Saturday, April 20, 2019

One at a Time

John 20:1-18
Easter Sunday

April 21, 2019
William G. Carter

Easter brings out a crowd. This is our big day. The music is joyful, the flowers are rejoicing, and the people around us are exuberant. Even those who had to walk a distance to find a parking space are in a good mood. When I go home for dinner, I’ll recount my altered nursery rhyme: Here’s the church without a steeple; open the doors, see all the people.

As we heard from the apostle Paul, there was a day sometime after the resurrection when 500 people saw Jesus alive, all at the same time. Nobody else mentions the incident. I think it is remarkable, not only because he wrote the letter over twenty years after the resurrection, but that there were 500 people present. Most of the resurrection accounts are much smaller. Paul himself was on the road to Damascus when he sees and hears the Risen Christ for the first time. Nobody else saw Jesus, but he did

In fact, it’s this personal, one-at-a-time experience of Easter that lies at the heart of this well known story of Mary Magdalene, who comes to the garden alone. We are never told why she comes. Grief, perhaps? Or the lingering shock of losing her friend? Or disbelief that he is gone?

She had stood by the cross with his mother. She saw him sip the sponge of vinegar and heard him breathe his last. Then it was over. There was nothing left to do but go home and sit still for the sabbath. After a brutal death like that, after such a stunning loss of one so brilliant and young, I’m sure she didn’t feel like doing anything.

And when the sabbath was over, she walked to his grave. Why did she go? You know why she went. No specific reason, but a lot of reasons. He was gone, but she thought, “Maybe if I go to the place where they laid him to rest, it will almost be like having him still here. And little did she ever expect what would happen.

The Gospel of John tells us what happened. Mary sees the tomb has been broken open. She runs to find Simon Peter and another of the disciples. “Somebody moved the stone,” she says, half out of breath. “They took him away, and I don’t know where.”

The two disciples race toward the open grave, and the younger one gets there first. But he didn't go in. Apparently he didn't have to do that. Right on his heels, Simon Peter blusters right in, takes a good look around, and doesn't say anything. We don't know what he thinks.

It’s then that the other disciple, the younger one, steps in, looks around, and believes. Both of them see the grave wrappings but no body. There is no talking, no interaction, no vision of the Lord. Then they return home. But something has happened in the younger one. He saw the empty tomb and needs no further proof. He believes Jesus is risen. As for Peter, there’s no word that he believes anything other than Jesus is missing.

Meanwhile, while all this is happening, Mary stands outside, weeping. For her, an empty tomb offers no consolation. It’s merely empty. So now it’s her turn to look. Through scalded eyes, she sees two angels in white, but she is not particularly impressed. What she wants to know is, "Where have they taken the body of Jesus?"

So when she turns around from the grave and sees the gardener, she doesn't really see him. "Sir, if you are the one who has taken away his body, tell me where you put him." There is no plan yet for what she would do if she found it, but it’s horrible that his body is missing. It would be one more humiliation of that wonderful, blessed friend.

But then Easter happens. With a single word, the gardener wakes her out of the trance of grief and calls her into the light: “Mary.” He calls her by name – and that changes everything. Now the world begins again.

I am often curious how people come to faith. People stop by and tell the stories (there’s often a story). Sometimes if they are courageous enough, they might tell me how they lost their faith. Or at least, how they shed an old confining faith that just didn’t fit any more.

As we hear this story, please take note of two things. First, Easter faith is something new. It’s not the same old thing. It’s more than a habit; most likely, it’s the thing that started the habit before it became a habit. And it’s the confirmation of a lot of hunches that we’ve had along the way – hunches that there really is a God, and that this God is creative, generous, and wise, and at the center of it all, there’s something alive. Something so full of exhilaration, so pregnant with joy, so abundant and gracious that it startles us, and stuns us, even shakes us out of a kind of slumber and brings us into the light.

Jesus won’t let Mary hang on to the old ways. “Don’t cling to me,” he says to her. “I’m going to my Father and yours.” The Galilean teacher with carpenter’s callouses is returning to where he came from, where he has always belonged. He will keep speaking and she will keep hearing his voice, but he has new life to keep birthing, new people to bring into God’s flock, new joys to create out of the ashes of sorrow.

For her, this is all new. For any of us, this is new. Life in the Risen Christ is not merely a continuation of the status quo. It’s something bigger, something deeper, something wider, something far more true.

If Christ calls your name or shakes you awake, you are not going to stand for the hundred different ways that the power of death encroaches on us. You’ll have no tolerance for injustice and no patience with corruption. You will not let your neighbors be excluded from God’s resources nor permit the downtrodden to be demeaned. You will take a stand in every for the fullness of life and the abundance of joy, because full life and abundant joy have found you – and called your name… “Mary… Brian… Barbara… Gene… Rebecca… Donald… Tom.”

Of all the things that Easter means, it means that God raises Jesus up as Lord over every false and destructive power that reduces or destroys the gift of life. Jesus Christ is alive again, and he is going to keep feeding the hungry, gladdening the broken-hearted, forgiving the broken-souled, speaking the truth to all, and revealing the grace of heaven. Death is defeated and that is new. That’s the first and greatest truth of the Easter faith.

And here is the second truth: this Easter faith comes to each one of us at different times, in different ways. One size for Easter does not fit all – and the story in the Gospel of John has already told us this.

·         Mary Magdalene sees an unsecured, open tomb, and it disturbs her. She runs to tell the others, two of them run to see what’s going on. Simon Peter looks in, sees the empty bed, the folded-up wrappings, but sees no angels, hears no voice. So he leaves. He doesn’t believe, not yet.

·         The other disciple looks in, sees the very same arrangements, and he does believe. It comes easily to him, and he departs.

·         So then Mary looks inside the tomb, sees the same situation, plus see a couple of angels, but that’s not enough to spark belief. Faith comes only when she is personally addressed, when she hears a voice. The point is, all three of them are different.

That’s not all there is to the story. That night, the disciples lock themselves away in hiding. Suddenly Jesus appears, fully alive, and now gives them something to do: “I send you as the Father sent me; go and forgive sins!’ They believe because they now have a job to do.

Then you might remember Old Thomas, the patron saint of show and tell, He wasn’t with the others, and said, “I’m not going to believe until I have physical proof.” A week later, Jesus comes to him and says, “Hey Thomas, do you want to touch my wounds?” Belief for him was inescapable.

Every one of them came to believe in a different way.

In fact, Simon Peter, whatever did happen to him? He went back to his old line of work, back to the old fishing boat. He returned to the Sea of Galilee, and one night he didn’t catch a single fish. Then a stranger appeared on the shore and said, “Cast the net on the other side of the boat.” And immediately, there were 153 tilapia fish jumping into the net. Peter said, “OK, OK, I have seen the Lord.”

Each occasion was different; no experience was better than any other. The only thing that mattered is that they came to trust that Jesus is alive, and that trust brought alive something in them. That's how it is with Easter faith. As a wise old Christian once put it,

Faith is not for all the same experience, neither is it generated for all with the same kind and degree of "evidence." For some, faith is born and grows as quietly as a child sleeping on grandmother's lap. For others, faith is a lifetime of wrestling with the angel. Some cannot remember when they did not believe, while others cannot remember anything else, their lives having been shattered and reshaped by the decision of faith.

There is faith based on signs and faith that needs none; there is faith weak and faith strong, faith shallow and faith deep, faith growing and faith retreating. Faith is not a decision once and for all, but a decision anew in every situation.[1]

So I think about all of this, the amazing news that we hear this day and the nature of faith. Some of us take to it easily, and others wish there was more sunshine and fewer clouds. Maybe you came to worship this morning, confident of what you know. Or maybe you came hungry for Jesus to finally call your name. Maybe you are afraid of something. Or maybe you need something important to do. It could be that you know what it would take to start believing, or believing again, and you’re not sure you want to drop some of the burdens – intellectual, emotional, or otherwise - that you’ve been carrying for such a long time.

Here’s what I say to one and all: relax and rejoice. The Risen Christ knows who you are. He knows what you’ve been carrying. And what he desires for you is what all of us desire for ourselves: to be completely alive. To know that we matter to God and to one another. To trust that we are loved. To welcome the happiness of this day so that it might lift us a little higher.

For this is what I believe: there is a deep desire in each of us for a joyful, honest, abundant life. This is the first sign that the Risen Christ is at work within us. This is already the promise that he is already calling your name, and he will call it again and again.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982) 142-44.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Economy of Salvation

Maundy Thursday
April 18, 2019
William G. Carter

What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord

If we are awake, we might have noticed a circular motion to all of life. Something comes to us, and we give it back in return.

It is true of the science of love. Someone loves us, and if that love is truly received, we offer love back to them. First received, then given. 

This is the lesson from the 7th grade science class. The rain falls from heaven, then trickles into the streams, into the rivers, down into the oceans, and then evaporates up to heaven. The gifts of God move from heaven to earth, back to heaven, and back to Earth. 

In the churches, any astute and wise finance committee will speak of this movement when they invite our stewardship. Then they lead us in singing, “We give thee but thine own, whatever the gift may be. For all we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.”

Do you hear how it moves? From heaven to earth, back to heaven, back down to earth, and then returned again to heaven. 

That is how a doxology works when the saints of earth are in consonant agreement with the angels of heaven. At Christmas, Luke says the angels sing of peace on earth (2:14). If we heard Luke’s story of Palm Sunday this week, we heard the people lining the streets, watching for Jesus, and singing of peace in heaven (19:38). The angels of heaven sing of peace on earth, and, in turn, earth sings of peace in heaven. 

There is a reciprocal motion to all that is holy and true. So it is no surprise that our psalm sings of this movement. This is a Passover psalm, put into the air by the faithful as they break the bread of affliction and pour out the wine of redemption. The people remember how God has saved us from slavery and death, so they offer their thanks to God.

Some years ago, a friend pointed out what I was too clueless to notice in Greek class. The big word is “charis,” which means grace, that disposition of God’s heart that is generous, merciful, and full of effusive, saving love. When grace is received, charis becomes charisma, “gift.” When we respond to the gift, it is with thanks, or “eucharist.” Charis, grace. Charisma, gift. Eucharist, thanks. It’s essentially the same word.

It’s so effusive, in fact, that “the word may actually refer to a favor shown or a favor received… grace may define an act of giving or an act of receiving. The same term represents both sides of the act.”[1]

So the Passover psalm asks, “What shall I offer to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” The answers are three:

·         (1) I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. This is an offering of a thankful heart, raising a glass to God who rescues us.
·         (2) I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord. Technically, this is the offering of the Passover lamb, or the unblemished offering of a deep gift in celebration for what God has done.
·         (3) I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. That is, I will honor the commitments I have made as an act of integrity, in response to what God has first done for me.

In each case, it’s something we are invited to do, because God has already acted on our behalf. And these responses are living reminders that the lives we have been given are to be offered to God as an act of gratitude.

This is the underlying theme whenever we worship. I followed my friend Bob into a confirmation class one time. He had a big beach ball and split the group into two. “My side will represent God,” he said, “and that side represents the people.” He tossed the ball to the other side and said, “God calls the people to worship.” They hit it back and he replied, “The people sing a hymn to God.”

He tossed the ball again and said, “God calls the people to repent and come back to him.” They tossed it back, and he said, “The people pray the prayer of confession.” One more time, he tossed it to them and said, “God assures the people they are forgiven.” They tossed it back and he said, “The people respond by singing and passing the peace.” And that is how he taught about worship: it’s a continuing call and response, a recurring conversation between a generous God and a grateful people.

“What shall I offer to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” To us? For the faithful Jews, it is keeping Passover. It is the perpetual memory of how God won their freedom out of much pain and suffering. They break the unleavened bread of matzah, raise the cup of salvation, and declare their thanks by vowing to live with justice.

And then, on this night which is different from all other nights, Jesus gathered his adopted family of twelve new brothers, each on behalf of the twelve tribes of Israel. He broke the bread, which they called the bread of affliction, and said, “This is my body broken for you.” Then he lifted the cup of salvation and declared that, through his blood, all sins will be canceled and forgiven. That’s what we remember and what we still hope.

Tonight we worship in the shadows, remembering how our feet have been scrubbed in Christ’s grace, how our wavering commitment to Jesus has been anticipated, and how our continuing reception of Christ’s body and blood will express our gratitude for what God has done when we can’t do it for ourselves.

No doubt, as we hear the story again, the shadows will conspire, suspicions may give way to fear, and love will be at risk of becoming a casualty. Some will approach Jesus with torches and clubs. Others will speak curses and condemnations. One of those closest to Jesus will swing a sword in violence. All indications are that this could be a moment when love will be crucified by hate; yet we know it is Jesus who will be crucified, not love.

For behind whatever else unfolds this night, there is the love of God, a love so great that it gave Jesus as a gift to the whole world. Should the world reject this Christ, God will give him back to us again. We know why: love is patient, love is kind. It does not insist on its own way, nor does it rejoice in wrongdoing. Love waits us out. Love never ends.

So tonight, the bread and cup are offered to us once again, out of God’s persistent love. We take them, regardless of whether or not we think we are sufficiently worthy, because these are gifts of God for us. Take some time to savor all of this, all that has been done by God for you and me. When the time is right, give yourself back to God, as an expression of the holy love that is at work in you.

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

[1] Fred B. Craddock, “Preaching About Giving Thanks: Giving God Thanks and Praise,” in Preaching In and Out of Season, Edited by Thomas G. Long and Neely Dixon McCarter. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990).

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Brave Heart

Psalm 31
Palm Sunday
April 14, 2019
William G. Carter

Blessed be the Lord,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.
I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.”
But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
Love the Lord, all you his saints.
The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.” It’s clear why the church has chosen this Psalm for Palm Sunday. Jesus is riding his donkey into a city that will kill him.

According to the Gospel of Luke, he can foresee what will happen: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed (9:22).” It is the inevitable clash between God’s servant and God’s rebellious people.

Have an stories about courage? Here's one. When we took our three daughters to Scotland, I promised we would not wear them out with a lot of sightseeing. The agenda, I said, is one island, one cathedral, and one castle. The island was the mystical island of Iona, which did not impress them at all. They like watching the puffins who accompanied our boat ride. The cathedral was the Glasgow Cathedral. “A big, empty church,” said one of them; they were far more impressed with the Necropolis, the enormous hilltop cemetery which gives you a great view of the whole city.

But the castle was the Stirling castle. They agreed that was really cool. They gazed at the tapestries in the Great Hall, sized up the suits of armor along the walls, and stared at the skull of a medieval soldier who must not have been wearing a helmet.

We walked along the ramparts, gazing out on the River Forth and the foothills of the highlands. One of them pointed across the valley. “What’s that?” I looked at the map and said, “That’s the National Monument to William Wallace.” They said, “Who’s that?”

I almost said, “Did you ever see the movie ‘Braveheart,’” but thought, that’s not a movie I want my children to see. So I simply said he was one of the great freedom fighters of Scotland, back in a very brutal time. He fought valiantly against Edward 1. His death became the inspiration by which Robert the Bruce led the army to win the country’s freedom at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Then one of them said, “How did he die?” Again, that was not something I wanted to describe to the women of my family. I said, “It was a brutal death. Let’s just leave it at that.” And I thought about his courage. Captured near Glasgow, he knew his end was near, yet he remained strong and courageous, come what may.

That’s a Celtic story I recall as we begin Holy Week. The biblical story is that Jesus rides down the hill into a city he loves. He has set his face toward Jerusalem for half of the Gospel of Luke. It is clear he knows what this will mean. There is no premonition that things will turn out well, no easy assurance that the opposition will disperse or the troubles will evaporate. Yet he goes into the city, as an amazing act of courage.   

Have you ever thought about this? How courageous Jesus must be?

The road is easy when the crowds are cheering and everybody is excited to see you. They celebrate the great work he has done, and start singing at the top of their lungs when he appears. There are critics, of course. The Pharisees don’t want any trouble from the Romans for the Passover holiday. Some of them say, “Teacher, tell your disciples to be quiet.” Jesus keeps going.

He comes around a bend in the road and sees the whole city spread out before him. He stops the donkey to wipe the tears from his eyes. The crowds are still cheering behind him, but ahead of him is trouble. Before Jesus ever appeared on the scene, one prophet after another has gone into the Holy City to tell the truth about God. None of them had a pleasant time of it. Many of them didn’t live to tell about it. And Jesus keeps riding.

It’s the courage of the Christ that connects to the painful psalm that we put into the air this morning. If we were to simply hear it, we would think, “Here’s a person in a whole lot of trouble.”

“Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also… I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me…For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!— as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.”

This is the kind of psalm that we usually skip over. It begins and ends cheerfully enough, but in between, it doesn’t sound like things are going to work out very well. The probability of embarrassment is high. Humiliation is going to happen right out where everybody can see it.

It’s tempting to skip over all of this and move on to something cheerful, just like it’s tempting to skip from the hosannas of Palm Sunday to the alleluias of Easter. In between, you could miss what really happens. And that’s what Jesus, with all courage, rides down the hill to face.

Clearly this is somebody who trusts in God. He looks to the Lord and says, “My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.” There is no question in my mind that Jesus prayed this psalm as he enters the city one last time.

He knew the psalms. He surely knew this one. In his last breath on the cross, he speaks Psalm 31, verse 5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” It’s a prayer of quiet trust, on the order of “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” It’s the final laying down of arms, the abiding affirmation that, no matter how real the darkness, God is in the midst of it all, and God will make things right.

There is a lesson here for us, a lesson on prayer, especially for Holy Week. When we come upon these honest, difficult psalms, pray them anyway. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr, said don’t dismiss the psalms that speak of pain. Rather, read them as the prayer of Jesus Christ. In his little book Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, he wrote, “It is the incarnate Son of God, who has borne every human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all humanity before God, and who stands in our place and prays for us.”[1]

The bottom line of such a prayer: “Lord, into your hand, I commit my spirit. Save me in your steadfast love.”

Bonhoeffer knew this first hand. In a Nazi prison camp for working to get rid of Adolf Hitler, he scratched out a final poem. A psalm, really. The words were made into a song in our hymnal:

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered and confidently waiting, come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning, and never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented and evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation for which. O Lord, you taught us to prepare.

And when this cup you give is filled to brimming, with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling, out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world you give us the joy we had, the brightness of your sun,
We shall remember all the days we lived through, and our whole life shall then be yours alone.[2]

And when he had finished writing those words, he stepped out of his cell to face his accusers. The threat was real, the end was certain, yet he had the courage because he trusted in God.

So what are the challenges in front of you as we step into this Holy Week? Maybe there aren’t any visible enemies conspiring to take you down. Or maybe there are.

Just a week ago, one of my friends sat on this first pew on an afternoon when none of the rest of us were here. She was feeling overwhelmed and said, “What should I pray?” I offered her the prayer known as the “Breastplate of Saint Patrick,” which we have heard a number of times this Lent: Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me. Name the power of God in every direction, as a way to trust that, no matter what, we are loved and we will persist.

She said the prayer helped; when she left, she stood a little taller.   

Courage is not a character trait that we pull out of the air. It’s a gift that we tap from a great reservoir of trust. If we live through enough challenges, I suppose we can trust our own strength and move ahead with confidence. With time and proper mending, the woman who broke her leg can walk again. The child whose friends abandoned him can make other friends. The guy who loses his job can find something else purposeful to do.

But the deepest courage is a gift from God, the gift of hearing and trusting the Good News that our times are completely in God’s hands, and we don’t have to be afraid. I think of my friend and mentor Dick Armstrong, who passed away on March 11 at the age of 94. He was one of my seminary teachers. We kept in touch. I wrote music to some of his scripture-based poems, and one of them is in the file of our choir anthems.

I went to visit him in October when I learned he had pancreatic cancer. I walked into the assisted care facility, and here he comes on his walker, in coat and tie, his hair combed back like he was going on an interview. Big smiles, big hug, “How are you doing?” We found a piano in a lobby and played a duet. He insisted on buying my lunch. It was a great reunion, the last time we were together.

At one point, we talked about his disease. We both knew it was terminal. But then he sat up straight in his chair, clasped my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “That’s why I put on the coat and tie, every single day. It’s my protest against the disease. The day I stop dressing up is the day I give in, and I’m never going to give in.” I will never forget that moment. The final lesson from teacher to student, from friend to Christian brother.   

It comes down to courage: to look squarely at death, destruction, sin, and despair, and declare, “You have no power over me.” Then you can look through them to the God who made us and loves us, and you can say to anyone with ears to hear, “Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”

And tonight, as the shadows lengthen and you prepare to close your eyes in sleep, you can pray with Jesus one more time, “Lord, into your hand, I commit my spirit.”

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

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1974) 20-21.
[2] “By Gracious Powers,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, translated Fred Pratt Green. Glory to God, 818.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Blessed Be My Rock

Psalm 18:1-31
Lent 5
April 7, 2019
William G. Carter

I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God,
my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
For who is God except the Lord? And who is a rock besides our God?—
the God who girded me with strength, and made my way safe.

I am old enough to remember when the phenomenon of music videos began to sweep the cable networks. MTV and VH-1 realized that our culture has gone increasingly visual. So enterprising musical entrepreneurs put music alongside video footage. It’s not a new idea; it’s at least as old as film versions of West Side Story or Oklahoma. But Generations X, Y, Z bit down hard. They loved it.

At some point, the Christians decided to get involved too, especially the Christian recording artists. Like the secular stars, some of them showed footage from live concerts. But something else happened too. When Christian singers would praise God, they would show footage of nature: tall cascading waterfalls, steep blue mountains, bronze sunsets, green pastures and still waters.

One Sunday night, I put my feet up, picked up the remote, and started flipping through the channels. It was the same old story, 400 channels and nothing’s on. Somehow I stumbled upon the Christian praise show. Well tuned Nashville singers were melodiously offering praises to the Lord. If I had turned off the audio, it would have looked like the National Geographic channel. They were praising God by looking at nature.

Now, the people who work with me know I have ambivalent feelings about this. For instance, I have quietly decreed there will be no nature scenes on the front of an Easter worship bulletin. No lilies, because I’m developing an allergy to them. No robins returning to announce the beginning of spring. Easter is not a re-occurring springtime; it’s a radical break with the cycle of nature. Nature says that dead people don’t come back to life. So I don’t want to confuse the astonishment of Easter with the arrival of daffodils (and I do love daffodils).

At the same time, I’m an old Eagle Scout. I love to go outside. Some of my most profound spiritual experiences have happened, not inside a church, but on the top of a mountain or admiring the light show of a beachside sunset. God has given us a beautiful planet to spend our days.

It is no wonder why the ancients took in the view and then spoke of God as our rock. They listened to the thunder claps to hear God’s voice. Moses perceived God as a pillar of fire by night, a cloud of smoke by day, and heard God call him through the voice in a burning bush. None of that happened in a sanctuary.

Now, this was not lost on the Celtic Christians. If you’ve ever been in the British Isles, particularly in the outlying territories, you know why. The winds off the North Sea are so fierce that on some islands there is no vegetation above three feet high. The power of God was obvious in the power of nature.

As someone notes, the Celtic world “knew very little of worshipping in enclosed spaces. The common practice was to gather outside around high-standing crosses… This was to know the boundlessness of the Spirit. This was to be renewed in the context of earth, sea, and sky. This was to seek renewal in relationship to all things.”[1]

All of life is connected. As the Gospel of John declares, God is the source of light and life. Everything that lives comes from the God of life. Everybody who understands bears the light of God. The life of God infuses our planet’s life. God’s fingerprints are everywhere. God’s breath brings everything alive.

Because of this conviction, the Celtic way has never been to divide spiritual from material. Nor does it declare much of a difference between “sacred” and “spiritual.” God is the source of everything. God’s Spirit can breathe anywhere. As George Macleod, founder of the modern-day Iona community, was fond of saying, “Christ is vibrant in the material world, not just in the spiritual world.” Matter matters. Our sacraments are performed with bread and wine, and water. God’s invisible Word took on human flesh and blood; the Incarnation dignifies the creation and intends to restore it.

So it’s a no-brainer for me to take care of what God has made and is still making. And I realize this is not a unanimous opinion.

A week or two ago, a friend chuckled when we were sitting in a restaurant and I refused a plastic straw. My wife and I are doing that more and more. He said, “One straw, what difference does that make?” I replied, “Have you seen the pictures of what these are doing to our oceans?”

I know some people who didn’t give up chocolate for Lent; they gave up plastic. They are discovering how difficult it is to do. We have become a plastic society in all kinds of ways. These manufactured materials may seem more convenient, but in the long run they could choke us unless we change our ways.

My friend didn’t say any more. One plastic straw? Sure, that a small thing. And paper straws don’t work very well. But why should we have straws at all?

Ever since corporations and municipalities have gotten on the recycling kick, it seems there’s a lot more stuff being produced that needs to be recycled. Have you noticed that? The issue is more than bundling up old newspapers or putting bottles and cans in a bin on the curb. It’s confronting the sheer amount of paper, bottles, and cans we continue to crank out.

Did you hear about that beached whale they found in the Philippines two weeks ago? It had 88 pounds of plastic in its belly.[2] Further evidence that we are not merely using God’s world; we are using it up and not living in harmony with it. What would it take to reduce our footprints? To live in peace with the earth?

The first thing to do is to get outside. I’m ready – how about you? The more time we spend in nature, the more we notice about it. The more we see, the more we respect. The more we respect, the more we make room for others to flourish.

Friday night, my wife was standing at the kitchen sink. Suddenly she pointed through the window and said, “Look! Cardinals at the bird feeder.” It was enough to get our grown children to look up from their phones.

One of you announced you spent three hours in a garden yesterday. Another photographed a downy woodpecker in your back yard. There’s beauty out in the back yard.

And there is a savage wildness, too. It comes with the territory. My friend, the church organist in Cooperstown, NY, took pictures yesterday of enormous bear tracks in her back yard. She saw them in a fresh glaze of snow right after one of her cats went out to sniff around. Fortunately the cat came back.

This week, somebody else we know was diagnosed with Lyme’s disease. We know about that in our family, because it’s a disease that is hitting my nephew pretty hard. Matt uses crutches to get around, in between his infusions. Yet in his down time, he volunteers at the animal shelter and befriends rescue dogs. “If you show them some love,” he says, “you get it back many times.” He has a healthy respect, both for the creatures God is making and the fierceness of nature gone bad.

So all of this, all of this, points us to the affirmation of Psalm 18. The poet of the Psalms goes outside in search of something solid, dependable, immovable, something we can stand on. With all the danger out there (and it sounds like he is well acquainted with danger), he looks for the God who is beneath it all, the God who is the source for all this. And he declares, “The Lord is my rock.” No matter what else happens, we stand on that.

I suppose some might sneer, call him a nature worshiper or a tree hugger. But there’s nothing “new age” about this; instead something Old Age, ancient age. God is the source of all that there is, both seen and unseen. To describe the attributes of God through the things God has made is an act of profound respect. God is not a chunk of granite, but God’s hands are all over that stone.

And we learn something deeply when we honor the stone, or the soil, or the black bear, or the Labrador retriever, or the deer tick, or the water, or the bread and wine. This rambling sermon today is a reverie to praise the Creator. God was here before all of this. God will outlive us all. And one day, thanks to the faith of Jesus, God will call us up out of the soil to live again.

I think some of this is what it means to say God is our rock.

Belden Lane is a retired theology professor who goes backpacking in the wilderness. He tells of the day he was hiking in a box canyon in the high desert of New Mexico. When he was a few miles out of reach from civilization, suddenly the black clouds conspired above him and the rain began to fall violently.

As he considered his options, he noticed that the dry stream bed was now filling. The water was raising up within the steep canyon walls. There was nowhere else for it to go but up. Belden says there was nowhere else for him to go, either. He scrambled up the rock wall, picking his way through the boulders, until he found an indentation. A small cave, really. He hid himself there as the torrential storm roared on.

The trail he had hiked was washed away as he watched. The narrow path of his ascent up the cliff was erased, as a flash flood pushed some boulders to the canyon floor. There was a frightening power at work in that storm.

But he was OK. He was soaked to his skin, but in the cleft of the rock, he remained safe. As Belden tells the story,

As the rain passed, and the rock slides ended, I crawled out of the cave. The winds quickly carried the storm clouds away, and before long the sun was out again, shining on a world perfectly new. Water droplets on every leaf and rock were lit by the sun. The air was clear as crystal, cleansed by rain. Silence had come again… Everywhere I walked, life burst out of the ground before and behind me. The desert after a furious rain is incredibly alive . . .[3]

So what’s the point of that story? I have no idea. With God so busy bringing the desert back to life, that story might not have anything to do with us.

Or maybe it does. Maybe the point of it all is the truth beneath our feet: that God is our rock. And if God is our rock, we don’t have to be afraid.

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

[1] John Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, The Earth, and the Human Soul (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011)  p. 55
[3] Belden C. Lane, “Encounter at Ghost Ranch: Reflections on Desert Spirituality,” Spirituality Today, Summer 1992, Vol.43 No. 2, pp. 161-173.  Access the article at

Saturday, March 30, 2019

All is Forgiven?

Luke 15:11-32
Lent 4
March 31, 2019
William G. Carter

Of all the stories Jesus told, this is one of our favorites. We call it the parable of the prodigal son. It makes the top ten list of memorable Bible stories. Children learn it in Vacation Bible School. Older adults nod their heads in recognition whenever they hear it. Young adults who wander off in their twenties and thirties hope the story is still true.

It’s certainly one of my favorites. I checked my files, and I have six different sermons on this story; this is number seven. Many of us have heard it many times. We are well acquainted with the details. We think we know it pretty well, and perhaps we do.

But for all the familiarity, for all the times I’ve taught it and preach it, I still have some nagging questions about the story. They have been nagging me so much that I’m going to toss them into the air and let them nag you as well. Ready?

Here’s the first one: why did he do it? Why did the son leave everything?

Jesus never reveals the boy’s motive. He simply describes what the boy said and did. The son goes to the father and says, essentially, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” That’s the underlying assumption when he demands his share of the inheritance: “Let’s speed this up a little bit, Old Man. Give me what the lawyers will distribute after your demise. Don’t make me wait. I want it now.” What kind of kid says this to the parent?

I mean, according to 2019 tax law, a living parent can give each of the children and their spouses up to $15,000 as gift without any tax implications. They can do that far in advance of probating the will. It is one way to beat the rules about inheritance taxes. But what child says, “Dad, give me $15,000 now,” to say nothing of, “Dad, give me all of my inheritance now?” And Dad still works the farm; he hasn’t yet bought the farm. What kind of child says that?

We can find the words rather easily. He’s greedy. He’s selfish. He’s callous. He’s indifferent. He has no regard for his father. In the words of my own mother, “He’s a brat.” Does he deserve the money? No. But he’s part of the family, and legally entitled, so he makes his demand: “Give me the money.”

Remind me of when Old Jim died in my first church. Old Jim was our congregation’s resident multimillionaire. His attorney, Tom Weaver, knocked on my door one morning, and said, “Put on your Sunday suit and your best power tie.” Then we got in his Cadillac and drove to Old Jim’s mansion. Old Jim had died in the middle of the night and he was worth 37 million dollars.

All his children flew in, not to see him before he passed away, you understand, but for the reading of the will. All three of Old Jim’s wives were there, too, the two ex-s and the current one from whom he was estranged. Attorney Weaver was there as the referee, and I was there to plan the funeral. My job was easy: they wanted the 23rd Psalm and a short prayer at the graveside. Then they wanted Tom to read the will, so they could get back on their planes and return to Las Vegas, or the Cayman Islands, or the south of France, or wherever it was they had slithered in from.

They were greedy. Didn’t care a bit about their old man. Just wanted his money. How does somebody get like that? What went wrong?

Maybe it’s a character flaw. I mean, he’s the younger of two children, after all. “The man had two sons.” It could be that the older brother got all the notice, got all the good breaks, got all the preferential treatment. And rather than respect his older brother (can you tell I’m an older brother?), the younger son began to resent it. It could be. This happens in some families. Even worse happens in some families.

Certainly the kid exhibited some poor judgment. He demands the money, he receives the money, and then he blows all the money. He goes through it all. Doesn’t invest for his own future, doesn’t save a nickel of it. He throws it all away. Was it because it was a gift and he was not required to work for any of it? Could be.

Or maybe he was feeling confined on the family farm and wanted the bright lights of the big city? They didn’t have lights back then, but you know what I’m saying. Jesus says he squandered everything thing he had in “dissolute living.” That’s a nose-wrinkling kind of word. Dissolute means decadent, self-indulgent, licentious, rakish. And he lost everything. He would have been happy to climb into a dumpster and lick the inside walls.

Why did he do this? What’s wrong with him?  Jesus doesn’t say. He dangles this description in the air. Once we get over the shock of it, once we move beyond the finger-wagging accusation, maybe this guy in the parable begins to look familiar. Maybe he looks all too familiar. Apparently it’s possible to be a beloved child and a brat, all at the same time.

Why did he do it? The same reason anybody else would do it. He had been living at home – and he was homesick – all at the same time. It is this fundamental homesickness, this longing for love and acceptance and restoration that can twist us out of shape. Within each of us there is an empty place, a hole within the soul. We try to fill that hole with any number of the world’s delights, and we often dig the hole even deeper.

So here’s my second question: why does he do it? Why does the father take him back? Not only take him back, but sees him from a far way off, runs to embrace him, interrupts the well-rehearsed repentance speech, and throws him a party… why does the father do this?

Jesus says, “He was filled with compassion.” Well, that sounds pleasant enough. Every wayward child wants a parent to be filled with compassion. But what’s compassion? From the Latin: com + passio: passio, to suffer, and com, with. Compassion is to “suffer with.”

As somebody once put it, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”[1] The father understands the brokenness of the boy. He knows first-hand how that feels and what it compels us to do. He understands the wandering intentions of the soul, and the all-too-human temptation to self-destruction. And he refuses to let those unchecked desires to rule any longer.

This is an uncommon father. You’ve been to the Bible studies. You remember that no Middle Eastern father ever runs to his children; he waits for the children to come to him. He is the center of power and authority. Yet that is exactly what he gives up in order to win back his son. It sounds kind of like a Jesus story, a story of Jesus, who had the power and authority of God, but gave it up in order to win us back.

The father in our story does this with extravagance. “Put a ring on his finger. Dress him in the finest robe. Put his cracked bare feet in sandals. Butcher our finest calf and fire up the barbecue pit. Hire the musicians and invite the neighbors. My child was dead, but now he is raises from the dead.”

This is unrestrained generosity, from a father who handed over a share of the inheritance to his formerly indifferent son. It is also inflammatory generosity, provoking an angry reaction from the boy’s older brother who never did anything wrong and never wandered off on his own. But the father insists, even to the point of going out, once again, to implore the good older brother to join in the family reunion. The father wants everything restored to the way it was originally created to be. That’s why he does what he does.

That pushes us to the third question that I have about this story: what does this mean for you and me?    

I think it could mean any number of things, especially if we resonate with one of the characters in the story. If we wandered off like the younger son, it could mean one thing. If we are resentful that the wanderers are welcomed back and forgiven, it could mean another thing. And if, like the father, we long for the healing of relationships, no matter the cost, I think it means something else. In fact, I think the story invites us to become like the father: to love both, to love all, to do what we can to restore all that has been broken.

John Philip Newell has been part of the Iona Community of Glasgow, working for the reconciliation of heaven and earth, city and country, rich and poor. In one of his writings, he reminds us that the Celtic Christian tradition points all the way back to the Garden of Eden. There is an original goodness to God’s creation. In each of us, there is a recurring memory of when everything was one. Here is what he writes about it:

Meister Eckhart says that “all creatures… seek the One.” This longing is deep within the stuff of our nature. It is deep within the body of the cosmos. We seek the One by seeking oneness with each other, by seeking to be in relationship with the rest of life, by living in relation to everything that has being. The tragedy of our reality is that we have fallen out of touch with this holy natural longing. Divisions that have multiplied divisions, and fears that have fed upon fears drive us further and further apart. Grace (says Teilhard de Chardin) is the “seed of resurrection” sown in our nature. And the greatest of graces, love, is what reawakens the deep longings for our being, the hunger for oneness, the desire for unity. How do we bring this greatest of graces to the relationships of our lives – our relationship with the earth, our relationship as nations, our relationship as wisdom traditions?[2]

So what does this mean for you and me? A boy runs away and squanders what he has, comes to his senses, and is welcomed home. That is a salvation story, not just for the boy, not just for the father and the family, but a sign of what God desires of the entire creation. It is the memory of the Garden of Eden, when all things fit together and flourished in peace. And it’s the great hope of what the Spirit of Christ wishes to create among us and calls us to pursue: peace, harmony, forgiveness, reconciliation, with love ruling over all.

When we scrape away everything else – all the posturing, all the self-righteousness, all the fake virtues - this (say the Celtic Christians) is our deepest longing: for everything to return to the way it was created to be. That is what we want most of all. That is the shape of Christ’s greatest work, and our work too: the restoration of what has been broken. The restoration of whoever has been broken.

When you get right down to it, it’s just like going home.

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

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981)
[2] John Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, The Earth, and the Human Soul (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011) 143.