Saturday, June 22, 2019

Afraid of Health

Luke 8:26-39
June 23, 2019
William G. Carter

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 

Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Every time this Bible story shows up in the cycle of readings, I lean forward and pay close attention.

It’s always been that way. Hearing the tale as a child, I was struck by the sheer wildness of it. There’s a crazy man, naked, living in the cemetery. There are scars on his wrists and ankles where he has torn off the shackles.He lunges at Jesus after the teacher gets out of the fishing boat. In a matter of minutes, Jesus and the wild man are screaming at one another. Then a large herd of pigs goes running off a cliff and into the sea. It’s like a scene made for a movie. For a horror movie! It is absolutely wild.

Sometimes when I hear it, I’m struck by the power of Jesus. He tells the evil spirits what to do and where to go. He has the authority from God to do this.  Here is a poor soul, afflicted by forces he cannot understand. When the Lord asks for his name, he says, “Roman Legion, for we are many.” I don’t know if we should take that literally or numerically. A legion was a company of soldiers, either 4000 or 6000 soldiers, the kind of soldiers who were occupying that land.

They were there to “keep the peace,” and a Roman peace was kept with violence, force, and intimidation. These were the kind of soldiers who would crucify you if it would keep everybody else in line. They were terrorists in uniform. Apparently their military presence is driving one of local men out of his mind, out of his house, out of his clothing, and among the tombs – and Jesus makes him well.

That’s amazing power, and we saw it on the Sea of Galilee, right before this story happened. Jesus was out in the boat with the others when a storm blasted in. Waves are spilling over the sides of the boat, the wind is furious, and the Lord is taking a nap. They nudge him awake and say, “Master, master, we are perishing.” He opened his eyes and said, “Hush up! Be still.” He wasn’t talking to them; he was talking to the storm. Suddenly there was a dead calm. And they said to one another, “Who is this, who tells the storm to shut up?” He had that kind of power.
So there’s no question he could also chase away a legion of demons. He could do that. Calm the storm and save the disciples, drive out the demons and save the man – Jesus the teacher is also the savior. This is the kind of story that demonstrates his power.

As I’ve lived with the New Testament for a while, I also understand this as a story that the first Jewish followers would have loved to tell. They didn’t have a lot of time for pigs. God said, “Pigs are unclean, so no bacon or barbeque.” Of course, they are unclean – that’s why the demons said, “Send us into the pigs.” Since they were unclean spirits, they drove the unclean pigs out of their minds, too. When that large herd of swine was intoxicated with evil, they dashed down the hill and into the sea. A first-century Jew would have laughed and said, “Good riddance. No great loss!”

Obviously, they didn’t own the pigs. Those pig farmers would have been Gentiles. And that pig farm, like that graveyard, would have been in Gentile territory, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. According to the Gospel of Luke, this is the first and only time that Jesus steps onto Gentile land. It’s the first and only time he heals a Gentile man. And it is the first and only time he destroys the livelihood of some Gentile swineherds.

Call it, if you will, the high cost of health care. For somebody to get well, something else has to go. A man is healed and some farmers lose their herd. It’s a surprising picture that is still with us.

My friend Tony busted his wrist in a car accident back in March and the recovery is going slowly. I took him to lunch last week and he told me how much the medical bills are. Two aspirin aren’t going to fix him.

We have two addiction therapists in our family. One works with veterans who have seen trauma, the other works with affluent professionals who self-medicate themselves toward the abyss. I asked at the the dinner table: what it would cost to make them well? Not just the price tag of medical care or the residential treatment. They have to bid farewell to substances that have become part of their souls. Some would rather die than give up drugs. There’s a high cost to getting well.

We see the same theme in the great stories of good versus evil. There is always some cost for good to win. Harry Potter takes on Voldemort. They cast lightning at one another as the castle crumbles around them. Or any of Star Wars movies. For good to win over evil, a light saber will flash or a planet blows up.

And in our own Christian story, there is a man killed on a cross to benefit the health of the world. That is our central mystery. It was human evil that put him on the cross. It is his death that defeated the human evil. It’s a high cost indeed.

But in the account for today, there is one more factor, something more striking that power, pigs, or the cost of it all. Did you notice? When the man is healed, freshly clothed, in his right mind, and sitting with Jesus, the people from the nearby town come with a sad and pathetic message. They come to see Jesus and the wild man now settled. They hear the story of what has happened – so they ask Jesus to get out of town. “Please leave,” they say with a single voice.

This is really sad. They had come to tolerate a wild man out there, scaring every new group of mourners who went to bury their dead. But now when that same man is healed and restored, they are really unsettled.

It’s worth reflecting on this. Why did they want Jesus to go away?

Certainly there was the money lost by the pig farmers. They faced a huge economic loss, to say nothing of a good portion of the food supply for that Gentile town. If Jesus is going to stick around and heal somebody else, what’s he going to destroy next? And considering that the herd of swine was very, very large – in one account, there were two thousand pigs[1] - we can guess those farmers were probably pretty well off. That suggests they had some influence in that region. “Jesus, get out of town. You’re not good for business!” We can’t have any more healings like that. It would hurt us in the pocketbook. Certainly that was part of the conversation.

At the heart of it all, Luke says there was fear. Great fear, or in the Greek phrase, “mega phobia.” The people were afraid. They were scared of the wild man, or more specifically, scared of the illness inside of him. But now they are doubly terrified of the power of Jesus to make the man well. They want him to leave, because God has come way too close.

When Jesus first meets the wild man, remember what the illness that inhabits has to say? “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” See, the illness wants to call all the shots, because the illness knows that the Son of the Most High God is stronger, holier, healthier, and kinder than the parasitic hold that it has on its host. The illness calls it “torment,” but for Jesus it is healing and restoration. Christ comes to make people well.

Does he ask permission before he starts to heal? Not in this case. He simply goes to work, for the work of the God of Life is to give abundant life to those who are infected, inflicted, and shackled by something they cannot control. True healing is disruptive. The sick man cannot howl and whine any more. He will have to put on clothes. He will have to grow up, give up his status as the wild man, and move away from the tombs and back among the “normal” people.

Meanwhile the so-called “normal” people aren’t so sure that they want him healthy and back among them. It might make them look not so normal. One thing’s for sure, they sure don’t want Jesus the Healer to stick around any longer. Get out of town, please.

We read the Bible, but it is the Bible that reads us. We read how Jesus comes to heal and restore in every corner of our lives – today, it’s a healing most likely of a man with a troubled mind and emotions. Christ comes to heal. We read that. But what the Bible reads in us is the stronger aversion to the only One who can heal us and what we would have to change to get well.

If the world really wanted to be healthy, it would have made that decision long ago. Somebody would have gotten rid of potato chips, cigarettes, and other addictive substances. All those things would be sent back into the abyss. And every week or two, we hear about some tormented soul doing terrible things somewhere else.  We lock our doors, pray for mercy, and murmur, “I’m thankful it didn’t happen here.”

You know, we really don’t have to live like that. We don’t have to be fearful, held captive, immobilized by a “mega phobia.” We could live with freedom. We could live with grace. We could make decisions every day that create life, that enhance life, that declare that Jesus is more important than pigs, or money, or beating ourselves with stones, or living among the tombstones. We don’t have to push him away or ask him to get out of our town. We could say, “Lord, stay among us, and make the rest of us well one at a time.” Because that is what he wishes to do. It is the will of God to make us well.

There’s a scene in the new movie Rocketman that sums it up to me. It’s the opening scene of that biographical fantasy about singer Elton John. The chairs are circled up and a twelve-step meeting is under way. The door blows open, and here comes Elton John. He’s skipping out of a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, and he stomps in to interrupt that meeting. He’s still in his stage costume, a red devil with Styrofoam horns. 

He’s belligerent, mouthy, conflicted, and angry. And he says, “My name is Elton…” He yells, he makes a fuss, and then in a near-whisper, he says, “and I want to get well.” With that, he tells his story. Because of that, his story has a future. He wants to get well.  

It’s the best way I know to cooperate with the power of God: to pursue our own health, to improve the health of one another.

That day in the land of the Gerasenes, it was the townspeople’s fear that pushed Jesus back into the boat and back across the sea. But that’s not the end of the story.

Did you remember what Jesus did?  The man who was healed wanted to get in the boat and go with him, but Jesus said, “No, stay here. Tell these people what God has done for you.” Tell them about the change in your health, about the change in your perspective. Stay right in the middle of them. Go right into the center of the community. Tell everybody you meet that it is God’s great desire that we live by health, freedom, and faith.

You know why he did that? Because the one thing they will not be able to dispute is the presence of someone who has come back from the tombs… and lives to tell about it.

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

[1] Mark 5:13

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Still Unfolding

John 16:12-15
Trinity Sunday
June 16, 2019
William G. Carter

Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

In a couple of weeks, one of my daughters will take me to a concert in Gettysburg. It’s my Father’s Day gift. We are going to hear Bruce Hornsby play some of his ‘80’s hits, written back when he still had a lot of hair. He always puts on a fun show. Some of his fans will write down titles of his songs on a scrap of paper, wad it up, and throw it on stage. Bruce will smooth them out on top of his grand piano, and they will become part of his set list.

But here’s the thing: he doesn’t always play them the same old way. If you know the melody and lyrics, you’ll recognize the song. But the man has a lot of imagination and a jazz degree from the University of Miami. When he plays the same old song, it comes out in fresh new ways.

Over the years, some of his fans grumbled about this. They wanted to hear “The Way It Is,” his classic song about racial intolerance, and he channels it through a twelve-tone tune by Elliot Carter. Or they request “Jacob’s Ladder,” a rocking tune once recorded by Huey Lewis, and he turns it into a bluegrass romp.

One fan complained, “We spend a lot of money on tickets, expecting to hear something familiar that we remembered, and dang if he turn it into something new.”

That can be very disturbing. I’ve noticed it can be really disturbing for church people. They hear the preacher read John 3:16, their all-time favorite Bible verse, and then the preacher says that verse has nothing to do with Jesus dying on the cross, which is the way they always heard it. No, says the preacher, it has to do with God sending Jesus into the world; it’s really a Christmas text. “Well, that’s not the way we always heard it.”

Or years ago, while we were rattling our swords in the build-up to the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had ordered an invasion in Kuwait. Right after Christmas, some sly preacher did a children’s sermon on the three wise men, who came bearing gifts to worship Jesus. She pointed out the three wise men came from a land we call Iraq. Some people in the back got up and walked out of church. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear. It wasn’t the way they heard it before.

All of this, of course, has been suggested in the last words of Jesus. As he prepares to depart his disciples and return to the Father in heaven, he says, “I have a lot more to tell you, but you can’t bear to hear it now. But I will send the Holy Spirit, my Spirit, the Father’s Spirit, and the Spirit will tell you what I haven’t told you yet.”

It’s a staggering claim. It suggests the Bible has a future and not merely a past. It suggests there is some essential material that didn’t get written down on the page. It suggests the Risen Christ keeps speaking. For a lot of people, that’s troubling.

After all, the scriptures tell us everything we need to know, isn’t that right? Well, maybe. Jesus says there is more to come.

But isn’t everything written down in the Bible? No, it’s not. Last we checked, the Bible doesn’t say a word about global warming, Russian interference in our elections, or the platypus. It doesn’t ever mention Father’s Day, which was invented in 1908 in a United Methodist church in West Virginia.

One of the church’s confessions declares that everything we need to know for the salvation of the world is written in the scriptures.[1] I believe that to be true. Yet I’ve noticed there are a lot of things more than the matters pertaining to salvation that are written down in the Bible. And today we hear the Lord himself declare there are some important matters that remain off the page. In the time of Jesus, they weren’t written down yet, if in fact they were ever written down.

And when we read some of the things in Bible, we have to wonder, “Is that the last word that God has to offer?” Or is there something more that God will say?

Here’s one: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.” That’s in the book: Ephesians 6:15. Is that the last word on slavery? I hope not. When the Bible was written down, over the course of a thousand years, slavery was an accepted business. If you wanted to build a pyramid, you captured another tribe, dominated them, told them they were slaves, and pointed them toward the stone quarry.

Slavery was a brutal, dominating, demeaning practice, unworthy of a God who creates each person in the divine image. It needed to go away. In the ways that slavery is still practiced under other names, it still needs to go away. But a South Carolina plantation owner could point to Ephesians 6:15 as way of maintaining what southern folk always referred to as “our way of life.”

Then the Holy Spirit said, “That’s not the last word. Human slavery has to go away.” In the name of Christ, it has to go away.

And lest you think that’s a mildewed old illustration from the 1860’s, let me tell you about two recent illuminations. The first is the work of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor at Harvard. In elementary school, Professor Gates was told by a teacher that President Lincoln emancipated the slaves. Then he studied American history and discovered that’s never really been true. Slavery might have been outlawed but it’s still around, under a hundred different names. He has written a book about this, and hosted a four-session documentary on PBS.

Closer to home, a Vacation Bible School curriculum has been under fire in the past couple of weeks. Group Publishing has put out a curriculum called “Roar.” In one lesson, the kids are told, “Pretend you are slaves,” purporting to teach a lesson about Moses, I think. But to make matters worse, the entire theme of the curriculum is set in Africa.[2]

Imagine some of our little kids being told, “Pretend you are slaves… in Africa.”  Uh, no. The Holy Spirit says no. Maybe that’s why our Christian Education committee didn’t buy that curriculum. It’s certainly why a lot of other churches are asking for a refund and buying something else.

Christ has kept speaking. The Holy Spirit has pushed us beyond ever thinking that human slavery is acceptable… even though the Bible says, “Slaves, obey your masters.” And this perception that Christ still speaks is both comforting and troubling. It’s comforting to know he is still with us, yet it’s troubling that he might push us into uncharted territory.

It’s helpful, then, to note the words Christ speaks through this text move in two directions at once. They are both liberal and conservative. The liberal sees the continuing progression, the evolving insight, the unfolding wisdom: something new is being spoken. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth,” even the truth we haven’t been able to bear yet. The faith has a future and there will be progress. Who knows? Maybe one day after the death and resurrection of Christ, women will be called to preach!

The conservative sees that what is being spoken is all about Jesus Christ: “The Spirit will glorify me,” Jesus says, “because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” So the conservative needs not worry that the Spirit would ever say anything that directs us away from the will of God. Christ is Lord and all must honor him.

Part of his lordship is to push us toward a growing faith in a living God. God is alive and dynamic. There is an internal energy in God’s own being. Faith in a God like this is neither bound by the past nor afraid of the future. So when we come across some new insight, some new discovery, the question must always be, “Does this lead us into the Risen Christ?” Does it declare Jesus as a Living Word who is greater than all of our written and spoken words? That’s really what matters.

This is where faith must be practiced and life must be lived, on the boundary between what we remember and what lies before us. In his book Have a Little Faith, Mitch Albom goes to visit his childhood rabbi who is terminally ill. Mitch asks the rabbi if he believes in God. “Yes, I do.” Do you ever speak to God? “On a regular basis.”

What do you say? “These days? These days I say, ‘God, I know I’m going to see you soon. And we’ll have some nice conversations. But meanwhile, God, if you’re gonna take me, take me already. And if you’re gonna leave me here,” he opened his hands and looked to the ceiling, “maybe give me the strength to do what should be done.”   

What a wonderful prayer! The old rabbi didn’t have all the answers. He didn’t need to have everything figured out. All he needed was to trust, to pray for strength, to rely on God’s wisdom which far surpasses our own.

Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” It’s a clear reminder that we don’t have all the answers. Sometimes people ask me tough questions: why did this happen, what should I do, how can I believe, what’s going to happen? At my best, all I can say is “I don’t know.” Or even better: “We don’t know yet.”

Jesus never promises the answers. What he promises is to be with us. What he promises is the presence of his Holy Spirit, abiding, astonishing, unfolding, still teaching, still comforting, still revealing the truth and grace of God. And that’s the gift we receive.

During a time of confusion and uncertainty, Thomas Merton wrote a prayer. It’s a great prayer and I pray it might be helpful to you. It goes like this:

O Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going,
I do not see the road ahead of me,
I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,
And that fact that I think
I am following Your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe
That the desire to please You
Does in fact please You.
And I hope I have that desire
In all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything
Apart from that desire to please You.
And I know that if I do this
You will lead me by the right road,
Though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust You always
Though I may seem to be lost
And in the shadow of death.
I will not fear,
For You are ever with me,
And You will never leave me
To make my journey alone.[3]

As for me, I quote the words of a much wiser preacher: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” So I will see you again next week.

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

[1] Westminster Confession, 1.7
[2] Read about the controversy here:
[3] Thomas Merton, Pax Christi, (Erie, PA: Benet Press)

Friday, June 7, 2019

Doing More Than Jesus

John 14:8-17, 25-27
June 9, 2019
William G. Carter

"Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the FatherI will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it."

“The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and will do greater works than these.” Of all the outrageous things Jesus ever said, I think that’s at the top of the list.

According to the scriptures, Jesus did a lot. He invented the parables of Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan, he gave sight to a man who was born blind, and he fed a multitude on a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread. Have you done any of that?

Jesus told a terrible storm to “shut up,” walked on the water, cast out demons into a herd of pigs, and transformed large jugs of water into carafes of new wine. So, what have you done with your life?

He crossed cleanliness boundaries, touching a leper to make him clean, giving the healing power of God to a lady with a long-term hemorrhage, and taking a little girl by the hand and raising her from the dead. The Jewish Torah told him never to touch lepers, bleeding women, or corpses, but that’s what he did. What about you?

He says, “Whoever believes in me will do what I do, and even more.” Was he serious?

Somebody in the early church thought so. The end of the Gospel of Mark is rather abrupt: some women go to the tomb of Jesus, find it cracked open, run away and don’t tell anybody about it (at least until Mark writes down his book). It seemed like an unsatisfactory ending, so there were people who added on some more. There’s more to Easter than an empty tomb and a silent church.

So they added at least three more endings to the Gospel of Mark, to fill in the details and keep the story going. You can look them up sometime in the footnotes in Mark 16. And one of those endings quote Jesus as saying,

And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:17-19)

Now, we do still pray for the sick by blessing them. The psychiatrists cast out demons and the Pentecostals sing in tongues. And there still are some people in southern Appalachia where they handle rattlesnakes as a test of faith.[1] In my opinion, that’s pretty stupid. As far as we know, Jesus never pulled a stunt like that. And what’s more, those footnote verse at the end of the Gospel of Mark don’t have the same weight as the rest of the book.

What Jesus does say is “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and will do greater works than these.”

That’s still kind of heavy. Dale Bruner, the great Bible scholar, says he still gulps whenever he comes across that verse. What did Jesus do? He gave up glory in heaven to become a human woodcutter. He endured the betrayal of friends and the full abuse of the Roman Empire. He gave his life on the cross to bear the weight of human sin. In the words of one New Testament writer, Jesus reconciled heaven and earth.[2]

Anybody here think they can do that – or something more? The job of Savior of the Universe has been filled. We can relax about that, even take a sabbath and let God run the world without our help. And we certainly don’t have to play the martyr if things aren’t going our way. As Reba McIntyre once said to a whiner on her sit-com, “Earl, get off the cross, we need the wood.” There is only one person on the cross of salvation, and he’s not on it anymore.

And yet, Jesus says to us – the crucified and risen Jesus says, “If you believe in me, you’ll do what I do, and even more.”

Dale Bruner, the scholar, says he means that quantitatively, not qualitatively: “Jesus never got far beyond Palestine.” His ministry was about three years long. He did not travel abroad. In fact, for a large part of his work, he didn’t walk beyond ten or twelve miles from the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. But we have. The people who love him are dispersed around the globe. And they have been doing the work for a lot longer than three years.

What the Lord is saying is that his work extends beyond himself. He can reach people who weren’t even born when he walked among us. He can extend the grace and truth of God beyond geographical borders, beyond the limits of human language and culture, even beyond the boundaries of time. The first century Jesus can reach twenty-first century people.

And how does he do this? Through the gift of Pentecost, which is the gift of his Holy Spirit.    

Pentecost is a big day. Originally a Jewish harvest festival, it developed into a celebration of God speaking the Torah in the giving of the Commandments. In the early significance of the day, God speaks – God breathes his Words – into the ears and the hearts of the faithful.

That’s why crowds of Jews gathered in Jerusalem each year, and that’s why a crowd was there fifty days after the Passover when Jesus was crucified by the people and raised from the dead by God. They were there for another reason, which became the same reason: God breathes again into the ears and the hearts of the faithful.

What Jesus reveals in this section of the Gospel of John is that God’s Breath is literally God’s Presence. God’s Word which took flesh in Jesus of Nazareth is now Breathed afresh in the Presence of the Holy Spirit. Whenever faith takes spark, whenever Holy Truth enlivens and animates us, whenever a sermon hits us between the eyes or a healing deed gets done with our hands, the scripture describes that as “Holy Spirit,” the ever-present Presence of God touching down briefly on us and on others.

It comes and goes like the Wind, as Jesus says elsewhere. It can land like a white dove, dwell for a while, and then fly away. This is the mystery of spiritual experience. But the point of it all is not to merely get an electrical charge from heaven; no, the point is to continue in the miracle of God coming to the world in Christ. Pentecost is the New Testament’s way of keeping us connected to the life and work of Jesus.

This is the Bible’s description of our ongoing witness. The Christ who said “I will be with you always” truly is here, among us. He departed into heaven but he has never left us alone. And the best sign of that is when ordinary fishermen -- and second-grade teachers, and shopkeepers, and guitarists, and hotel clerks, and retired grandparents, and other regular folk – continue to include others in the love and justice of God. Or as Jesus calls them, “the works.”

·         When a teenager plans a Thanksgiving feast for 85 new immigrants in our Fellowship Hall, she’s doing something Jesus would have done but has now given her to do.
·         When Presbyterian volunteers provide care for homeless youth in the city who were cast out of their parents’ homes for having the courage to say they are gay, that’s something Jesus would have done and gives some of us to do.
·         When one of us offers love, hospitality, and wisdom for a woman with a problem pregnancy, that’s the ongoing work of Christ.
·         When a creative soul makes fresh art that reveals our human beauty, human brokenness, and Divine possibility, this is one of the ways that the Spirit of Christ keeps teaching and opening us to healing.
·         When a newspaper columnist uncovers the truth about political corruption and says so, that truth-telling is the prophetic work of Christ. Don’t let the counterfeit public servants ever tell you otherwise.  
·         When one of us stands up to the stench of racial hatred to speak and act as if God loves all people, because God indeed does love all people and calls all to live in peace and fairness, this is the Holy Work of the Spirit. It is far extended beyond the first century Jesus into the Christ of our own time.

Pentecost means that Jesus isn’t hiding in a church; he is busy in the world that was created through him. The church is called to point to him, to his work; and not only point, but to roll up its sleeves and join him in the life-giving work of the Gospel.

So, Happy Birthday church. For you and I are enrolled in God’s mission to the whole world. It is a good day to celebrate the Presence of Christ ever among us. And it’s a good day to continue the Spirit’s work.

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

Saturday, June 1, 2019

That the World May Believe

John 17:20-26
Confirmation Sunday
June 2, 2019
William G. Carter

Jesus says, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

We have a remarkable confirmation class. They have met regularly and faithfully, usually on Sundays after church. If they look particularly fit and trim, it’s because they have often skipped the cookies in coffee hour and gone right to class. They are dedicated, rarely missing one of our sessions. And they are smart, really smart. The conversations have been rich. We’ve discussed important matters – scripture, sacraments, and service – and as was evident when they met with our elders yesterday morning, they are ready to be full adult members of our congregation.

But as I reflected on the scripture passage that we heard a minute ago, I realize there is one more thing that we should talk about before we make this official. It’s a topic that doesn’t make it into the confirmation curriculum. I don’t know why that is. I can’t explain the lapse. Maybe it is a topic we assume, or perhaps, just perhaps, it’s something that we don’t always know how to talk about.

You see, Presbyterians are pretty good about ideas like grace and salvation. We also like to talk about structures and official things, like committees and session meetings, and even some of the unspoken rules. But there’s the one thing at the heart of it all, the one thing that keeps the whole Christian faith alive; and of that, we’re curiously reticent.

To tell you the truth, I might have passed over it completely, had not Jesus spoken up in the seventeenth chapter of John. It’s a chapter where he’s praying. He’s talking to the heavenly Father, sharing an intimate conversation. It is almost time for him to return to the Father after a lifetime of service. He will be lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the tomb, lifted up to return to his throne in heaven.

Before he goes, Jesus prays for all of us. He asks the Father to protect us, and to punch the devil in the nose. He also asked the Father to send to us the Holy Spirit, his own living presence, to remind us of what he said and to keep opening us to fresh insight.

And in the passage today, he says the one thing that we haven’t had the chance to talk about very much. It’s there in the center of the passage, in a single sentence with a lot of commas and clauses. Let me give it to you again:

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  

Did you hear that? He prays for us “to be one.” That’s the last lesson for the confirmation class. It may be the most important.

Now, what does that mean, “to be one”?  Does he want us to get along? Yes, but it’s more than that. Does he want to agree on things?  That would be nice, but it’s never going to happen. Not completely. That’s why we have a Presbyterian government in our church, so people can disagree without damaging one another.

What does it mean “to be one”? I went to that big, thick Bible dictionary on my shelf. Blew off the dust, looked in the index, found the page, and do you know what it said? “One” means one, as in the number one. And that was a head-scratcher.

Is this a new kind of math? Sometimes the Bible talks that way. Like at a wedding, when two people stand before the rest of us and make rash, improbably promises to one another, and the Bible says, “The two shall become one.” In other words, one plus one equals one.

What exactly is this? It’s a mystery, and it’s the way Jesus talks. He’s praying to the Father and says, “You and I are one.” He says, “I know you and you know me.” And then he even says, “I am in you, and you in me.” That is the oneness.

That’s what he wants for us. As he says it over and over again in this section of the Gospel of John, “I in you, and you in me.” And what is he talking about? He’s talking about living with God.

That’s the secret at the heart of it all, my friends: living with God. We can be the people God made us to be. We don’t have to be ashamed of who we are, or how God made us. We don’t have to stash away all our secrets. We don’t have to push down all the abilities and be afraid of embarrassment. We can just live – and live with God.

Thanks to the grace, and mercy, and forgiveness of God, we don’t have to remain captive to our mistakes or the things we’ve done wrong. Forgiveness sets us free, so we can get on with living – as long as it’s living with God.

The alternative is to live by ourselves, as if we know better, or know best, or know it all. That’s a sure formula for failure. Over and over again, there are Bible stories about people who try to live without God. It never turns out very well. One of them will start beating up on another. Or cheating their own family members. Or taking money, land, food or whatever else doesn’t belong to them. Or stepping on top of those that have already been stepped upon. That’s why the world is a mess – it’s full of people who do all they can to live without God.

But since Jesus is alive, since he continues to live us, life can be different. It can full, and abundant, and good.

Of all that impresses me about this confirmation class, at the top of the list is one of the conversations we had with the elders yesterday morning. The topic that took the most time was when one of the youth asked about what it means to live with the Holy Spirit. We spent more time on that one than anything else. At the heart of it is essentially the same issue: living with God.

And it’s so important, so central to the whole life of faith. It means that we are never alone; God is with us. It means we don’t have to be insulated by our own opinions; instead we can seek God’s opinion. We can care about the same things that God cares about; and if we don’t know what those are, we can study the Bible. And it means we love all the other people that God made, whoever, wherever they are. And we can take care of the planet where God has placed us to live out our lives.

I’ve been around the religion business long enough to know what’s real and what’s fake, and especially what’s from heaven and what’s not. When a religion obsesses about how to hold your hands, or what to wear, or how to hide who you are and what you think – and then talk about it later in the parking lot – it’s a pretty good bet that stuff is the fake stuff. I’ll bet God thinks it’s all pretty boring.

What gets God excited is having people who live with him, people who enjoy beautiful things and make more beautiful things, people who build understanding and create common goals, people who want other people and other creatures to flourish, people who know that life is a gift and a gift to be shared, people who are not afraid of trouble because they know God is alive, people who choose not to be afraid of loving - for they are living with the God that they are slowly coming to love.

So I thought this would be a good day to bring this up. It’s important.  

In fact, it is so important that, when Jesus talks with his Father, it is the very last thing he asks: “Father, I desire that those whom you have given me may be with me wherever I am.”  May it be so.

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