Saturday, October 13, 2018

Lover's Quarrel with the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Those Who Make Peace

James 3:13-18
World Communion
October 7, 2018
William G. Carter

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” That’s one of the blessings Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount. And of all the traditions and speculations surrounding the New Testament, some think the James who wrote our scripture text was none other than the brother of Jesus.

We can’t say for sure. Somebody named James signed the letter and added, “a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He hardly mentions Jesus at all, with just two glancing references to the Lord’s name. But they were more than a little acquainted.

The letter of James extends the teaching of Jesus to a wider circle. He offers practical advice about how to live a life that honors God. As we have heard as we’ve worked through the letter, he also offers his discerning observations of those lives that run counter to God. The brief paragraph today offers a little bit of both.

The destructive life is easy to recognize. It begins with “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.” It is expressed in “being boastful” and a “liar.” It results in “disorder and wickedness of every kind.” Oh, my goodness; it’s as if Brother James has been reading our newspapers!

He nails it, because the wisdom he offers is timeless wisdom, God-ordained wisdom. At the heart, the wisdom is obvious: you will make a mess of your life, and of other peoples’ lives, if you have unsettled business in your own heart. The person who creates constant chaos is the person who has been living in chaos. The person who wrecks one relationship after another is the person who has never received a lot of love, and therefore cannot give a lot of love.

Some of this originates with “bitter envy.” That’s a pretty good translation of the Greek, but it’s more than merely wanting a fancy lawnmower like your neighbor has or desiring a bigger car like the people down the street. This is “bitter envy” – like the husband who fiercely interrogates the wife on the way home from a wedding reception because she was talking to another man. Or it’s the mom who spreads vicious gossip about the leader of her daughter’s cheerleading squad, simply because her daughter didn’t get picked to be the leader.

This is envy because of a deficit. Something is lacking. There is some emotional black hole in the soul that sucks out all the light and could collapse in on itself. When there is “bitter envy,” chaos and destruction are certain to follow.

Another problem is the “selfish ambition” that James mentions. It’s more than the desire to advance, more sinister than the climb to the top. It’s the desire to win at all costs, and to destroy whatever gets in the way. It’s the scorched earth plan of General Sherman in the Civil War, who decided he had enough of those Confederate rebels, so he would have his army torch a wide swath from Atlanta to the sea. It’s also the way that a victim of abuse, who courageously dares to come forward to tell what she can recall of her story, is publicly trashed by people who must win at all costs.

This is what “selfish ambition” does. It destroys a lot of lives. Eternally speaking, it will even destroy the lives of the destroyers. You might notice how Jesus never says, “Blessed are the brutal,” or “Blessed are the winners.” From the vantage point of God, he declares, “Blessed are the meek,” “Blessed are the merciful,” and “Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing what is right.” God is on their side.

In this moment of our national life, for instance, the destroyers are on every side. The new way to “win” is to fire up a small minority, convince a lot of other people to stay home and not speak up, and then set on fire everybody who disagrees. If that kind of divisiveness prevails, there will be no winners. None at all. What might have been exceptional about us becomes the laughing stock of everybody else.

Anybody want to live that way? I don’t want to live that way. I want to hear what James says about the alternative to “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.” For this is World Communion Sunday. Jesus Christ, who blesses the peacemakers, wants us to live in peace.

So, what is the alternative? James offers up a basket of good words and phrases. The first is “pure,” in the sense of “fault free” and immaculate.” It’s the kind of word that they use on to describe hotel rooms.  Did you ever stay in a dirty hotel room? There are whiskers in the sink, mold in the air conditioner, and bugs in the bed. How did it get that way? Because nobody was taking care of the place, nobody was paying attention, nobody was making the effort to scrub away the accumulated grime. It takes some effort to live a peaceable life.

Another word is “gentle.” It’s “gentle” as opposed to brutal, or pushy, or intrusive. It’s about respect and receiving people as they are, and not forcing them to size up to what you think they should be. “Gentle” is paired here with “willing to yield.”

This past Friday, I was thinking about that phrase on the highway between New Brunswick and Philadelphia. Nobody was willing to yield. Everybody had to push. In that survival-of-the-fittest environment, “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” emerge. What if we yielded? What if we gave room for other people? Call it, if you will, a practical gentleness, “full of mercy.” It’s another way to make our way down the road, rather than laying on the horn or directing traffic with the gesture of one of our fingers.

Here is another phrase of James: “without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Well, now, what would that mean? It means we don’t distinguish between people. It means God is color-blind when looking at people, because God made them all. It means the educated and the ignorant are loved equally. It means Merrick Garland and Brett Cavanaugh should both receive a fair hearing, “without a trace of partiality.” Anything else would lead to hypocrisy.

Beloved church of God, here is the bottom line: To live in peace is to love every neighbor as ourselves, no exceptions. This is the way to peace, and it is difficult work. It’s continuing work. It’s never-ending work, because “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” are always threatening to sneak in.

James knows this. He has had to contend with it in his own congregation. In chapter two, he barks at the ushers of his church. “Why are you showing the rich folks to a good seat, and shooing away the poor folks who are already seated there? Why do distinguish between God’s own people?” God loves the poor, says brother James, and if the rich want a good seat, then they should get there early. They should also stop stepping on the necks of the poor.

It’s there in chapter two: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law of God” (James 2:1-9). 

It is possible to live in peace. That is what this Table is about. In the mercy of God, the ancient words of the 23rd Psalm come true. Remember the words? “You prepare a table in the presence of my enemies.” Well, here it is, the Table that our Good Shepherd sets among the people who have preferred to go their way rather than his way. The Table reminds us of our ongoing challenge, to set aside all the ways that the world has infected us, twisted us, and corrupted us – and to receive what is pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

We can live this way, with works “done with gentleness born of wisdom.” We don’t have to live at odds with one another, even if this makes us odd. We can live as Jesus lives – offering a place at the Table for every person. He receives all of us as we are, and offers us the grace to become so much more.

And he makes a special invitation for those who wish to live in peace, for those who are courageous enough to make peace. They are the ones he declares as “blessed,” and they are his sisters and brothers.

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

Friday, September 28, 2018

Bite Your Tongue

Bite Your Tongue
James 3:1-12 (+ assorted proverbs)
September 30, 2018 

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh  

When I was a student preparing the ministry, I was home one weekend. My pastor read these words from the letter of James, then he leaned over the pulpit and addressed me by name. “Watch out, Bill,” he said. “James is talking about you and me, preachers as well as teachers. We work with words, we traffic with words, we get in trouble with words.” It was a dire warning, and it was true. 

“Not many of you should be teachers,” says James. He is not speaking about standing up in front of a class or working through a curriculum. His concern is public speech, particularly within the community of the church.   Those who stand up in front of a congregation must watch what they say, because they will be “judged with a greater strictness.” And you thought it was easy for us to find worship leaders on Sunday mornings. 

The number one fear of most people is public speaking, standing up, looking at a group of people, opening the mouth, and saying something. This is a tough thing to do. For some folks, it’s downright terrifying, even if the words are already scripted. And it’s true, even for the few of us who speak for a living.

It reminds me of those old black and white pictures of Iroquois Indians working construction and walking the high beams of skyscrapers. Anybody remember those? Apparently they had no fear of heights, or if they did, they could push the fear out of their minds. I think if they ever stop and thought about the risky venture of what they were doing, they would have stopped in their tracks. Public speaking can be like that. 

Sometimes it just happens. Open the mouth, the wrong thing comes out like a belch. Of all the verbal mistakes I’ve made, the biggest happened at my baby sister’s wedding. I stood before her in her beautiful white dress. He was in a tuxedo, his brow glistening with anxiety. They wanted me to preach, so I read the text, from the third chapter of Colossians: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, and patience…” 

The words originated in a baptismal sermon, I pointed out. In the early church, the new Christians gathered at the river to be baptized. They shed their old garments, stepped into the water, were baptized, then stepped out of the river to be adorned with a white robe, representing how they cast off old habits and took on the new life. “So,” I said to them, “as nice as this gown and tuxedo are, I bet you can’t wait to get out of these clothes.” 

There was a snicker over here, a guffaw over there, and suddenly, like a wave, a ripple of laughter. She began to shake, he turned fire-engine red, and I couldn’t understand it. I looked at her and mouthed the words, “What did I say?” She said, in a voice loud enough for others to hear, “You just told us to get naked, in the middle of our wedding.” With that, the sanctuary erupted. My throat froze up. I forgot the rest of what I was going to say, and didn’t dare say it any way. My mother was glaring at me, my father was smirking. So much for the Kodachrome moment.

“All of us make many mistakes when we speak,” says the letter of James. All of us! That doesn’t let us off the hook. That’s not an excuse. It is a description. And it is well rooted in the wisdom tradition of the scriptures.

As we heard from the selection of Proverbs, the human tongue is deceitful, evil, malicious, slanderous, false, poisonous as a serpent, full of lies, crafty, proud, mischievous, naughty, perverse, backbiting, and flattering. There is also the possibility that the tongue an be kind, melodious, fair, just, wise, wholesome, and righteous. 

My mother-in-law Loraine passed away gently on Wednesday morning. Yesterday, as we remembered her at her funeral, I leaned forward when the pastor read a line from the final chapter of Proverbs: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue (Proverbs 31: 26).” It was an apt description. 

And then, by contrast, I watched the highlights of Thursday’s Supreme Court hearing. I found myself hungering for wise words and the “teaching of kindness.” 

We know what is at stake with our words. James looks out the window at a raging forest fire. It cannot be contained. The fire destroys. The conflagration feeds on itself and becomes all-consuming. James makes no bones about this: “The tongue is a fire,” he writes, “and it is set on fire by hell. How great is the damage created by the human tongue!” Destruction creates even more destruction. 

He even goes far enough to say that the human mouth cannot be tamed. Horses have their bridles, to direct them where to go. “But no one can tame the tongue,” says James. “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? 

James is aware of the contradiction. “Out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing; with the tongue, we bless our God and Father, and with the tongue, we curse those who are made in the image of God.” That’s the paradox of having a voice. It can go either way. As followers of Jesus, the continuing question is how we want it to go. 

Now some would say, let’s watch our words, swallow our anger, and bite our tongues. James actually begins that way, declaring, “If you are perfect, you can guide your tongue.” But it’s also pretty clear that he doesn’t know any perfect people. Neither do we. 

A psychologist reflected on some recent public words. The context is not important, because it’s applicable to any number of situations. She quoted Sigmund Freud, who said somewhere that, when somebody is caught in a lie, or being exposed as a fraud, a dysfunctional person of low character will always respond to direct questions with an emotional outburst to avoid responsibility and place themselves as the victim. 

“Johnny, did you eat my cookies?” Mom, it wasn’t me

“Johnny, there are crumbs on your lips.” Mom, you always make cookies for my sister and never for me. 

“Johnny, why are you lying?” Mom, you are so unfair. 

And with those words, Johnny is ready to hold public office. 

James gives his warning: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.” Do you see what’s at stake? It’s more than a mistake. It is the fraying of public trust. And if you cannot trust somebody’s words, you cannot trust their hearts, because words reveal what is inside us. They reveal whether we can be trusted. 

Make a mistake? Confess it, admit it, request forgiveness, make amends. That is Christian Ethics 101. We can move ahead with confession and forgiveness. It may take some hard, honest work, but we can move ahead. But if you lie, distort, deceive, misdirect, and blame somebody else? Do those things and you will be thrown out of the Garden of Eden. It’s that simple, and it’s that tragic. 

What James is pushing us toward is the honest life, the integrated life, the life of everyday holy wisdom. It comes from above, from the dominion of God. And there are ways to welcome the gift and cultivate the garden of God’s peace. I like what James teaches in chapter 2: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefor rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” (2:19-20) 

I like that, particularly the phrase, “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” What word is that? It is the Word of God. If you have heard God speak, the Word is planted somewhere in you. It’s like a seed with the potential to bear abundant fruit. And the garden must be weeded, carefully removing the distractions and distortions of all the weeds. With time, patience, and faithfulness, the seed can grow. This careful gardening of the soul is one way to grow as a human being and a follower of Jesus. 

Another way is to fill ourselves with words that build up and brighten. Some years ago, the writer Kathleen Norris wrote about her struggles with depression. It would descend on her like a dark angel, she said, as if she was invaded by a shadow that grew when she wasn’t looking. Medication helped provide some balance. So did talking with a therapist. By far, the greatest medicine came in reciting words that didn’t originate with her. 

She found the Psalms in scripture, or rather, the Psalms found her. She would chew on them, small bites, sometimes chewing on a phrase for hours or days. “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Hope in the Lord.” The dark angel of depression tried to chase the psalms away, but as she stayed with the words from God, they grew inside her. As she stayed with them, they grew larger – and the demon drifted away.

We are not talking about a magic potion here, or some empty incantation, but dwelling in the Word that God speaks onto the written page. I ponder this sometimes. What if all of us spent more time with the Bible, not merely to understand it, but to let it in? What if we replaced all the negative words, the terrible words, with words about redemption, hope, and grace?  What if we chased away all the words of the devil with the Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ? 

So, surely, we can all watch what we say, and listen before we speak. The world would be a better place if more people did that. But God’s mission is even greater. Each day, we are invited to welcome the Christ that he sends, the redeemer who is known as the One who speaks truth and grace.

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

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.