Saturday, March 23, 2019

A Cup of Coffee with Pelagius


Psalm 63
March 24, 2019
Lent 3
William G. Carter

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. 

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. 

But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult,
   for the mouths of liars will be stopped.


We are fortunate today to have an honored guest joining us for worship. He has traveled all the way from the fifth century, where he was living in a monastery in Rome. He is not the first heretic to ever come into this room, and certainly not the last. But perhaps in Christian history, he is the most famous. Would you join me in welcoming Pelagius?

BC:      It's good to have you with us. Would you like a cup of coffee?

Pel:      No thank you. That bitter brew is not to my liking. I prefer a cup of tea.

BC:      I thought it might be difficult to understand you speak.

Pel:      I am from Britain. I am conversant in English, although it's Old English, a very old English. Although if you prefer, we could converse in Latin, too. Or Greek.

BC:      Let's stick with English. I am glad you can be with us for a few minutes this morning. During this season of Lent, we have taken some time to learn more about the Celtic tradition of the Christian faith during this season of Lent. You are Celtic, right?

Pel:      Aye. I cannot remember the place of my birth, and the year is fuzzy too. Most likely, it was 354 years after the birth of Jesus our Lord. Born in Britain, although the names of the places have all changed.  May I ask, how did you make my acquaintance?

BC:      It was a history class, many years ago. I was reading about you in the writings of Augustine...

Pel:      Ah yes, the famous African. Bane of my existence, he was.

BC:      He didn't like you very much.

Pel:      No, he didn't. Augustine was vehemently opposed to me. It was his obsession, or at least one of his many obsessions. But I don't wish to speak ill of the dead.

BC:      I want to hear some more about your differences. But first, tell me and my friends some more about yourself.

Pel:      I don't like talking about myself. Never have. I have had a quiet life, devoted to prayer, good works, and teaching. Self-discipline comes naturally to me, so I found my home within a monastery in Rome.  Apparently my writings were helpful to many of the Christians, especially at a time when the Roman Empire was coming apart.

BC:      And I understand you had some progressive views for your time.

Pel:      Progressive?

BC:      Forward-thinking.

Pel:      Oh, it's difficult to be forward thinking when you live in a monastery. Our schedule is very scripted. We study hard, work hard, and pray hard, all according to the bells that ring on the hour.

BC:      Let me be more specific. I heard you were criticized for teaching women to read.

Pel:      Yes, that's true. Jerome and Augustine and the rest of them were offended. They said, "How dare you teach women to read the Bible?" I replied, "How dare I? I dare because women and men are both created in the image of God. They have equal dignity before Christ. Every human child is born in the image of God. That's what the Bible says, in Genesis, chapter one. There is a fundamental goodness to everything God has made. That includes women, of course."

BC:      Well, from what I've read, Augustine says Genesis, chapter three, has damaged Genesis, chapter one. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God in Genesis, chapter three, it left a permanent stain on the whole human race.

Pel:      Oh, that Augustine! Ever read that long book of Confessions that he wrote? A lot of his sins were certainly original. He was a wild one. He should have settled down and gone to a monastery. It would have done him a lot of good.

BC:      Was this the essence of the battle between you two?

Pel:      Please understand: we never actually met. Our battle was in ink, not in person.

BC:      You never met?

Pel:      No, we did not. I went to North Africa with my young friend Coelestius. We traveled to seek out Augustine and have a conversation face to face, just like this. But he was trotting around the Mediterranean Sea, or perhaps hiding behind the living room door.

BC:      Why did you go looking for him?

Pel:      Because of the terrible things he was saying about my teaching. I have always held that people can improve themselves. That's what I saw when I lived in Rome. The city was full of moral rot. The politicians were corrupt. The citizens were heartless. My Bible calls on me to speak the truth to power and to practice kindness where there is pain. Augustine disagreed and said, 'No, it won't do any good. The human race is always a mess, thanks to Adam and Eve, and no amount of human effort will make us better than we are."

BC:      I wonder if Augustine was speaking out of the wreckage of his own life. Earlier on his journey, he had rejected the Christian faith of his mother, and pursued a wild life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Pel:      What is this 'rock and roll'?

BC:      I'll tell you later. From what I can tell, Augustine had occasions when he did try harder, when he sincerely tried to clean up his life - but it didn't do any good. He kept slipping. He kept messing up.

Pel:      Well, all of us are sinners.

BC:      Wait, you believe that? I didn't think you did.

Pel:      Of course I believe that. I say that on the very first page of my treatise, "On the Christian Life." Listen to this: I am "a sinner first and last, more foolish than others and less experienced than all." Rather than grumble about what he thought I said, Augustine should have read what I actually said. I'm a sinner, created good in the image of God, but broken by my ignorance and repeated mistakes. Thankfully, "God does not pardon sins but rather defers judgment." God desires that we come home from our sinful journey and live in the holy peace of God's home.

BC:      Interesting: that came up in one of our scripture readings today. Jesus tells about the farmer with a fig tree that wasn't bearing any fruit. He complains to the gardener and says, 'We've been waiting three years for fruit on that tree. Let's cut it down. It's wasting space in my garden."

Pel:      ... And the gardener says, "Sir, give it one more year. Give it one more chance." That's my favorite parable: Luke, chapter 13.

BC:      Do you really think it's possible for people to improve?

Pel:      Certainly I do. I also think it is possible for people to be good. May I read you something that I wrote?

BC:      Please do.

Pel:      That person is a Christian who is merciful to all, who is not motivated by injustice, who cannot endure the oppression of the poor before their very eyes, who comes to the aid of the wretched, who helps the needy, who mourns with those who mourn, who feels the suffering of others as if it were their own, who is moved to tears by the tears of others, whose house is familiar to all the poor, whose food is offered to all, whose goodness is known to all, and at whose hands no one suffers injustice, who serves God day and night, who ceaselessly considers and meditates upon his commandments, who makes themselves poor in this world that they may be rich in God, who is without honor in society that they may appear glorified before God and his angels, who seems to have nothing false and untrue in their heart, whose soul is simple and unstained, whose conscience is faithful and pure, whose mind is wholly in God, whose hope is all in Christ, who desires the things of heaven rather than the things of earth, who leaves behind human things that they may have the things of God. (p. 402)

BC:      Wow, that quite a list. It's hard to believe that Augustine convinced the church to denounce you a heretic.

Pel:      No comment. Well, maybe one. When Augustine first accused me, fourteen bishops read through my writings and found nothing wrong. I was acquitted. So Augustine put me on trial somewhere else. He was nothing if not persistent.

BC:      It sounds to me like both of you persistent. And if I may make an observation, that wonderful list that you offered of what it means to be a Christian is exactly right - but it's impossible.
           
Pel:      Are you saying it is impossible to be a Christian?

BC:      No, but I am saying that it's impossible to live up to that list.           

Pel:      But if we do not have the list, which is essentially a description of living like Christ, then we have no model, no good example, nothing to aim for.

BC:      Yes, but if all we have is a list, then we have no need of God. Because none of us are good enough to attain all those perfect qualities.

Pel:      You sound like Augustine, who declared our human imperfections and said salvation depends entirely on the good grace of God. To me, an over-emphasis on grace will make us lazy. I think of the fool who acts despicably but says, "Christ has saved me."

BC:      True enough. But I think of those sad moralists who are tempted to revel in their spiritual superiority, much of which is fake. They reduce the living faith of Christ to a checklist of behaviors which neither they nor anybody else can actually maintain.

Pel:      That, too, is a sad truth.

BC:      May I suggest a way forward of us together?

Pel:      I would covet that. I sense that you are my brother in the faith.

BC:      Perhaps the way forward is not to obsess on how our sin originates, nor how deeply it pervades our lives. The better way forward might be to set our gaze on God, the God who comes to us in Christ. Jesus is our good example when we are at our best, and our savior when we are at our worst. He is "both and."

Pel:      Go on. I am listening.

BC:      So maybe the way forward is by paying attention to our true hunger and our true thirst, namely, to be in complete presence of God, and therefore to be as complete as possible in our own skin, never trying to impress, but doing what we can to move closer to Christ..

Pel:      This wisdom resounds in the psalm that I heard you and your friends recite as I arrived. I can still hear the echo of it: O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water... 

BC:      ... So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. 

Pel:      So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. 

BC:      Pelagius, I honor you as a child of God. We thank you for visiting with us today.

Pel:      It is I who is honored to be with all of you. In fact, these days, I am honored to be anywhere. May I offer all of you my blessing, from the final page of my work?  Here it is: "Regardless of whoever disapproves of you, mocks and derides you, you should please only God, and do those things which are of Christ. And when this is what you have become, remember us, who love you so much that we give you in our absence what we cannot give by our presence." (p. 404)


Saturday, March 16, 2019

Sheltered in the Day of Trouble


Psalm 27
Second Sunday in Lent (C)
March 17, 2019
William G. Carter

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

In these parts, everybody is Irish, at least for a weekend. So it’s tempting to reduce Saint Patrick to the patron saint of a parade. But he is so much more than that. There are some good stories about him. Some of them are true, some are Irish blarney.

For instance, a lot of people say Patrick chased all the snakes off Ireland. Ever hear that? About 150 years before Patrick’s birth, a Roman historian stated there weren't any snakes on Ireland. That was quite a miracle that Patrick accomplished before he was born.

Others will say Patrick took the Christian faith to Ireland. But it’s far more complicated than that. There may have been Christians in Ireland before he got there, because the faith spreads like dandelion seeds in the wind. He was certainly influential in spreading the Gospel, and we’ll hear about that. But it probably didn’t originate with him.

One more story: that Patrick held up a shamrock to teach the truth about the Trinity. I considered making a shamrock from green construction paper to show the children. But there was a nagging memory from a theology class. One God in three different forms? That’s a heresy called “modalism.” Suffice it to say, the Holy Trinity is more complex than a three-leaf clover.

Here’s what we do know:  About 400 years after the birth of Jesus, a teenage boy was kidnapped in England. His name was Patricius. He was the son of a tax collector for the Roman army, which occupied the western coast of England where he lived. Patricius was baptized a Christian as an infant, but the faith didn’t mean much to him as a child. When he was about sixteen years old, a band of Irish marauders invaded his village. His parents and siblings were able to slip away to a hiding place, but he was removed from his family and taken to Ireland as a slave.

It's hard for us to even imagine what that must have been like. He was bound and tied, thrown into a small skin boat, and taken across the sea. His captors took him to the northwest corner of Ireland. There Patricius was forced to work as a shepherd for six years, among people who spoke a different language and lived by brutal customs. The marauders were a group of people called Celts. In every way - geographically, physically, culturally - Ireland was the end of the world.

From the sparse records available to us, we learn this captivity was a test of the young boy's faith. Like I said, Patricius had been baptize, but he really hadn't taken the faith as his own. There he was, tending sheep among unruly strangers, living simply in a crude hut, isolated and unable to understand the language. About all he could do was pray. As he later told the story, "I prayed frequently each day. And more and more, the love of God and the fear of God grew in me, and my faith increased and my spirit was quickened."[1]

There is nothing like hardship to sharpen what we believe. That’s how the psalm for today begins:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh, they shall stumble and fall.

Psalm 27 is a psalm of protection. It’s a prayer to offer when you are far from home, there are adversaries to threaten you, and you’re looking for a safe place.

One night a miracle happened. Patricius, now twenty-two years old, heard a Voice say, "Very soon you are to travel to your homeland." It woke him from a sound sleep. And then the Holy Voice said, "Look! Your ship is prepared." Well, he looked, but he didn't see a ship. So he got up and simply walked away. He kept walking. Patricius walked two hundred miles, clear across Ireland, where he found a ship ready to depart for England. He persuaded the captain to take him aboard.

It was another three days across the sea. When they landed, presumably in Britain, he walked for another twenty-eight days. His family was astonished when he reappeared at their door, but they were even more surprised when he announced he would give the rest of his life to God.

Patricius entered a monastery in France. He spent twelve years studying theology, reading the Bible, and worshiping with the community. Although his time as a slave had hampered his education (something that he was always self-conscious about), he grew ever more passionate in his love for God. At the end of his long training, the church ordained him as a priest. He took the name Patrick.

Then for a second time, he had a vision. This time it wasn't a Voice; it was a man he knew from Ireland who appeared in a dream. The man was holding a stack of handwritten letters, and he handed one to Patrick. The letter was entitled, "The Voice of the Irish." As he read the title, he heard voices crying out to him, "Holy boy, we beg you to come and walk among us once more." It startled him and he woke.

Patrick tried to shrug off the experience, saying, "It's just a dream." But he kept having the same dream over and over. And he knew what he had to do. Through the scriptures, the Lord taught him, “I shall make you fish for people." "Go therefore and teach all the nations." "Go into all the world and preach the gospel." Patrick could not escape what he knew. Those commands came to him as a personal word from Jesus Christ.

So he traveled back to Ireland to live among the people who had once captured him. And to them, he preached the love of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we think faith should give us comfort and security. Certainly it can do that, just as Patrick found comfort through his prayers when he was a captive. Yet as we grow closer to God, it is more often the case that faith challenges us to grow, to stretch, and to move in directions we never thought possible. True faith never moves us backwards. It always compels us forward.

“Whom shall we fear?” asks the psalm. For God will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy.”

There is another legend about Saint Patrick: that he wrote the hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.” That one is not true either. The text wouldn’t be composed for another 200, 400, or 700 years later. The author was somebody named “Anonymous.” But the hymn is rooted in a true story about Patrick.

The melody of that favorite hymn is a tune called "Slane." Slane is a hill in Ireland. It's across the valley from another hill called "Tara," which was the political and spiritual center of the Celtic people.

On March 26 in the year 433, Patrick had a showdown with the high king of Ireland, who was the king over all the Irish tribes. It was Easter Sunday, which coincided with a day when the high king was going to light a sacred bonfire in honor of the Druid religion. The high king had decreed no other fires would be lit that day.

But across the valley, on Slane Hill, Patrick started a bonfire -- an Easter bonfire. He was going to show that the God who raised Jesus from the dead was mightier than any of the Druid spirits.

The high king was furious, and ordered Patrick to stop. He refused. The king ordered his priests to pray their spells and put out Patrick's fire. They couldn't do it. So the king roared up the hill with twenty-two chariots and two powerful wizards; Patrick countered by quoting a psalm, "Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God (Psalm 20:7).”

That was enough to stop knock them off their feet. Even the high king of Tara conceded, while Patrick's Easter fire burned brighter. After all, he was honoring the God above all others, to whom all the rulers of earth must answer. That’s the significance of the stanza of that hymn, which Patrick did not write:

High King of heaven, my victory won! May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall. Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.

It’s a great hymn, rooted in a real-life contest between Patrick the priest, now a bishop, and the High King of the Irish tribes. It’s a wonderful hymn and we are not going to sing it today. No, we’re going to sing something that Patrick most surely wrote himself.

In all of his adventures, there were two spiritual truths that recurred again and again. The first is that our life is a journey. It’s a pilgrimage, a search. Whether we understand it all or not, what we are seeking is God. It’s just as the Psalm declares:

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

There is a word that the Irish use for this journey: “peregrinatio.” It means to leave your homeland and to wander in search of God. Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “Not all who wander are lost.” It’s true, although in Lackawanna County, I wish a few of them would use their turn signals. The larger point is the faithful life, the life of faith, is a life that keeps moving all for the sake of Christ.

As someone notes, “The purpose of this journey is to find the place of (our) resurrection, the resurrected self…the true self in Christ.” That is the first truth that Patrick came to know in his soul.[2]

The second truth is this: that we have nothing to fear. God protects our travels, especially if our search is an intentional search for what is true, what is beautiful, and what is holy. So Patrick imagined in his faithful heart that God was in front of him, leading him; that God was behind him, guarding him; that God was below him, a solid path to tread; that God was above him, higher and loftier than he could imagine.

In every way, he envisioned that the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ can be called upon as a 360-shield. “The Lord is the stronghold of our life; of whom shall I be afraid?” This was Patrick’s spiritual “breast plate,” his shield of prayer. We have heard the choir sing some of it, we are going to sing another setting of it as our next hymn, and then we will recite it as our confession of faith, just so it sinks in.

When we need strength, there is no other source but God alone. When we are hungry for hope, our hope proceeds from God. And that is the witness of Patrick the saint.

"So here it is!" says Patrick in the closing words of his autobiography. "I have again and again, briefly set before you the words of my declaration. 'I bear witness' in truth and joyfulness of heart 'before God and his holy angels' that the one and only purpose I had in going back to that people from whom I had earlier escaped was the gospel and the promises of God."[3]

By the end of his life in 460 AD, most of Ireland had turned from the Druid religion to the God of the Gospel. And it happened through the witness of one very ordinary and humble man by the name of Patrick. 


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

[1] "Patrick on the Great Works of God (Confessio)," Celtic Spirituality, trans. Oliver Davies (New York: Paulist Press, 1999) 71.
[2]Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination (New York: Doubleday, 1997) p. ix.
[3] Confessio, 83.


Saturday, March 9, 2019

Keep the Peat Fires Burning


Psalm 91
Lent 1
March 10, 2019
William G. Carter

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.


Some years ago, my wife and I were toodling around the western isles of Scotland. We stopped to tour a Blackhouse,[1] a traditional home structure that had been restored for tourists like us. It was a visual reminder of how people have lived on one of the most inhospitable environments on earth.

The winds off the Atlantic Ocean are fierce, so the Blackhouse is build close to the ground. The massive walls are made from fieldstone. Thatched roofs are held down by ropes and stones, and cover the timbers and turf in the ceiling.  The doors are large enough to let the animals in. The friendly beasts help to keep the home warm.

My wife went over to explore a large loom, where one of the guides was weaving a Harris tweed cloth. As for me, I was taken by smell of pungent smoke. It resembled the aroma of my favorite barley beverages and came from a fire fueled by peat.

What is peat? It’s a thousand years of decayed vegetation. Traditional farmers in the Celtic isles dig it up in furrows, dry it out, and then burn it as fuel. The peat fire burns hot, it smolders a long time, and it chases away all the bugs – especially the midges, those nasty blood sucking flies that swarm for the warmest six months of the year.

The fire dries out the roof which is pelted by rain for most of the year. It is the hearth where the food is prepared and the meeting place where the family gathers. Symbolically, the fire is considered “the soul of the household.” This is why the peat fire is never allowed to go out.

So I’m thinking about this at the beginning of Lent. As a miserable winter lingers on, I trust our souls are still burning. Or at least smoldering. There is nothing more important than to keep our fires burning.

That seems to be a primary concern for Psalm 91, our text for today. Within the first two verses, the psalm speaks of inhabiting the presence of God: “You who live in the shelter of Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress.” Those four words - shelter, abide, refuge, fortress – are hunker-down words. The life of faith is a kind of settling-in for the long winter.

It’s not about a quick flash of spiritual success, or getting your prayers answered every time on cue, or buying into the American myth that things are always going to improve, increase, and advance in the future. No, this is about a sustainable faith, about persevering and sticking it out over time. That’s the Celtic way.

In Thomas Cahill’s modestly titled book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, he describes the implosion of the Roman Empire in 410 AD. It came as the German barbarians “immigrated” from the north and as Roman culture came unraveled within. Christianity had been declared a legal religion in the previous century, but just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s going to turn around an empire that built on a much different foundation.

What’s fascinating is that, as the Roman Empire was falling apart, the Christian faith was beginning to take root in Ireland. Ireland was very much a tribal land of small settlements. Yet clusters of Christian believers joined together. They built monasteries with huts in the shape of beehives. The small Christian communities kept the lights on, teaching people to read, studying Biblical Greek and Hebrew, translating the scriptures, teaching the faith, doing works of kindness, and praying constantly.

Eight hundred years later, when the rest of Europe began to wake up from a bad dream, the Irish were ready to share the faith again with those who had forgotten it. They kept the fires burning.

The people in the Blackhouse had a term for that. They called it “smooring the fire.” In the evening, before you go to bed, you pull the hot embers together. You bank them and cover them with ash. The fire continues through the night without tending.

In the morning, you open it back up, add more peat, perhaps blow on it a bit, and let the fire continue. A Celtic family would take pride in never letting the fire go out. Indeed, in the Blackhouse we visited, which was set up for tourists and administered by non-resident volunteers, the kitchen fire had been burning for over ten years.

Smooring the fire was often done as an act of faith. The embers might be divided into three parts, to represent the Holy Trinity. Peat was placed between each section in the name of the God of Life, the God of Peace, and the God of Grace. It was called the Hearth of the Three. The mother of the home would smoor the fire with a prayer. She would close her eyes, stretch out her hands, and say,

            I save this fire, as noble Christ saves;
Mary on top of the house and (Saint) Brigid in its center,
            The eight strongest angels of Heaven
preserving this house and keeping its people safe.[2]

It was a prayer for protection, an invitation to Christ, his mother, the saints, and the angels to guard the home through the dark night, all in order to keep the fire for another day.

As somebody notes, “The Christian faith is always in need of smooring. The fire needs to be kindled and rekindled if it is to be there for the next generation. Hard times that challenge our faith and threaten to extinguish the fire come and go. If the faith is not preserved today like precious fire, it may not be there for tomorrow’s children.”[3]

Our psalm for today tells us what we already know, that the life of faith has its challenges. There are wicked people out there, and there are marauders who distort and plunder. There is the ferocious lion and the wily serpent. Terror can come at night, the arrow can pierce the daylight. Pestilence can stalk in darkness, uninvited and intrusive.

And in a striking phrase, there is “destruction that wastes at noonday.” It’s what some early Christians called the “noonday demon.” This is the destruction that can come when everything is going well, when the sun is bright above us, the bank account is full, the success is abundant – and it comes unraveled. Ever notice that when somebody becomes famous, their life often falls apart? At the pinnacle of their success, they fall the furthest? That is the temptation of the noonday demon.

The antidote is smooring the fire: hunkering down to dwell with Christ, rooting ourselves in the love of God, and calling on the Holy Spirit’s power to chase away everything that endangers us. This is the fire that must never go out.

Early in his work, Jesus was in the desert for forty days, his own personal season of Lent. As he spent the time praying and meditating of the ways of God, the noonday demon came to him. “Remember Psalm 91?” said the tempter. “Remember how it says God will protect you? Remember how it says God will always catch you?” This is the voice he heard, shortly after he had heard God say, “You are my beloved son.” The sun was out, it was noon.

And the voice of temptation took that psalm and twisted it, turning the promise into a test: “Jesus, jump down from the top of the temple and tell God’s angels to catch you.” But Jesus said no. Not that he didn’t have the authority, not that he didn’t have the power – but because he was so rooted in the ways of God that he knew God would not defy the law of gravity to do a special favor on demand. God does not exist for us; we exist because of God’s good pleasure. And God wants us to live, and live abundantly, not perish because we did something foolish.

If God is our refuge, our shelter, our fortress, there is no need to dwell anywhere else.

Lent is a good time to sink into this promise. These are days to dwell in prayer and quiet trust, to share our life with others on the same journey, and to take comfort in remembering that we don’t have to run the world. We can smoor the fire at night, sleep in peace, get up in the morning and stoke up the fire again.  We keep the fire alive through spiritual disciplines, like prayer, fasting, quiet and generous charity, and reflecting on God's ways.

In the weeks to come, we will welcome the Celtic wisdom that kept the Christian fire burning while other parts of Europe went dark. We will hear about Patrick, the saint who spread the Gospel and taught us that faith is a lifelong pilgrimage. We will have a conversation with Pelagius, denounced as a heretic, but who knew God created us good and desires we live holy lives.

We will celebrate God’s work of redemption, embodied in the gift of forgiveness. We will affirm the Celtic hope that heaven and earth be one. And we will ride into Holy Week with Jesus, whose courage has led him to win our salvation. All the while, we will chant the songs and recite the prayers from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales that have sustained the faithful for a long, long time.

The message today is that we are on the Christian journey for a lifetime and beyond. It’s best to prepare for the long haul, to maintain the habits of heart and mind that will keep us courageous and clear, and to trust that, though unseen, Christ goes with us.   

As we continue that journey together, let me offer a Celtic blessing:

            To the Sacred Three,
            To save,
            To shield,
            To surround the hearth,
            The home,
            The household,
            This eve, this night,
            Oh! This eve, this night,
            And every night, every single night. Amen.[4]


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


[2] The tradition is told in many places. This version found in “SmĂ ladh – Smooring the Hearth Fire,” http://www.tairis.co.uk/daily-practices/smaladh/

[3] Deborah K. Cronin, Holy Ground: Celtic Christian Spirituality (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1999) p. 76
[4] Esther de Waal, The Celtic Vision (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1988) 77.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Preacher's End

Luke 9:26-43
Transfiguration / Mardi Gras Communion
March 3, 2019
William G. Carter

 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’— not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

This winter, we have been working through Luke’s story about Jesus, whom he describes as the prophet-preacher. Jesus comes from God, speaks on behalf of God, tells and shows the love of God. And he raises the question asked by everybody who has ever heard a preacher, namely, “Will this preacher ever end?”

I know it’s a question a lot of you have asked, especially if there’s a football game, or a pancake brunch, or an exhilarating ice skating competition that you want to get home to watch. Will this preacher ever end?

One of my teachers taught that the end of the sermon is the most important part. That’s why I write the sermon backwards, beginning with the ending, and aiming everything toward it. Or to quote a good friend who is wintering a safe distance away in Naples, Florida, “Bill stomps around in the mud for eighteen minutes, finally says something worth thinking about, and then sits down.” TouchĂ©!

How will the preacher end? It’s a really important question.

In the congregations where the preacher uses the old boiler plate of three points and a poem, there are people who time the first points to predict the end of the third. Perhaps one of the ushers is taking a snooze, or the choir director needs to know when to stop balancing the checkbook. The cue is coming, here’s the end.

If so, the apostle Paul once missed his cue. He was writing a letter to the Philippians, got to chapter three and said, “Finally…” (3:1). Then he got sidetracked, went on a bit longer about something else, and in chapter four says again, “Finally…” (4:8).   

One of you once told me that the most important thing about the ending of the sermon is that it should be as close as possible to the beginning. My response is, “Listen, we have a lot of things to tell you!”

And how does it end? How does the prophet-preacher end? Luke says he ends with prayer. Jesus goes up a mountain with three of his inner circle, and he prays. That shouldn’t surprise us if we know the Gospel of Luke. According to Luke, Jesus was always praying. He was praying on the day of his baptism, when the sky split open, the Dove came down, and the Big Voice said, “You are my Beloved Son.” (3:16). After that, it was his custom to withdraw to deserted places to pray (5:16), when nobody but God was listening.

The night before Jesus chose his twelve primary followers, Luke says, “He spent the night in prayer to God” (5:16). Another time he was praying alone, and looked up at his disciples to ask, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18). His ministry was bathed in prayer.

So today, it is while he was praying, that the appearance of his face changes and his clothes became dazzling white (9:29). Either he is revealed as he has always been, although it was hidden from our eyes. Or he was so full of the presence of God that his face was full of light, just like it happened to Moses.

A couple of Octobers ago, I dragged my friend Jim to New Haven to hear a great preacher speak about the art of preaching. The title of the lecture series was “The End of Preaching.”[1] We thought we would hear some wisdom from this man at the end of his career. Not at all. He stood at the lectern and declared, “The End of Preaching is prayer.” That’s where it’s all headed. That is the final intent. It’s for both preacher and listener to be caught up in the presence of God.

This transfiguration moment of Jesus is far beyond us, I suspect. We don’t understand it, we cannot reduce it. Suffice it to say, it’s some kind of visionary moment that points way beyond itself. It sounds like a moment unique to Jesus.

But maybe we get a taste of it sometimes. It might happen inside a church building or it might happen out in the natural world. It’s the moment when we step out of time and we are lifted beyond ourselves. Caught up in glory, as it were.

See if you can recall a moment like that, a much smaller but still significant transfiguration. The phone rings and the news is good. A broken friendship is mysteriously mended. A blazing orange sun slices through the storm clouds. Or it’s a moment when all hope seems lost, yet hope happens, real hope. We have these moments, you and I, and we tend to disqualify them, or discount and dismiss them.

What is it that would bring us completely alive? I ask this of you, and I ask it of myself. I’m starting to think about a sabbatical sometime next year and my wife said, “Any ideas?” I said I was checking out a residential library in Wales and doing some writing. She said, “Why don’t you consider going to New Orleans?” Wow, what a great idea! Get lost on Bourbon Street for a while.

What is it that might lift your spirit and set you free? What would lift you into the presence of God? That’s the kind of prayer that Jesus engaged in. And the suggestion is that this is the end, the purpose, for everything he has come to say. Just imagine being completely united with God, filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit, to be, in the words of a favorite old hymn, “Lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

Isn’t that what we wish we could have? Total release, complete freedom, everything healed and whole? Just imagine that, too... everything made well.

And maybe that’s why Jesus comes down from the mountain again. He doesn’t stay up, three thousand feet above human pain. After the vision, the Voice, the awe and wonder, Jesus comes down to heal a young boy on the very next day.

Both stories belong together, for the healing is also the end of all the preaching. Serving somebody in dire need, that’s where the prophet preacher chooses to be – and where he calls us to be.  I love the very last line of those two stories: “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” Luke puts that line at the end of the healing story. He could have also put it in the middle of the transfiguration story.

What we really want is for him to put that line in the middle of our lives: “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” Whoever we are, whatever our circumstances, regardless of whether we use religious language, that’s really the end of it all. To know that God is real, that God is here, that God is great.

It’s really why the church people gather every week in a room like this. And whether we are church people or not, it points to the mystery that lies beneath all of our feet while it lingers far above our heads.  

We are here on this planet for such a short time. We expend a lot of time and energy chasing after so many things. Much of the time we come up empty. But to catch a brief glimpse of life in its fullest, of glory in its brightest – that’s a wonderful gift. It is what the Christ comes to reveal. Sometimes we see just a bit of it. Once in a while we see so much more than we can take in.

So I’m glad to have you on the journey. Maybe you will see something that I don’t. Maybe I will hear something that it is important for me to pass on to you. We are in this together, this prayerful, serving journey that brings us ever closer to the “greatness of God.”

That brings us to the end of this sermon. The only way that I know how to conclude is by joining together in a song . . .

Hymn: “Just a closer walk with thee. Grant it, Jesus, is my plea…”


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


[1] Published as Thomas H. Troeger, The End of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018).