighbors." Yet as deeply as he loved the world, Frost also contended with it.

This is a theme that recurs over and over with the Christian life. How much should we love the world, and how much more should we love God? The world can be a beautiful place, full of mountain vistas and blue lakes.  That maple tree across from my house is turning bright red; I wait for it every year. Yet the world can also be a place of temptation, corruption, and ultimately destruction. A lot of Christian people have a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Garrison Keillor reminisces about the struggles of his fundamentalist Christian upbringing. He says he grew up in a tiny Christian sect, so small that “only we and God knew about it.” His family taught him to be suspicious of the world, especially those who were outsiders, those who lived in cities, and those who flirted with activities that were quickly dismissed as evil.

In his Lake Wobegon memoirs, he tells about the day his family went to a restaurant in the big city of Saint Cloud, Minnesota.  They didn’t want to do it, but they had to do it. Saint Cloud is where their little congregation met, and it was too far to go home after morning worship and get back in time for the Sunday evening service. So they went to a place called “Phil’s House of Good Food.” He remembers,

The waitress pushed two tables together and we sat down and studied the menus. My mother blanched at the prices. A chicken dinner went for $2.50, the roast beef for $2.75. “It’s a nice place,” Dad sad, multiplying the five of us times $2.50. “I’m not so hungry, I guess,” he said, “maybe I’ll just have soup.” We weren’t restaurant goers…so we weren’t at all sure about restaurant custom: could a person ho had been seated in a restaurant simply get up and walk out? Would it be proper? Would it be legal?

The waitress came and stood by Dad. “Can I get you something from the bar?” she said. Dad blushed a deep red. The question seemed to imply that he looked like a drinker. “No,” he whispered, as if she had offered to take off her clothes and dance on the table. Then another waitress brought a tray of glasses to a table of four couples next to us. “Martini,” she said, setting the drinks down, “whiskey sour, whiskey sour, Manhattan, whiskey sour, gin and tonic, martini, whiskey sour.”

Suddenly the room changed for us. Our waitress looked hardened, rough, cheap – across the room, a woman laughed obscenely, the man with her lit a cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke – a swear word drifted out of the kitchen like a whiff of urine – even the soft lighting seemed suggestive, diabolical. To be seen in such a place on the Lord’s Day – what had we done?[1]

His mother stood up, announced they were leaving, told Phil the owner that they were in the wrong place, and everybody in restaurant watched them step outside. The children were feeling embarrassed, humiliated. Why can’t we be like regular people? Mother’s response was to quote scripture, “Be not conformed to this world…”

How much should a Christian befriend the world? Some of us were raised in families that kept asking the question. Today, we hear the letter of James give his answer: not at all. As he says, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” 

It sounds harsh. It sounds like James is saying we must make a choice. What’s it going to be? God or the world? God says one thing, the Bible teaches one thing – and the world pushes against it. Whom will you follow? Which Voice will you hear and obey?

That’s how some of us were taught. I know that was how my church youth group was run. We got a new youth advisor when I was fourteen or fifteen. He was very strict, never smiled, never joked around. He heard that the previous year, the girls in our youth group made dinner for the boys and cooked up spaghetti. And then it was the boys’ turn to cook for the girls, so we cooked up some squid and got some chocolate-covered ants (true story!). When Tim heard about it, he said, “That’s never going to happen again.” No more joking around.

So he announced we were going to get together on Sunday nights and talk about sex. Specifically, we were going to talk about the Christian view of sex. Well, that got everybody’s interest. First night of the series, that youth room was packed. Teenagers are crowding in, sitting on the floor. Tim stood up, thanked everybody for coming, had a prayer – he had a prayer before he talked about sex – and then he gave the lesson. The summary of the lesson, as I remember, went like this: “No, not ever. Don’t even think about it.” That’s what he said to a room full of teenagers, for some of whom, that’s all they were thinking about. The room was very quiet.

Next week, we gathered again. A few people were missing. I was there, my sister was there, and that was pretty weird. We didn’t have a choice. I think our parents thought it was easier to drop us off then have a conversation about the topic. It was awkward. Everybody blushed. Nobody made eye contact. Boys were over here, girls over there, with a four-foot-wide frozen zone between them.

Third week, we gathered again. This time, right before the opening prayer, the minister’s son whispered, “Follow me.” So when Tim said, “Let us pray,” the two of us slipped out. We walked a block down the street to the theater, paid for a ticket, and watched a James Bond movie. When it was over, we walked back just as our parents were arriving to take us home. My folks never found out; the minister’s kid got busted, but I was free and clear. He had to go back for the rest of the series; I had had enough.

And one day soon thereafter, it was announced that Tim was moving on. He was joining a monastery on Cape Cod. I guess ministry with teenagers was too difficult.  

How friendly should we be with the world? To hear James say it, not at all. I’ve always struggled with that. Ever struggle with that?

My mom suggested I should go to a Christian college. When I discovered the one she had in mind, I said, “No way!” They had a list of rules ten miles long. One of my cousins went there, and quickly discovered they had a rule against playing Frisbee on the lawn. The college wanted to keep its lawns pure and pristine, just like their students. Cousin John and some buddies tried to keep the Frisbee on the sidewalks. Alas, one of his pals tossed it a little too far to the left, John lurched and caught the disc, put one foot on the lawn, and got a fifty dollar fine. He transferred to Clarion State the next year, and now he’s a professor there.

A lot of Christian people believe faith is merely a matter of making rules and keeping them, that the Christian life is drawing up a list of bad habits, and then enjoying not doing them. I guess I’ve always thought faith is about trust and life is about living.

When I landed at a state university, unprotected by any rules, I ended up with a Christian roommate one semester. He took one look at my music collection and declared that, when he became a Christian, he got rid of all his jazz recordings. “They are pagan, satanic, or worse,” he said rather piously, “so I burned them in a bonfire.” I looked at him and said, “Why didn’t you give them to me?”

You see, here’s my difficulty: God created the world. God put us to live within the world. The world is the only home that we have. “God so loved the world that he sent Jesus into the world,” the same world that was created through Jesus (John 3:16, 1:10). The Bible says that.

And yet the Bible also says, “The world came into being through Jesus, but the world does not know Jesus” (John 1:10). Sometimes when the Bible is talking about the world, it’s not talking about a planet. It’s talking about a system, about the “world” as a symbol. When the Bible talks like this, the “world” is everything God made that now resists the God who made it. It’s the people made in God’s image who now act and believe as if there are in it for themselves, that nobody matters except they themselves.

I went back and looked at the text from James. There it is:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from cravings at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures (4:1-3).

Then he says it, “Whoever wishes to become a friend of that kind of world becomes an enemy of God.” Do you hear the context? The good and gracious God creates this planet, sets us within it, gives us everything we need – and we want more. God gathers by grace, teaches us how to live, sets us free that we would flourish in faithfulness – and we decide to go on our own.

Why is this? Contrary to what some folks believe, we are not up against restaurants, kissing someone on the first date, wild jazz music, or Frisbee on the lawn. We are up against ourselves. James calls it being “double minded.” The trouble seems to be when we forget about God and focus only on ourselves, when we throw off any restraint so that we can run ourselves into the ground, when we become addicted to grasping, and grabbing, and getting more at any cost that we end up losing what we value most. It can happen. It happens all the time. And it causes chaos and destruction.

I was talking to a bright young man at a wedding reception the other night. He’s smart and articulate. I said, “What do you do?” He’s an environmental engineer. He excelled at school and decided early that he wanted to make a difference, especially in a polluted planet. These days, he studies soil samples, detects contaminants, and works to ensure remediation. His passion is helping all of us live in a healthier environment.

He was telling me that a new firm is trying to recruit him. They want to pay his college loans, his car loan, and triple his salary. They offered to put him through graduate school. But here's the thing. They want to him to lie about scientific facts, cook up some junk science, and denounce well researched conclusions. They want him to manufacture some false data to plunder the earth, and they are willing to make him rich.

“I’m struggling with the decision,” he said. “The money could make it possible for me to go on and do whatever I want, but I don’t want to lose everything I believe in.” I thought of something Jesus once said, “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8:36).

That’s the question, isn’t it? Especially for those who are smart and capable. And we can’t have it both ways. Either we are friends of God or we are friends of something far less.  A lover’s quarrel with the world, indeed.

And I can’t help but remember a prayer from one of the saints: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” (Augustine of Hippo)

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

[1] Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days (New York: Viking, 1985) 109-110.