Saturday, September 15, 2018

What Makes the Lady Laugh


Proverbs 1:20-33
September 16, 2018
William G. Carter

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, 

therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.
For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”


On the western coast of Scotland, in the port city of Oban, there is a tower at the top of the hill. If you look closely, it is the shell of a tower at the top of the hill. It’s called “McCaig’s Tower,” although it was never finished.

The story goes that a rich banker named McCaig decided to build a big, round structure overlooking the port city. Nobody is sure why he did it. Some figure he wanted to honor his family. Others believe it might have been a noble effort to employ the stone masons who had no other work. From the sight of it, you can see the size of his dream – a huge tower with a great view.

Unfortunately McCaig began the project when he was 72 and he died when he was 78. His family thought it was a silly idea and preferred to take the inheritance money rather than spend it on a tower. This would be a sad story, except that old McCaig never thought gave much about the thinness of the tower walls. The walls were so thin they would never have supported a roof.[1] So the locals call it “McCaig’s Folly,” folly as in foolishness.

In the opening chapter of the book of Proverbs, we are introduced to a lady. Her Greek name is Sophia, which means wisdom. Wisdom is a lady, says the book of Proverbs. She stands in the center of all our human activity. She raises her voice, and waits for anybody who might listen to her.

This is the way Proverbs prompts us to think our lives. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Is it really a good idea?

Say, for instance, you want to save some money. So you buy the cheapest laptop computer you can find, get the basic warranty, and then you wonder why it wears out nine months after you charge it up for the first time. Why did I do that? Was that a good idea? Did I just hear somebody laugh?

Sometimes it is comical: we touch the wall with the sign “Wet Paint” just to be sure. Other times it’s a good bit more dangerous: we touch the electrical wires to see if there’s a current.

And sometimes, people reveal who they are by what they do. Most of the time, in fact. Like the guy who dug a big hole in his back yard. He always wanted to have a swimming pool, so he got a swimming pool. Nobody in his family knew how to swim, but he got his swimming pool. It was silly.

Or there is the lady who spent $75,000 on a new Steinway piano. That’s what the little ones are going for these days. She had the perfect spot in her living room. Do you play the piano? No. Are you going to begin lessons? No. Does anybody in your family play the piano? No. Do you plan on having parties and hiring somebody to play the piano? No, I’m not the party kind of person. Why did you buy the piano? It’s such a beautiful piece of furniture.

I hope I’m not stepping on anybody’s toes when I say that Lady Sophia laughs. She says, “You have ignored all my counsel and would take none of my advice. How long will you love being a fool?”

This is not a matter of intelligence. Smart people do foolish things all the time. I realize we may call them “stupid decisions,” but these decisions have nothing to do with being “smart” or “stupid.” The Bible speaks in the language of wise and foolish. Within those categories, there are affirmations and promises. They go like this: if you are wise, you will flourish. If you are foolish, you will be exposed.

I think of the man with a rusty old car in his front yard. It was a Chevy Bel Air, shiny blue, with fins on the hood. That car used to be on the driveway, but now it’s on display in front of his house. I asked about the car and he said, “When that car was running, it was running great. There’s just one thing – that car took me where I needed to go, not where I wanted to go.” Lady Sophia had a chuckle about that.

Or there is that pastor friend who loved to go fishing. Whenever he went on vacation, he went fishing. If his family wanted to fish, he enjoyed spending time with them. One time, I was covering for him and did a funeral for one of his church members. All went well. At the graveside, we said our prayers and the family departed. Then two other church members approached me and said, “Thank you. We appreciate your service.” I said, “It’s my privilege. I am glad to cover for your pastor. Is he on a fishing trip?”

These two guys looked at one another, looked back at me. And one of them said, “We’ve been telling him for years he might actually catch something if he put a worm on the hook.” Somewhere in the city, I heard Lady Sophia laugh.

Do you hear the wisdom? There is no heavy theology here, just accumulated insight into how we shall live. The choice is clear: we can live in a way that allows us to flourish, and allows our neighbor to flourish. Or we can get distracted like a fool and throw it all away.

Ttake a good look at that high-functioning professional as he climbs to the top of his career. He has a dream job and makes a generous salary. One day he leaves behind the beautiful spouse and the children with straight teeth, and he chases after the young blonde in the accounting department. He had it all and threw it away. Was that a good idea?

Lady Wisdom is ruthless about this sort of thing. “I will laugh at your calamity,” she says with sarcasm. “I will mock when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. They will call out for help, but I will not answer. They will seek me, but not find me.” What Wisdom offers is a warning: there are occasions when it’s too late to correct a situation and you must endure the consequences.

They told the woman to get out of her house before the hurricane came. She ignored them. Pretty soon, she was surrounded by water and her cat floated away. The rescue team pulls her out of the flood, and she says, “Not going to do that again.” It’s a sad situation – because it should have never happened in the first place.

Lady Sophia calls out, “I will make my words known to you. I will pour out my thoughts to you. Give heed to my reproof. Listen to my wisdom.” Yet people ignore her and look at what they do. The folly makes her laugh.

Sounds rather heartless, but we know this to be true. My brother, the engineer, called up one day. I think it was him on the phone, but he was laughing so hard. Dave, is that you? “Yes,” he said, “ever hear the Darwin Awards?” I started to reply, but he was laughing so hard that he couldn’t talk, and he hung up the phone.

So I looked them up. The Darwin Awards are named after the scientist who came up with the theory of evolution. They are given to the human beings who never evolved very much. The award committee describes this as the annual attempt to “chlorinate the gene pool.” The situations aren’t very funny, except in a sad sort of way.

·         Like the lady in Australia who checked to make sure that she really did put the grocery bags in the back of her Mazda. She left the car running while she was on a hill. Unfortunately she got out, walked behind the car, and it was then that she discovered the parking brake was not set.

·         Or King Louis III, who ruled France over a thousand years ago. One day, he saw a gorgeous woman lady and decided to woo her. So he jumped on a horse and sped off in pursuit. Unfortunately he wasn’t watching where he was going, and he whacked the royal skull on an innocent door frame. Meanwhile his brother kept his head and then got a crown on it.

·         Or how about the four geo-cache explorers who went hunting for hidden treasure in the city of Prague. They climbed down into an underground waterway, really a drainage tunnel. They were certain they were on the way to find the next clue. And they were so excited about this that none of them paid attention that it was raining, and that it had been raining a lot.[2] Down there in that tunnel, all their hopes were washed away. So were they.

You and I face life-and-death choices every day. Big choices, little decisions, it doesn’t matter. If we pay attention, we see the deadliest choices are very attractive. We might not even realize it. So Lady Wisdom’s invitation is to step out of the closed loop of our own voice, listen to her accumulated experience, and pay attention to what might be at stake.

You go to the doctor with aches and pains. She prescribes pills to make you feel better. So you pick up the pills, and you take one, and you feel better. Then you take another one, and you feel better. So you take another one, and start to think, “Maybe I need these pills. If one makes me feel good, two might make me feel better.” And if you’re not paying attention, you might find yourself chained to a fire-breathing dragon. They will tell you at the rehab facility that this is a terrible chain to break.

Lady Wisdom stands in the middle of a city. She invites us to live healthy and productive lives. And her voice is only one among many. Like every other voice, she calls out for our attention, our commitment, our devotion, and our money. Every day we choose between wise and foolish. This is a moral decision, because our decisions reveal whether we are honoring God or merely chasing after our own appetites.

What the theologian contributes is a deeper understanding of what is going on beneath all of this. These days, I know there are some people who grumble whenever we sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” They grumble because they have struggled for fifty years by countering, “I’m not a wretch. I’m a child of God. God made me good. I am a beautiful creation.” And that’s true, that’s true enough.

Yet let’s take stock of what that means to be made in the image of God: it means God made us with the capacity for making choices. And be alert – for there is something in our DNA that causes us to lean in our own direction, something potentially toxic that bubbles up even in our best decisions. Wisdom calls us to pay attention, to look past the fa├žade and see what really is going on.  

Frederick Buechner, the author, tells of being on a dreary commuter train somewhere between New Brunswick and Newark. The clickety-clack along the tracks bored him, the bumps on the track made it difficult to read the New York Times. As he gazed around, first out the smudged window, then across the aisle, his eyes fell on a bright photograph, large and colorful, across from him on the wall of the train car. Here’s what he says:

It was a cigarette ad, and I forget what it was in it exactly, but there was a pretty girl in it and a good-looking boy, and they were sitting together somewhere—by a mountain stream .. with a blue sky overhead, green trees. It was a crisp, sunlit scene full of beauty, of youth, full of life more than anything else, and thus as different as it could have been from the drabness I'd been looking at through the window … And then down in the lower left-hand corner of the picture, in letters large enough to read from where I was sitting, was the Surgeon General's familiar warning about how cigarette smoking can be hazardous to your health, or whatever the words are that they use for saying that cigarette smoking can cause lung cancer and kill you dead as a doornail. (from “Secrets in the Dark”)

The irony was bracing, he says, that pretty picture, that fatal message. It was another voice calling out, “Buy this; it will kill you.” Buechner says, “I’m not picking on the cigarette industry, per se; what I’m noticing that the world is its own worst enemy.” If we are not careful, we will fall in love with our own destruction.

This is why Lady Wisdom calls out – she warns us, to save us from ourselves. The voices of destruction are always around us, and some give in. The alcoholic says, “I’ll quit tomorrow.” The diabetic says, “Another piece of pie won’t hurt.” The spendthrift looks at every catalog. The chronic liar deceives himself one more time. The lady with heart disease always orders French fries.

Ah, Lady Wisdom calls out one more time: “Waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live without dread of disaster.”

What a wonderful gift! God puts the Wisdom of Sophia, right in the middle of our lives, ready to offer guidance so that all who hear her voice and follow her instruction would flourish.

What I wonder is if anybody is listening.


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


Saturday, September 8, 2018

If Anybody is Lacking


James 1:5-7
September 9, 2018
William G. Carter 


If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.


Brother James begins by saying, “If any of you is lacking...” I think that’s remarkable, for a lot of people I know don’t seem to be lacking very much.

The surplus becomes obvious before a birthday or Christmas. What do you give as a gift to the person who already has everything? Good question. They don’t need another toaster nor another pair of shoes. They seem to have everything they need.  

It’s a question in my house, where we already have plenty of things. We don’t lack anything. In recent years, we have considered the giving of experiential gifts. Like a trip to the zoo, or a visit to a concert, or something where we can come alongside the people we love and experience something together. They don't need more possessions. What they need, what they want, is a relationship, and part of my life journey is to provide that.

What do you give to the person who has everything? And if you are the person who has everything, for what should you ask?

This is a very important question for people who live in the town like this. They can afford, or pretend to afford, the property values. Many have held positions of authority. They travel widely and go to extraordinary destinations. A number of them have excellent educations and have attained astonishing accomplishments in their well-storied lives. Take a look at those who are capable and strong? What might they be lacking?

James says this is a matter for prayer. We ask God for the things that we lack. We pray to God, asking for what we do not have within ourselves.

I think of the man who had a short conversation with the Lord. “God,” he said, “what is a million years to someone eternal like you?” And God said, “To me, a million years is but a second.” The man said, “God, what are a million dollars to someone as great as you?” And God replied, “A million dollars is but a penny.” So the man thought for a minute and said, “God, may I have a penny?” God said, “Sure, just a second.”

If any of you is lacking anything, ask God.

But you and I what are we lacking? Especially for those of us who are capable and strong, who have so much?

In the first scripture lesson, we hear about King Solomon, a man who had it all, at least on the surface. He had all the money of the kingdom, he had a palace, and, according to the storyteller, he had 700 wives and a significant number of women on the side (1 Kings 11:3). He was a busy guy. But he didn't have it all. So one night in a dream he prays for wisdom. For wisdom! Somehow in a dream, he sensed, that even with everything he had, wisdom was the one thing he lacked.

My Grandma Carter was one of the wisest people I ever met. She had a brilliant mind, in a time when country people in northwestern Pennsylvania didn't send their daughters to college. They simply couldn't afford it. So she stayed home, married Grandpa, produced nine children, canned her own tomatoes, and cooked her own food. She lived modestly.

One day I called and offered to take her to lunch. I was going to drive across the state to see her, so I asked, “Where would you like to go to eat?” She was thrilled and said, “Let's go to Long John Silver's!” Grandma didn't get out much, but she never missed a trick. Such an extremely wise observer of life!

As we dined over fried shrimp and hush puppies, she told me the story of a local man who had it all. He had operated carnival rides for a living, she said, who dreamed of winning the Super 7 lottery. Every payday, he would stop by the local gas station to buy a stack of lottery tickets. Whatever was left of the paycheck went home for his family. One day, when he was down to $2.46 in his back account, he pawned a ring for $40, spent it all on lottery tickets, and hit the jackpot. The prize was sixteen million dollars. His eyes were circling around in opposite directions.

When he caught his breath, he started making some decisions about his life. He quit the part-time, bought an old  mansion, hired a contractor to fix it up so he could live high on a hill overlooking the small town where he lived. He bought a liquor license, a lease on a Florida restaurant, and a used car lot. Then he bought a twin engine plane, even though he didn’t have a pilot’s license. Within three months of his first lottery payment, he was half a million dollars in debt. Grandma said that’s when things started going south for him.

He was living with his sixth wife, until he fired a rifle at her Pontiac Firebird. His landlady sued him for a portion of the lottery proceeds, since she had purchased tickets for him and he had promised her a piece of the winnings. His brother was arrested for trying to kill him, having learned that the new millionaire had removed him from his will. The mansion fell to pieces; there was plywood nailed over the windows, an old car up on cinder blocks in a weed-covered front yard, a swimming pool filed with construction debris, and dandelions growing out of the cracks of his brick driveway.[1]

I asked my grandmother, “How could that happen to a man who had it all?” She said he didn't have it all. “He won the lottery,” she said, “but he didn't have any sense.” She shook her head sadly and said, “What a fool!” That's how the Bible describes people, as my grandmother would say, who don’t have sense. It’s a four letter word: f-o-o-l.

The Bible speaks in at least three different voices. There's the salvation voice, which reminds us of what God has done to forgive our sins and to release us from a hundred different kinds of slavery. There is the prophetic voice, which calls us back to covenant life, to love God and love neighbor by stepping away from our long-established bad habits and forms of selfishness. And there is the wisdom voice that instructs us in how to live. The Book of Proverbs, the Christian letter from James, and significant teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount all speak in the voice of holy wisdom.

Wisdom is something that we ask of God, because we don't naturally have it. Wisdom comes as a gift from God. There are ways to attain it. We can pay attention to the ways of nature and begin to discern the ways that God governs the world. So the sage of scripture will say, “Go to the ant and consider her ways.” She works hard, she builds big, she accomplishes much.

Or the sage can begin to understand human life, in both its achievements and its failures, by comparing our experiences to what is observed in the world. As brother James will say, “The human tongue is a forest fire raging out of control.” Anybody doubt the truth of that?

So it is incumbent on all of us, particularly those of us who have so much, to ask God for what we naturally do not have. “If anybody is lacking, let them pray to God for wisdom.” For wisdom! Not merely for knowledge, but for wisdom. Not merely for facts, but for the understanding that lies beneath them all.

Soren Kierkegaard, the cranky old Dane, sat outside of the local cathedral and watched people. He made a livelihood out of observation. His diploma was in people watching.

In one of his books, he tells about a crazy man who escaped from the lunatic asylum. He had no business being out on the streets, and he knew it. He was insane. But he decided to disguise himself as a normal citizen, and put on a coat. Behind the coat, he had a small children’s ball tucked inside the lining of the coat. To appear normal, he decided to walk around the city square, and every time the ball would bound on his hind corners, he would say something true. And the fact that he repeated: “The earth is round . . . the earth is round.”

Pretty soon, his insanity was detected and he was taken back to the asylum.

Facts are important. My goodness, facts are important. But it’s not enough to know facts. Wisdom is comprehending the relationships. It’s understanding how facts fit together.

One of the saddest moments we can know is to sit beside the person who used to understand, but now does not. I had a friend who suffered a brain injury and resided for a time in a hospital in Allentown. He had been in a bike accident, taking a serious spill without a helmet, and now couldn’t comprehend what he was doing, or the consequences of what he was doing, or where he was, or how to relate to the people in his family. It was a frightening diagnosis. He had to be cared for as a 53-year-old child who would never mature.

It became a parable for me, not of a tragic physical ailment, but of an even more tragic spiritual ailment: the complete absence of wisdom. Or as Grandma Carter called it, “He didn’t have any sense.” She never had a college degree, but she was very wise.

So we are going to talk about wisdom for the next five Sunday, if only because we have the book of Proverbs, the letter of James, and all kinds of biblical material that declare wisdom is a gift from God. Wisdom is what spins the planets and makes God’s universe function. Wisdom is what pushes us into ministry to the world and service to the neighborhood. Wisdom is one of the ways that church has spoken of Jesus: he is the “Wisdom of God,” the Word, the Logos, the integrating center of all things.

And if anybody lacks wisdom, let them pray to God, and God who is generous will give it.

Maybe you heard about the man who was hungry, so he found a loaf of bread and ate it. He was still hungry, so he found another loaf of bread and he ate it. But he was still hungry, so he found a third loaf of bread and he ate it. Alas, he was still hungry. So he found a pretzel, ate the pretzel, and he wasn’t hungry any more. And he said to himself, “Silly me, I should have eaten the pretzel in the first place.”

Do you know what he was lacking? He was lacking something more than food.

Or that church about twenty miles south of here. They had a new minister who noticed some teenagers sitting on the steps of the church building. Rather than chase them away, he bought a bag of Doritos, went out and sat with the kids, passed around the Doritos, and talked with them. Then he said, “Let’s do this again. How about next Friday?”

Next Friday comes, he had two bags of Doritos, and meets a larger group of kids. They talk, they laugh, they tell him about school. One of them has a skateboard, so he says, “Can you show me what you do with that?” It was impressive, so he says, “Can you show me how to do that?” Next Friday, they agree to all meet again.

Every Friday night, the group gathers on the church steps. They bring their friends. The minister says to his church leaders, “I think we have a youth group. Let’s bring them inside.” The leaders, who are up in years, are stunned but they agree. Pretty soon, every Friday night, the place is hopping. Somebody is over there, giving guitar lessons. The minister starts a little Bible study and some are interested. There’s pizza now, and root beer floats.

He convinces the church leaders to come by, see what’s happening, get to know the kids. The leaders are impressed, and they find some money to help hire a part-time youth leader to help him out. It becomes the talk of the town. The kids move into an unused Sunday School room, claim it as their own.

Then, one day, one of the church leaders says, “Hate to bring this up, but there was a mess left in the kitchen. Must have been one of those kids.” Somebody else says, “There was mud on the bathroom floor. I think it was one of those kids.” Then the finance committee meets and says, “The budget is tight, we can’t afford our youth staff person,” and they trim that line from the budget. The minister objects, but nobody is listening. Someone else says, “When those kids are here, it’s so loud and noisy. They make a racket.” So the decree came: the kids have to go back outside. The pastor starts thinking that he might be serving the wrong church.

About a month later, somebody says to the minister, “Whatever happened to those kids who used to be hanging around here?”

You see why wisdom is such an important Bible word, even for the person who has it all? Because the absence of wisdom is foolishness, and foolishness will kill you.

Remember what Brother James has to say?  If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.


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




Saturday, September 1, 2018

It's Not the Same Old Song


Jazz Communion 2018
September 2, 2018
William G. Carter

The story is told of a couple that went on a date one night to hear Miles Davis, the late, great trumpeter and bandleader. Both of them enjoyed his recordings and discovered they had that in common, so they went to hear him play. They found the club, paid the cover charge, took their seats, and ordered drinks. The lights went down and the musicians went on stage. Miles kicked off one of his songs and they recognized the tune.

Ten minutes later, the song was over. It had all these extra notes in it, nothing like the recording. She leaned over to him and said, "That's not the way I thought that song would go."

She should have known. This is what jazz musicians do. Not only do they swing with infectious rhythm or curl our tongues with a judicious use of dissonance, they take a perfectly acceptable melody and mess with it. 

The practice began quite early. Louis Armstrong would pick up a melody by ear, replicate it on his trumpet, and begin to spin it anew in his own musical dialect. As the art form of jazz developed, the explorations became more adventurous. The melody became the launch pad for explorations that take us into outer space. 

If you want to hear the same old song in the same old way, jazz is not the art form for you. 

The scene changed after Thomas Edison created the recording business.  Before there were records (then tapes, CDs, and download files), music existed in the air. Composers notated the melodies and rhythms on paper, but the notation was in service to putting those melodies back into the air. It's only been in the last hundred years that we've heard the music played the same way every time.

I recall back in the dark ages, about the time that I met Al Hamme, I spent weekend evenings in a blue ruffled shirt with a Fender Rhodes piano. The band was comprised of school teachers and me, and we performed for banquets, private parties, and wedding receptions. Especially wedding receptions. That was my first experience with bridal opinions.

The band leader met with the bride and groom to fill out a checklist. There would be quiet bossa novas during the cocktail hour, a trumpet fanfare when the bridal party arrived, the father and the bride would swoon to "Daddy's Little Girl," and at the center of it, the all-too-important bridal dance. The bandleader inquired, "Is there a song that you would like for your first dance in public?" The groom rarely had an opinion, but the bride always did. The song was usually something we knew, or something we could learn.  

These were professional musicians, with three horns and a wonderful singer. We enjoyed making people happy, yet when it came to the bridal dance, that didn't always happen. We might play the piece, the couple would swoon, Grandma would wipe away a tear. Not long after we finished, the bride might stomp up and declare, "That's not the way that song sounds on the radio."

Someone would try to explain the recording she heard on the radio had a $70,000 studio budget. We didn't have the London Philharmonic on hand to play that sixteen measures of the string part. Nor did we have a trio of female Gospel singers to back up our vocalist. One time, the bandleader got so frustrated, he exclaimed, "If you want the music to sound like the radio, maybe you should hire the radio." Within a year or two of that comment, that's exactly what the next generation of brides would do.

A new species of entrepreneurs would emerge - the disc jockey - at first any otherwise unemployed kid with a big stereo. He would charge the same amount, or a little more, as a live six-piece band, and he would deliver exactly what the people wanted to hear. Plus, he had a light show! So much for live music. At least it sounded just like the radio, just like the homogenized, house-broken, consumer-driven music on the radio.

But here’s the question that jazz raises: what if the music is not merely played but interpreted, adding to it the inspiration of the moment? What if the musicians push the music forward and not merely replicate the past? What if they want the music to be alive, and not merely resuscitated? 

These are questions for all kinds of music, particularly the music of scripture. There is great comfort in hearing something we have heard before. We hear it, we nod in affirmation, we look sideways at one another and say, "I knew that. Didn't you know that? I knew that!"

When Igor Stravinsky presented his ballet, "The Rite of Spring," for the first time, there was a riot on the streets of Paris. It was new. Nobody had heard music like that before. It was bracing, confusing, revolutionary.  The composer complained of the Parisians, "They are very naive and stupid people."[1] The listeners, for their part, dismissed the music as too new, too radical, and therefore unnecessary.

Stravinsky might have picked up a lesson from the prophets of Scripture. The prophetic power is not in giving them something new, something they've never heard before. The power is in giving the people something they already know and bringing it forward to here and now. The power is nudging the listeners to lean forward and work through the true implications of what we have heard.

Isn't that what Jesus is doing? The expert in God's Law asks him an old question: "What must I do to inherit the life of eternity?" The expert knows the Bible. He already knows the answer. 

So Jesus questions the questioner, "What do you read in the Bible?" The interrogator says, "You shall love the Lord your God with heart, soul, strength, and mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus says, "That's the right answer." They both agree. They've heard that song before.

But the expert can't let that sit. He has to push it, and asks, "And who is my neighbor?" By pushing it, by asking “what does this really mean,” the question goes off the page, and Jesus says, "Let me tell you a story." He spins a tale about the man who is beaten by thugs, left to die, stepped around by religious leaders, and saved by a stranger he's never met.

Now, you and I have heard that one, too, haven't we? We have heard that old song many, many times. Maybe we've heard it so many times that it has gotten a little dull.

We might not realize that Jesus has tossed a lit stick of dynamite toward the Bible scholar. He pushes his interrogator to answer a big question, "Which one acted like a loving neighbor to the man in the ditch?" The man doesn’t say, "The Samaritan is his neighbor," because Jews and Samaritans didn't have much to do with one another. All he can murmur out is, "the one who showed him mercy," and he knows who that is.

It is a disturbing moment, because Jesus reaches back to that old, old melody about loving your neighbor and brings it forward, here and now. The man must wrestle through the implications of loving the stranger, loving the outsider, loving the enemy -- all of whom are "the neighbor."

This is how first-century Jewish theology, not through conclusive, final answers, but through questions that push deeper questions. If we take God and neighbor seriously, and truly love them, we can’t play it safe. We may have long established habits and well-traveled ways, but a living faith pushes us forward, to re-engage the old song that we thought we knew.

This is evidence of God’s prophetic power, a Holy Spirit power, a jazz power, because the same old song is never the same old song. The musicians may be different, the situation may be different, the audience may be different, the moment of inspiration may be different. The better question is this: is this music real? Does it connect to the human heart? Does it come from the creative pulse of the Spirit? Is it alive? Does it exist merely to be consumed (what the guys and I refer to as "music to chew by") or does the music consume us? The way we answer will tell us if we ourselves are alive.

Among recent jazz legends, there is a story about the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. It comes from a season in his career when he had dropped out of sight for a while. David Hajdu, the journalist, had dropped by a club to listen to some music. Standing in the shadows, the trumpeter for the band looked like Wynton. He wore an expensive Italian suit, as Marsalis would have, but was pudgier than Hajdu remembered, now middle-aged, without as much hair. His eyes had lost their glimmer.

The next tune was his featured solo, and so he stepped up to play the ballad, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You.” It was a sad song, which he played without accompaniment. The performance was breathtaking. The inflections had traces of melancholy as he spoke through his horn. As he reached the climax, he played the final phrase in deliberate tone. “I don’t stand … a ghost … of … a … chance…” The room was completely still.

Just then, somebody’s cell phone went off with some dorky ringtone, a melody with electronic bleeps. The audience giggled. People reached for their drinks. The spell was broken… but not for Marsalis. He paused, motionless, his eyebrows peaked, as the journalist scribbled a note, “MAGIC, RUINED.” Then Marsalis, still at the microphone, replayed the stupid cell phone melody note for note, and repeated it, and started to improvise variations on the tune. The audience put down their drinks and leaned forward.

He changed the key, played the variation, turned the variation upside down, changed the key again. With a flurry of notes, he settled back down to a slow tempo, ending up exactly where he had let off: “with … you...” The room exploded with applause. People stood up and cheered.[2] Any thoughts that the old song had been ruined were turned upside down – because Wynton had taken that old song somewhere new.

And for us, what about that old story of the Good Samaritan? It’s a new riff on the older lesson to love God and neighbor. Maybe if we loved God, we would love our neighbors, even if they are different from ourselves. Maybe if we loved our neighbors, we wouldn't miscount the number of Puerto Ricans who died in last year's hurricane or dismiss those who believe or vote differently from ourselves. A true faith never lets us off the hook from loving the people that God loves. That’s one of the ways that we love God.

This is what it means to have a living faith, a faith that might be shaped and informed by how jazz musicians create their art. This is what we try to do around here every week, Sunday after Sunday, week after week: we listen for the song God sings, and we try to live it forward in fresh and life-giving ways. 

We have plenty of songs, the same old songs. But what we care about is whether anybody is dancing.


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

Saturday, August 25, 2018

A sermon for people who are out in the woods


Psalm 84
August 26, 2018
William G. Carter

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, 
where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. 

Sometime ago, some church people had a dilemma: a bird was flying around in the sanctuary. During the prayers one Sunday, they heard the fluttering of wings. Perhaps they assumed it was the sound of an angel or even the Holy Spirit, but a young lad opened his eyes during the prayer and announced in a loud voice, “It’s a bird!”  Nobody knew how to handle it.

Some were concerned how the bird got in. This was a security concern. Was there an open window? A door left ajar? A crack in the wall? A hole in the roof? There were quick investigations and no conclusive results. Nobody knew how the bird got in. All they knew was the bird was still there.

Some were concerned how they might get it out. They thought they might chase it when they saw it, and then they didn’t see it. And when the bird appeared, the matter was over their heads. Somebody requested the organist to blast up the volume and scare it out. Somebody else asked the preacher to do the same thing. A third person, who owned a swimming pool, showed up with a pool skimmer, the kind with a net at the end of a long pole. The bird was still there.

So, the jokers met downstairs at coffee hour and suggested a few possible solutions. A member of the finance committee said, “Let’s give that bird a pledge card; if it fills out the pledge card, it can stay.” Somebody else told the old joke about the squirrels that got into a church attic, so they sent the squirrels to confirmation class, got the squirrels confirmed, and they never showed up again.” The Christian Education committee groaned.

That reminded another one of the jokers about the bear who showed up in the synagogue. The council sent the rabbi to circumcise the bear. The rabbi returned, a bit beaten up, but the bear never came back. When the laughter died down, the Presbyterians still had a bird in their church sanctuary.

The concern was not merely the distraction of fluttering wings. It was the possibility of something terrible happening. The choir might stand to sing an anthem, for instance, and as a tenor opened his mouth to intone a really big vowel, the bird might fly in. Or even worse, the bird might anoint somebody’s shoulder or make a deposit on Grandma’s wig.

It was then that a young Boy Scout, fresh from his ornithology merit badge, announced to the crowd, “It’s a sparrow.” The news was easier to take. The next Sunday, the choir stood to sing, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

The preacher, who was always scrambling for material to use for the children’s sermon, told the kids how Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father… So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” For the moment, everybody felt superior.

Yet there was evidence the sparrow might stick around for a while. When they did an inventory of the Christian Education closet, a few pipe cleaners were missing. Some snippets of twine were pulled out of the custodian’s garbage can. Somebody in the church’s knitting group was missing some strands of purple yarn. Could it be that the sparrow was building a nest in their church somewhere? Not only that, but the sparrow might be reproducing in the sacred precincts? The frustration increased, and the bird was still there.

Then one Sunday, something unusual happened. The choir stood to sing a piece from the Brahms Requiem, “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord.” The conductor wrote a note in the worship bulletin to say the piece was a setting of Psalm 84. The high school German teacher smiled and reached for a pew Bible. You see, Brahms wrote the piece to be sung in German, so the teacher thought she would read along in English.

To her shock and surprise, Brahms includes verse one, verse two, and verse four of the psalm – and skips over verse three. There it was in English, plain as day: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.” When the benediction was over, she rushed up to point this out to the choir director, and they both hurried to show the verse to the pastor.

Pretty soon it was declared: the scriptures were fulfilled in their hearing. And there was still a sparrow in their sanctuary.

Here we sit in the woods. There are birds, bugs, and critters just out of sight. This is their home. They were here before we showed up. Try as we might to domesticate this space, chase them away, name them as pests and eradicate them, they live on the same planet with the rest of us.

We can fuss about that. Philosophically, we can amplify the words of Jesus and declare, “We are of more value than they,” although I’m not sure the One through whom all things were made would say some of his creatures are better than others. We can also build temples and declare them pest-free, although that’s silly. Pests arrive every Sunday, and some stop by for coffee on Tuesday afternoons.

But to separate ourselves from other creatures in God’s world is short-sighted. Have you heard that the honey bees are in danger? Their population has dropped by ninety percent over the past twenty-five years. These are the chief pollinators of blueberries, tomatoes, and wild flowers.[1] This is not what God intends for the peaceable kingdom.

Early yesterday morning, I took a cup of coffee to the front porch. I watched my corner of the world wake up and thought about this sermon. My rocking chair is seated among ferns and geraniums, wild flowers and rose bushes. The late summer cicadas hummed, as a chorus of unseen birds broke into song. Off in the distance, a mourning dove cooed.

A small black and white cat wandered down the street. We don’t know the people who belong to the cat, which has appeared recently. Inside the screen door, one of our springer spaniels whimpered, asking if he could introduce himself to the kitty. I said, “No,” to punish him for the four pieces of chicken wing pizza that he stole off the kitchen counter when we weren’t watching; I’m sure he was incapable of remembering he had done it. I reached for a final sip from the coffee cup, only to announce a gnat decided to plunge in for a swim.

It was then I affirmed the natural world does not revolve around me. It was a moment of repentance. The great illusion of our climate-controlled existence is that we can create a pristine environment. That’s impossible. Any attempt disconnects us from the earthworms who enrich the soil beneath our feet and the sparrows who fly over our heads. It seems best to make peace with this, to live collaboratively with the birds and the beasts and the flowers of the field. This is their home too.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve mentioned the Scottish island of Iona and its marvelous chapel. Built in the sixth century, it was the largest Benedictine training ground until the Vikings plundered it two hundred years later. The Book of Kells was created there, that incredible illuminated manuscript of the Christian Gospels. A Presbyterian minister named Macleod gathered some unemployed stone masons to help rebuild it, starting in the 1930’s. It’s an amazing place on a little tiny island.


As the guide took us for a tour inside the stone chapel, we saw a cluster of ferns growing in the cracks of the western wall. The guide said, “They were here. They love damp, dark environments. We water them regularly.” As if to head off any questions, she said, “They remind us of our calling to live at peace with nature, that this is what God intends, and remind us that nature will outlive us all.”

Recently, I have also heard again a favorite poem by Wendell Berry, the farmer-poet of Kentucky. It has been set multiple times to music and sung by choirs. The poem is called “The Peace of Wild Things” and is especially appropriate here. Listen to it:

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The words sound clearer in this rustic chapel. All creatures of our God and king lift up your voice with us to sing alleluia. Our task is to join them, to come alongside them, and to praise God for this life. When we build our temples to worship their God and ours, we take them in consideration and do as little harm as possible.  This world is our home – and their home too. It is here that we are invited to join all creation in worshiping the God who creates it all.

So let’s listen for a few minutes to the alleluias that they offer. We will ask the birds and the beasts to complete the sermon.


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