Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Surprising Interruption

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Advent 3
December 16, 2018
William G. Carter

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

Most of us don't like interruptions, especially at this time of year

This can be a difficult season to navigate. Family members come and go. There are gifts to purchase and wrap. There are itineraries to manage and parties to stop by. A lot of people try to squeeze in a concert or two if they can. But with the schedule so tight, who wants a long-lost cousin to knock on the door and walk in with warning. Neither do we really want friends to suddenly appear with their children, who are not quite over their stomach bugs or other forms of contamination. It would be an interruption.

There are some people in my wider family live with the assumption that they could manage every part of their lives. Should you show up late unexpectedly at a family gathering they are not pleased. In fact they find it's an interruption to their carefully calculated times people. And you may miss seeing them because you missed your allocated half hour in which their schedule was going to overlap with yours. You for the interruption

Neither do we want to be interrupted by the weather. When a blip on the weather map develops into a full- fledged nor’easter, we scowl and begin to rearrange. And if we succeed in rearranging, and the nor’easter never becomes more than a blip, we are quickly annoyed to rearrange our already rearranged plans.

Christmas comes with a long list of habits. In some homes, the tree is acquired and put up on the same day every year. The lights are strung after being checked and possibly replaced. The packages are wrapped by December 18 so that we can have a week of frenzy-free holiday. The elf goes on the shelf. The star is hung on the front porch. Everything comes out of carefully labeled boxes and will be returned to the same. That is what a tightly managed Christmas will look like.

Some people I know had everything figured out -- or thought they did. They had just liquidated their daughter's bedroom, having helped her move some distance away. Life had been simplified. Then on Christmas Eve, daughter Diana reappeared with a big surprise. She brought mom and dad a new puppy, declaring, “I felt guilty about leaving you all alone.” The puppy’s name is Chester. He is full of life and absolutely charming. Nevertheless he was an extraordinary interruption. Last I checked he still is.

I invite you to do a quick survey of your spirit. What would be the most disruptive interruption at you could possibly face this year? A new puppy? Or a bad diagnosis? Or the sudden unexpected of a family member? Or something else?

Perhaps the interruption will break into a pattern of seasonal negativity. You don't have to be a Grinch to get worn down by December. Such long lines, and distracted drivers on the highway cop. An impossible wait on the phone to speak with customer service. Or the way that the increasing shadows work on us at the darkest season of the North American year. And then suddenly, bam! Something happens to startle us. A situation that we've long taken for granted is pierced. Maybe it's our perspective on life and times, and suddenly it is ripped open from somewhere else.

We had twenty people here on Wednesday night reading through the book of Zephaniah. For most of us, I think it was the first time we've ever done it. It was hard work. Zephaniah was a prophet about 700 years before the time of Jesus. He was one of those gloom and doom prophets that nobody really wants to hear.

It was not that he was foretelling the future. That is one of the misconceptions we have about the Old Testament prophets. People think the prophet is a fortune teller. In the Bible, it is more accurate to say the prophet is a truth teller. That's why nobody wanted to hear them. They spoke a word from God that described the recurring messes that every generation of God's people finds themselves entrenched in.

In the time of Zephaniah, there were plenty of difficulties. The rich were plundering the poor, and then blaming the poor for their poverty. The powerful are taking advantage of the weak and trying not to get caught. The clergy spend a lot of their time spewing empty platitudes and enjoying the rich offerings that supported them. It was the same, old sorry situation that every generation must wade through. In the two and a half opening chapters of Zephaniah's oracles, we hear gloom and doom that the people have come to expect, because the people have created a lot of their own messes and are now accustomed to them.

As we worked around the room for our Bible study, reviewing the first part of Zephaniah's book, it felt as if the prophet was deflating all our tires.

And then, bam. Something new breaks through. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”

This is the last thing anybody in our study group expected to hear. It was also the last thing that Zephaniah's people ever expected to hear. Because they know about the gloom and the doom, they had tasted the judgment and the punishment for far too long. Suddenly everything is interrupted by this call to rejoice.

This is no less an intrusion than any other. Ask one of the sixteen families in our congregation that lost a loved one in the last twenty months. Some of them were expecting not to decorate very much for this Christmas. Just imagine that one day they open the mailbox to find two hundred thirty-seven Christmas cards calling them to rejoice. They weren't expecting that. To some extent, they don't want that. Why not just leave them alone? Let them stay in the dark shadows.

 I do not make light of this in any way. The dark around us is real. The darkness within us is real, too. But what should happen if light from a source beyond us should puncture the gloom?

Just the other day, I phoned somebody to invite them to tomorrow night's Blue Christmas vespers, here in the sanctuary. She turned me down flat. “I'm not ready for that,” she said. “I'm not sure if I'll ever be ready for that.” The grief is still raw. The loved one is still mourned.

I know why the church has selected this poem by the prophet Zephaniah. It is happy and joyful and hopeful. We tell ourselves that this the way December supposed to be, and for some people it is. Yet let's be instructed by how the prophet Zephaniah understands hope. Hope is an interruption. Hope is an unexpected intrusion. Biblically speaking, hope is not a wish, nor a dream, nor a projection of optimism. It is a gift of God that comes from a source far beyond us.

Someone once asked me, “How do you know that the Christmas story is true?” Without even thinking about it I blurted out, “Because none of us could have ever dreamed it up.” It came from somewhere else, from a source that is far beyond us, from the divine heart that already knew what it meant to be broken and mended. And it comes, ready or not. For the moment we glimpse the truth that our lives are in better hands than our own.

This is the true essence of our hope, our holy hope. It is quiet, and it is subtle, which leads many of us to fill the silence with their own words and the stillness with our own activity. But should we pause long enough to hear the flutter of an angel wing or to see an unusual star that we did not create, maybe we can hear the invitation to rejoice.

I don't need somebody to try to prove to me that the Messiah was born among peasants and placed in a feeding trough in Bethlehem. I know it's true. And you know how I know it's true? I watch the people will begin to cry in the shadows when we sing, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” In the gift of such a moment, they know it’s true, too.

Take a good look around and watch for the hope. Add in to rubs the same old status quo. Listen for the giggle of the child reminds us of the vulnerability of the baby Jesus. Take note of the next winter storm to see the power of God who has the awesome power to create it. Take comfort in the company of good friends, all of whom were given to you as a holy gift so that you wouldn't have to travel your journey alone.

And should someone interrupt your lingering darkness with a word of interrupting grace, be still, unlock your arms, and take it all in as a holy gift from heaven.

As Jesus the Messiah will say, “Fear not, little flock. It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:32)

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

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Shaken, Not Stirred

Luke 21:25-36
Advent 1
December 2, 2018
William G. Carter

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Last Tuesday morning, I realized why I’ve always been uncomfortable with the season of Advent. Logically, I understand the purpose of establishing the season. It’s a time to prepare for Christ to be born again among us. Advent slows down the shopping season and invites us to return to God. I get all of that. But I also feel the awkwardness of dressing in purple and royal blue when everybody out there is decking the halls in red and green, and gold and white.

It got clearer on Tuesday, when my spiritual director showed me a sketch from the great artist Rembrandt. We have reprinted it in the bulletin insert today. It’s called “self portrait with eyes wide open.” Take a look at it. Look at his face. See the astonishment? The shock? The disruption?

In that moment I realized why I am ambivalent about Advent: because it shakes us up. Advent reminds me that, not only does God come, (but) the reason God comes is to finish things off, to correct all that is wrong, to confront the evils with which we have become complacent, to heal a long list of ills which we know so well. This is Good News, but it’s disruptive.

Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. The powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Do we really want that? When it’s winter and the angels have a pillow fight, a pillow rips open and the snowflakes come down. That’s disruptive enough. Imagine what it means for the Son of Man to come on a cloud in the fullness of his glory! It means that everything we hold dearly will be shaken.

As that final day moves toward us, there are moments when we glimpse how God is going to shake the world, how God is going to remake the word as it was intended to be. I’ve had those moments myself. Each is a temporary awakening, where I see and believe what God is going to do. Each one is shocking. In fact I had at least three moments in the last week.

The first was a picture I saw of a homeless man. Actually it was a statue of a homeless. The figure is sleeping on a park bench. He has a blanket pulled over his head. He has no name, no obvious face. The only distinguishing detail are his bare feet. They have nail prints. It is the crucified Christ on a park bench. That sculpture has been replicated many times, often placed in affluent neighborhoods as a reminder of what he said, “Whenever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”[1]

What made the picture so striking is that I had just thrown out leftover food in our refrigerator. That’s food that was cooked but not eaten. We made too much food for our t=Thanksgiving banquet and it was not shared… and I was shaken.

Or what about that cup of coffee last week that I enjoyed at Zummo’s coffee shop, my southern office? I was there to meet with a scholar that we have invited in February to lead an adult education class. Her research is uncovering the African-American community in the city of Scranton. Apparently the numbers have been significant over the past 150 years, but generally off the radar of people who look like me. The presence has largely been ignored by the structures of power and the human services in the city.

“How do you do your research?” I asked. She said it’s a challenge. African-American businesses have been left out of the business directories, deemed unimportant or marginal. I was confronted with remembered my own blind spots, the downside of my privilege, the quiet racism that has shaped my life. It is Advent and I was shaken.

Or third, I was sitting at my computer, reviewing the submissions for our online Advent devotional. I hope you find this and read it every day. We have a wealth of talented, insightful writers in our church family. One of the entries is a reflection on the Song of Mary, the Magnificat from the first chapter of Luke. The mother of Jesus sings, “God pulls down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up those of low degree.” That is good news for some, said the writer, but not for everybody.

Along with those words, there was a picture included, a picture of a child being tear gassed at our southern border. It was deeply disturbing. I was shaken out of my complacency, shaken out of my timid desire to live my faith in a vacuum, shaken out of my presumption that the great issues of our day do not matter to the rest of us. And I found myself praying, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus, come and set the world right.”

Those moments come to all of us. Sometimes it is a shift in perception, an opening to see something we have not seen or otherwise ignored. Sometimes it is an unexpected trauma – an illness, or an accident, or a lost job or a divorce. Sometimes the disruption comes as a gift – a child is born, such a wonderful gift, and it turns our world upside down. Sometimes the ground beneath our feet begins to shake; just as ask the people in Anchorage, Alaska, and look at the terrible scenes.

Today’s word from Jesus is an invitation to look more deeply, to watch for what God might be doing, and to take part in it as we are able. That’s not easy, because the disruptions in our lives take a lot of energy. They make great demands on us. They shake us up – and shake us down – and reveal what we are made of.

Will we respond with faith, hope, and love? Can we anchor ourselves in the promises of God in scripture? And will we be able to see our “redemption drawing near,” that great getting-up day when every broken thing is healed and made right?

Every December, I return to a devotional book that offers a reading for every day of the season. It’s a tonic for my soul. One of the pieces that I read every year is a letter written by Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest and prisoner of the Nazis. Shortly before Hitler ordered his death in 1945, he wrote these words for our generation:  

Advent is the time for rousing. We are shaken to the very depths, so that we may wake up to the truth of ourselves. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender. We must let go of all our mistaken dreams, our conceited poses, and arrogant gestures, all the pretenses with which we hope to deceive ourselves and others. If we fail to do this, stark reality may take hold of us and rouse us forcibly in a way that will entail both anxiety and suffering.[2]

But if we hold on and hang in, with faith, hope, and love, it is Christ who is revealed. The same Christ who remains quietly with us until the end of age. The same Christ for whom the whole world waits. The same Christ who promises that (finally) all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

This is the same Christ who welcomes us at this Table, the Christ who says, “Do not rest until every hungry child is fed.”  This is the Christ who says, “Come to me” and “I will come to you.”

May he shake us all until we settle for nothing less than him.

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

[2] As translated in An Advent Sourcebook, edited Thomas O’Gorman (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1988) p. 9

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Let the Earth Rejoice

Joel 2:21-27, Matthew 6:25-33
November 25, 2018
Thanksgiving / Christ the King

We have heard a couple of Bible passages that sound so attractive that they are almost unrealistic. Jesus says, Look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field. They don’t do anything and God takes care of them.

And then the prophet Joel declares, Don’t be afraid, O soil. Do not fear, you animals of the field. O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God. You will have plenty to eat. All shall be provided for you.

There’s no question why these are the texts selected for a celebration of Thanksgiving. They state that the world is in good hands. Everybody will be OK. God provides what the world needs. There is no reason to worry. Don't you worry about a thing.

It’s a beautiful vision, so beautiful that it’s difficult to keep it in focus.

Just over a week ago, a foot of snow fell on a Thursday afternoon. I was catching a ride back from an appointment from Binghamton and my driver barely got us home. Knowing that we needed some gas for the snowblower, and that I have new tires on my car, I decided to take a quick trip down the hill and fill up the tank.

At the bottom of the hill, the cell phone rang. My wife was stuck in a snowdrift on the way home from work. It was in the Notch between the mountains, at rush hour, and nobody was going anywhere. “Can you come and get me?” she asked. Without thinking, I replied, “I’m almost there.” Well, little did I realize how terrible it would be, or that she would cross the road on foot, hop over the highway divider, and slide into my slowly moving car, nor that it would take us over another hour to get home.

Now, Jesus can say, "Stop being anxious," but he never drove through a winter storm in the mountains on slippery tires. Surely I can stand here today and say, "God was with me somehow, as I drove through that storm." But frankly, if I had the choice, I would have preferred to be sitting at a hot tub along green pastures, by the still waters, getting my soul restored.

Christ’s invitation is so appealing: consider the lilies, look at the birds. But we get so easily distracted. Or we turn aside because of whatever else is laying heavy on our minds. Either way, anxiety creeps in. Anxiety is a constant companion that never leaves us alone.

Jesus says, "Don't get worried about anything. Have no fear of life or death. Trust God and let go of everything else." Easier said than done.

Nature is his sermon illustration. The birds of the air don't worry about anything. Looking at the lilies of the field, he quips, Ever notice how they don't fret about how they look? It begs the question: why do we worry so much? Why do we worry about such little things, such temporary things?

I don't know, but we certainly do worry. Let's see a show of hands: how many of you have had to wait up until a late hour for one of your kids to get home? How many are still waiting?

As one of those kids, I would get so angry when I would come home on a college break, go out until the wee hours. When I sneaked back into my parents' house, my mom would be sitting in the Lazy Boy chair with a cold cup of coffee, snoozing with one eye open. Dad was upstairs, sawing wood, but Mom was half-awake with worry. "Is he OK? Is he lying in a ditch somewhere? Was he wearing clean underwear?" It made me angry, and Mom said, "Just wait until you have kids of your own."

Well, I don't know what the problem is. I’m not going to let my kids date until they are eighty-five years old. I'm worried about them. Maybe you should too.

Jesus says, Cancel your ongoing subscription to anxiety. Chill out and look at the birds." It sounds so peaceful, but we must to remember that Jesus got killed for talking like this. He spoke not only to affirm life under God's protective custody, but to confront the prevailing views of how to run a world.

When Peter Gomes was the preacher at Harvard University's chapel, he tells about speaking at the commencement for an exclusive girl's school in New York City. These were able, aggressive, and entitled young women, and he rejoiced with them in their achievement.

He spoke on the words where Jesus asks, "Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Therefore, do not be anxious about your life." It seemed an appropriate message and all the graduates smiled upon him.

During the reception, however, one of the parents went up to Gomes with "fire in his eyes and ice in his voice." He told the preacher that, frankly, his sermon was full of nonsense. Peter said, "The message didn't originate with me; it came from Jesus." The parent looked at him and said, "It's still nonsense." As the man went on to explain,

"It was anxiety that got my daughter into this school, it was anxiety that kept her here, it was anxiety that got her into Yale, it will be anxiety that will keep her there, and it will be anxiety that will get her a good job. You are selling nonsense."[1]

In a town like this, we know a lot of people like that prep school father. What binds them together is the consistent message by which they live. The message goes something like this:

     If you want to get ahead in the world, you have to carry a lot of anxiety with you.
     If you want to be successful, you have scramble to get up the ladder.
     If you want the good life, you must work without ceasing and bear the burden of much stress.
     In short, anxiety is good. It is both a good motivator and a necessary companion for anybody who wants to get ahead.

There are a lot of people who believe that kind of stuff. Maybe you are one of them. In these words from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is striving to puncture our ongoing illusion that life is ours to manage and control. He pushes us to look beyond ourselves and see God.         

That’s precisely the issue. Have you ever considered how much time we spend thinking about ourselves? Did you ever realize how much emotional energy we burn up by hovering over our own circumstances, fretting over other people, worrying about things we cannot control?

In his commentary on this passage, Tom Long points out that Jesus is trying to get us to trust God. He's not telling to dig in and try harder. He's not saying, "Listen, you need to go for it, reach for it, scramble for it, work for it." Oh, no.

Look at the birds of the air. They are constantly flitting around, looking for food, and they find it. There is a necessary striving in life; you have to go looking for things. But it's there. That's the point. What we need has been provided.

My wife takes this to heart. When the weather turned cold, she went out and bought a lot of bird seed. Certainly God provides -- and maybe God needs to provide through you and me. We can participate in the work of providence, especially if we've been given the resources.

Consider the lilies of the field. Here today, gone tomorrow. They are beautiful in their time, not because they worked at it or worried about it. They were beautiful because that's how they were created. God said, "Let there be lilies," and then God said, "Look how pretty they are!" From the time they were seeds, all the lilies had great potential. With a proper amount of nurture, sunshine, and rain, their beauty breaks forth. They don't need any makeup. They don't hustle around trying to prove anything. They are beautiful because God made them that way.

As somebody once reminded me, "We don't put a ribbon in a young girl's hair to make her pretty. We put a ribbon in her hair because she is pretty."

Look at the birds. Consider the lilies. The Greek words in the text are strong, energetic verbs. Look, really look! Pay very close attention. We spend so much energy striving, working, hovering, as if that's going to improve anything. But the birds and the lilies live in a different world, "a world where God provides freely and lavishly, a world where anxiety plays no part, where worry is not a reality. Jesus invites us to allow our imaginations to enter such a world, to compare this world with the world in which we must live out our lives."[2] 

All of this, I think, prepares us for providence. If our hearts are open, we see God gives us a beautiful world, continues to provide whatever is essential, and promises to complete and fulfill all life through no authority of our own. God provides. God is so securely in charge, so powerfully in control, that even God can kick back and keep the Sabbath.

Look at the birds of the air. Stop and really look, and look behind them to a God who provides in secret. In the words of John Calvin,

When the light of divine providence has once shone upon godly (people), they are then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that was pressing them before, but from every care.... Ignorance of providence is the ultimate misery; the highest blessedness lies in knowing it.[3]

This is the blessed truth: God provides what we need. We pray for daily bread and God is under no obligation to give us cake. We receive the bread we need, with enough to share. That may be how God provides for others – by giving to them through us.

We are reaching the point where the preacher must stop and the poet takes over, and then we are left to decide where and how we are going to live. The poet, in this case, is Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer, and the poem is called, "The Wild Geese." He’s riding through the woods one day, and it strikes him how much has been provided:

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer's end. In time's maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed's marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here.  And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.[4]

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

[1] Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1996) 178-179.
[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, xvii. 11.
 4] Wendell Berry, "The Wild Geese," Collected Poems, 1957-1982 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984) 155.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Preaching While the Roof Falls In

Mark 13:1-13
November 18, 2018
William G. Carter

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Of all the tough things Jesus said to his disciples, that had to be the worst: the Temple would be tossed down. It was inconceivable. Those upcountry fishermen probably didn’t get down to Jerusalem more than once a year. It was a straight thirty-five hour walk each way, probably done over at least three days. There were certainly no buildings that large back in Capernaum. The main section of the temple was over a hundred feet high. Who would ever think it would be coming down?

The Jews of that day meant it literally when they spoke of the Temple as God’s House. God rules from the heavens, but the Temple was where God touched down on earth. The scriptures speak of it as the Lord’s footstool (1 Chronicles 28:2). So what did it mean to declare that no one stone would be left standing on another? Did that mean God had left the building? Or worse, that God was powerless to stop the destruction? I’m sure the disciples were shaken by what Jesus said.

It was hard to imagine the central shrine of Jewish faith to be torn down and destroyed, even though that had happened about six hundred years before. In 587 BC Nebuchadnezzar began a siege on the city that lasted for over a year. His Babylonian army smashed through the city walls, captured all the city leaders to make them slaves, and pulled down the great Temple of Solomon.

This was the crisis that inspired about a third of the Old Testament. The prophets tried to interpret how this could happen to God’s House, among God’s people. Were the people being punished for doing something wrong? Had God decided to let it happen? Was God unable to stop it from happening? Or is this the shape of what it’s like to worship God in a world like this? All good questions, without any conclusive answers. A good share of the scriptures tries to make sense of this terrible disruption.

Now Jesus says the Temple will be torn down again. It was hard to imagine that, too. This was the second temple, a long-term rebuilding project going on about five hundred years, with a lot of stops and starts. In the day of Jesus, it was still the sanctuary when God was worshiped, the only altar where sacrifices were made, and the center of an entire nation’s faith and hope. Within forty years of Jesus’ prediction, again the walls came tumbling down, this time at the hand of the Roman Empire.

To this day, all that remains is a section of one wall, now called the Wailing Wall. The pilgrims go there to pray. They wash their hands in purity, cover their heads, and write down their prayers on slips of paper that they leave in the cracks of the wall. I was there eighteen years ago and wrote down the names of my kids.

What do you do when the central place in your life is no more? Maybe that’s a question you’ve had to face.

Someone was telling me about returning to the town of her childhood. She saw the familiar street sign, took a left, went down to the stop sign, and proceeded into the next block. She slowed down as she came around the bend, leaned forward to look, and nothing was there. The old house was gone. The maple tree out front had met a chainsaw cut down. Everything she remembered, or told herself she remembered, had disappeared. “It was profoundly disturbing,” she said, “and left me in a fog. When I tried to recall how it looked, that was gone too.”

Do you know how she feels?

Progress is progress, I suppose, but progress is overrated. A couple of years ago, I drove down Emmons Drive, the New Jersey street where my seminary apartment was located. 312 Emmons Drive was leveled to the ground. It wasn’t a big loss; the place was a dump. The heating system was always goofed up and our cat had been infested with fleas. Good to see the place go!

But don’t say that to the elderly couple who no longer go to church. Once upon a time, they went every week. They met in the Sunday School, fell in love in the youth group, walked down the aisle to get married, had three children baptized in that sanctuary. Then the neighborhood changed, people they knew moved away or passed on, and there weren’t enough hands in the church to keep the lights on. So the church closed down. They tried to connect to other churches, but it just wasn’t the same. The couple stopped going anywhere.

What do you do when the sanctuary no longer exists?

Jesus offers an ominous warning. Perhaps it is true that no building is permanent, that no institution is secure, that no configuration of familiar people is everlasting. I’m not sure I want to hear that, even if it’s true. I love you people, I love this place. I can’t imagine if this building were ever to go away, or if our faith community would have to shut down someday.

I suppose it’s one of the hard realities of being human, of being mortal. Everything we love has an expiration date. After fifty-eight trips around the sun, I know that well. So I begin to think that abundant life may consist of claiming the opportunities we have here and now, of savoring the moment and enjoying the gifts.

It’s like the book of Ecclesiastes, which is a wisdom manual in the Bible written by somebody in the middle of a mid-life crisis. “I tried chasing after pleasure,” says the writer, “and I tried making a lot of money. I tried working hard and flying straight. I tried just about everything, and it was like reaching for a puff of smoke.”

“So,” says the sage, “all I got is this: eat and drink, find enjoyment in your toil, follow the commandments, and fear God.”[1] To put it in other words, love God and keep your head down. That is a time-honored way of getting through things.

But I do have to say the wisdom of Jesus is much more intentional. In the text today, he basically says three things: discern what’s going on, stay patient, and keep preaching. Let me say a few words about each.

First, and to quote Marvin Gaye, what’s going on? If we trace the long history of temples being torn down, we discover all over again that we are in the thick of an endless skirmish between good and evil. It’s not merely the people out there who oppose us that we must to worry about; it’s also what we are capable to doing to ourselves. The threats are both external and internal. The Roman Empire was the greatest and most luxurious empire of its time. Yet it built its affluence by brutality. It would eventually implode from moral rot. We can learn your lessons from that.

Similarly, I know a lot of churches that grew big in the 1950’s after returning soldiers had a lot of babies. The churches grew. They were tempted to indulge themselves, rather than give themselves. As the affluence in the society grew, the churches plateaued. As the cities wrestled with racial tension, the churches and their people moved out to the suburbs. As everybody in the culture became nominally Christian, there were a lot of nominal Christians and precious few followers of Jesus. When the communities changed, the churches weren’t nimble enough or self-sacrificing enough to change with them.

And so, “what’s going on?” Jesus said, “Don’t be led astray.” In our day, don’t be led astray by a false sense of comfort. We must read what is really happening. That’s the discernment.  

Second, add to that some patience, what my friend Ched Myers calls “revolutionary patience.” Ched says that, especially in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is telling us to hang in for the long haul. Don’t chase after the latest fad. Don’t worry about the crisis du jour. Dig in and stay faithful to God. If the world beats you up or puts you on trial, this is to be expected, because it happened to Christ first. We are part of that grand narrative of good versus evil. It’s been going on for a long time, and by all accounts we should expect it to continue.

Maybe you heard people ask the rabbi at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, “What are you going to do, after a gunman invaded your sanctuary?” He said, “We will keep worshiping the holy God and keeping God’s commandments.” What happened was a terrible thing, but faithfulness to God is expressed in perseverance. We keep going, knowing the world will do what it’s going to do, but we are going to do what God calls us to do. That’s the revolutionary patience. It’s more than “being patient.” It is staying patient, taking a long view, persisting in an eternal view.

And finally, he says to keep preaching. That is the command of Jesus. If the roof falls in, keep preaching. Or more specifically, keep proclaiming. That’s the word: proclaim. It refers to speaking, but it’s more than speaking. It is courageously proclaiming that our message is more important than we are. The Gospel is God’s announcement that sin is cancelled by grace, that hatred is washed clean by love, that death is defeated by resurrection. It’s the word that grace, love, and resurrection are finally going to win.

Frederick Buechner wrote a novel where a lot of terrible things happen. The main character is a Protestant minister who lost his wife in a car accident. He is raising two small girls with the help of a Jewish housekeeper. In a turn of events, he travels to a wayward church member and bring her home to her husband. The local newspaper makes more of this than he should and creates some rumors in his town gossip column. None of it is true, but some damage is done.

Shortly after he brings her back to reunite with her husband, a teenage prank goes terribly wrong. Nicolet’s housekeeper dies after her house catches fire. So at the end of the book, the whole town gathers around her grave. Nicolet read the familiar words from the end of the Bible: "And God shall wipe away all tears, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4).

He spoke for a few minutes, then concluded with a benediction. The people shuffled away in the rain. One turned back. It was the sleazy newspaper editor who caused the turmoil while Nicolet was out of town. "Good show," he said to the preacher. Then he pointed to the grave and sneered, "This supper of the great God . . . no more death, no more pain. Ask her."

Nicolet stood silent, his two daughters by his side. He didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to do. Suddenly his daughters did an unexpected thing.

They grabbed up some of the flowers that they had brought and started pelting him with them - orange hawkweed, daisies, clover - and stooping over like a great, pale bear in his baggy seersucker suit, he kept on lunging at them with his finger. Nicolet threw back his head and laughed as Poteat went lumbering off with the little girls after him. When he got as far as Nicolet's car, he turned around for a moment, and it was only then that they could see that he was more or less laughing himself.[2]

What do you do when the roof falls in? "You proclaim the kingdom of God," says Jesus our Lord. Even if life should turn deadly, we proclaim the power of God that is stronger than death. And preach and proclaim we shall, until the day when there are no more tears, when death has no more power, when grief is swallowed up in laughter.

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

[1] Ecclesiastes 5:18, 12:13
[2] Frederick Buechner, The Final Beast (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1965) 276.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Peeking Into the Offering Plate

Mark 12:38-44
November 11, 2018
William G. Carter

As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

One summer Sunday, one of our ushers didn’t show up. I don’t remember who it was, but there was some consternation in the back of the sanctuary. The list of regulars had been exhausted, and no fresh volunteers were presenting themselves. What I remember is the lead usher looked at me, with a smirk on his face, and said, “Maybe you could help us take up the offering.”

Well, I’m usually up for a challenge. So, after the sermon the offering was announced. Three ushers stepped up with four offering plates, as I stepped down to join them. I have to tell you it was a complete revelation for me.

I noticed what I can’t always see up here, that there are different styles of putting the money in the plate. There is the sideways subtle drop, to suggest this is no big deal. There is the grand flourish. And there is the family bargain gambit, familiar from my childhood, where the parent says, “The quietest child in the pew can do the honors.”

One poor soul hadn’t paid much attention until there I was. He looked up, saw me standing over him, and gasped, “Oh, it’s you.” He reached into his wallet and pulled out a little bit more.

The most difficult part of the job, however, was resisting commentary. I recall a prominent man in an expensive suit. He put in a buck. I wanted to say, “Is that it? Surely you could do better.” The lead usher caught my eye and shook his head, as if to say, “Don’t say a word.” In the next pew sat an older woman, known to be having a difficult time. She had four offering envelopes with a rubber band around them. Each one was stuffed full. I wanted to say, “Are you sure?”

The ushers decided to never ask me again. Some people squirmed with me stepping out of the safe zone of the chancel. Others said, “That’s not his job. I’ll be glad to volunteer whenever you need me.” The universal response, I believe, was a certain unease at having the pastor observe what they were giving.

So I’m interested in this brief story from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is watching people make their donations to the temple. “Many rich people put in large sums.” Is that an affirmation or a critique? Mark doesn’t say. He doesn’t describe how he knew they were rich. Was it the way they dressed or the way they carried themselves? He also doesn’t say how Jesus knew they gave “large sums.” In that day, money came in coins, not paper. I’m guessing the coins jingled and clinked when they dropped in the box.

They didn’t have offering envelopes back then. Nobody was tracking the donations for a tax write-off. And there wasn’t the cultural conspiracy of silence, where giving is considered private and nobody else’s business.

When my first congregation was invited to join in an ecumenical service at a Greek Orthodox church, a lot of them were shocked to walk in, and, even before they smelled the incense, they noticed the bulletin board by the door. Someone had posted a typewritten list of everybody in the congregation and how much they gave. My Pennsylvania Dutch folks were shocked. They were stunned. To have that information right up where everybody could see it – and they did this on purpose! It was horrifying and froze their German blood.

That kind of information can be disturbing. A new person is recruited to count the offering or post the donations on the computer. The finance committee will dispatch me to train them, saying, “Please, please, please, count accurately but forget the name attached to the gift.” Why? Because you might look at people differently if you see what they give. In the words of our most venerable offering counter, “I have the shortest memory in town.”

This can be important. When you notice that loudest and most savage critic is giving only a couple of bucks, you begin to see the hypocrisy. It may soften the effect of their criticism. Yet I can also tell you, after years of observation, that the largest givers to this congregation are not the wealthiest; they are the most committed. I recall the wise words from one of my mentors, “Bring people closer to Christ and their wallets come with them.” Everything comes with them – talents and abilities, time as well as treasures.

And what about Christ? There he sat, watching people put their coins in the offering box. Actually they didn’t have a single box, but rather many containers placed around the temple. These were not intended for outreach or mission work – but for operations, to keep the temple flourishing. The temple was a big operation; arguably, in Jerusalem, it was the only operation in town. It was the only bank as well as the central shrine. The income was enormous. As one historian reports,

There were bequests coming in from all over the world, the world-wide levy of a fixed tax (among the Jews), the animal sacrifices (and the purchase thereof), the redemption of vows, the wood offerings, as well as the produce of the land owned by the Temple. (The income) increased exponentially during the great pilgrim feasts. Every good Jew was committed to spending a tenth of the produce of his land in Jerusalem.[1]

With all that money coming in, Jesus sits down and watches the crowd. There were offering containers all around the Temple precincts. If you believed God was good to you, you could make an additional “thank offering.” Moses encouraged this, as a way of teaching thanks, of directing our gratitude to God who provides all the things. What the people gave depended, as it still does, on the measure of their engagement, the level of their involvement, the extent of their gratitude, and the expression of their values.

Jesus was watching. “The rich put in great sums,” says Mark, because they had great sums, But what Jesus notices is that they give from their excess. These are the leftovers after building a big house, eating a fine meal, purchasing nice clothes. Here’s the leftover, the remainder. If those people are financially blessed, they can tithe because they have an extra ten percent hanging around. It’s not a sacrifice.

But just imagine if you could be generous even if you didn’t have a lot of money. What if God had come into your heart, filled it with light, released you from all fear?

Just then, he sees her. Almost missed her, but there she is. Jesus says, “Look at that woman over there.” They are Jewish men; they’re not supposed to look at women. But there she is, no husband in sight. She is quiet, never calling attention to herself. She has no interest in getting her name on a plaque on the wall. She gives her last two coins, pauses for a brief silent prayer, and moves on.

As far as Jesus is concerned, he knows everything he needs to know about her.

Is it the size of the gift? No, it’s not the size of the gift. She is not going to pay for a single candle with her two pennies. Does he notice that she gives in proportion to what she has? Not really, she’s not giving a ten percent tithe. She’s giving a hundred percent, everything she has to live on. To quote Mark’s Greek text, “She gave her whole living.”

It is an enormous gift. Like the day when Jim was counting our weekly offering and called me over. “Look at this,” he said. There is a cellophane-wrapped lollipop in the offering plate with a note: “LOVE.” “Somebody made a sacrifice today,” he said. We stood in awe of the gift.

Throughout the ages, Christian preachers love to praise this generous widow. They praise her total reliance on God, not knowing where tomorrow’s income will come, but trusting her life to God. As somebody else’s sermon summarizes a lot of other sermons on the text,

Jesus is impressed by her commitment to give “her whole life to God.” At a critical juncture, the widow chooses sacrifice over survival. It should come as no surprise that Jesus highlights the widow’s example. Jesus is forever calling people to give their whole lives to God. It’s central to his vision of discipleship. Put your hand to the plow and don’t turn back. Leave family. Leave friends. Take up your cross and follow me.”[2]

I think I’ve preached that sermon with other words. It’s especially appropriate when we note that this story, the story of the widow’s sacrifice, is placed by Mark as an event from the last week of Jesus’ life. It happens around Tuesday of Holy Week, right before Jesus gives his life. He points out her sacrifice before he makes his own.

But there’s something else that I see when I hear the story this time. Jesus is watching the givers. Not just the woman, but all of the givers. He notices the act of giving reveals what is going on in the giver. Giving can be good for us, if it is generous and it empowers others.  

Thanks to my good friend Virginia Miner, I came across the wisdom of Maimonides. Ever hear of him? Maimonides was a 12th century Egyptian Jew. He taught there are eight ascending steps of righteousness. Every step had to do with generosity.

·         The first step is taken by those who give grudgingly, reluctantly, or with regret.
·         The second: those who give less than is fitting but give graciously.
·         Third: those who give what is fitting, but only after being asked.
·         Fourth: those who give before being asked.

Then it gets interesting:

·        The fifth step: those who give without knowing to whom, although the recipient knows the identity of the donors.
·        Sixth: Those who give without making their identity known to the recipients. Anonymous givers.
·        Seventh: Those who give without knowing to whom, and neither do the recipients know from whom they receive. They are anonymous and give without strings attached.
·        Eighth: Those who help others by giving a gift or loan, thereby helping them to dispense aid to others.[3]

God is on the eighth and highest step of righteousness. So are those who give freely for the benefit of others.

So I bring this up on the week after we have dedicated our financial pledges for 2019. I don’t do that simply to nudge those who haven’t turned in a pledge card yet. Neither do I do this because the lectionary of Bible readings has scheduled this text for today. I do it because stewardship is not primarily about fund raising; it’s about soul-making.

It is good for us to give and to be generous. It is good to think about others and to support the enterprises that we value. It is good to endow our commitment to the generations that will follow us. It is good to provide others a “hand up” and not merely a “hand out.” It is good to give ourselves away, in every possible sense, so that others may flourish, and God’s gift of life can continue beyond us. Jesus said as much: “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8:35)

So that is the Gospel’s invitation to all of us today: to live generously, to love abundantly, to give ourselves away to the glory of God. The mystery of Christ’s Gospel is precisely this: as we give ourselves away, we gain something that the world can never take from us. Even more than that, we begin to look like Jesus Christ.

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

[1] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969) 28.
[2] Brad Roth, “By middle-class American standards, the widow’s decision is questionable,” The Christian Century, 9 October 2018
[3] Virginia Miner, “Don’t Touch the Chicken Until We See If They’re Hungry,” in Speaking of Stewardship, William G. Carter, editor (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1998) 112.