Saturday, November 18, 2017

Use It or Lose It

November 19, 2017
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
William G. Carter

"For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away." 

I should probably admit from the outset that I'm not sure what to make of this parable. There is a lot about this parable that troubles me, and I’m not sure what troubles me most.

As a man departs on a long journey, he entrusts his property to three people. If we’ve have ever taken a long trip, we understand this. Some snowbirds here will soon flutter down to warmer climates. They will hand off the house keys to somebody they trust and give instructions: “Make sure the driveway gets plowed and the pipes don’t burst.” It’s their property. They want to return to something intact, just as they left it.

What they don’t want is for the caretaker to rent out the property while they are gone, or put an addition on the house, or generally make money on their property while they are gone. So it troubles me that the Absentee Owner in the parable turns the caretakers loose to do whatever they want.

What’s more, the man in the parable must have been very, very rich. He needed three caretakers to preside over his property. Imagine how much he must have owned! So he does something that, on the face of it, seems patently unfair: he divides his property in three uneven parcels among three people of vastly differing abilities. That troubles me.

I’m the oldest of four children, and my mom has always said, “Oldest doesn’t count. You’re all equal.” So every Christmas to this day, equal number of presents, equal amount spent. She reinforced the equality by saying, “One of you can cut the Thanksgiving pie, but you’re the last one to select the piece.” So with surgical skill, I would cut that pie precisely to ensure that my siblings didn’t get one crumb more than me. After all, we were equal.

But not so in this Bible story. One guy gets his piece, the next one gets twice that share, the third gets five times that share. It doesn’t matter if they were loved equally; there was an inequality in abilities. I know that’s probably true, and the story is about stewarding the man’s resources, but that troubles me.

I’ll tell you something else that troubles me: it’s all about the money. A “talent” was not a skill, but a huge sum of money. In biblical times, it was about twenty times the average income. So fire up the calculators. According to the old numbers of the 2010 census, the median household income in our town was $65,000. Multiply that by twenty, and you’re talking 1.3 million dollars for the one-talent peasant. I think he had to dig a really big hole.

So we’re talking about sums of money that were more than the three “servants” would have ever seen in their lifetimes. I think I can understand why the third guy hid the funds. The money wasn’t his, for one thing, and he didn’t want it to be stolen. And he didn’t trust himself to have the money lying around, where he might be tempted to borrow a little, or use a little, or even spend it on himself. He wanted to be faithful, so it troubles me that he is condemned.

And that’s not all that troubles me. The owner of the property was very, very rich. Scandalously rich! One-percent rich! And he gets even richer. He praises those who double his money and then takes it back from them. As for the hapless, one-talent man who plays it safe, the boss takes his money back from him too. He’s sitting on a lot of wealth, and he has just gotten a lot wealthier.

That fact is not lost on those who know the land management practices of Jesus’ time. There weren’t a lot of absentee landlords in first century Palestine, but there were a few, and no doubt some of the peasant could tell stories of their own. The third man’s retort tell the truth: the Absent Boss reaps where he did not sow, he gathered produce where he did not plant the seed. At the end of the tale, he is indeed revealed to be a harsh overlord. 

As one Bible scholar notes, “The third servant is a whistle-blower who has unmasked the ‘joy of the master’ for what it is – the profits of exploitation squandered in wasteful excess.”[1] As we would expect, the whistle-blower is the one who gets punished, cast into the outer darkness of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Is this what the kingdom of heaven is like? I don’t think so.

For one thing, this is a parable. It's a story that compares itself to the kingdom. It's not the kingdom itself. And there's no simple one-to-one correlation, either. The story doesn't mention "God"; it describes a rich landowner. We are left to step into the parable, look around for an insight, and then come back, somehow wiser.

Usually this tale is told at stewardship time, since the lectionary reading always lands around November. The preacher is tempted to reduce this to a small, moralistic lesson in giving: don’t be afraid to try, be good stewards of your ability, take some risks, never say my little contribution won’t matter, people may not be equal in talent but they can surely be equal in effort, and especially, increase the Master’s money. All of that is helpful – but it’s too small for the kingdom.

No, it seems Jesus wants us to see something else, something deeper. Certainly God’s kingdom is not about exploitation, about taking advantage of other people for your own personal gain. I’d like to think that those fat cats who plunder others are the ones who will one day weep and gnash their teeth. There are a lot of Bible passages that suggest as much, not least of which is the prophet Zephaniah, who made an appearance this morning: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (1:18) God’s kingdom is not about “reaping where you did not sow.”

Some would say it’s more about reaping what we do sow. The apostle Paul wrote that message to the Galatians: “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.”[2]

OK, then, what are the best practices for sowing and reaping the eternal life of the Spirit? We have some clues.

Servant A and Servant B take an active responsibility in managing their Master’s resources, while Servant C plays it safe. O church of God, what a terrible and withering thing it is to pull back and play it safe! I can tell you about a lot of churches that drive down the road in neutral, never risking a thing, never ruffling the Empire’s feathers, never trying anything new, always ready to hit the brakes at the slightest bump in the road … while riding in neutral.

Can I confess something I do around here when nobody is looking? I exert Editorial Privilege in our print publications. And whenever one of our leaders submits an event notice that begins, “As we do every year, we will have our Annual Blah Blah Blah,” I strike the whole first part of it, because it smacks of “same, same, same.” Ho hum, boring, no life left. And when I can, I press gently to ask, “How can we bring fresh energy to the important things we do every year?” I would ask you to hold me accountable to the same matter. No playing it safe, no coasting in neutral.

I think it also needs to be said that God does love us all equally, but God equips us with differing abilities. I have a family member who recently retired from a very responsible job in a major corporation. She was given a brilliant mind and a decisive spirit. Then her Presbyterian church selected her to serve on the Deacons (“That’s where most of our women serve,” the kindly recruiter said.)

And when she showed up at her first meeting, they spent well over an hour arguing about who should receive the leftover flowers that nobody picked up after Sunday worship. She called me to unload for a while, and asked, “Are all church people like that?” I said, “Uh, no…they were probably wanting to fill an empty slot on the ballot.”

She said, “If they took me seriously, they would have asked me to do something that I’m capable of doing.” Good point. The kingdom of heaven is full of people who are able to do different things.

And there’s something else in this parable: those who are capable are given more to do. Did you notice that? The man who entrusts his riches comes back. He hears the reports on what the three servants have done in his absence. Two of them doubled the riches, one of them did nothing. The two that doubled are rewarded, and the one who hid his share is cursed and cast out.

But take note: when the first two enter into “the joy of their Master,” they are given even more to do: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things.” It’s kind of comical: the Master entrusted them with roughly thirteen million dollars and two and a half million dollars, and refers to the sums as “few things.” In the joy of their Master, they are given exponentially more to do. It’s the old adage, “If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person,” taken to the ten-thousandth power.

Yet it’s more than that – they enter “the joy” while their third companion knows only fear. That’s the gulf that separates those who belong to the Kingdom and those who belong to the outer darkness: the gulf between joy and fear. The joy is expressed in action, in responsibility, in fresh thinking, in taking risks.

By contrast, “wickedness” is equated with “laziness.” And in the end, the lazy and wicked servant is ultimately described as “worthless.” That is, he who was valued enough to be entrusted with a lifetime of wages now has no value to the Master. He had so much promise, but in the end his own shiftlessness has condemned him. He squandered an enormous opportunity.

As someone notes, “In almost every other parable in the Gospel, pride of some sort is attacked. This parable is unique in attacking humility. The special peril for the one-talented person is thinking one-talented people don’t matter much.” And if you think this, you are “able to build an effective barrier between oneself and work.”[3]

So I hear this parable inviting us to keep at it, to keep living out the Gospel while we wait for the Master to return. We can’t compare ourselves to others in the same work. We must not disqualify ourselves because we don’t have the ability or resources of someone else. It would be lazy, even downright wicked, to stop serving those in need, loving the unlovable, or working for the healing of the broken and the broken-hearted.

According to Matthew’s book, this Gospel treasure is entrusted to us over and over again. The invitation is to get on with it. To live out of the grace, mercy, and justice of Christ. To regard the invisible riches entrusted to us as riches. To make a difference in the world with what we have received. That is the invitation.

And the invitation comes with a warning: if we don’t risk living out the Gospel, we risk losing out on it all.

When it comes to the Gospel, use it or lose it.

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

[1]William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) pp. 150-168
[2] Galatians 6:7-8
[3][3] F. Dale Bruner, The Churchbook (Waco, Word Publishing), p. 909.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Failure to Plan Ahead

Matthew 25:1-13
November 12, 2017
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
William G. Carter

One summer, my sister returned from church camp with a new song. She tried to teach it to us, but my mom already knew it from her own former days at camp, a generation before. In any case, it's a song that you may know. It goes like this:

Give me oil for my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning,
Give me oil for my lamp, I pray;
Give me oil for my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning,
Keep me burning to the break of day.

When you're a teenager, the song suggests resources for your energy level. You want oil for your lamp so you can stay up all night, And when you gain access to the family car keys, you want gas for your tank, too.  You hope you’ll never run out of either one.

Maybe that's why the very next verse goes on to say, “Give me umption for my gumption, help me function, function, function.”

It wasn't until later that I learned the song was based on the Bible story we heard a minute ago. "Once upon a time," Jesus tells us, "there were ten bridesmaids waiting for a party to start. Five were wise and had enough fuel to get them through a crisis, and five were foolish enough to run out of oil."

Anybody who learns the difference between the five wise and the five foolish will know what to ask for:  “Give me oil for my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning.” All things considered, that's a pretty good thing to ask for.

Many of the parables of Jesus have a surprising twist in the plot. But this is not one of them. In other parables, there's a strange turn of events that reveals a new shift or perspective. But in a parable like this one, what you see is what you get. The plot simply runs its course. 

Those who are wise continue to be wise. Those who are not, do not. There is no change in character, no conversion of attitude. So when the crisis comes, all are exposed for what they are: wise or foolish.

This is how the Gospel of Matthew views the judgment of God. t is a crucial moment when all things are revealed and the truth is known about everybody. In that moment, there will be no more excuses, no more half-truths,      no more grading on the curve. Instead all things will be revealed as they really are.

In the story we heard a few minutes ago, a bridegroom takes his sweet old time to arrive at a party, a party that was held partially in his honor. That's the event which exposes the truth

Now we don’t know much about wedding customs of first-century Palestine. But we know enough to realize we can't blame those ten bridesmaids for sleeping.  Before the wedding party could start, the bridegroom went door to door in the village, talking to friends, shaking hands, kissing babies, and receiving congratulations.

It's curious that the story never mentions the bride. Maybe she went with him. Or maybe she didn't. 

In any case, the bridesmaids stood watch for the new husband. When the groom came into view, somebody would shout. Everybody would cheer. Then he would enter the family home, and the party would begin, more or less on time.

However the bridegroom in this story was running a little bit late. Maybe he had a lot of friends, a lot of hands to shake and babies to kiss, or a lot of places to go and people to see and gifts to receive.

Maybe he's like a friend of mine who recently got married sometime back. “It was going to be a small, intimate service,” he said, and then they invited 350 people. It took him forever to finish working the crowd. Some of us were yawning and nodding off by the time the party got rolling. Who could blame us? It had nothing to do with our character. We were simply tired.

When the writer of Matthew reported this story, I'll bet people in his church understood what he meant. A lot of them had begun to fall asleep. Matthew's Gospel was written about the year 80 A.D. It was 50 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, 50 years after he promised to return. Jesus was nowhere in sight. 

So where was he? Why didn't he come as he said he would? Obviously the Bridegroom was delayed. He has people to see and places to go. If he isn't here yet, he must be busy. The party will have to wait. In fact, the last time anybody checked, we're still waiting for the party to start.

This parable gives us a picture of what it's like to live under the dominion of God. The kingdom of God is like a group of people who are waiting for a party to begin. Some of them keep their wits about them. Others are just plain silly. The invitation is issued to both kinds of people, regardless of whether they are wise or foolish.                    
It takes an eternity for the banquet to begin, so everybody eventually falls asleep.  Don’t miss that detail: everybody falls asleep! Yet in the crucial moment, the bridegroom arrives, and everybody wakes wake up. I do believe it says they all wake up. But only the wise ones have what it takes to get in the door of that party.

In the most recent Star Wars movie, the final scene is filmed on some tiny islands off the coast of Ireland. Long before Luke Skywalker hid out there, those islands, the Skellig islands, were the location of an ancient Christian monastery. They are about eight miles offshore. You land there, tie up your boat, and climb up 700 feet of cliffs.

An order of Christian monks built the place and lived there for 700 years. One day, the entire climbed into their boats and rowed away, never to return. One of my friends toured there, and she scratched her head when she heard the tale. Here is what she wrote, as she reflected on the strange disappearance:

No one knows why they left, but it seems entirely possible to me that they just got tired of waiting. Seven hundred years is a long time to watch the horizon for the coming of the Lord. It is a long time to say your prayers and keep your fasts and live in disciplined community with one another, especially when word reaches you that those on the mainland have made some changes. They are eating better and sleeping later than you are. They have decided they can be in the world a little more without being of it, especially since it looks like they are in for a longer wait than anyone had expected.[1]

"Once upon a time, there were ten bridesmaids waiting for the wedding reception to begin." Why would we consider five of these bridesmaids wise?
·         It wasn't their expectation of the bridegroom: all ten of them expected him to arrive.
·         It had nothing to do with staying awake: no, the parable says all ten of them fell asleep.
·         It wasn't the fact that they woke up when the bridegroom was announced: again, all ten of them woke up.
·         No, there was only one thing that distinguished between who was wise and who was foolish: namely, whether or not they were ready for the long delay.
The bridegroom took his sweet, old time to get to the party. The ones who were wise were prepared to endure a long wait. They had enough oil to keep their lamps burning, burning, burning.

As another preacher says,  

The wise ones in the church are those who are prepared for the delay, who hold onto the faith deep into the night, who, even though they see no bridegroom coming, still serve and hope and pray and wait for the promised victory of God. [2]

It raises a good question for you and me: do we have enough resources for our faith to keep burning over the long haul?

I’ve been here long enough to see this is a town where a lot of people pass through. They come and go. On the face of it, they are mobile. People here keep moving. But is there any sense in which they are rooted? That they are connected to something deep and grounded? That they belong to something larger than themselves? Or are they merely consuming their way through the suburbs? If so, it’s awfully easy to run out of fuel.

In a town like this, where there’s a good measure of affluence, there are many people who just keep spending, and think that’s going to give them happiness. It can become a shallow existence, and can lull a lot of people to sleep. I’ve met plenty of folks who simply grew tired of chasing after one thing after another, so they retreat

Or maybe there’s something we support, something we really believe in, some initiative that promises to improve human lives, so we sink some time and energy into making it happen. And it does happen – at least for a while. But then it might run out of gas, or dwindle in energy, or lose its luster because it’s familiar. So the temptation is to back off to avoid further disappointment, to play it safe, and to nurse our wounds.

For a church like ours, we have to sink our roots into what is eternally important, and not merely chase after the latest fad or the quickest fix. Last month, when we were celebrating the anniversary of the Reformation, somebody questioned why we weren’t pursuing something more fresh, hip, or new. My response: “We are working on a business plan that’s 500 years old. Most of the newer start-up groups will last only as long as their founding pastor.”  In a suburb where a lot of faces change and businesses come and go, it's up to us to stand for something eternal and long-lasting.

I’m talking about a faith that intends to stick at it for the long haul. In the chaotic decade of the 1960’s, with the war in Viet Nam lingering on abroad, and the civil rights struggle revealing the dry rot at home, the Presbyterians put a statement of what they believed to be true. The closing paragraph has always moved my soul. It goes like this:

Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring (human) hope and preparing the world to receive its ultimate judgment and redemption. With an urgency born of this hope, the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope, the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God.[3]

So we pray, for the strength to keep going is always a gift from God, and not merely one of our own exhaustible resources. And we read the Bible, to sharpen our vision for what God desires for heaven and earth, trying to align ourselves with those purposes in what we do and say. And we keep gathering for worship every week, to wean ourselves from the empty promises of the world and to trade them in for the real promises of the Gospel. And we support one another as a Christian community, because it’s all too possible for any of us to lose sight of what’s important and to lose energy in pursuing it.

Give me oil for my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning,
Keep me burning to the break of day.

That’s our prayer, that’s our hope, and that’s ultimately our joy. We want to see Christ the Bridegroom. We want to welcome him every time he comes into our midst, and to be ready to embrace the moment when he comes for the last time. And through the work of our hands and hearts, we want his work to continue, ever reconciling this wounded world to the healing power of his grace.

Christ’s saving of the world will be no quick fix. We need to plan for enough fuel to keep burning for the long haul.

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

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoted by Robert Dunham, Expecting God’s Surprises (Louisville: Geneva, 2001) 44.
[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press) p. 522
[3] PCUSA, The Confession of 1967, 9.54-9.55

Sunday, November 5, 2017

No Church in Heaven

Revelation 21:22-26
Matthew 24:1-2
November 5, 2017
William G. Carter

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

Parents, you may wish that you had covered your children's ears when that passage was read. Because the prophet John declares there is no church in heaven. There is no temple in the New Jerusalem.

I say this because if the kids hear there is no church in heaven, they may conclude that they don't have to attend church here and now.

It's like the student who discovers there is no final exam in the course, so she presumes that she doesn't have to study, much less go to class anymore. Some could say that is a perfect analogy. If you find out there's no church in heaven, what's the point of going here and now?

Any reasonable Christian will have a good answer, of course. Here's my answer: how can you know there even is a heaven, if you don't go to a church and have the scriptures opened up to you? And if you do go to a church and the scriptures are opened up, you discover that what the Bible says about heaven is a lot different from what you've always heard.

I think of the Tom and Jerry cartoons from my childhood. Tom the cat was constantly outwitted and attacked by Jerry the mouse. Say, for instance, he falls off a cliff and meets his demise. Suddenly the ghost of Tom floats out of his carcass with newly appointed wings, bearing a halo and playing a harp. There's nothing like that in the Bible at all.

The Bible says we belong to God, body and soul, and we will be given a new body after we die. The Bible doesn't say you going to be given wings, a harp, and a ghostly existence. That's kind of a 1950s popularized fiction. In fact, the Bible doesn't even say there will be cats in the afterlife, although some of you may wish to dispute me on that.

That's an argument from silence. The book of Revelation doesn't mention cats in heaven, or harps, floating ghosts, or halos for the faithful so those inclined not to believe in such things have their argument.

But Revelation does mention some aspects of the ultimate dominion of God. In chapter 21, we are told there will be no more tears, no more crying, no more pain, no more death. Presumably that means there will be no more hunger and thirst, no more fear and anguish, no more consumer debt, no more cancer, no more gunshots, no more war. All of this because it's heaven.

Along the way John also mentions there will be “people from every tribe.” Presumably that means it will be a diverse and inclusive crowd of people. It will be populated by people who know how to get along with their neighbors, who have had all the meanness and evil removed from them. They join in singing an endless doxology, and we have every reason to believe they sing in harmony.

John speaks of a New Jerusalem. It's an image familiar enough to anybody who imagines the old Jerusalem. They will recognize it when it comes. It does come, down from above, which is an important direction to note. None of us will not be flying up, so much as heaven will come down.

And this will be a city. Not a garden, but a city, well populated with a functioning infrastructure, designed for the habitation of a multitude. The streets will be safe, the playgrounds will be full of laughter, and there will be no garbage in anyone's view. It sounds like Disney World without the gift shops, the overpriced food, and the greedy little mouse.

John sees all of this. The spirit of God opens his eyes. It is all an alternative to the horror and terror of the predominant emperor who mistakenly believes he is divine, an overbearing tyrant who can never deliver on the imperial propaganda that “war creates peace” and “domination creates joy."

In fact, did you hear that concluding line of our text, that "nothing unclean shall enter" God's city, including "anyone who practices abomination or falsehood"? I think that's a kick in the shins to the emperor du jour.

One interesting thing about the Book of Revelation is that, as much as people think it's concerned with looking ahead to God's future, it is really an unveiling of God's truth here and now. As early as chapter 4, we're told the door to Heaven opens up and John can hear and see what is ultimately real in his own time, not only at the end of time, but in his own time. This is the Ultimate Reality book.

Is war real? Of course it is, read the book. Are destruction and evil real? Certainly! Does famine destroy life? Do ecological disasters disrupt the beautiful world that God loves? Absolutely. On every other page of the book of Revelation, there is the reminder of how God's beloved creation tries to reject its Creator.

Yet interspersed are visions and hymns and affirmations that the Sovereign God still reigns and will ultimately rule over all. In God’s presence, there are no more tears. This is the truth of the kingdom of God. “The kingdoms of the world shall become the kingdom of Our Lord and of his Christ.” And let everybody and everything say hallelujah!

And in the middle of it all, in the center of the city whose gates are always open, there is no church. There is no temple. So what is it that John sees and perceives?

John sees a complete relationship between God and God's people. There will be complete union, direct connection, no need for a priesthood to bring together Creator and creation. There will be no need any more for the temple as the meeting place. God will be in the midst of them, says the prophet. And everybody will know it.

That's the spiritual truth behind every religious impulse. The sages would refer to it as “mystic sweet communion.” They point to the peaceful, joyful, and ecstatic fellowship that will no longer be torn or disrupted

So let me tell you what I think this means for us, by telling you first what I think it doesn't mean. This Grand Vision of the Prophet John does not point to some escape hatch for those who presume themselves to be better than everybody else. No, every human being is in the same soup. If one suffers, everybody suffers. If one is lifted up, it is for the benefit of all to be lifted up. It is difficult to keep that straight, In a time of rampant selfishness, somebody is always trying to claw themselves to the top of the heap so they can get in ahead of everybody else.

Sorry, but if some eat and others do not eat, we do not have the kingdom of God. If some are burned out of their houses, and others flooded out of their homes, while the rest sit in luxury and indifference, we do not have the kingdom of heaven. If some sing happy songs that anesthetize them from the suffering of their neighbors, it is not the New Jerusalem. So we dare not believe the lie that anyone is superior. Real life is like a soccer team, in that we are only as good as our weakest player

So when we hear this grand vision of what God is going to do, it should set us ablaze in mission to prepare what God wants to provide for all people. We feed the hungry because one day God is going to feed all of them. We work to reconstruct broken homes, for the day is coming when all people shall dwell in safety. There is no escape hatch, nor any reprieve from the ongoing expression of the love of Jesus Christ. Revelation 21 says at least that.

I think it also says that if we encounter division and animosity here and now, this is not the ultimate reality. If you currently are going through an argument with somebody, settle it somehow, so that you're ready for an eternity of having to get along with your enemy. If you see division between those who look different from one another, stand up and work for harmony because harmony is where everything is headed. If you come across the possibility of unfairness or injustice, work to correct it, because the day is coming when God will judge and make everything the way it was intended to be. Not only is there no escape hatch, there is no reprieve from our ongoing Christian life and mission

And there's another thing that John is saying. If there is no Temple in the ultimate kingdom of God, then this Temple that we are in today is but a way station on to the ultimate destination. That should free us from thinking that this congregation has to be finished or perfected, or that this building this structure has to meet every possible need. What we have here is very special, and I feel the great privilege of being with you in ministry. But it's not the ultimate thing in and of itself. If it's working pretty well now, that's wonderful, but it won't always work so wonderfully. We know that. A church is full of people, subject to all the dynamics that shape every other human institution. We should avoid an idealistic or idyllic view of what we share.

But the church is also a holy institution, breathed into being by God's Spirit, and infused with the life of the Risen Christ. So when truth is spoken or needs are prayed, it is God working through us to speak and pray. Blessed are those who encounter God here again and again.

But there's one other thing that the grand vision of Revelation declares. It is possible to live in complete peace with the God who loves you. You don't need some manufactured strictures or some screwy Hocus Pocus to adjudicate your spiritual life. God wishes to be at peace with you and invites you into the peace that is possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. I'm talking about complete forgiveness, complete awareness of how deeply we are treasured, and complete hospitality to receive you as you are, as you continue the journey toward what God is preparing for us all.

This is an extraordinary opportunity offered freely to us each day, to live fully in the grace of God. There's nothing to prove, nothing to earn, nothing to do except to open your arms and welcome the spirit of God who brings you into the New Jerusalem. That grace will change us. And it doesn't get any better than that.

I think that is what John sees when he says there is no temple or church, in the city of God. And just think: if we hadn't come to church today, we wouldn't have heard it.

So I will see you back here next week.

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

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Still Under Construction

Matthew 23:1-13
October 29, 2017
William G. Carter

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Down in Chinchilla, there is a tunnel under a railroad track that has been closed for repairs. Repairs on the one lane tunnel have been going on since late spring. Since it’s normally a busy road, this has been a point of contention for those of us who are inconvenienced by the construction.

Commuter traffic is a pain in the neck. For those who live at the bottom of Shady Lane Road, it’s almost ten minutes to drive an alternate route to get on the highway. If there were a fire on the wrong side of the tunnel, the Chinchilla fire trucks would have to drive five miles in the wrong direction to get to a spot normally a tenth of a mile away.

As you can expect, a number of people are not happy about the project or its delay. One neighbor, not known for her restraint, has taken to phoning the borough office every day to say, “When is that tunnel going to get fixed?” They recognize her voice when she calls, and give her the same reply: “Still under construction.”

Still under construction. After a month of thinking together about the Protestant Reformation that began 500 years ago this Tuesday, the same can be said about the church: still under construction.

Maybe that’s because nothing ever happens quickly in the Christian church. In 1984, a film maker named Philip Groning contacted the monastery of Grand Chartreuse, a remote Christian community high in the French Alps. He said, “I would like to bring a camera and shoot a documentary about your monastery.” They said, “We will get back to you on that.” Sixteen years later, the abbot wrote a letter and said, “Okay, we are ready for you.” They weren’t in a hurry.

Maybe you’ve heard the joke, applicable to all kinds of Christians, but I’ll pick on us. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: “Change?!”

Nobody likes change, especially religious types. Even if they desire change, they don’t like it when it comes. Simply witness the words of Jesus from the 23rd chapter of Matthew. Back in chapter 5, he said, “I haven’t come to abolish our religion of the Torah and the prophets. I have come to fill them up, to make them full of life.” Yet as we heard this morning, Jesus criticizes the practice of the religious leaders of his own day.

Among all the hats he wore was the hat of the reformer. He watched the Pharisees who interpreted the words of Moses and declared, “They don’t practice what they preach.” He pointed a prophetic finger at the Bible scholars of his day and said, “Their teaching will tie you up in knots and put enormous burdens on your shoulders.”

These people love to sit at the Mayor’s prayer breakfast and preen around like well-dressed roosters. They wear their finery as if to say, “Look at me, look at me.” They give big donations in order to be noticed. They clear their throats disapprovingly if you don’t call them by the right titles. And if somebody is in dire need, they won’t lift a finger to help.

That’s what he says in the text we heard a minute ago. I stopped the reading there, before he gets downright caustic. Chapter 23 is a clear-eyed and fierce denunciation of the religion of Jesus’ time. And it’s no wonder that the religious leaders conspired to get rid of Jesus and put him on the cross. That’s how reformers are often regarded.

After Pope Leo threw Martin Luther out of the Roman Church, the reformer was riding through the woods when some soldiers on horseback suddenly surrounded him. It turns they had been sent by Frederick, the prince of Saxony, to whisk away Luther and hide him in a castle where the Pope’s people would not find him. Luther’s life was in jeopardy for standing up to the abuses and excesses of the church of his day. Needless to say, Brother Martin thought a lot about the cross of Jesus.
Change is difficult. Reform comes at a cost. Try to make a constructive difference in the world, and there is always a push back. We know this; some of us know this all too well.

And it’s particularly true in the Christian community. The Gospel invites us to become more and more like Christ. Most of the time, we regard that with admiration: we can become more loving like Jesus, more compassionate, more outspoken about injustice and abuse, more gracious and merciful – more like Christ! What we don’t want, much less expect, is that becoming like Christ may mean that we may end up suffering like him, too.

Like the grandfather who took his granddaughter to an art museum one day. He had the time available, since he had just been fired from his job for blowing the whistle on some financial monkey business in the company. The management thanked him for speaking up, and after the hubbub died down, they gave him the pink slip for speaking up.

So he takes his granddaughter to the art museum. They come around the corner of the corridor, only to see a large and fairly accurate depiction of Jesus on the cross. It was pretty graphic, and both of them gasped. The young girl said, “Grandpa, what does this mean?” And without any filter, Grandpa blurted out, “No good deed goes unpunished.”   

So you want to change the world and make it a better place? It’s not going to happen without a struggle. And it’s particularly true of the Christian Church, the people called together by Christ, the people called to become like Christ – we are still under construction.

In fact, you’ve heard about the 95 Theses that Martin Luther posted on the door of the Wittenberg Church that prompted the Reformation. Here is the very first item on the list: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” That is, our entire Christian journey is one of returning to God again and again. We’re never done with that. We never finish returning to God until we finally, once and for all, fall into the arms of God.

In a way, that is liberating good news. It frees us from the tyranny of perfectionism. Just let it go. Give up the myth of your own self-improvement, and keep moving toward God. Start over every day, if you must, because our lives depend solely on the mercy of God. Repent, repent, keep repenting, and be joyful about it for Christ’s sake.

And it’s a reminder to the church, too, that we can never rest on our laurels or stay stuck on the “way it used to be.” The Presbyterians love to speak a slogan that might go back as far as St. Augustine: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda! That was the bumper sticker on the back of Augustine’s mule. It means “the church reformed, and always being reformed.” It’s the conviction that the church must continually re-examine itself to pursue the purity of what it believes and what it practices.[1]

John Calvin talked this way in Switzerland, in the generation after Martin Luther. He declared the Protestant Reformation was not about change or innovation, so much as a return to what the church was meant to be, long before it became big business.

And in the Roman church, the same phrase was used by Hans Kung and others at the time of the Vatican II council of the 1960’s. God is still at work in the corporate body of believers, increasingly their love, deepening their commitment, pushing them into the world as salt and light.

The emphasis on God is essential. The full phrase goes like this: “The church reformed, and always being reformed by the Word and Spirit of God.” It is God who is working on us, still forgiving our mistakes, still correcting our distortions of truth, still cleansing us of sin, and making us a sign of what God wants for all people everywhere.

So as a lifelong Protestant, I’ve been thinking about what that might mean for you and me, in our own day. Here are a few thoughts and observations:

The first comes from Fred and Char Lyon, who report on a conversation that their daughter in law had with the Vatican not long ago. Perhaps you remember that the Rev. Jan Edmiston, married to their son Fred, is currently serving as the co-moderator of our national denomination of Presbyterians. As a national leader, she was given seven minutes to speak with the representatives of the Roman church. Makes me wonder: if you had seven minutes to say whatever you could, what would you say?

Fred and Char report that Jan talked about leadership, specifically the leadership of women alongside men. Can you imagine a church where people are not disqualified to be leaders because of their gender? After all, if you are going to baptize everybody, you have to receive the God-given gifts that they will bring.

Just because the apostle Paul wrote a couple of corrective sentences to a few undisciplined Christian women in ancient Corinth does not mean that his words should be universalized to stifle all female leadership in all churches in all times, especially since it is the same apostle Paul who says in that same Corinthian letter, “Now women, when you prophesy (that is, when you preach), here are a few guidelines.”

Now, I’m not sure what the representatives of the Roman church said in response to Jan. I imagine they said, “We’ll get back to you on that.” Change doesn’t come quickly.

But here’s the second thing, O beloved church of Protestants: let’s stop beating up on the Catholics. The time is over for that. If you had an ornery priest earlier in your religious life, I know others who had an ornery Presbyterian pastor. We can’t universalize and dismiss a major part of our Christian family just because of some bad experiences in the distant past. At its heart, the Roman Catholic faith is a Christ-centered faith, with deep spiritual tradition and rich liturgy.

I had lunch last Thursday at the rectory of Our Lady of the Snows. My buddy Msr. Quinn was buying. As I warned a few of you, I knocked on his door and said, “Joe, it’s the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I have come to your door with all of my complaints.” He raised a suspicious eyebrow and said, “How many do you have?”

I said, “Only one.” What is it? “That it has taken five hundred years for all of us work together for Jesus.”

Then I told him about my friend David Lamotte, folk singer and son of a Presbyterian minister. David, a Christian, has just formed a band with a Jew and a Muslim. When I said, “Tell me more,” David replied, “We’re not insisting on singing in unity; rather, we’re singing in harmony.” I like that.

Finally, a third thought, from Friday’s Washington Post. Stanley Hauerwas, retired ethics professor at Duke (and classmate of Phil Muntzel and doctoral advisor of Charlie Pinches), wrote an opinion piece where he declared the Reformation is essentially over. The Protestants won.

Hauerwas notes, “Most of the reforms Protestants wanted Catholics to make have been made. Indulgences are no longer sold, for instance.” Now there are other distortions to be addressed. One of them, he says, “is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share.” I agree with him: “It’s a dismaying circumstance.”

And yet, he says, “I remain a Protestant because I have the conviction that the ongoing change that the church needs means some of us must be Protestant to keep Catholics honest about their claim to the title of the one true Catholic church.”

“The Reformation may be coming to an end,” he says, “but reform in the church is never-ending, requiring some to stand outside looking in.”[2]

It all seems to suggest that every Christian church needs to nail a sign on their doors: “Still Under Construction.”

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

[1] See the helpful article by Dr. Anna Case-Winters, “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda: Our Misused Motto,” Presbyterian Survey, May 2004.  
[2] Stanley Hauerwas, “The Reformation is over. Protestants won. So why are we still here?” The Washington Post, 27 October 2017.