Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Gospel in Three Words

Summer 2019
July 21, 2019
William G. Carter

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. 

I completely understand if you found that a lot to swallow. The first chapter of Colossians is a colossal text. It’s right up there with the first chapter of John’s gospel, though not as mysterious. It may be the basis for a similar passage in the first chapter of Ephesians. This text is so enormous that it requires two writers, not one. Paul and Timothy sign their names to it.

What makes it so large is that this chapter reports on what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Not just in the smallness and the privacy of our hearts, but what God is doing in the universe. At least six times in a few verses, we hear God is at work in “all things.”

  • “all things” are created in Christ
  • “all things” are created for Christ
  • “all things” are created through Christ
  • “all things” are created after Christ
  • in Christ, “all things” hold together
  • through Christ, “all things” are reconciled to God
It’s a big text. With something so large, we need a way to enter into it. Today the best way may be to reflect on three words that sparkle like diamonds and are just as valuable. For the sake of memory, each word begins with the letter “R.” They are rescue, redemption, and reconciliation. The Gospel in its fullness is here in these three words. So let’s reflect on them, as we celebrate Christmas in July.

The first is rescue. Can you remember a time when you were rescued? Flat tire on a dark road? A crime broken up? An EMT showing up at an opportune time?

Let me tell you about a rescue. In the summer of my fourteenth year, I spent a week at Boy Scout camp. The camp is on the western shore of Cayuga Lake, not far from Ithaca, now surrounded by vineyards. It was a great place to spend a week. We ran around in the woods, slept under the stars, racked up a lot of merit badges, and avoided the distraction of girls. It was a perfect week for a young teenager!

My friend Mark and I were tentmates. On a free afternoon, we went down to the waterfront and checked out a boat. We were both inexperienced enough that they didn’t let us take out a small sailboat. Instead we got a rowboat, an old-fashioned rowboat, the kind with two oars. Aiming nowhere in particular, Mark and I traded off on the oars. Pretty soon we were in the middle of Cayuga Lake, maybe a half mile away.

Without warning, the fluffy clouds went dark. A huge thunderhead formed above us, went up about a mile. The smell of ozone burned the air. A big storm was heading right toward us, and we’re in a metal rowboat, half a mile from shore. One of us stood up to yell; the yelling was a good idea, the standing up was not. There was no response on shore. In fact, it looked like they were shutting down the waterfront and putting everything away.

So we yelled again, this time seated in a rowboat that had begun to bounce on some very wild water. Again no response, and we started to panic. In a Three Stooges moment, Mark took one paddle, I took the other. We started rowing hard and went in circles. Cayuga is a glacial lake, over 400 feet deep. We were on top of the water, but I tell you, we were in way over our heads.

There was a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder. We were immobilized by impending doom. Suddenly there was a boat right there, a Boston Whaler throwing us a line and saying, “Hang on.” We were rescued.

I reflect on that moment. We weren’t in trouble because we had done something wrong. Foolish, perhaps, but not something wrong. If we had done something wrong, it would have made things worse. No, we were up against something life-threatening that we could not manage. Help came from outside of our own incompetence.

That’s how Paul and Timothy describe the rescue of the Gospel: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” It’s a shift of dominion. Sin is something more than the wrong deed we did or the good deed that we neglected to do. It’s a dominion that we will never be strong enough or good enough to avoid. That’s why we need to be rescued, which is God’s mission in sending Jesus to the world.

The grand old Christmas carol says it best:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. O, tidings of comfort and joy!

This saving, this rescuing, is what God has done. It is the work of Christ. For our part, the only thing we must do is hang onto the rope when he pulls us ashore.

The effect of this rescue is the second big Gospel word: redemption. Redemption is not a word we use very much. English professors talk about the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge; he used to be a terrible, stingy person, but some spirits turn him around and rescue him from himself. But biblically speaking, redemption is more than a change in personality.

Ancient ones among us may remember the redemption centers of S & H green stamps. You collected them in a book and cashed them in for something else. North of our state border, there are redemption centers for bottles and cans that can be recycled, something that Pennsylvania should have done a long time ago. You collect bottles and cans and cash them in to keep the environment cleaner.

Redemption has economic overtones. In the first-century world of Paul and Timothy, the economy was built on the back of human slaves. People were bought and sold to labor for their masters. It was brutal, ugly, and demeaning. Yet in rare cases, slaves could purchase their freedom. It might take years to save the money. Or it could involve an act of extraordinary generosity by a patron. Whatever the case, the act of purchasing freedom is the word Timothy and Paul use here: redemption.

Paul and Timothy equate this redemption with the gift of forgiveness. In Christ, we have been liberated from the addiction of sin. Thanks to God in Christ, the rescue offered by Christ redeems us from every form of slavery. No longer shackled, no longer demeaned, no longer unable to determine your own future – we are free! As long, of course, as we wish to be free. As long as we welcome that Christ has paid our redemption through the cost of his life.

That reminds me of a Christmas carol, the Sussex Carol:

On Christmas night all Christians sing / to hear the news the angels bring:
News of great joy, news of great mirth, news of our merciful King’s birth.
Then why should we on earth be sad, since our Redeemer made us glad?
When from our sin He has set us free, all for to gain our liberty?
When sin departs before His grace, then life and health come in his place;
Angels and (all) with joy may sing, all for to see the newborn king.

There is the rescue from the powers of darkness. There is redemption from the powers of oppression. And ultimately there is the gift of reconciliation.

Reconciliation is the bringing together of two parties that have been at war with one another. If we have been rescued, if God in Christ has redeemed us, there is nothing to keep us from living in peace with God.

You know the favorite Christmas carol:

Hark, the herald angels sing! Glory to the newborn king.
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.

To be reconciled is to be in complete relationship. There is nothing withheld and nothing to disrupt. There is, as Paul writes elsewhere, nothing that shall can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8). This is the experience of reconciliation.

Now, I know it’s hard to accept this completely. Life is full of disruptions that throw us off balance. There are people with whom we differ, opinions we find had to understand. Someone out there is always trying to disrupt the peace. Others are compelled by their own brokenness to attempt to break somebody else.

Yet the truth of the Gospel is God has provided for the reconciliation of “all things.” All things.

It’s like Dietrich Bonhoeffer described life in the church. You go to church and you’re surrounded by enemies. It’s no different than living in the world: there are enemies all around you. In the church, there are all these broken sinners, people whose lives have been a complete mess. And you are one of them.

Then the Gospel is announced: in Christ, God comes to rescue us. In Christ, all are redeemed, and sins are forgiven. Your sins are forgiven, and that is good news. Right over there, your enemies’ sins are also forgiven. You might not like that, because you are still holding onto a grudge, even if Christ is no longer holding onto it. Our reconciliation to one another, our ability to live in peace together, is because Christ has forgiven each of us.  In Christian fellowship, you cannot hold onto the anger and resentment that Christ has already released and let go.

As Bonhoeffer says, “Christian (fellowship) is not an ideal which we much realize; it is rather a reality by God I Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all of our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.”[1]

Or to quote Paul and Timothy, “in Christ, all things hold together.” Not “some things” but all things. Not merely the things we approve of, or the people with whom we agree; all things. And not merely the things and people we see, but all things – all things were made through Christ, in Christ, and for Christ, both in heaven and on earth. It is the greatest claim of all scripture, that “in Christ, all things hold together.” And it’s remarkable that it says, “all things in heaven and earth.”

Fifty years ago this weekend, a Presbyterian elder landed on the moon. His name was Buzz Aldrin. Before he blasted off, he told his pastor he “had been struggling to find the right symbol for the first lunar landing.” He wanted to find something that would signify how this mission transcended electronics, computers, and rockets. The two of them wondered if it was possible to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion on the moon.

His pastor gave Aldrin a small silver chalice and a vial of wine. A communion wafer was carried in an airtight pouch. Aldrin had thought about sharing the event with the world over the radio, but some atheists had recently sued NASA after previous astronauts read from the book of Genesis when they had orbited the moon. A public celebration was ruled out.

But the moment came when Buzz Aldrin went off the radio and read the words of Jesus: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit, for you can do nothing without me.” Then he took the bread, broke it and ate it. With just enough gravity on the moon, he poured the wine into the chalice and drank it.[2]

The quiet testimony of this Presbyterian elder was simply this: “Through Christ, God was please to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”

The testimony is still true. It gathers us every week and send us out to serve. We are rescued, redeemed, and reconciled to God. Thank be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954) p. 30.
[2] Here is an account of the full story: “9 Things You Should Know About the Communion Service on the Moon,” Joe Carter, The Gospel Coalition, July 17, 2019.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

For the Good of All

Galatians 5:26-6:10
July 8, 2019
William G. Carter

Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads. Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time. So then whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

It caught my attention because Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens.” This is how you fulfill the law of Christ, the law of love: bear one another’s burdens. I can’t think of a better word for the church, the nation, the neighborhood, and for you and me.

It’s a quick admonition dropped into a couple of paragraphs of advice. This was Paul’s general plan for writing a letter: say hello, bless the people you’re addressing, lay out the truth of the Gospel, and give them advice. We hear some of that: restore the sinner with gentleness, avoid temptation, don’t inflate your opinion of yourself, carry your own load, don’t grow weary in doing what’s right, and especially work for the good of all.

In the thick of it all is an expression of mutual care: bear one another’s burdens.

It’s remarkable because it affirms everybody has a burden. No one is exempt. Oh, maybe they try and hide it, pretend in public that it’s no big deal. “Are you OK?” Oh, I buried my father, lost my job, haven’t heard from the kids, and I contracted Lyme’s disease…but I’ll be OK. This is church. I’m supposed to put on a good face in church, isn’t that right?

No, this is the church. In here, we are commanded to take care of one another, to model for the world what it means to love our neighbors. If it can’t happen in the family of faith, how will it ever happen in the world?

If you read the early history of the first Christian community, you discover how radical this was, especially in an empire that ran on power and domination. In the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, here is one of the first descriptions of what it means to belong to Christ:

The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common...There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32, 34-35)

That’s a description of the church. "They were of one heart and one mind." Obviously they weren’t Presbyterians. Put three Presbyterians in the same room and you may have four or five opinions.

"No one claimed private ownership of any possessions. Everything they owned was held in common." Have you ever heard of such a thing? My little brother used to steal my socks. I said, “Put on your own socks. Those are mine.”

Then it says, "There was not a needy person among them." That’s the most astounding description of all. There are only two ways for a church to get described like that. The first is to be very selective in your membership. Never let in a needy person. The second is to take care of one another.

That early snapshot from Christian history embodies the advice Paul gives. Those Christians believed Jesus was alive and the world had changed. They gave up selfishness. They stopped putting people in categories. They refused to let wealth and poverty separate them into two different ghettoes. They ignored the world’s adjectives: male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free. They traded in their pronouns: “me” became “us,” “mine” became “ours.” What an incredible picture of what it looks like to love neighbor in the name of Jesus.

I try to imagine somebody in coffee hour, saying, "Listen, Stephen, I have a big house with four bedrooms, and there are only the two of us. You are married with seven kids, living in a two-room shack. That's not fair. Let me sell my house, give you the money, and you can buy something more suitable." Can you believe it? The Bible invites us to believe it: to bear one another’s burdens.

Now, I realize old Paul gets a bad rap from modern day people. But I have to say he has this right. His word about bearing burdens is right next to a line about not thinking too much of yourself. That’s exactly right. You can’t truly care for somebody else if you are preoccupied for yourself.

It’s the kind of lesson that Father Henri Nouwen said he had to learn over and over again. Before he taught at Harvard and Yale, he was teaching at Notre Dame. One day he was strolling across the Indiana campus with an older professor. And the man said,

"You know Henri, my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted: I'd have a needy student, or an intrusive colleague, or the phone would ring, or I'd get a letter from the dean that needed a response. It never failed: I would get settled down to do some serious work of my own, and there would be an interruption. I've always complained about that, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work."[1]

It's true, isn't it? If we’re busy climbing the ladder to competence and greatness, we get interrupted. The kids want somebody to play ball. Our significant other needs a hug when you're busy doing something important. The phone rings when you're sitting down at the supper table - it's a friend who has a crisis; “Can you come right away?”  Well, it's supper time. One interruption after another.

If you stop to handle every interruption, you never get to your own agenda. Instead you spend a great deal of time and energy on people outside yourself... which, if you read the Gospels, sounds a lot like what Jesus did.

What if we really did care about one another at least as much as we care about ourselves?

Sometimes I wonder if Americans have confused freedom with independence. We have let counterfeits preach freedom when they really meant independence. It’s here in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The freedom of the gospel has very little to do with independence, because independence means, “I don’t need you, I don’t need my parents, I don’t need my neighbors, I don’t need anybody. I don’t really even need God. I can handle life by myself.”

But true freedom means we are free from turning in upon ourselves. The grace of God sets us free from the imprisonment of our whims and our drive to get ahead. We are free to be there for one another. We are free to carry one another’s burdens, because all of us have a burden. 

I realize this is a wonderful ideal, even if it strikes us as quaint, old fashioned, or even strange. I recall a conversation that I had with an architect named Bill Jones before he moved out of town. I asked, “What is the most significant change in architecture that you’ve ever known?” He didn’t have to give it a minute’s thought. His answer: the elimination of the front porch and the addition of the backyard deck.

You know why he said that. We used to talk to neighbors when they walked by. Now we retreat out of sight to the barbeque grill. We don’t even know the names of our neighbors.

The Gospel calls us to a different way to live. It’s the way of living together. It requires the life-giving conversion of making room for others, even if they are different or you disagree.

Some of us experienced this a week ago in our memorial service for Ed Cole. That wily curmudgeon wrote his own eulogy – and then asked a lifelong political opponent to read it for all of us. It was pure Ed; he gave a couple of gentle elbows to his reader. What was so astonishing, so Christ-like, was that it modeled for us what it means to pursue the common good. There is something more important than winning or being right: it’s loving one another, bumps and all, finding common ground, and serving a great good.

In his final letter to the Scranton Times-Tribune, published a few days before his death, Ed reminded us of the words from President Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” We’ve forgotten that advice, he said, or at least our leaders have forgotten it, if they ever knew it. 

So, he declared, “we need leaders who will work together across aisles and divide and do it for the benefit of all… That’s when all of us will prosper.”[2] Sounds like Ed was reading the last chapter of Galatians: “Let us work for the good of all.”

The Gospel gives us this kind of freedom, the freedom to become deeply human. It’s about being kind, but it’s so much more than being kind. It’s about growing into our baptisms in Christ, becoming the people Christ has claimed us to be. It’s about taking one another seriously, and pausing from our own agendas long enough to really listen to the person in front of you. Because he or she is carrying a burden – and so are you.

And the second greatest truth after the truth of Christ’s resurrection is the truth that we’re in this life together. It’s just as Henri Nouwen said somewhere, “The opposite of compassion is competition.” We can’t really care for one another if we are dead-set on nosing ahead of everybody else. But if have the clear and abiding sense that “I cannot truly flourish unless I help you to flourish,” maybe, just maybe we will get through the dark.

For in the end, the best evidence of our Christian faith is our ability to love for one another. To make ourselves available to those in need. To empty our pockets for other people's children. To welcome as family those to whom we are not related. In the words of Paul, “to work for the good of all.”

In the early days of the church, a wise Christian preacher announced the implications of our faith in this way:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death . . . We know love by this - that he laid down his life for us - and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anybody who has the world's good and sees a brother and sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:14, 16-18)

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved

[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Image Books, 1986) 52.
[2] Edward Cole, “Healing Needed,” The Scranton Times-Tribune, 20 May 2019.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Afraid of Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Mark 5:13

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Still Unfolding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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