Saturday, June 16, 2018

When Yelling Does No Good

Mark 4:26-34
June 17, 2018
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

For all of his powerful deeds and compassionate works, Jesus was a storyteller. When he spoke about God, and how God rules over the heavens and the earth, he often used a story.

Once upon a time, a traveler fell among thieves, who robbed him and left him for dead. Two religious leaders passed him by, and the one who took care of him was a dreaded enemy. Which one is the true neighbor?

There was a man who had two sons. The younger boy ran off with a share of the family fortune, blew it all on wine, women, and the roulette table, then came back to his Daddy with his tail between his legs. Is it right to throw him a welcome home party?

A king threw a wedding banquet for his son. Invited a lot of people, none of them would come. Invited a lot more people, they all gave excuses. So he sent his servants to round up the kind of people who could never attend one of his parties… because that the kind of kingdom that he wanted to have.

Jesus doesn’t toss around a lot of doctrines. Nor does he offer a lot of “do’s” and “don’t’s.” He tells stories, and he leaves it to people like you and me to figure out what kind of truth may be inside those stories. So today, we have a couple of stories, each one taken from the experience of farming.

The second one isn’t actually a story at all. It doesn’t have a plot. In a good story, as you know, something has to happen. This happens, then this happens, then this… and in this story, hardly anything happens at all. There’s a little bitty seed, the smallest of all seeds. Somehow it grows, nobody quite knows how.

It’s a mustard seed, which grew into something called a “mustard shrub.” It was widely regarded as a weed. The kingdom of God is like a weed. It grows out of control. That’s the second story.

The first one is a bit more intentional. Once upon a time, a farmer scattered a lot of seed. It was something he wanted to grow, a crop that he intended to raise. But here’s the thing: the farmer throws around all that seed and then he goes to sleep. That’s the story. That’s all there is. One day the harvest will come, but for now…nothing happens.

I like that parable. I like it a lot. The farmer casts about some seed and lets it go. He does not hover. He cannot rush. He will not yell, because yelling would not speed up a thing. For the time being, nothing happens.

Do you suppose this is the way God is? That God is not a helicopter parent, buzzing around overhead to make sure we’re doing the right thing? That God does not hover, or wag the finger, or raise the voice? That God doesn’t plant a garden and then stand over it screaming, “Now start growing!” No, the farmer tosses around the seed and lets it go.

What I like about this parable is also what is most maddening about it. Nothing happens, or it doesn't look like anything's happening, or if it's happening, there is an unseen benevolence beyond our control. The lesson seems to be that God is in charge of his own kingdom. Imagine that! No amount of badgering, controlling, shrieking, convincing, cajoling, or conniving will advance the rule of God over all things. 

Maybe there’s a lesson here in parenting or grandparenting, or perhaps there’s a corrective for how our rookie parents once handled us. As I think of my own father, I don't remember him yelling very much. I often knew where he stood, but he also gave me a lot of room to make my own mistakes and to correct them. 

Like that summer night when I was nineteen or so. I was out on a date with a pretty woman. We drove around the car, we parked the car, we started up the car and drove around some more. Then we went to a place called “Pancho’s Pit” to get something to eat. The hour was late, it was time to take her home. So we went out to the car, kissed a little bit, and then I turned the key to start the car and nothing happened. Nothing at all. You know how when something doesn't work, you keep trying it again and again? Yep.

So about one in the morning I was forced to do the thing I dreaded: call home and see if I could score a ride home for me and my young lady friend. I mean, they always told me if you’re ever in trouble, call home, so I did. My father answered.

Whenever he answered the phone in the middle of the night, it always sounded like he had been awake for hours. In a deep voice, he said, “Yes?” I told him my dilemma and where I was. He asked no further questions and said, “See you in twenty minutes.” Twenty minutes later, here came the paneled station wagon. 

As it turned out, it was a busted distributor cap which I would have to fix the next day. Dad arrives, my friend and I get in back seat. He looks at me in the rear view mirrow, doesn’t say a word, but I know the look. So say to my friend, “How about if you ride in the front seat and I'll sit in the back?” Dad smiled. We took her home, dropped her off, I walked her to the door, climbed back into the front seat. We started up, and Dad said four words: “You never mentioned her.” I gulped. He said two more words: “Pretty girl.”

We drove the rest of the way home in silence. It was about two o’clock as we rolled into the garage. It seemed that I was going to get off without a speech. The car came to a stop. He turned off the engine. I reached for the door handle, breathing a sigh of relief, and Dad said, “Wait a minute.” I froze in horror. I braced for the speech. The silence was deafening.

Then he said it… know what he said to me? He said, “Just be glad that your mother didn't answer the phone.: That's all he said. He never had to raise his voice at all. 

Maybe you have noticed this is precisely how God works most of the time, how God parents us all. There’s no yelling, no badgering, no bullying, no exertion of influence. We have freedom to grow, freedom to flourish, freedom to mature, and freedom to both take note of, and respond to, the unseen kindness that grants us life.

It can be a terrible freedom. If God gives us the room, we can do all kinds of things. We can make all kinds of mistakes. Yet we also have the freedom to grow, to flourish, to change, to grow. And it can happen when it really doesn’t seem like anything is going on.

It’s like the wisdom from Malcolm Gladwell. He says, “If you do anything for ten thousand hours, you start to become good at it.” Twenty hours of work a week, for ten years; that’s a long time. Then you realize, “I can knit a sweater, I can write a novel, I can play the clarinet, I can run a marathon. It didn’t happen overnight; good things take a while. Even in the moment when the fog lifts and we get a clear-eyed view, we might just discover there’s some progress we have made… and it might even be in spite of us. The kingdom of God grows because God is at work. Usually just out of sight, but out there, staying busy, sometimes effecting change even in us.

I was talking to a medical professional the other day. I’ve been making regular visits, due to my sedentary, lazy, middle-aged life, and the effects of too much pepperoni pizza. In the middle of our conversation, I blurted out that I have begun walking on a treadmill. She looked at me in astonishment and said, “Are you feeling okay?” We both had a good laugh, and it felt good.

Sometimes good things happen, or healthy things happen, because God awakens us, or nudges us, or simply works behind the scenes. That is one way of saying that we shouldn't take a lot of credit for what's happening to us due to the grace and kindness of an unseen God. The seed is planted, it grows and bears fruit, and it happens even when we are asleep.

So if you are frustrated with your life, or dismayed at the general condition of the world, take heart. For this is God's world. And I think we can give God a good bit of the responsibility for how things are going to turn out. That's faith.

Perhaps you have heard the name of Angelo Roncalli. Ring a bell? Later in life, he took the name of Pope John 23rd. He presided over the Roman church in a time of enormous turmoil. It was John 23rd who oversaw a great many sweeping changes at the time of the Second Vatican Council: a less legalistic approach to faith, a turn away from a legacy of medieval gloom and doom, a change from worshiping only in Latin to the language of the people, an openness to non-Catholic Christians.

These were enormous changes, and they came with a high emotional toll on the Pope. He would stay up late at night, reflecting, fretting what would happen, worrying what he should do. Some nights he would open his heart in late night prayers, as he thought the trials and tribulations of the day. So he would say out loud, “Angelo, who governs the church? You – or the Holy Spirit?” After a pause, he added, “Very well then. Go to sleep, Angelo. Go to sleep.”

As for us, we can welcome the rule of God if we’re patient, if we hang in there and persist over the long haul. There’s a poem that I like, from the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. My mom gave me a copy years ago, probably after years of putting up with my dad. The poem keeps popping up, so I think that’s a sign to give it to you. I’m going to read it, sit down for a minute, and then we’ll get on with the rest of the service. Here is the poem:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

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

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Plundering the House

Mark 3:19(b)-35
June 10, 2018
William G. Carter

Then (Jesus) went home, and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

At the height of his popularity, the family of Jesus came to take him away. At the pinnacle of his effectiveness, they came to restrain him. Let that sink in for a minute.

It’s still early in the Gospel of Mark, but Jesus has been busy. He’s been preaching that God rules over heaven and earth. He has collected a few unimpressive fishermen and invited an imperial tax man away from his table. Jesus has been hanging around with the wrong kind of people and pronouncing forgiveness without official approval. He has been touching lepers, always a fearful practice, even if it was to heal them, and he has cured every manner of illness. He has an unconventional view of the Sabbath, which angers the religious professionals to the point that they conspire to kill him, and it’s only chapter three.

And then, there are all the demons: Jesus has been chasing out the demons. It doesn’t matter if they have been infesting the synagogue and lodging in the soul. He says, “Get out of here!” and they go.

So, his family comes to take him away, to restrain him. Are they afraid for his safety? Perhaps. He could meet with some harm, if not from the furious Pharisees and scribes, perhaps from all those demons. If you start confronting evil, it will strike back. Or worse, it’s can be running through the thistle patch on a summer day: some of what you’re trying to get through starts to stick to you.

And this is only chapter three. Yet even this early, Jesus has revealed two character traits. First, he is fearless. Nothing frightens him, nothing slows him down, nothing gives him a second thought. He plunges right in to do what he needs to do. Second, he has complete clarity about what it is that he has come to do. There is no confusion about where he should go or whom he should confront. He has come to proclaim that God rules over all things, and that’s what he going to do.

His family comes to restrain him and get him to stop. Why would they do that? Well, the word on the street is that he has “gone out of his mind.” The first-century diagnosis is that Jesus is “beside himself,” that he has literally split himself, so his mother and his brothers come to remove him from society. This has gone on long enough, they figure. Let’s get him out of there. Long before his crucifixion, let’s get him out of sight.

It is a striking scene, unlike any other in the whole New Testament. If it weren’t so dangerous, we might think it was funny.

I used to think it was funny. When I was a teenager, I locked myself in the bedroom on Sunday nights. Then I tuned in to a syndicated radio show on the local rock station. The host called himself Doctor Demento, and he specialized in playing the most peculiar recordings ever to hit the airwaves.

This was the show that introduced Weird Al Yankovic to the world. He played to the Spike Jones Orchestra performing the “Billy Tell Overture” and the pyromaniac version of “My Old Flame.” At Christmas time, we heard “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” At Halloween, we grooved to “The Monster Mash.” In springtime, he played Tom Lehrer’s satirical tune, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” The show was out there.

But by far, the most bizarre song on a very strange show was a little ditty by an artist who called himself “Napoleon 14.” Over the sound of an insistent snare drum, an unstable man in a straight jacket lamented a lost love:  

Remember when you ran away / And I got on my knees
And begged you not to leave / Because I'd go berserk
Well you left me anyhow / And then the days got worse and worse
And now you see I've gone / Completely out of my mind…
And they're coming to take me away, ha-haaa
They're coming to take me away, ho-ho hee-hee ha-haaa,
To the funny farm / Where life is beautiful all the time
And I'll be happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats
And they're coming to take me away ha-haaa.[1]

That song from 1966 was insensitive and rude, which is exactly why a teenager enjoyed it so much. The fact is it reinforces every inappropriate stereotype of emotional challenges and mental disorders. It assumes that some people are completely well and those who are not ought to be removed.

In the week that we’ve lost Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, two cultural icons who were widely loved and highly respected, we are reminded again of how fragile all of us are. A lot of us struggle out of sight, often in isolation. We don’t say anything lest we be demeaned, degraded, or demolished. Or worse, removed.

So it’s all the more important that we lean in to see what’s at stake with Jesus. By all accounts, he was not “out of his mind.” He was completely in his mind, completely clear, completely fearless. Every day, with single-minded vision, he got up and went about his work. And his work was to make people well. To confront the forces that splinter human souls, that oppress human spirits. Mark says Jesus has come to drive out evil.

It’s fascinating, in a way, that the religious establishment piles on the popular assessment of Jesus. That not only is he crazy, he’s possessed by a demon. You see, that was the first-century pop psychology. They figured someone was disturbed because something got into them – a demon, an unclean spirit, something. And the scribes look at the relentless work of Jesus, he can only do these things because Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies, has infested him.

Now, may I say, that’s pretty twisted. Their argument, according to the text, is that Jesus casts out evil because he is so full of evil that he can drive out the evil. It’s kind of head-spinning argument, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that happens when anybody confronts something that is so blatantly wrong, so divisively nasty.

For instance, Roseanne says some racist nonsense, gets fired, loses her number one show, apologizes, but then says more nasty things. Samantha Bee says something nasty on late night television, apologizes, doesn’t get fired, goes back on the air and apologizes. And the people who like Roseanne, who laugh at her caustic comments, are furious and condemn Samantha Bee. They say it’s a double standard, as if any of these people have any standards, on either side of the hedge.

It takes somebody with the moral clarity of David Brooks to point out the obvious: that maybe we shouldn’t be saying foul and disgusting things about one another. “These days,” he says, “a lot of corrosion has happened in the way we talk to one another. And one of the good things about being conservative is you tend to think manners are more important than laws… Manners are what purify or degrade, and manners touch us every day and really determine the shape of society.”

“And our manners have taken a hit these days,” he says,[2] and we can probably figure out some of the reasons why.

The family of Jesus wants to restrain him and remove him. The scribes want to dismiss him, essentially on the twisted argument, “He must be full of evil, the same way everybody is full of evil.”

But Jesus responds with devasting clarity in a single question: How can the devil drive out the devil? How can evil eradicate evil? They accuse him of being “beside himself,” but what they say about him is even more schizophrenic. Jesus is not torn in two; he is completely clear. He has come to heal, to restore, to purify. Every day of his life, he lifts up the downtrodden and frees the oppressed. He comes to drive out the poison. He comes to make people well.

In short, he comes to plunder the house of evil. In the power of God, Satan’s days are numbered. There is a cosmic struggle between good and evil, and it come to a head because Jesus, in his perfect goodness, steps into a world that is infected with toxic hatred and really bad manners. Whether they realize it or not, both the Jerusalem scribes and his own family are conspiring – colluding – to get him to stop. It’s precisely because Jesus is so effective that the powers-that-be will do whatever they can to get him to shut up and go away.

And will they succeed? No. The conflict will continue in the next twelve chapters of Mark. It will come to a head on the cross, when the powers of hell think they’ve finally gotten rid of him. And you know what happens: on the third day, his tomb is found empty and the news comes that he is alive again and on the loose. God truly does rule, even over a rebellious, resistant world. And the struggle will continue for a while, until God says enough is enough.

In our time, perhaps no one has seen the true social dimension of God's kingdom more clearly than Martin Luther King, Jr. King confronted the evil of division. poverty, and hatred with a clear word of gospel justice. The clearer he could see, the more got thrown back at him. There were allegations against his character and threats on his life. His own moral failures were tossed in his face to get him to stop. Yet he remained faithful to his vision until the day he died.

How did he keep going? The key, as he said in a number of his speeches, was a certain maladjustment:

There are certain things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon all [people] of good will to be maladjusted. If you will allow the preacher in me to come out now, let me say to you that I never did intend to adjust to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never did intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never did intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never did intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. And I call upon all [people] of good will to be maladjusted because it may well be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.

 Then Dr. King concluded:  

Let us be as maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could look into the eyes of the men and women of his generation and cry out, 'Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.[3]

Ah, who’s crazy now?

It really comes down to what we believe about the first coming of Jesus. Has the world changed because of him? Has the kingdom of God truly come near?

If nothing has changed, then human life will be an endless string of oppression, misery, darkness, and defeat. But if God has come, if God is intruding upon the status quo, then we can act like Jesus. We can do the will of God. We can confront the powers of hell as if God rules over heaven and earth. We can act in the face of death as if death has already been defeated. We can heal, lift up, and love all people abundantly. We can gather here to sing praises to a Savior who has already assured us of the world's ultimate redemption.

The world might look at us and say, “You’re out of your minds.”  But that’s when we hear Jesus say, “You’re my brother, you’re my sister, you’re my family.”

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

[1] Hear the song for yourself at
[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., "The American Dream," A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: HarperCollins, 1986) 216.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

How Do You Keep a Sabbath?

Mark 2:23-3:6
June 3, 2018
William G. Carter

One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

On a trip to Scotland, my wife and I landed for a few days in Stornoway. The city is on the Isle of Lewis, some 30 miles off the northwestern shoulder of Scotland. It is a bit secluded, which is exactly as the locals prefer it to be. News of the outside world doesn't get to Stornoway very quickly. The people are not so much isolated as insulated, again, just as many would like it to be.

In Stornoway, everything shuts down on a Sunday. Everything (except a few pubs). The guide books warn you of this, but it must be seen and experienced to be believed. Some of us may remember life before shopping malls and big box stores, all of them now open seven days a week. There was a time when life slowed down on Sunday and enjoyed family meals and refreshing naps. But somehow the old system of Sabbath keeping has unraveled in America. It happened around the time professional football got popular, or when the general population stopped caring about what the church had to say.

Not so in Stornoway, or at least not yet. The city is still run by well-starched Presbyterians, a species of which purports to be quite pious. All the public parks are closed, and the swings are chained together lest the children be tempted. Margaret, the proprietor of our bed and breakfast, told us how she once hung up her wet laundry on a Sunday. When she wasn't looking, one of her Presbyterian neighbors took it all down, folded it wet, and left a note to say, “We don't work on the Lord's day.”

It seems like an old Victorian photograph, black and white and remarkably clear. On Sunday, the Lord's Day, this is what we do, and that is what we don’t.

For the Jews of Jesus’ day, Sabbath began at sundown on Friday. No work was to be done until an hour after sundown on Saturday. The experts in God's law offered their judgments on how far somebody would be allowed to walk before it began to looks like work. They called that a Sabbath day’s journey, and it was about a half mile. No commerce was to be conducted on the Sabbath. Big meals were prepared in advance so that even Mama got a day of rest

The Jewish scriptures offered two reasons for keeping this day different. First, remember you were slaves in Egypt and God set you free. To perpetually remember this, work for six days but remain free from work on the seventh (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

The second reason goes all the way back to Creation (Exodus 20:8-11). God is so firmly governing the world that God can take a day of rest. God is not frantic, obsessive, overbearing nor over-functioning. God is free and God is sovereign.

So naturally, the people who loved God's law had a good question for Jesus: why do your disciples break the Sabbath? They were talking about the twelve disciples, not us. The twelve were Jews, very much a part of the Jewish faith, but they were observed plucking grain on a Sabbath Saturday while walking through the fields.  

It’s a good question. God has given us the commandments to direct how we should live. They are intended for our well-being. Jesus essentially says, “Well, the boys are hungry.” He reminds them of a thousand-year-old Bible story, of a moment when David and his buddies were hungry, too. The only available bread was Holy Bread on the altar. So David has to convince the priest to hand it over, which he does.

Reminds me of the Sunday night communion services in our seminary chapel. We would gather after a long day of serving our field education churches. One of us would preach a sermon that we were getting ready for our classes. Someone would find a real minister to preside over the communion liturgy. We stood in a circle around the Table and passed the bread and cup.

I’ll never forget the first time there was a big piece of leftover bread, and somebody passed it around a second time. The guy next to me said, “Are we allowed to eat this?” The woman on the other side said, “Well, if you don’t want any more, give it to me. I’ve been with a senior high youth all day and I’m starving.”

Is it OK to eat the holy bread if you’re hungry? I suppose you could leave it there on the altar and watch it decay. Or you could eat and give thanks to God that there’s food.

Jesus raises the question: Were we made in order to keep the Sabbath, to keep the rules? Or is the Sabbath for our benefit? The Pharisees don’t bother to respond; they weren’t convinced.

We know that because they kept watching. They were waiting to pounce. And the opportunity came shortly after that. They followed him into a synagogue and saw him call out to a man with disabled hand, “Come here.” Then they heard his question for them: “What does the Law say? On the Sabbath, should we do good or do harm? Should we save a life or take a life?” And they said nothing.

You see, they had the rules on their side… but he had the Power on his side. And when Jesus called on the man to stretch out his hand and allowed it to be restored, “the Pharisees went out to conspire how to destroy Jesus.” Jesus chose to save a life, the Rule Keepers chose to take a life.

Now, this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. A number of years ago, I preached on the Sabbath every Sunday during the summer. There was no shortage of biblical material, and fortunately no shortage of patience on the part of the congregation. You know, when a preacher keeps hammering away at the same issue week after week, everybody starts to perceive what the preacher must be working through.

So one Sunday, near the end of the series, I read a paragraph from the 15th chapter of the book of Numbers. When Israel was in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. So they dragged him before Moses and Aaron, to ask what they should do. Nobody was sure. So the Lord said, “Put him to death by stoning.” Sticks and stones… I don’t remember the point of that sermon, but I’ve never forgotten that text. Nor have I forgotten the look on some of your faces.

How should we keep the Sabbath? I can’t think of a stranger question in the suburbs because most people don’t have a clue what a Sabbath is. People are on the go all the time. If they sit still, they feel guilty. Or worth-less. Or unproductive. Stillness and too much quiet stir up all that undigested experience that they’ve been racing to stay ahead of. And in these reality-show days, a lot of people create some noise to stay ahead of the noise in their own heads.

Sometimes my kids would plop down in a chair and say, “We’re bored.” Know what I would say? “It’s good to be bored; boredom means that you are in a holding pattern, ceasing activity, and mulling over some possibilities.” Katie would look at Meg and say, “We have the weirdest Dad in the world.” Meg would say, “Amen, sister.” Then off they would go.

About ten minutes later, here they come again. “Dad, we’re bored.” And I’d say, “Good! What an opportunity to develop your inner life! Read a book, write a poem, compose a symphony, or listen the bird song. There’s nothing wrong with cultivating depth and imagination and spirit.” Meg would look at Katie and say, “Not only is he weird, he’s crazy.” Katie would say, “Amen, sister.” Off they would go.

The rhythm would continue. Once in a while, they would get really quiet. So I would creep up silently to see what was going on. Meg would be working on a coloring book, Katie would be chasing a butterfly in the back yard. Yes! Maybe they’re going to get it after all.

The best way to keep Sabbath is by saving a life, beginning with your own. You don’t save a life by running it into the ground. You can’t save a life by hovering over things you can’t control or trying to prove that you’re important, essential, or invaluable. By resting on the seventh day, God got it right. It was all about restoration, replenishment, and giving the world some breathing room - and that sets the pattern for everything that God has created.   

So I don’t know what is going to save your life on this Christian Sabbath, which is our recurring day of resurrection. Maybe it’s kneeling in the potting soil, taking a stroll on the rail trail, or catching up on a nap. Whatever it is, let some life return to your soul. That’s the promise of keeping Sabbath, a true Sabbath.

If you’re rushing out of here to catch a tee time, meet friends for brunch, or drive to visit some family, try giving yourself some extra time. Build in some pauses, a time to breathe. Nothing is ever improved by rushing. As the psychologist Carl Jung once quipped, “Hurry is not of the devil; hurry is the devil.”

And by all means, practice some restraint. We can’t force anything on anybody, neither can we say all that we think we need to say. If you feel the need to take down somebody’s wet laundry so that you can make some grand statement, don’t do it. That’s intrusive and rude. And Sabbath keeping means that we give some room for other people to exist without the need to fix them.

Take some time today to recalibrate your expectations of how little you are actually able to accomplish, and how much more God can do beyond your efforts. It’s about breathing. I came across some wisdom from Thomas Merton which was life-giving to me, and hopefully will be for you:

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence…It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.[1]

The antidote? To be still for a while, to be here together, to gather together in worship and listen to the Word of God. For this is the place where we hear once again that God has set us free from any delusion about running the world. We spend some Sabbath right here, together, and Jesus fills us with life. 

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

[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966) p. 73

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Liturgy or Life?

Isaiah 6:1-8
Trinity Sunday
May 27, 2018
William G. Carter

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. We sang those words last week, as new elders and deacons began their terms of service. It’s a favorite hymn, to be sure. Whenever we sing it, it is certain to get a positive response. The tune is singable, the words are heart-felt. If you look around, somebody is probably wiping away a tear or two. Here I am, Lord.

When you heard the scripture text, you probably noticed some of the words of that song are lifted right out of our Bible. Isaiah of Jerusalem remembers the voice of God calling him to his life’s work. God is looking for the right person to speak up, the right person to speak out, the right person to address the people of Judah in troubling times. Who is going to be? Who will speak up for God? And Isaiah declares, “Here I am, Lord.”  

That’s about all most of us know about the prophet Isaiah: he responds affirmatively to God’s Voice. That, of course, is the punchline of the story. It’s right up there with God speaking to Moses out of a burning bush, “Go to Pharoah, tell him to let my people go.” Or Jesus, walking along the shore of the sea of Galilee and calling out to some fishermen, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

The plot of each story goes the same way. God says, “I need to get something done.” The heroic Bible character says, “OK, I will do it.” The rest of us cheer, breathe a sigh of relief, and figure “mission accomplished.” Somebody out there is doing what God needs to get done. In other words, it’s not really a story for the rest of us; it’s about some specialist who said “yes” to the Lord a long, long time ago.

Now if you were listening to this story, you heard a lot more going on in this story. In the end, the ancient prophet says, “OK, God, sign me up.” But that’s merely the conclusion, and a provisional conclusion at that. The story becomes a lot more interesting the deeper we dig in.

So here are three things to notice: the seraphs, the unclean lips, the burning coal.

First, the seraph. On Thursday morning, one of our office volunteers was proofreading the worship bulletin before it was printed. I walked through to grab a donut, she looked up, and said, “What’s a seraph?” What? “A seraph – the Bible passage says there were seraphs. What are they?” I said, “I don’t know; I don’t think I’ve ever met one, but they are kind of a super angel.” She looked at me with a most curious gaze.

And I said, “The bigger question is, what are they doing in the Temple?” And then she looked really confused.

The seraphs, or as they are sometimes called “seraphim,” are only mentioned here as angelic beings. They have three pairs of wings: to fly, to cover themselves in modesty, and to cover their faces in reverence. There are texts outside the Bible that speak about different orders of angels, although the Bible itself doesn’t spend a lot of energy getting distracted by angels. Suffice it to say, the seraphim are the ones closest to God.

This satisfied our Thursday volunteer, but I pressed the other question: what are they doing in the Temple? And that’s a trick question. It has to do with King Uzziah, who is mentioned rather quickly and dismissed.

King Uzziah began as a wonderful king. Given the sorry list of Israel’s terrible kings, he showed a lot of promise.  Uzziah ruled for 52 years. He chased out the Philistines, defended the borders, and built up the economy. In the words of the Bible’s greatest compliment, “he learned the fear of the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 26:5).

That is, until he got a little big for his britches. Uzziah believed that, since he was the king, and things were going well, that he would also act as if he was a priest. He grabbed the incense pot, started smoking up a little frankincense, and made his way to the high altar. It was a desecration, an abomination, a really bad move. Uzziah was stopped in his tracks by the high priest and eighty other priests, all described as “men of valor.”

An argument broke out. Uzziah figured he was the king, and kings can do whatever they want. The priests said, “Oh no, no, no.” And just when Uzziah started getting huffy, leprosy broke out all over his face. They hustled him out of the temple, now doubly desecrated. He had to live by himself in seclusion. He could still call himself the king, but nobody was going to go near him or pay any further attention to him. He had leprosy til the day he died, and all the moralists said, “That’s what you get when you get too big for your britches…in the temple.”

Meanwhile, the Temple was still desecrated – and in the year Uzziah died, God showed up. It was big. Really big. Even the seraphim were there. Nobody had ever seen one, I figure, but Isaiah knew what a seraph was when he saw one. Their voices were thunderous: HOLY, HOLY, HOLY. The foundations are shaking, the house is filled with smoke.

And what are the seraphim doing there, in a desecrated Temple? They are announcing the holiness of God, even there, especially there. There is no distinction between sacred and secular, because God is there – so it’s sacred.

Just let that sink in. Wherever God is present, it is HOLY, HOLY, HOLY. Wherever… the implications are staggering. Someone puts it this way

One of the bad habits we pick up early in our lives is separating things and people into secular and sacred. We assume the secular is what we are more or less in charge of: our jobs, our entertainment, our government, our social relations. The sacred is what God is charge o: worship and the Bible, heaven and hell, church and prayers. We then contrive to set aside a sacred place of God, designed, we say, to honor God but really intended to keep God in his place, leaving us free to have the final say about everything else that goes on.

Prophets will have none of this. They contend that everything, absolutely everything, takes place on sacred ground. God has something to say about every aspect of our lives: the way we feel and act in the so-called privacy of our hoes, the way we make our money and the way we spend it, the politics we embrace, the ways we fight, the catastrophes we endure, the people we hurt, and the people we help. Nothing is hidden from the scrutiny of God. Nothing is exempt from the rule of God. Nothing escapes the purposes of God. Holy, holy, holy.[1]

So Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I have unclean lips. I live among people of unclean lips.” In the presence of a Holy God, the only God there is, we are toast. (That’s my translation.)
What he is missing, of course, is the same thing he sees - the seraphs are in the same room with him, the same filthy room. God is there, too, a pure Holy God in the midst of a desecrated Temple. His first, only, response is, “There isn’t room here for the likes of me, and the likes of us.” We are people of “unclean lips.”

Again it’s an interesting Bible phrase, appearing only here in this text. Even though it’s an ancient phrase, you can probably surmise what it means. It has something to do with lips, but it reveals something else.

There is a retired high school English teacher who wrote a letter to the President about gun violence in the schools. She received a form letter back from the White House. The grammar was atrocious. There were redundancies, incorrect capitalization, lack of clarity in the reasoning. So she corrected the letter in purple ink and send it back.

USA Today reported the story on a slow news day.[2] You might not think that a retired teacher correcting a letter written at a fourth grade level would be a big deal, but you should see the online comments and the criticisms of her act: they are a mile long. Her critics take issue with her and call her “stupid,” and then they start calling one another “stupid” as well. Alas, we live among a people of “unclean lips.”

You see, “unclean lips” reveal a filthy heart. That’s the sense of the Biblical phrase. In one of the Psalms, there is a complaint lodged against a person with dirty heart and lips: “Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery. You love evil more than good and lying more than speaking the truth. You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue!” (Psalm 52:2-4)

In the presence of a Holy God, what does Isaiah know? He is surrounded by people of impure speech, destructive insults, lying impulses, and forked tongues. Unclean lips, indeed.

That brings us to the great “nevertheless.” The Bible repeatedly offers God’s great “nevertheless.” God is announced in the Temple by the seraphim, Isaiah knows he and the people are broken and unworthy, so God decides to bridge the gap. In a highly symbolic act, one of the seraphs flies to the altar of the Temple, picks up a burning coal with a pair of tongs, and touches the prophet’s unclean lips.

Then the pronouncement is given: Your guilt is chased away. Your sin is over and done. The God who is already present in the desecrated temple is able to reach all the desecrated people. There is mercy and forgiveness for all who can accept it. And for all who can accept it, there is work to do.

It’s a terrific text, a huge story. And it brings to mind the conversation that I have from time to time. Maybe I run into someone at the ice cream store and they apologize that they haven’t been in worship. They see me in line ordering Rocky Road and not in this room. These days, I smile, tell them it’s good to see them, ask them how they are doing. 

Maybe if the conversation opens up, I might even ask, “So where is Holy Ground for you?” Then I will listen for a while. How would you answer that question? Where is Holy Ground?

The Bible says it this way: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). And it says, “Where can I flee your presence, O Lord?” (Psalm 139:7-12). Wherever I go, you are already there. The conclusion: all ground is Holy Ground.

  • God come in clarity and judgment when an out-of-touch king thinks he is something more than he is.
  • God comes as pure and perfect light, revealing our cracks and imperfections in the light of great mercy.
  • God steps through the distance that separates us from the Holiness, declaring we are forgiven and free.
  • And God gives us something to do, always gives us something to do, because holiness is not something to be bottled like perfume so we can spritz a little bit of it here and there; holiness is something to be lived – out in the world as well as in the Temple. Holiness is the clear and abiding sense that God is here, with us and among us, and that we are part of God’s purposes for the world.
So enjoy this Sabbath as a gift. Do something that restores life to your soul and gives life to the people around you.  And for God’s sake, for God’s holy sake, bring some glory to the God who has given you everything, always remembering that the ground beneath your feet is holy ground.

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

[1] Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017) p. 117
[2] USA Today, “Teacher corrects White House letter with ‘many silly mistakes,’ 26 May 2018 (online at

Saturday, May 19, 2018

A Glimpse of the Last Day

Acts 2:1-21
May 20, 2018
William G. Carter

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

In the midst of a lot of wind and fire, a new community was formed. That is the miracle of Pentecost. Beginning with the Jews who gathered from “every nation under heaven” – or at least, every nation known in the Mediterranean world, God’s Spirit blows open the windows of a fearful church. The lungs of a multitude are filled with the Holy Spirit. Bold testimonies about Jesus are preached. Everybody hears the message in their own language, and they all discover that they belong together in Christ.

That’s the miracle of Pentecost. A new inclusive community is formed. Everybody belongs.

Know what we need? Another Pentecost.

In the small town where I began my ministry, there were two Lutheran churches. They were two blocks apart. Now, I know there are a lot of Lutherans in the Lehigh Valley. The Germans are pretty dense down there. But two blocks apart?

And they told me the story: the first Lutheran church was founded in 1851. It took them a year to get moving, but by July 4, 1952, they put a cornerstone on a plot of land that they purchased for $300. The Rev. Jeremiah Schindel preached a dedication sermon on Christmas Day, and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was begun.

By 1868, the church was in trouble. The worship services were spoken in German, and some wanted to worship in English. For a while, they solved the problem by have a German service in the morning and an English service in the evening. The church council, consisting of two old German guys, decided it wasn’t worth the effort, so they cancelled the English service... and a faction departed to create an English-speaking congregation two blocks away.

In time, the German-speaking congregation switched to English-speaking services, but did the two congregations apologize and recombine? Of course not. We need another Pentecost.

Is this exclusive to the Lutherans? No. For a while, my wife played the organ for a Presbyterian congregation that was worshipping in a Roman Catholic sanctuary. Located on a street named after an American League umpire, it was one of three Catholic churches located on corners of the same block. One was Irish, another was Italian, and the third was made up of leftovers (i.e. neither Irish nor Italian).

On the fourth corner is a Russian Orthodox church, and around the block is a Ukrainian Catholic church. All of them wanted a priest who would speak exclusively to them. It took a bishop with the subtlety of a bulldozer to get any of them to work together, and he paid a harsh price to get it down.  We need another Pentecost.

And it’s not exclusive to Lutherans and Catholics. In 2003, in the very next room, a retiring Presbyterian minister met with a committee to discuss the congregation he was leaving. It began as a Welsh congregation, but the neighborhood had changed. There’s a Mexican grocery on one corner, a soul food kitchen on another. Down the street, a Polish funeral home sits near an Italian restaurant.

The minister was troubled. As he was preparing to retire, he reported a faction in his congregation wanted to hold the line and resist all these newcomers. One of his elders proposed that they only allow new members into their church if they spoke Welsh or had a Welsh last name. The motion did not pass, but the sentiment did not go away. In time, the church sold the building rather than reach out to their new neighbors. I think we need another Pentecost.

On the first Pentecost, Luke says there was every nation under heaven. They had gathered for a religious festival fifty days after Passover (hence the name “Pentecost”), and instead got a multilingual sermon about Jesus raised from the dead. Everybody understood it. The Holy Spirit brought voice and understanding. An inclusive community was formed. It was a miracle of God.

It can happen. God willing, the wind can blow, and it can happen.

In 1906, a one-eyed preacher named William Seymour was invited to preach for a series of revival services on Azusa Street, in a run-down part of Los Angeles. The newspaper called the building a “tumble down shack,” but Rev. Seymour kept preaching and the Holy Spirit came down. Within a few months, a couple dozen people grew to crowds of 1500 a week, all crammed into that tumble-down shack.

The remarkable thing is not that there were signs, wonders, and miraculous healings – but that the crowd was so diverse: women, men, children, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, rich, poor, educated and illiterate. This was at the height of Jim Crow discrimination laws, and yet the races were “mingling” for Christian worship. Women “got the Spirit” and stood up on tables to preach. They didn’t wait for the Pope or the Presbyterians to give them approval, either. The Holy Spirit said, “Preach the Gospel,” and they preached. A new community was formed.

It’s an appealing memory, don’t you think? In our time, we could use more of this sort of thing.

In historian Jon Meachum’s latest book, The Soul of America, he reminds us of what he calls “a universal American inconsistency” – we uphold life and liberty for some and hold back others deemed unworthy. If you know about the immigration waves that have come through our region for the past 150 years, you know that yesterday’s immigrants were always beating up on the immigrants that arrived today.

The truth of the Gospel is that every human life matters. Every one. If you tuned into yesterday’s royal wedding, you may have been blessed to hear that marvelous sermon by Archbishop George Curry. He spoke the truth, the Pentecost truth, that love is the way to live, that it is the only way.

Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. … When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the Earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. When love is the way, there's plenty good room for all of God's children because when love is the way, we actually treat each other well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that's a new heaven, a new Earth, a new world, a new human family. (

I’m ready for another Pentecost. How about you? Because this new heaven, this new earth, this new human family is where everything is headed in the glory of God. Pentecost is the first glimpse of what God wants for the world through Jesus Christ our Lord. And it can happen, if we get out of the way and let love become the way.

Last June, my wife and I were invited to spend a weekend in Placitas Presbyterian Church in northern New Mexico. The pastor was gone on a sabbatical and they were desperate for a preacher, so we went. The congregation is a bit smaller than this one, about a half hour north of Albuquerque. The people have a great gift of hospitality, provided a comfortable bed and a lot of tacos.

When we arrived at the church, they said, “By the way…” (Usually that means, “Uh oh, what did we get ourselves into?”)  They said, “By the way, the service is bilingual. It’s in two languages, Spanish and English.” Did that mean the service was twice as long? Oh, no. They did the hard work of blending everything, speaking both languages, singing both languages, welcoming both, and making room for all.

As we drove away, Jamie said, “There was something magical about that place.” I blurted out, “The Holy Spirit was there.” She looked at me funny, like she often does, as if to say, “You’re talking preacher-ese again.” I said, “God was there, with all of us. That’s difficult to quantify by easy to tell. Everybody was welcome. Even us.” The Gospel was for everybody. That’s Pentecost.

This afternoon, I’m preaching at a new minister’s installation. Another desperate church, I’m afraid. It is the Presbyterian Church of Lamington, New Jersey. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the church is a quarter mile from the gate of Trump National Golf Course. Right after the presidential election, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence worshiped there, with a half hour advance notice from the Secret Service. My friend Carlos is just starting as the new pastor.

So I said to him, “How’s that going to work out for you?” He said, “It’s a remarkable church. It’s purple. There are red voters and blue voters. Many have deeply held convictions on either side, but they get along with another. They believe the Gospel is a lot bigger, a lot more inclusive, than one opinion or one political position. We want to be a church for all people.”

What can we say? It’s Pentecost. And on Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, to push and shove the church beyond its own boundaries, because the Gospel is for everybody. Isn’t that what we want?

We ordain our elders to led us to be a church for everybody. We ordain our deacons to help us care for all people, regardless of who they are or what burdens they carry. For the truth is clear: when God breathes the Spirit on us, when God puts the Gospel in the air for everybody to hear it, there are no longer insiders or outsiders; in the grace of Jesus Christ, everybody belongs… because today is Pentecost, when the love of God is poured out on a crowd so much larger than we ever imagined.

And if we lean in real close, we will hear God say, “This is what I intended from the beginning.”

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