Saturday, May 25, 2019

Messages from Headquarters

Acts 16:6-15
Easter 6
May 27, 2019
William G. Carter

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

When we were kids, my brother and sisters used to play a game called, “Red Light, Green Light.” Anybody ever play that? My brother was “It.” He stood some distance away with his back turned to the rest of us. He would holler, “Green Light,” and the rest of us moved toward him. Abruptly he called out “Red Light,” and turned around. The rest of us had to stop and freeze. If he detected somebody moving, he would send that person back to the beginning.

The game would continue like this, stop and go, go and stop. Our goal was to be the first one to tag him, so that we could become “It.” That’s how the game went on, with starts and stops, for most of the afternoon.

That game comes to mind when I hear this account from the book of Acts. That book is the account of the church on the move. Beginning in Jerusalem, on to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. According to that map, you and I live “at the end of the earth.” But for all the apparent success and progress of the Gospel that Luke reports, he also notes there were a lot of stops and starts.

Now, you and I know that’s true. Nothing ever travels in a straight line. When the kids get the keys to the car and you ask them to go get some milk, they might make a couple of stops on the way. Once my mother sent me to the supermarket to get some Italian bread for the spaghetti she was cooking up for supper. I returned with the bread…eventually…but I wasn’t hungry for the spaghetti. Maybe it had to do with stopping for a couple of Big Macs on the way.

Every journey has a detour, a turn in the road, an unexpected pothole, to say nothing of starts and stops. These days, I know very few people who retire from the same job that they began forty years before. The former days of putting in your time at one place and staying there for the rest of your career until you get the gold watch and the free trip to the Jersey shore are mostly long gone for most people.

From what they tell me, about 40 percent of college freshman stay with their original major until graduation. Sometimes it is life that interferes. Other times, as it was in my case, you come to your senses and ask, “What was I thinking?” Back in college, when I was bombing out of a calculus-based physics class, I set my books down in a study cubicle of the science library, only to see a quote penciled on the wall. It said, “Never let schooling interfere with your education.” I closed my books and said, “That’s it. Goodbye to pre-med.” Supposedly it was a quote from Mark Twain, but I took it as the Voice of God.

So the apostle Paul thought he had the Gospel all charted out. Ever since he was knocked off his horse on the Road to Damascus, he has been going from one Jewish synagogues to the next to declare, “The Messiah has come, and his name is Jesus.” He had some modest success with this, and a few bumps along the way.

And then something unexpected happened: some people who were not Jewish began to believe in Jesus. This was the first big argument in the church. Jesus was a Jew. His followers were Jews. Paul was a Jew. The strategy was to speak about Jesus to their fellow Jews. And several non-Jews began to believe in Jesus.

It was an enormous problem. The church was convinced Jesus came only for the Jews like them: red light to everybody else. The problem is that God had given a green light where the church expected a red light. Can you believe that God loves more people than we do? That was the first major disturbance in the church.

So while the church tried to make sense of that, Paul decided to hit the road. If God welcomed Gentiles, he would still speak about Jesus to the Jews, but he would speak to the Gentiles too, the non-Jews. He began to make his way across the land that we now call Turkey.

That’s where today’s story gets interesting. They tried to go left, and the Holy Spirit said, “No!” They tried to go right, and the Holy Spirit said, “No!”

What does that mean that the Holy Spirit said, “No”? I’m not sure. Maybe God wrote with a finger in the clouds, “Nope, you can’t go that way.” Or maybe they were praying and studying the scripture, and then had the very clear sense that God had other plans. We can’t say.

I believe if you really think that you know what you’re going to do, and it doesn’t turn out, you basically have two choices. You can ram through anyway, perhaps later admitting you were wrong. Or you can give in, and later declare, “the Holy Spirit said no.”

It’s kind of like when I was a younger lad, and for the first time ever, I fell head over heels in love. That young lady was beautiful. I observed her from a distance, and I wanted to get closer. There was graciousness in her step, and oxygen in her laughter. I was convinced she was the one for me. One day I got up the courage to ask her out for ice cream, and she said yes. A couple days later, I asked if she would like to go for a walk and she agreed. She even took my hand; wow! A week into our romance, I was ready to pop the question.

So I decided to take it to the next level: I asked her to a jazz concert. She said, “I don’t like jazz. I like the music of Cat Stevens.” That was a shock, but I went out and listened to some of her music, thinking I might get into her heart and soul. When I told her, she smiled. So I was bold enough to go and buy two tickets to the jazz concert, because I was sure she wanted to go. No, she said she still didn’t want to go. But I was convinced she was the one. She was so beautiful. I loved being around her.

I fell hard. The night of that concert, I walked beneath her window, pacing back and forth. What should I do? On impulse, I knocked on the door and she opened with a smile. “Are you busy?” I asked. She said, “No.” I said, “Good!” I took her by the hand and said, “Let’s go to the jazz concert.” She went, but by the third song, she was fidgeting. At intermission, she excused herself to the rest room and she didn’t come back.

Since I was twenty years old and full of myself, I didn’t go looking for her. I had spent a lot of money on those tickets. The next day, she left me a message, saying simply, “I don’t think we should see one another anymore.” I was crushed. I mean, it was a really good concert.

When the dust settled, I came to believe the Holy Spirit said “no.” It was very clear, for all kinds of reasons, that sophomore romance had no future.

Ever have a door shut in your face? Ever think you knew the will of God without bothering to listen to God, much less the people around you? That’s what happened to the apostle Paul. Not once, probably more than twice. It was very clear: red light to Asia Minor to the right, red light to Bithynia to the left. So he finds himself in the port city of Troas and doesn’t know what to do.

Tired and frustrated, he goes to sleep. And during the night, while he is sleeping, while he rests from his aggressiveness and his guard is down, he dreams of a man calling out to him, “Come to Macedonia and help us!” That hadn’t been in the plans, but it seemed like an open door, like a green light, like an invitation worth pursuing. So he and his companions hopped on the next ship and that’s how the Gospel landed in Europe, beginning in the country of Macedonia.

Sometimes God says no. Sometimes God says yes. The wise Christian is the one who can tell the difference. The word is discernment. It is a particularly spiritual way of reaching a decision. What’s curious is that discernment is never a forced decision. We don’t decide something and then bulldoze through. Rather, we step back from our own anxiety, we listen to the all sides, we pay attention, we try to perceive what is going on beneath it all.

There is a deeper wisdom from God, a larger will than our own willfulness. Discernment is receiving that wisdom and trusting God will open the way that needs to be opened.

Sometimes God says no. Sometimes God says yes. And sometimes when God says yes, the “yes” comes in a surprising way.

Just imagine rabbi Paul, with his years of Pharisaic training, his love of scripture, his growing love for Christ. He is ready to preach the Gospel whenever and wherever there is an opening. The dream says, “Come to Macedonia,” so he had to be thinking big thoughts when he got to Philippi. It was a “leading city” in the district, and he was there for many days. Surely, he could find a gathering of the faithful in a city like that.

And imagine his surprise when to the river to the place of prayer, and all he finds is a group of women. He’s a rabbi, he’s an old-fashioned Jew. His entire religious training said, “Be cautious about speaking in public with women.”  Yet that’s what God opened up to him - the ladies’ prayer group down by the river. Not what he expected, not what he had planned – but the Holy Spirit had said “no” over here, and “no” over there – and now the Spirit was saying “yes” to a new opportunity in a land where he had never dreamed of going.

That is, not until God planted another kind of dream in his head and his heart.

I think this is a great text for Christian people. It’s a continuing reminder that we are not in charge of our own future. We don’t tell God what kind of blessings we expect; rather we receive the blessings that God provides. And if we are tuned in to the ways of the Holy Spirit, we perceive that they really are blessings. Maybe not what we would have planned, but certainly they are gifts to be unwrapped.

It’s a great text for Christian congregations, especially a church like this one that has been around for a while. It’s easy to put it on autopilot when things are going well, and even easier to coast, drift, or go off course. Part of the task for us is to keep listening to our changing circumstances, to keep paying attention to what God might be doing – and to discern what God might be opening up before us for the ministry that we share.

So that makes it a super text for our elders and deacons. We ordain these people and call on them to give us leadership. We are blessed to have people with skills, but we want more than their skills. They are strong and capable, but we want more than their strength and their capability. We want them to listen for the wisdom of God, to perceive the emerging invitation that the Spirit of Christ is laying before us. We look to them to hear the voice of Christ beckoning us forward – and to challenge us to follow the unfolding will of God.

Today, let’s pray for God to keep speaking, for the Holy Spirit to keep planting dreams in our hearts, and for the Risen Christ to open the way forward, both for our lives and our life together. When all is said and done, we are here to love God and to love all of our neighbors. We do this, not because it’s easy, but because it is the way to the fullness of life. We love God and neighbor, not because it’s a good idea, but because it is God’s idea – and it is the invitation that God keeps setting before us.    

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

Saturday, May 11, 2019

A Woman to Remember

Acts 9:36-43
Easter 4
May 12, 2019
William G Carter

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Easter continues. What God did in Jesus, God continues in the people who follow Jesus. That's what Luke trains us to see. In story after story, the power of God that fed the hungry, healed the sick, and chased away demons when Jesus was among us is still operating. God continues to bring the dead back to life. 

Today we hear a resurrection story, but it is more than a resurrection story. It describes a very special woman. This lies close to Luke’s purpose. In a time when the history books didn’t mention women, he gives us their names. In a culture when women were no accepted as witnesses in a legal case, he says three women were the first to report that Jesus is alive again. When the very disciples of Jesus dismiss their report as an “idle tale,” mere chatter, Luke says, “No, what they say is true and they are to be trusted.”

Of the four Gospels, Luke alone tells us that women financed the ministry of Jesus out of their own purses. Apparently, the men were spending the money, but the women were making it. When the Gospel moves beyond Jerusalem into the wider world, it is Luke who introduces us to a businesswoman. Lydia was a merchant in Philippi, and she was wealthy. That would have been an extraordinary story to conservative Jewish men. A merchant, wealthy, no man in sight – nor needed.

Luke wants us to know that women are created in the image of God, just like those who are not women. They have value, they have worth, they have inherent dignity. Maybe that’s why he interrupts his own story of the conversion of St. Paul to tell about the raising of a woman who passed away.

Her name is Tabitha. She lived in the seaside city of Joppa. Her Greek name was Dorcas. So if you ever wondered how one of our women’s Bible study groups is called the Dorcas Circle, here is her story. Dorcas is the Greek world for “gazelle.” So I will call her Tabitha, for that is her given name. And I will honor what Luke honors in telling her story: she is devoted to good works and acts of charity. 

Here was a woman who not one to sit on the edges and watch. She didn't wait to be asked if she could help somebody in need; no, she was on it. Her life was shaped by her kindness.

Luke says two things about her. First, she was running a charity program for the poor in her city. She was proving with her kindness that the world was turned upside-down by Jesus. In the love of God, the poor are remembered. The downtrodden are no longer under foot. God sees them, Christ loves them. The people that love God and Christ love those in need.

That’s how resurrection works. You can’t phone it in from a distance. You don’t offer thoughts and prayers without also offering action. God comes for those who cannot provide for themselves. They are not to be discarded but embraced. This was Tabitha’s ministry. She made the love of God specific for those in need.

The second thing Luke says about her is she is a disciple. It is the only time in the New Testament when the feminine form of the word “disciple” is used. Tabitha’s life is given particular status. There were plenty of women who followed Jesus and served others, but that word “disciple” is now broadened to speak of women. It used to be a word only for men; now it’s for Tabitha, too.   

Tabitha becomes ill and then dies. It is quite a shock in her circle of friends. They gather to grieve and begin to prepare her body for burial. But then, a couple of them remember that the apostle Peter is only about fifteen miles away. So they send for him – they don’t say why. We don’t know what they expect. Do they want him to give the eulogy? Or to console them with a sermon? Nobody says.

It seems a vague invitation until he arrives. Then they show him what Tabitha has been doing. She’s been making clothing, coats and tunics, who other women who have nothing. They were widows, says Luke, code language for those whom the society forgot. They lost their husbands, and in Joppa, that meant they lost their legal status, lost their means of income, to say nothing of losing their lifelong companions. Tabitha had stepped into the gap and provided for them. Now she was gone.

That is the crisis for those women, a crisis that a world of first century men would have otherwise ignored. Peter takes it to heart. As we heard, he clears out the room, gets on his knees to pray, and God gives life back to Tabitha. Nobody else was there to see it, yet they rejoiced when they saw her again. Her kindness would continue. Her good works would go on.

The Bible commentaries don’t have much to say about this story. It’s brief and frequently overlooked. I heard somebody comment once on the story. It was a man. He said, “Compared to the conversion of St. Paul, which is the dramatic story that dominates most of the chapter, you have to wonder why the camera is turned so abruptly to a small account of a woman who made tunics for the widows.” He paused, and added, “Maybe that’s exactly the point.”

Paul, previously named Saul, was murderous and abusive. As Flannery O’Connor once quipped, “The only way to convert that one was to knock him off his high horse.” By contrast, Tabitha was gracious and kind, generous and just, using her skills to provide for others. She was a model for how all people should live, a living disciple of Jesus. She is every bit as worthy of the spotlight, which she would never have shined upon herself.

So I give some thought to this, on a day when we celebrate the gifts of women. There may not be anything flashy here, nothing dramatic, nothing earth-shattering about her work for others – except that it was deeply and profoundly for others. She gave no thought to her own comfort, kept none of her handiwork for herself. When she passed, they called one of the apostles and showed him the clothing she made for all them.

About six months ago, I was sitting with a family as they grieved the passing of the grandmother. “She was a remarkable woman,” they said. I asked what they wanted to remark on…and nobody said much. Could they tell me about her? The family members looked at one another. One of them confessed, “She did so much for all of us, but it was quiet. Behind the scenes. She made sure we were well fed. She patched our blue jeans. She gave us a long hug when we were distraught.” Another one said, “I guess we took her for granted.” Someone else added, “I never noticed how much she got done in a day.”

We sat for a bit of silence. Then I suggested a scripture passage for their reflection. It’s an ancient poem from the last chapter of the book of Proverbs. Some of you may know this one. It begins, “A capable woman, who can find?” Then I shared some of the lines:

She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household …
She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson.
She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.

They looked at me and said, “That’s her. That’s Grandma.” Today, I would add, “That’s Tabitha. Or Dorcas. Or any number of women who provide for the needs of others without calling any attention to themselves.  That is what is so remarkable about them.

So today we remember some of the women who have revealed the charity of God among us. The list is long. Many of their works of kindness have remained quiet and under the radar. But in affirming them, we affirm the kind of lives God calls us to live.

  • I remember Carol. She was wise, artistic, a woman of deep faith.
  • I remember Roberta: literate and generous, always bought my daughter a book for the birthday they shared. I still have the letters of encouragement that she wrote to me.
  • I remember Pauline: she moved away, but still in touch. She has been energetic, prayerful, and biblically grounded in the promises of God.
  • I remember Nadine, the embodiment of Christian hospitality. One time, she threw a dinner party for thirty Hispanic farm workers, just because no one had never done that for them before.
  • I remember Betty Ann, mentor for younger women, constant friend, lover of animals.
  • I remember Mary Ann, now moved away, who loved this community and worked quietly to help it flourish.
  • I remember Betty. She knit over three hundred pairs of mittens for the homeless, people she would never know, yet people worthy of the love of Christ.

These are just a few. If we were to spend this day giving thanks for the women who have shown God’s mercy and grace to the world, it would be a day well spent. And it’s a reminder for us in our celebrity-intoxicated age that you don’t have to be famous to have a true impact on others. In fact, you can make a quiet difference simply for the sake of making a difference, and nobody has to realize it until after you’ve moved on.

Just like Tabitha, Dorcas, the woman they called “the Gazelle.” How surprised she would be to discover that her story is told in the scriptures! And yet, today, she is the woman we remember.

I’ll bet there is a woman you remember. Can you think of a name? Say the name.

Wherever they are, whether here in heaven, how pleased they would be that you remembered them!

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

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Mourning to Morning

Psalm 30
Easter 3
William G. Carter

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain;
            you hid your face; I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Her living room was filled with shadows. The shades were pulled, the curtains were drawn, and no light had entered the room, even though the sun was shining outdoors. There was a solitary lamp on the table with the dim glow of a forty watt bulb. It’s the only light in a room filled with shadows. She looked up and said, “When will I feel better?”

Can you imagine who she is? I haven’t told you anything else about her. Is she bearing a long illness, perhaps recovering from surgery? Perhaps that is why there is little light in the room.

Is she a widow, surrounded by empty tissue boxes, still in the numbness of grief? Maybe it is five months after the funeral and everybody else has gone back to their normal lives, and life for her will never be normal again.

Or is she someone who carries a burden that nobody ever sees. The son who moved away at seventeen is now in jail, the daughter has fallen again into thirty days of rehab, her best friend betrayed her in broad daylight, or some embarrassment puts her on the headlines. It is hard for her to leave the shadows. She wants to know, “When will I feel better?”

The sermon today is for her, because the Psalm is for her. Psalm 30 is filled with joy, but as we get into it, we learn it is hard-earned joy. This ancient poem knows about the reality of trouble, and it doesn’t settle on what kind of trouble it is.

The ancient poet mentions some unnamed enemies. We don’t know who they are. There is a cry for help and a declaration of physical healing, leading the editor of our English Bible to add the line, “Recovery from a Grave Illness.” The poet says, “I was on the verge of death,” sharing some worry about falling into The Pit, a euphemism for “Sheol,” the resting place of the dead. There is also mention of “sackcloth,” the ancient garb of those who were contending with humiliation or grief.

So what’s going on here? The same thing that happens in a lot of the Psalms. The specific details have been sanded away. We have a poem that rings true for anybody who knows how it feels to be in trouble. Woven within each line is the hope that someday life will be better.

Nobody needs to tell us what it’s like to fall into the Pit. The Psalmist knows, and so do the rest of us. This ancient poem is a good reminder for all of us that, on any given Sunday morning, we don’t know the full story of those sitting around us. They might have climbed out of wreckage to get to worship that day. Thank God they are with us.  

The promise of the psalm is that life can be restored, that souls can be lifted up, that healing is possible and enemies will not finally rejoice. It will take a while for anyone to complete that emotional journey, but we do make our way through. And this is the work of God. It is God who heals, God who lifts. Mourning (with a “u”) will lead to morning, the dawn of a new day.

When trouble draws close, it is hard to believe that. For the poet who composed this psalm, it felt like God was angry. He wonders, "Am I being punished? Did I do something wrong?" Is this the kind of God we have, a God who inflicts pain on us?

The questions are real, the emotions are raw, and we have our questions too. Do we belong to God, yes or no? Where is God, anyway? Sometimes the life of faith feels like a game of Holy Hide-and-Seek, and God is nowhere in sight.

But this is where the poet of Psalm 30 gives us a lesson in good Jewish prayer. He says, “You know, God, you won’t get any benefit if I go down to the Pit. If I go back to the dust, that dust isn’t going to praise you. The dirt won’t be able to tell of your reliability.” (30:8-10)

Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s lifting a line from Father Abraham, “Will you wipe out a sinful city if you can find fifty good people there? Ok, how about forty? All right, then, thirty…twenty, or ten? Come on, Lord, you can’t wipe out a few good people if you find them." (Genesis 18:23-33)  Now this is a daring prayer!

Or there’s that good Jewish prayer from Moses. God sees the Israelites made a golden calf to worship, and God is so angry there is fire snorting out of the divine nostrils. God threatens to wipe them out until Moses says, “Wait a second, Lord. You are the Lord who brought your own people out of slavery in Egypt. If you wipe them out, what will the Egyptians say? They will say, ‘Their own God stole our labor force, only to wipe them out in the mountains.’ You can’t do that, God. You have a reputation to maintain.” (Exodus 32:11-14)

I think this might be a pretty good way to pray. We could say, “God, you went to the trouble to get me baptized, and tell everybody that I belong to you. Do you really think it’s a good idea to heap a lot of trouble on me and leave me in despair? Come on, Lord, come and help me." Did you ever imagine we could pray like that? That’s how the psalm teaches us to pray.

There is no reason to remain stuck in the shadows when we have a God who separated the light from the darkness. There is no reason to be insulated or isolated when we need God to help. As for those of us who have been carried through the desert on grace, we should tell the stories of how we came through to the other side.

As somebody said about a support group that helped him, "It has been a safe place to talk honestly about my struggles, hear how others have gotten through them, and pursue the grace and courage to begin over again. If church is not going to be like that, you have to wonder what the big deal is about it.”[1]

The second beatitude of Jesus goes like this: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). That sounds like his commentary on Psalm 30. He doesn’t say how it is going to happen, nor does he say how long it’s going to take. Yet the promise lingers.

The Psalmist says, “I cried to you for help and you have healed me.” The poet who writes those words is testifying to the saving love of God. He or she doesn’t say how long it took or how it happened, only that it’s true. For those of us who still wait in the shadows, here is the promise of our own personal Easter. It is true, and it is ahead of us. Some of us know that to be true, some of us are anticipating what God promises to do. And we certainly don’t want God to waste all the time and effort that God has already invested in us!

In December 1988, the world almost lost Dave Brubeck. Yes, that Dave Brubeck, the world-famous jazz musician. He was having a serious of heart episodes and under the care of a cardiologist named Lawrence Cohen. Dave kept putting off bypass surgery because of his concert schedule, but the delay wasn’t doing him any favors. Finally Dr. Cohen ordered him to a hospital in Connecticut.

The night before the surgery, Dr. Cohen stopped in to see his world-famous patient. It was 10:30 at night, and the cardiologist walked in to discover Brubeck with music manuscript paper scattered all over his bed. He was writing a piece of music because he couldn’t sleep.  

Dr. Cohen said, “What are you doing? It’s the night before your surgery!” Dave looked up and said, “I'm writing out one of your psalms: What can you do, I Lord? Can the dust praise Thee if you put me down in the pit? And joy will come in the morning.’” Psalm 30.

The next day, the surgery went well. Months later, Dave took Dr. Cohen to the premiere of the piece. It was large scale composition for choir and orchestra called “Joy Comes in the Morning.” Brubeck dedicated the piece to his cardiologist. At one point in the performance, Brubeck began to smirk. Suddenly Dr. Cohen realized why – Dave had created a bass line for the piece from a transcription of his own irregular heart beat. Right in the middle of the performance, both of them laughed out loud.[2]

Laughter is possible – do you believe that? Joy can come – can you believe it? Yes. Our God is an Easter God. God will lift our souls from Sheol and turn our mourning into a fresh new day.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved

[1] Paraphrased from Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) 4-5.
[2] From a personal conversation, October 2000. Also reported to Hedrick Smith,

Saturday, April 27, 2019

One Ending is Never Enough

John 20:26-31, 21:24-25
Easter 2 / Holy Humor Sunday
April 28, 2019
William G. Carter

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Here are two different endings of the Gospel of John, which is, essentially John's big sermon. One ending isn't enough. He has to end it twice, at the end of chapter twenty, and at the end of chapter twenty-one.

The scholars agree the story of Jesus ends with the Easter story of chapter 20. Doubting Thomas blurts out his affirmation: “My Lord and my God!” and that’s where the whole Gospel of John has been headed. Then, as a pastoral note, John quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” It’s a beatitude for those after Easter, for those like us who live centuries after Thomas and the others. We were not there, we did not see, but there is a blessing in our believing.

Then John says, “There were a lot of other things that Jesus did, a lot of other things that Jesus said. I didn’t write them down. But I wrote these things down, so that all of you will believe, so that you will be brought to life through your believing.” That’s the conclusion of chapter 20. The end. The finale. The curtain comes down. The story is over. The postlude begins. We are done. It is finished.

But for some reason, John can’t keep it there. He can’t shut it down. He picks up his pen and adds another chapter. There is a surprising catch of fish, the rehabilitation of Simon Peter, the probing three-fold question of “Do you love me,” and the prediction of Simon Peter’s death.

Then we come to the second ending in chapter 21. John gathers his church around him and says, “What he says, we know to be true.” With that comes the final line: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Now, that’s just crazy.

John has already told us there are stories that didn’t make it into his book. That is always the author’s prerogative. John is writing to cultivate our faith. He spares us the stories that really don’t matter. We never discover Jesus’ favorite meal. We do not know if he snored when he slept. We have absolutely no description of how he looked, whether he was short or tall, bald or clean-shaven, whether or not he had ever gotten a splinter in the wood cutter’s shop. We never learn if he was married. Apparently those details were not important.

What we do know is that Jesus comes to reveal God to the world. Through a carefully crafted narrative, John tells one important story after another, aiming us toward that final confession with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” He transforms water into wine, revealing the mundane as the sacramental. He points Nicodemus, the ultimate religious insider, and the Samaritan woman at the well, the ultimate outsider, toward a God who moves freely to bring us alive. Jesus heals a crippled man on the Sabbath, because God can act whenever he wants. One event after another, spiced with long speeches that push us beyond our calculated views of God – this is what the Only Begotten Son of God provides as a gift.

And John says, “There’s even more to the story. “All the books in all the world could not begin to write down everything that Jesus has done.” All the books, in all the world? Really? That’s the language of extreme excess.

As best we know, the Gospel of John was written about 90 AD in the Turkish city of Ephesus, a major center of learning in the ancient world. Some 45 years after John wrote this book, the Library of Celsus was finished in downtown Ephesus. It was one of the greatest libraries in the Roman empire. The Library of Celsus could hold twelve thousand scrolls – that was more than anybody could ever imagine in the time of the Gospel of John.

Before the Library of Celsus, there was the Great Library of Alexandria. The original plan was to build the largest library in the world, with room for 500,000 scrolls. It was enormous, and John would have had this in mind.

Today we could visit the Library of Congress and walk the hallways of its three different buildings. According to the reports, the Library of Congress has 650 miles of shelf space. It holds 32 million books, 61 million manuscripts, one million issues of newspapers, half a million microfilms, six thousand comic books, and a Stradivarius violin. Every business day, about 22,000 new books arrive to be catalogued.

John says, “Even if you had a Library of Congress in every town, there wouldn’t be enough room to hold all of the books that describe what Jesus has done.”

The language is excessive. It’s extravagant. Sometimes the Bible just talks that way. At the end of the book of Ecclesiastes, the wise sage says, “Of making many books, there is no end” (12:12). As a book lover, I know that to be true. There are more books on my shelf than I need.

Raymond Brown says John is giving us a hyperbole. He’s overdoing it. He’s amplifying the reality. He’s overstating the case. After all, John is a preacher. Preachers have been known to speak and talk in enormous terms. As a way of helping us imagine the size and scope of their topic, they speak in an extravagant tongue.

Jesus talked this way. “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” (Matt. 5:29) Now, does he really mean that – or is he amplifying to make a point? We must decide. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” (Mark 10:25) “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3) Or this little pearl that we never read on the second Sunday of May: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his mother cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

The power of such speaking is its extravagance. This is super-charged language. It has the power to wake us up, to stir our hearts, to shock us with the truth, to renew our commitment. We know this – especially when we speak of things that are really important and deeply true.

I think of the great American poet, Stevie Wonder. He sings a song about love, and says, “I’ll be loving you always . . .”

until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky,
until the ocean covers every mountain high,
until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea,
until we dream of life and life becomes a dream,
until the day is night and night becomes the day,
until the trees and seas just up and fly away,
until the day when 8 times 8 times 8 is 4,
until the day that is the day that are no more…” (“As”)

If we don’t have a poetic bone in our body, we might simply say, “I’m going to love you a long time.” But there’s something about this beautiful excess, this generosity of description – it expands our view of the world, it enlarges our imaginations, it points beyond the settled limits of what we can see and what we’ve become comfortable in expressing.

So John concludes his book by saying the book isn’t finished. The story of Jesus keeps going on. If we could write down all the things that Jesus has been doing, it would fill all the books, on all the shelves, in all the libraries of the entire universe. This is John’s way of announcing the resurrection continues. The Risen Jesus keeps bringing souls alive. Faith is not settled and nailed down as soon as the Bible is published. If anything, the Bible prepares us for an ongoing conversation with the Risen Christ, throughout our lives and into eternity.

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

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.