Saturday, August 10, 2019

Support Staff

August 11, 2019
William G. Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) William Carter. All rights reserved.

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

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Life, Hidden and Obvious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) William Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Belonging to Another

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
July 28, 2019
William G. Carter

Sometimes when we hear the Bible, we nod our heads in affirmation. There is something that resonates, something that rings as true. Perhaps it’s an insight we had never thought about, and when we hear it, we say, “Yes, that’s right.” We discover we were not alone.

But other times, when we hear the Bible, we grit our teeth. There is a voice that confronts us. It questions what we assumed was true. It shakes us up sufficiently that we push back against it, or have to rethink what we held close in our heart.

Such is the case when Paul and Timothy write, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit.” I have had a mixed history with that verse.

It got kind of quiet at the dinner table when I announced, “Dad, I am changing my college major to philosophy.” My little sister said, “What’s philosophy?” My brother rolled his eyes. My mother abruptly left the table. My dad grunted, wondering what kind of do philosophy majors get when they graduate?" Little did he know. And I expected those reactions.

What I didn't expect was the reaction from friends in my dormitory Bible study. They were absolutely outraged by my decision. "Philosophy is a pagan business," one of them declared, “and no true Christian would dare take a philosophy class."

"It's true," said another student. "I knew a guy who took a class on existentialism. He used to be a good Baptist who believed the Bible. Now he drinks whiskey and listens to jazz."

The loudest thunder came from Steven, a recently converted Jew. He stood up, unzipped his Bible, and turned to Colossians 2:8 -- "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ." Then he sat down, zipped up his Bible, looked at me, and said, "You don't need philosophy. All you need is Jesus."

That happened almost 40 years ago. Since that time, I have learned a few things. First, you can never argue with a convert. They always want to be right. Second, it was my life, not theirs. I was the one who dropped physics for philosophy, after all, and I was the one who had to look for a job after graduation.

In my case, philosophy was a perfect way to prepare for Princeton Seminary, because philosophy is a discipline that challenged me to use my brain.

And third, even though he was a convert, even though it was my life, I have spent forty years coming to terms with what Steven said: "You don't need philosophy. All you need is Jesus." Now is that true? Is Jesus enough?

I was hard-headed enough to ignore the criticism from my classmates. And I discovered they really diddn't know what they were talking about. Philosophy is a way of working through the world. You try to build a coherent way to make sense of what we see and experience every day. You attempt to use your head to sift through what is true and what is false, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what is worthy of praise and what is worthy to be ignored.

When you study philosophy, you read writings of people who tried to work it out before we came on the scene and you learn how to discuss with people with whom you disagree. As I discovered, if you want to get an A in philosophy class, it’s not about getting all the answers right (like math or physics). It’s about asking the right questions.

The word itself is instructive. The beginning, "philo" comes from philia, the Greek word for friend. "Sophia" is the word for wisdom. At its root, the philosopher is a friend of wisdom. I like that: a friend of wisdom.

Last week, we heard Paul and Timothy say that Christ is the wisdom of the universe.        He was the primal mover of creation, and he is the firstborn from the dead. "In him, all things hold together." The Risen Christ is the glue for all reality. That is, Christ is the philosophical framework for all things seen and unseen. He gives meaning and purpose to everything else in the world.

Nevertheless Paul and Timothy say, "Don't let anybody take you captive through philosophy and empty deceit." What is he talking about?

Scholars aren’t sure. Obviously the apostle was referring to some screwy ideas in the small city of Colossae. That shouldn’t surprise us. There are screwy ideas everywhere. I made myself a short list of some of the screwy ideas in Clarks Summit:

·         Life is best lived on the dead run.
·         Giving money to your kids is more important than getting to know them.
·         We exist only for our weekends and our vacations.
·         It’s all about consumption. Consume, consume, consume.

Every one of those philosophies is a dead end, what Paul and Timothy call “empty deceit.” It’s empty, in the sense that it has no substance, and it will fool you into thinking otherwise.

Colossae was wiped out by an earthquake a few years after this letter was written. We don’t really know what Paul and Timothy were referring to, although we have three hints.

Apparently some in that church were insisting on self-abasement. That is, they were depriving themselves, or beating up on themselves, as a spiritual practice. Every church seems to attract these kind of people. We know what they say: "Look at me: I've been on that committee longer than anybody else." "Hit me again: I don't want to be happy, I want to suffer like Jesus." "Look here: I spend more time on my knees in prayer than everybody else in town."

Paul is not impressed. He diagnoses it as the sickness of "spiritual self-indulgence.” He refers to the person who insists on being super pious in every circumstance. "There's no freedom in that," he says. "It's a form of captivity."

Others in the church were taking part in a little angel worship: angels on the Christmas tree, angels on the mantle, angels on the wall. "Let's get ourselves a good angel who will become our personal guardian."             People like this also show up in churches now and then. Most of us can understand the attraction of angels. Angels do not get born among peasants and placed in mangers. Angels don't suffer humiliation and abuse. Angels don't carry crosses, and they don't give their lives for the salvation of the world.
"Who needs Jesus?" some of them said. "Let's just find a few good angels."

Still others were caught up in rule-keeping. Rule-keeping has always been a favorite hobby among religious folk. “Don’t sit too far up front. The preacher may spit on you.” “Don’t arrive too early. The ushers may press you into service.” We love to keep our rules, whether they are written or not.
I wonder what regulations Paul and Timothy were referring to. They quote some of them: "Do not handle. Do not taste. Do not touch." Most likely, it meant, "Do not handle the holy silverware." "Do not taste the wrong kind of food or drink." "Do not touch the wrong kind of people."
Paul says, "These rules come from people; these laws are not eternal, like God; they are human notions. "Why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?" That, you see, is really the issue.

These people were baptized. They were initiated into the mystery of the Gospel. They were adopted into a relationship with Jesus Christ, not merely the Palestinian who was crucified, but the Risen Christ who reveals the grace of God. In a manner of speaking, the apostles are saying, "All you need is Jesus." That’s the fullness of the philosophy of God. As they say, “In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (2:3)

Years ago, on our first trip to Haiti, a woman stopped by who was an expert on the voodoo religion. She told us about the roots of voodoo, how it came from Africa on the slave ships. She explained some of the beliefs of voodoo, which are based in human relationships with the primal elements, like wind and fire. She told us how voodoo dolls are supposed to work. Apparently you get a doll, write somebody's name on the forehead, and poke it with pins. The pins don't inflict pain; rather, they repel that person from you. They keep them away. (Some days, a dozen or so dolls like that might come in handy!)

Then she said something very striking. "In Haiti, 80 percent of the people are Roman Catholic. 100 percent of them practice voodoo." "How can that be?" we asked. "When people get in trouble," she said, "they turn to the place where they find the most help. On Sunday morning, they go to church and act respectable. But if they ever get in trouble, they turn to wherever they can find help."

It haunted me, because she was indicting the church! It is possible to attend every Sunday, give your money to the poor, go through all the rituals, and remain distant from the Lord who is the source of our help. So Paul and Timothy say, "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ."

The truth of the Gospel is that our help comes from Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God dwelt in all fullness. When we are filled, we are filled up through him. When we sank down in the waters of baptism, we were buried with Jesus who died for us. When we were raised up out of the water, God made us alive with Christ who lives.

The dark power of our trespasses has been cancelled. Our human failures have been forgotten. Our sins have been nailed to the cross of Jesus and taken away. And there is no power to break us, no earthly ruler to destroy us, no demonic artillery that can finally damage us. God has disarmed the world. Our help has come in Jesus.
The invitation of the Christian faith is to remain focused on Christ alone, to see the world through the One in whom all things are made and redeemed.
It's easy to get distracted, and easy to get tangled up or turned around. Every once in a while, I find myself in trouble. I frequently put myself down and try to look humble enough for God to love me. Or I look for a good, strong angel to help me get what I want. Or I get firm about the rules of the universe and how I think they should be kept. I do whatever I can to help myself out . . . and it's always a miserable flop.

Sooner or later, I start thinking: how am I going to get through this? It's only then that I realize: I don’t belong to my troubles. I don’t belong to my inadequacies. I don’t belong to the empty promises of a consumer society. I don’t belong to the empty vanity of any earthly empire. My only comfort, in life and death, is that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. And that’s enough.

So here is the philosophy of Paul and Timothy, as a gift for us: "As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving."  (2:6)

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

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Gospel in Three Words

Summer 2019
July 21, 2019
William G. Carter

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. 

I completely understand if you found that a lot to swallow. The first chapter of Colossians is a colossal text. It’s right up there with the first chapter of John’s gospel, though not as mysterious. It may be the basis for a similar passage in the first chapter of Ephesians. This text is so enormous that it requires two writers, not one. Paul and Timothy sign their names to it.

What makes it so large is that this chapter reports on what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Not just in the smallness and the privacy of our hearts, but what God is doing in the universe. At least six times in a few verses, we hear God is at work in “all things.”

  • “all things” are created in Christ
  • “all things” are created for Christ
  • “all things” are created through Christ
  • “all things” are created after Christ
  • in Christ, “all things” hold together
  • through Christ, “all things” are reconciled to God
It’s a big text. With something so large, we need a way to enter into it. Today the best way may be to reflect on three words that sparkle like diamonds and are just as valuable. For the sake of memory, each word begins with the letter “R.” They are rescue, redemption, and reconciliation. The Gospel in its fullness is here in these three words. So let’s reflect on them, as we celebrate Christmas in July.

The first is rescue. Can you remember a time when you were rescued? Flat tire on a dark road? A crime broken up? An EMT showing up at an opportune time?

Let me tell you about a rescue. In the summer of my fourteenth year, I spent a week at Boy Scout camp. The camp is on the western shore of Cayuga Lake, not far from Ithaca, now surrounded by vineyards. It was a great place to spend a week. We ran around in the woods, slept under the stars, racked up a lot of merit badges, and avoided the distraction of girls. It was a perfect week for a young teenager!

My friend Mark and I were tentmates. On a free afternoon, we went down to the waterfront and checked out a boat. We were both inexperienced enough that they didn’t let us take out a small sailboat. Instead we got a rowboat, an old-fashioned rowboat, the kind with two oars. Aiming nowhere in particular, Mark and I traded off on the oars. Pretty soon we were in the middle of Cayuga Lake, maybe a half mile away.

Without warning, the fluffy clouds went dark. A huge thunderhead formed above us, went up about a mile. The smell of ozone burned the air. A big storm was heading right toward us, and we’re in a metal rowboat, half a mile from shore. One of us stood up to yell; the yelling was a good idea, the standing up was not. There was no response on shore. In fact, it looked like they were shutting down the waterfront and putting everything away.

So we yelled again, this time seated in a rowboat that had begun to bounce on some very wild water. Again no response, and we started to panic. In a Three Stooges moment, Mark took one paddle, I took the other. We started rowing hard and went in circles. Cayuga is a glacial lake, over 400 feet deep. We were on top of the water, but I tell you, we were in way over our heads.

There was a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder. We were immobilized by impending doom. Suddenly there was a boat right there, a Boston Whaler throwing us a line and saying, “Hang on.” We were rescued.

I reflect on that moment. We weren’t in trouble because we had done something wrong. Foolish, perhaps, but not something wrong. If we had done something wrong, it would have made things worse. No, we were up against something life-threatening that we could not manage. Help came from outside of our own incompetence.

That’s how Paul and Timothy describe the rescue of the Gospel: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” It’s a shift of dominion. Sin is something more than the wrong deed we did or the good deed that we neglected to do. It’s a dominion that we will never be strong enough or good enough to avoid. That’s why we need to be rescued, which is God’s mission in sending Jesus to the world.

The grand old Christmas carol says it best:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. O, tidings of comfort and joy!

This saving, this rescuing, is what God has done. It is the work of Christ. For our part, the only thing we must do is hang onto the rope when he pulls us ashore.

The effect of this rescue is the second big Gospel word: redemption. Redemption is not a word we use very much. English professors talk about the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge; he used to be a terrible, stingy person, but some spirits turn him around and rescue him from himself. But biblically speaking, redemption is more than a change in personality.

Ancient ones among us may remember the redemption centers of S & H green stamps. You collected them in a book and cashed them in for something else. North of our state border, there are redemption centers for bottles and cans that can be recycled, something that Pennsylvania should have done a long time ago. You collect bottles and cans and cash them in to keep the environment cleaner.

Redemption has economic overtones. In the first-century world of Paul and Timothy, the economy was built on the back of human slaves. People were bought and sold to labor for their masters. It was brutal, ugly, and demeaning. Yet in rare cases, slaves could purchase their freedom. It might take years to save the money. Or it could involve an act of extraordinary generosity by a patron. Whatever the case, the act of purchasing freedom is the word Timothy and Paul use here: redemption.

Paul and Timothy equate this redemption with the gift of forgiveness. In Christ, we have been liberated from the addiction of sin. Thanks to God in Christ, the rescue offered by Christ redeems us from every form of slavery. No longer shackled, no longer demeaned, no longer unable to determine your own future – we are free! As long, of course, as we wish to be free. As long as we welcome that Christ has paid our redemption through the cost of his life.

That reminds me of a Christmas carol, the Sussex Carol:

On Christmas night all Christians sing / to hear the news the angels bring:
News of great joy, news of great mirth, news of our merciful King’s birth.
Then why should we on earth be sad, since our Redeemer made us glad?
When from our sin He has set us free, all for to gain our liberty?
When sin departs before His grace, then life and health come in his place;
Angels and (all) with joy may sing, all for to see the newborn king.

There is the rescue from the powers of darkness. There is redemption from the powers of oppression. And ultimately there is the gift of reconciliation.

Reconciliation is the bringing together of two parties that have been at war with one another. If we have been rescued, if God in Christ has redeemed us, there is nothing to keep us from living in peace with God.

You know the favorite Christmas carol:

Hark, the herald angels sing! Glory to the newborn king.
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.

To be reconciled is to be in complete relationship. There is nothing withheld and nothing to disrupt. There is, as Paul writes elsewhere, nothing that shall can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8). This is the experience of reconciliation.

Now, I know it’s hard to accept this completely. Life is full of disruptions that throw us off balance. There are people with whom we differ, opinions we find had to understand. Someone out there is always trying to disrupt the peace. Others are compelled by their own brokenness to attempt to break somebody else.

Yet the truth of the Gospel is God has provided for the reconciliation of “all things.” All things.

It’s like Dietrich Bonhoeffer described life in the church. You go to church and you’re surrounded by enemies. It’s no different than living in the world: there are enemies all around you. In the church, there are all these broken sinners, people whose lives have been a complete mess. And you are one of them.

Then the Gospel is announced: in Christ, God comes to rescue us. In Christ, all are redeemed, and sins are forgiven. Your sins are forgiven, and that is good news. Right over there, your enemies’ sins are also forgiven. You might not like that, because you are still holding onto a grudge, even if Christ is no longer holding onto it. Our reconciliation to one another, our ability to live in peace together, is because Christ has forgiven each of us.  In Christian fellowship, you cannot hold onto the anger and resentment that Christ has already released and let go.

As Bonhoeffer says, “Christian (fellowship) is not an ideal which we much realize; it is rather a reality by God I Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all of our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.”[1]

Or to quote Paul and Timothy, “in Christ, all things hold together.” Not “some things” but all things. Not merely the things we approve of, or the people with whom we agree; all things. And not merely the things and people we see, but all things – all things were made through Christ, in Christ, and for Christ, both in heaven and on earth. It is the greatest claim of all scripture, that “in Christ, all things hold together.” And it’s remarkable that it says, “all things in heaven and earth.”

Fifty years ago this weekend, a Presbyterian elder landed on the moon. His name was Buzz Aldrin. Before he blasted off, he told his pastor he “had been struggling to find the right symbol for the first lunar landing.” He wanted to find something that would signify how this mission transcended electronics, computers, and rockets. The two of them wondered if it was possible to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion on the moon.

His pastor gave Aldrin a small silver chalice and a vial of wine. A communion wafer was carried in an airtight pouch. Aldrin had thought about sharing the event with the world over the radio, but some atheists had recently sued NASA after previous astronauts read from the book of Genesis when they had orbited the moon. A public celebration was ruled out.

But the moment came when Buzz Aldrin went off the radio and read the words of Jesus: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit, for you can do nothing without me.” Then he took the bread, broke it and ate it. With just enough gravity on the moon, he poured the wine into the chalice and drank it.[2]

The quiet testimony of this Presbyterian elder was simply this: “Through Christ, God was please to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”

The testimony is still true. It gathers us every week and send us out to serve. We are rescued, redeemed, and reconciled to God. Thank be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954) p. 30.
[2] Here is an account of the full story: “9 Things You Should Know About the Communion Service on the Moon,” Joe Carter, The Gospel Coalition, July 17, 2019.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

For the Good of All

Galatians 5:26-6:10
July 8, 2019
William G. Carter

Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads. Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time. So then whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

It caught my attention because Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens.” This is how you fulfill the law of Christ, the law of love: bear one another’s burdens. I can’t think of a better word for the church, the nation, the neighborhood, and for you and me.

It’s a quick admonition dropped into a couple of paragraphs of advice. This was Paul’s general plan for writing a letter: say hello, bless the people you’re addressing, lay out the truth of the Gospel, and give them advice. We hear some of that: restore the sinner with gentleness, avoid temptation, don’t inflate your opinion of yourself, carry your own load, don’t grow weary in doing what’s right, and especially work for the good of all.

In the thick of it all is an expression of mutual care: bear one another’s burdens.

It’s remarkable because it affirms everybody has a burden. No one is exempt. Oh, maybe they try and hide it, pretend in public that it’s no big deal. “Are you OK?” Oh, I buried my father, lost my job, haven’t heard from the kids, and I contracted Lyme’s disease…but I’ll be OK. This is church. I’m supposed to put on a good face in church, isn’t that right?

No, this is the church. In here, we are commanded to take care of one another, to model for the world what it means to love our neighbors. If it can’t happen in the family of faith, how will it ever happen in the world?

If you read the early history of the first Christian community, you discover how radical this was, especially in an empire that ran on power and domination. In the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, here is one of the first descriptions of what it means to belong to Christ:

The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common...There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32, 34-35)

That’s a description of the church. "They were of one heart and one mind." Obviously they weren’t Presbyterians. Put three Presbyterians in the same room and you may have four or five opinions.

"No one claimed private ownership of any possessions. Everything they owned was held in common." Have you ever heard of such a thing? My little brother used to steal my socks. I said, “Put on your own socks. Those are mine.”

Then it says, "There was not a needy person among them." That’s the most astounding description of all. There are only two ways for a church to get described like that. The first is to be very selective in your membership. Never let in a needy person. The second is to take care of one another.

That early snapshot from Christian history embodies the advice Paul gives. Those Christians believed Jesus was alive and the world had changed. They gave up selfishness. They stopped putting people in categories. They refused to let wealth and poverty separate them into two different ghettoes. They ignored the world’s adjectives: male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free. They traded in their pronouns: “me” became “us,” “mine” became “ours.” What an incredible picture of what it looks like to love neighbor in the name of Jesus.

I try to imagine somebody in coffee hour, saying, "Listen, Stephen, I have a big house with four bedrooms, and there are only the two of us. You are married with seven kids, living in a two-room shack. That's not fair. Let me sell my house, give you the money, and you can buy something more suitable." Can you believe it? The Bible invites us to believe it: to bear one another’s burdens.

Now, I realize old Paul gets a bad rap from modern day people. But I have to say he has this right. His word about bearing burdens is right next to a line about not thinking too much of yourself. That’s exactly right. You can’t truly care for somebody else if you are preoccupied for yourself.

It’s the kind of lesson that Father Henri Nouwen said he had to learn over and over again. Before he taught at Harvard and Yale, he was teaching at Notre Dame. One day he was strolling across the Indiana campus with an older professor. And the man said,

"You know Henri, my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted: I'd have a needy student, or an intrusive colleague, or the phone would ring, or I'd get a letter from the dean that needed a response. It never failed: I would get settled down to do some serious work of my own, and there would be an interruption. I've always complained about that, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work."[1]

It's true, isn't it? If we’re busy climbing the ladder to competence and greatness, we get interrupted. The kids want somebody to play ball. Our significant other needs a hug when you're busy doing something important. The phone rings when you're sitting down at the supper table - it's a friend who has a crisis; “Can you come right away?”  Well, it's supper time. One interruption after another.

If you stop to handle every interruption, you never get to your own agenda. Instead you spend a great deal of time and energy on people outside yourself... which, if you read the Gospels, sounds a lot like what Jesus did.

What if we really did care about one another at least as much as we care about ourselves?

Sometimes I wonder if Americans have confused freedom with independence. We have let counterfeits preach freedom when they really meant independence. It’s here in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The freedom of the gospel has very little to do with independence, because independence means, “I don’t need you, I don’t need my parents, I don’t need my neighbors, I don’t need anybody. I don’t really even need God. I can handle life by myself.”

But true freedom means we are free from turning in upon ourselves. The grace of God sets us free from the imprisonment of our whims and our drive to get ahead. We are free to be there for one another. We are free to carry one another’s burdens, because all of us have a burden. 

I realize this is a wonderful ideal, even if it strikes us as quaint, old fashioned, or even strange. I recall a conversation that I had with an architect named Bill Jones before he moved out of town. I asked, “What is the most significant change in architecture that you’ve ever known?” He didn’t have to give it a minute’s thought. His answer: the elimination of the front porch and the addition of the backyard deck.

You know why he said that. We used to talk to neighbors when they walked by. Now we retreat out of sight to the barbeque grill. We don’t even know the names of our neighbors.

The Gospel calls us to a different way to live. It’s the way of living together. It requires the life-giving conversion of making room for others, even if they are different or you disagree.

Some of us experienced this a week ago in our memorial service for Ed Cole. That wily curmudgeon wrote his own eulogy – and then asked a lifelong political opponent to read it for all of us. It was pure Ed; he gave a couple of gentle elbows to his reader. What was so astonishing, so Christ-like, was that it modeled for us what it means to pursue the common good. There is something more important than winning or being right: it’s loving one another, bumps and all, finding common ground, and serving a great good.

In his final letter to the Scranton Times-Tribune, published a few days before his death, Ed reminded us of the words from President Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” We’ve forgotten that advice, he said, or at least our leaders have forgotten it, if they ever knew it. 

So, he declared, “we need leaders who will work together across aisles and divide and do it for the benefit of all… That’s when all of us will prosper.”[2] Sounds like Ed was reading the last chapter of Galatians: “Let us work for the good of all.”

The Gospel gives us this kind of freedom, the freedom to become deeply human. It’s about being kind, but it’s so much more than being kind. It’s about growing into our baptisms in Christ, becoming the people Christ has claimed us to be. It’s about taking one another seriously, and pausing from our own agendas long enough to really listen to the person in front of you. Because he or she is carrying a burden – and so are you.

And the second greatest truth after the truth of Christ’s resurrection is the truth that we’re in this life together. It’s just as Henri Nouwen said somewhere, “The opposite of compassion is competition.” We can’t really care for one another if we are dead-set on nosing ahead of everybody else. But if have the clear and abiding sense that “I cannot truly flourish unless I help you to flourish,” maybe, just maybe we will get through the dark.

For in the end, the best evidence of our Christian faith is our ability to love for one another. To make ourselves available to those in need. To empty our pockets for other people's children. To welcome as family those to whom we are not related. In the words of Paul, “to work for the good of all.”

In the early days of the church, a wise Christian preacher announced the implications of our faith in this way:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death . . . We know love by this - that he laid down his life for us - and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anybody who has the world's good and sees a brother and sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:14, 16-18)

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved

[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Image Books, 1986) 52.
[2] Edward Cole, “Healing Needed,” The Scranton Times-Tribune, 20 May 2019.