Saturday, February 10, 2018

Chiaroscuro Grace

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Transfiguration / Mardi Gras
February 11, 2018
William G. Carter 

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Here are the actual minutes from a church council meeting in the Catskills:

“The meeting was opened with prayer at 6:07 p.m. The meeting opened with the lighting of the Christ candle as a reminder of the God who leads, guides, challenges, and supports us. The council attempted to light on fire a battery-powered candle. Then, when that didn’t work, they lit a real candle.”[1]

File that away under “You Can’t Make This Up.” They tried to ignite a battery-powered candle.

I know what I like about that little story. It reminds us how anybody, even the folks in a church, can miss the light. The opportunity might be right in front of them and they still miss it. Call them clueless, I suppose, or unobservant, or preoccupied with something else – but they cannot see the light.

In the brief passage we heard a minute ago, the apostle Paul says something else is going on. People can be “blinded,” he says. He’s talking about people who can otherwise count their fingers and discern different colors, but there’s something that keeps them from seeing the difference between a battery-powered plastic candle and a real candle made of wax with a wick.

More to the point, they can’t see the Gospel, even though its right in front of them.

Now, I’m sure when some Christian-kind-of-people hear this text, they blanch a little bit, because for them, the Gospel is really obvious. It’s clear, it’s out there for everybody to see and hear. If you’ve ever driven through South Carolina, seen all the Bible billboards, the message is out there for everybody to see: Jesus died for our sins, we are forgiven, that’s that. Just put it out there and everybody will understand.

But that doesn’t always work. Back in the day when my parents drove us around in a paneled station wagon, sometimes we passed a big neon sign. In big red letter, the sign declared, “Jesus saves!” I thought it was a bank. I couldn’t see the smaller words beneath (“Park Avenue Baptist Church”). And I was too young to know any better.

These days, I would add that, just because you put up a sign, it doesn’t mean the sign will transform anybody’s life. The message must always have a messenger.

In recent years, a number of news channels have gone looking for a Christian representative to give a perspective on the issues of the day, kind of their token commentator, kept on a retainer fee. I don’t know where they find these people. They don’t sound very Christian to me – spewing hatred, division, exclusion, and doing so in an arrogant way – they don’t sound like Jesus at all.

The Gospel needs something more than a messenger; There needs to be some consistency with the message.

I lived out in Newton Township for nine years, right along the Newton Ransom Boulevard. A few minutes before 5:00 on a Saturday afternoon, it became Newton Ransom Speedway. I had to keep the cats indoors. It dawned on me that the heavy traffic coincided with conclusion of mass at Saint Benedict’s church. So I mentioned it to the priest, a larger than life character with an enormous laugh.

Msr. Bendick said, “Ahh, it's the mass right before everybody goes out to dinner. Do you know how that mass concludes? I say, ‘The mass is over, go in peace,’ and the people respond, ‘get the heck out of my way.’ And to think that all the spiritual benefits of that mass were quickly lost on those who competed to be first out of the church, first out of the parking lot, first back in town.”

Go in peace, get out of my way. I used to hear some of them honk their horns.

After Paul left the Corinthian Church, a church he started, some of the people there were blowing their horns. They were calling attention to themselves and making a lot of noise. The new leaders thought the first thing to do was to put down the leaders who came before them. “Paul didn’t know a lot,” they said. “He wasn’t very good,” they said. “He had a lot of flaws, he didn’t have a lot of sermons, he made a lot of mistakes.”

Apparently they attempted to prove their superiority, putting on a good show, declaring a few miracles, trying to pack the house so they could impress one another. In this letter, Paul refers to them as “super apostles.” It’s sarcastic, like calling them “super duper apostles.” He calls them “boasters” and “braggarts,” only interested in proclaiming themselves.

And in their lack of integrity, they were the exact opposite of Jesus, who comes humbly, who calls no attention to himself, who gives himself freely to those in need. As Paul will say a little later in this letter, “For such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness.” (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

In other words, when it comes to being a Christian, it is possible to fake it. Say the right words, but the heart is evil. Say the wrong words but declare yourself the authority. Try to light the plastic candle. Go in peace, get out of my way.

What is interesting to me is not that Paul calls out the hypocrisy. God knows, there is plenty of hypocrisy! No, what interests me is there is something about the character of the Gospel that can be hidden in the shadows. That the Good News is not obvious to everybody. That it takes some work, even some discipline to tease it out.

We know this to be true. The simplest essence of the Gospel is that ‘God loves us even though we do not deserve it.’ That’s the simplest expression of God’s grace. Yet there are a lot of people who do not believe they are worthy of any love. There are others who believe they have to work hard to earn any love. And then there are others who believe they deserve the love – but nobody else does. Each is a spiritual misfire of the Gospel truth, that ‘God loves us even though we do not deserve it.’

Where do the distortions come from?  In his letter, the apostle uses a phrase that he never uses anywhere else. He says, “The god of this world has blinded their minds… to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ.”  The “god of this world” – wait a second, Paul is a Jew. He only believes in one God, the God who made this world, the God who loves us, the God who sends Jesus to save and salvage us. Yes, there’s only one God.

Yet the world seems to distort everything. If the world shrugs off God, it starts to create a false reality and start lying to us. It’s the world that says there’s nothing lovable about us, that all our best efforts come to naught, that truth is merely another word for opinion. And then come all the other lies, that might makes right, that some are superior to others, that the poor and the weak exist only to be plundered, that if only you keep yelling loudly enough everybody will eventually agree with you. In such a world, what is real? Might as well grab what you can.

Well, contrary to all of that, let me tell you what is real: light is real.

Years ago, I met a lady in a church in Philadelphia. She was the clerk of session, and she spoke in a heavy European accent. At the coffee pot, she said her name was Ilse – beautiful name. “I’m German,” she said.

When she was a small child in Dresden, her city was bombed in the war. She and her family hid in the basement. Her mother said, “Don’t be afraid. God will make a way for us to survive.” When the bombs quieted her father and uncle pushed up through the rubble. Suddenly a shaft of light shone into the basement from above. “Ever since,” Ilse said, “I have associated God with light.” She paused, wiped away a tear, and said, “That’s why I believe.”

The apostle Paul knows what you and I know: there is light, but the light is not always obvious. It may be hidden in the shadows. And that’s why there’s an unusual word in the sermon title. It’s pronounced “key-arrow-scuro.” I learned from a jazz record company, a company that now belongs to our local public radio station. If you tune in after 10:00 p.m. on weeknights, you hear the “Chiaroscuro Jazz station” on WVIA.

The name comes from the world of art. It has to do with the interplay of light and shadows. If you look at Rembrandt, for instance, you see how he shines the light on what he wants you to see, but there is always something going on in the shadows.

That’s why Andy Sordoni and Hank O’Neal called their record label “Chiaroscuro Records.” There were a lot of jazz musicians, wonderful musicians, who were hiding in the shadows. Many were not widely known. They were extraordinary artists, but nobody knew about them, so Andy and Hank said, “We have to bring them out of the shadows.” Chiaroscuro.

The grace of God is like that. It is bright light, the brightest light – but it is not obvious to all.

Imagine what it would be like to live in complete light – a thousand two-hundred watt bulbs bathing you. Nothing would be hidden. There would be no secrets. All would be known. All would be forgiven. All would be completely known without any embarrassment or shame. And the warmth of that light would feel a lot like love. Surrounded in light, we could live in complete acceptance, feet flat on the floor, with no need to impress, flaunt, or deceive. Everything would be real.

So why don’t we live like that? Maybe because the world and all of its shadows have tried to convince us that’s all there is. But should the bombing stop and the rubble be removed, the shaft of light is still there…because it’s real. The grace and love of God are real. The glory of God on the face of Jesus is real. We can live in that light. And if we live in it, we can shine it all around.

That’s why we are here, you know. To encourage one another and live in the light. And that’s why we make  joyful music in the dead of winter – to declare the long shadows of winter are not going to win. The light has come. The light has broken through. And for our part, we shine that light everywhere we go.

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

[1] Minutes, Woodstock Reformed Church Consistory Meeting, 10/03/201

Saturday, February 3, 2018

An Obligation is Laid Upon Me

1 Corinthians 9:16-23
5th Ordinary
February 4, 2018
William G. Carter

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

I want to tell you a story about my friend Virginia. When she was growing up, she didn’t like football. She never wanted to go to a high school game, even though it was the only thing on a Friday night in the small town where she grew up. But she was in the marching band, so she had to go. She played her horn in the bleachers, talked to her friends, and ate a slice of cold pizza while the game was going on. She couldn’t care less about football.

She went to a college that didn’t have a football team. They had a library, with actual books. She took classes and got good grades. There was no distraction from a stadium, no parking problems, no overpriced tickets, no rah-rah-rah. Her college career had no football, and she was alright with that.

The same can be said of the graduate school she attended, which was the same school I attended. I played on an intramural team. My friends tossed the ball around on the green space on the center of the campus, until the campus security guard said, “Get off the field; it’s not for sports.” Virginia probably smirked at that. For her, football was an unnecessary distraction from real life.

Did I mention that she never liked football? In fact, someone once asked about her favorite team. Without much thought, she said, “The Chicago Bears.” Why the Bears? “Well, they are far from home,” she said, “they don’t win a lot of games, so they won’t require a lot of my energy.”

We graduated from school. Both of us were ordained as ministers. She went her way, I went mine. I started out in the Lehigh Valley, and she went to a town called Peckville. Within minutes of her landing there, the phone rang. She was invited to give the opening prayer at the annual football banquet for the Valley View Cougars. “The priests were all busy,” she said, “so they called the new kid on the block.”

That was thirty-four years ago. And in most of the years since, she has gone back to offer the prayer.

She is not able to come over to my house this afternoon to eat chicken wings and enjoy the Super Bowl. But I have noticed that football has grown on her, without compromising any of her values. You see, she’s kind of sneaky. She slips in a little Gospel whenever she prays. For instance, she might pray, “Almighty God, even though we live in a world of fierce competition, you embrace equally the losers and the winners. We thank you, Lord, that we don't need to be champions to be saved by your love.” That's the kind of prayer that she prays, and every year they keep inviting her back.

Given what I have told you about her, you might wonder: why did she keep going to the Valley View football banquets? (Go ahead: ask!) Virginia said, “That’s where the people are; and if I have an opportunity to be with them and share the Good News, then that’s where I need to go.”

It’s an interesting little parable.

Years ago, we had a wonderful man who moved to our region. He came from one of the turnpike exits in New Jersey and landed in a county seat town, not far from here. It was an awkward fit. The people didn’t take to him very well.

A few friends went to check on him, and see if they could help. One of them said, “What do you do on Friday nights?” He said, “That’s our night to stay home, read a book, watch a couple of cop shows on TV.” The friend said, “Ever think about going to a high school football game? Everybody in town is there.” And he replied, “Why would I want to do that?” He didn’t last very long, and it had nothing to do with football.

That’s a similar, but very different, little parable.

So the critics and the cranks in Corinth were going after the apostle Paul. They didn’t care that he started their little church. They didn’t care that he had moved on to another place. They found plenty to pick at him: he wasn’t tall and good looking, he had a squeaky voice. He didn’t do a lot of miracles, didn’t move a lot of mountains, didn’t pack the church with more and more people every week.

In fact, they said, he had only one sermon and kept preaching it over and over again. “You’re right about that,” he said, “I preach Christ crucified; that’s all I ever preach. The cross is the power of God.” So they criticized him some more.

Here in chapter 9, he defends himself. "I am not bound by anybody's opinions or expectations," he says. “Neither am I bound by anybody's money. I am free. My preaching does not depend on what people think of me. My ministry does not depend on conning people out of their hard-earned wages. No, what matters most is what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ. That there is Good News from God which comes free of charge.”

“So,” he says, “I will speak of the saving love of Jesus Christ wherever I can. In feast and famine. In places of comfort and places of hostility. I will go and preach anywhere, and I will talk to anybody, because I am free. The Gospel of Christ has set me free from my own neediness, my own brokenness. The love of God is sufficient for me to make it available to as many people as I can."

Do you know why churches stop growing? It’s because the people in the church stop thinking they have any good news to offer to anybody else. It is possible to grow insulated, to surround yourself with people just like you, to withdraw into your own little cocoon, to pull back from the world, to not even know the names of the people who move in next door.

A few years ago, I met a man named Phil Tom. He was the guy that the Presbyterian churches called when they said they wanted to reach out and bring more people into their building. Phil would set up an appointment with the church leaders, say on a Thursday night at 7:00. He would arrive at 5:00, park the car, and walk around the neighborhood.

At 7:00, the folks would show up. These were tired Presbyterians. They would drag themselves into the church, plop down in their favorite chairs, and say, “Phil, what can you do for us to bring more people into our church?”

He would ask, “Whom are you missing?” They would say, “We don’t have any young families.” Phil would say, “Really?” “Yes,” came the reply, “There are no young families around here.”

Phil pulled out a pad of paper and said, “Is that so? Did you know that within a three block radius of this church building, I counted fifteen homes with swing sets, five play houses and seven soccer balls in back yards, eight bicycles, to say nothing of some kids riding skateboards or shooting basketballs.”

One tired Presbyterian said, “But none of those people come to our church.” Phil smiled and said, “What are their names?” “We don’t know their names. In fact, most of us drive when we come to church.”

Oh, said Phil, “So you don’t have a relationship with the people with kids who live within three blocks of your church building?” Another tired Presbyterian said, “But they don’t come to our church.”

And Phil smiled and said, “Why don’t you go to them? Why don’t you knock on the door, say hello, take a fresh baked loaf of bread, learn who they are, and begin a friendship? Maybe you could find out if your church could offer to meet their needs in some way.” Many times, most of the time, Phil said that was the end of the conversation. “I move we adjourn.”

Do you know why churches stop growing? It happens when the people in the church stop thinking they have any good news to offer to anybody else. They would prefer to drive past their neighbors, go inside the building and hide for an hour, and drive past their neighbors to go home.

But not so with the apostle Paul. “An obligation is laid upon me,” he said. “It is a necessity.” The Greek word is “anagke” -- necessity – the sense is, “God has opened my heart with the riches of divine mercy, and I simply must share that mercy with everybody I can. It is my necessity.”

Paul’s play for outreach goes like this: “I will take them seriously, as they are. If they are Jews, I will speak as a Jew. If they are Gentiles, I will speak as a Gentile. If they are Patriots fans, I will use a Boston accent (“Park the car in Harvard yard”). If they are Eagles fans, I will say, 'Hey youse guys' and eat a pretzel with mustard.”

“And even if I can’t stand football, I will go to the high school football banquet and offer a prayer, because that’s where the people are.”

So I think about these things, on a day when we celebrate the life and work of our congregation, and I ask, “Who will be the next people that we can befriend on behalf of Jesus?” And I think about these things, as we gather around the Lord’s Table. A table is a community piece of furniture. There is grace and mercy for all. There’s room here for everyone.

And if they are not here, we need to take it to them. The obligation is laid upon us all, and that obligation is God’s blessing.

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

Saturday, January 27, 2018

On Not Wounding a Weak Conscience

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
4th Ordinary
January 28, 2018
William G. Carter

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

I’ll bet you couldn’t wait to get to church today! I’ll bet you couldn’t wait to hear what Paul says about eating food dedicated to idols. Well, maybe not.

A scripture text like this reminds us of the distance between then and now. This is an ancient text, a letter between an itinerant preacher and one of the congregations he began. And we can feel the distance between their situation and our own. Perhaps a few of us couldn’t even follow what that passage is about.

Would it help to hear that the topic they discussed was not Paul’s idea? It was the Corinthians’ idea, not his. They brought it up, and they did so in a way that revealed some of the problems in that church. Every church has a know-it-all, it seems, the resident expert who seems to be there to set everybody else straight. That happens in any human organization, so it can happen in a church.

Well, the Corinthian church had a number of know-it-alls. They tried to outdo one another in bragging about how much they knew. The evidence is in the English text, which captures the situation exactly: all the know-it-alls were throwing their wisdom at one another, if only to prove they were smarter than the next one. They had moved beyond having a reasonable conversation to hurling slogans. Slogans! You can’t have a conversation with bumper stickers. It’s hit and run.

First slogan went like this: “All of us possess knowledge.” Next slogan was this: “No idol really exists,” that is, there is no such thing as a replacement for God. Then the next genius clears his throat to declare, “There is no God but one.” He wants to sound smart and pious.

Then a fourth person tries to ace them all, to say, “Food will not bring us close to God.” I think his name was Captain Obvious, and clearly he was not a Jew keeping a Kosher diet.

You know what they are doing? They are squabbling in that church. Rather than deal directly or wisely with the conflict, they hurl words at one another - - and they miss one another in the ways that count.

So Paul responds by quoting these slogans and weaving then into his response. It’s masterful. He feeds them off their own plate and invites them to eat their words. Back in chapter one, we knew this was going to happen. In the opening words of the letter he says, “You Corinthians are so full of speech and knowledge.” (1:5) He was winking at them, maybe even kicking them.

Does it help to know that this is his way of intervening in a conflict? Maybe so, maybe not.

Would it help to know that there’s more to the issue than first appears? You know how it is. The lady raises her voice that the sidewalks aren’t clear; what’s really going on is she is afraid of falling. The man over here complains how he can’t hear the little girls at the microphone; actually he is losing his hearing, or he is ambivalent about kids leading worship for adults.

My favorite squabble, of all the squabbles in my career, was the forty-five minute argument at a session meeting on whether they should serve fresh brewed coffee or Folger’s crystals at coffee hour. Forty five minutes! I blew a whistle, tried to shut it down. They said, “You’re only the pastor, be quiet!” I came to realize the argument wasn’t about coffee at all.

On the face of it, the Corinthians faced a small matter, especially compared to all the other dramas going on in that congregation. This issue was whether or not a Christian could eat steak that had been dedicated to Zeus, whether a church family could eat lamb offered in a sacrifice to Aphrodite, whether or not the chili cook-off could include venison consecrated to Venus.

So some of the know-it-alls said, “There’s only one God. Pagan idols are stupid. Get over it.” But Paul knows something more is going on.

As scholar Ken Bailey tells us, all the pagan temples in Corinth had their celebrations. Sometimes they would get a lot of meat and offer it up to their favorite Greek god or goddess, and later it might be discounted, and it might be the only protein that impoverished family could afford.[1] There was some economic justice behind the question.

Plus there was the bigger issue, which still remains with us: how do Christians make their way through a pagan society? How do you shop at an indifferent marketplace when much of the stuff for sale doesn’t reflect your values? As Bailey asks, “Do you accommodate yourself to that world, and to what extent? Do you blend in or stand apart?”[2]

Bailey, as you might remember, was a Presbyterian missionary in the Middle East for thirty years. He had the same experience when he retired from Beirut, moved back to western Pennsylvania, and walked into a Walmart for the first time. It all seemed so pagan.

Does it help to hear this small matter is bigger than it seems? Maybe, maybe not.

Would it help to know that Paul addresses all of this as a good pastor? Some of you may have been told you shouldn’t like the apostle Paul, that, for instance, he gives first century advice to first century women ... probably because he lived in the first century. Or that he still struggled as a Jew to make sense of how God was calling him to speak increasingly to a world of Gentiles? It was awkward.

Paul was given the task of proclaiming a Messiah to a Mediterranean world that wasn’t looking for a Messiah. He was “under obligation,” he says – “under obligation” to proclaim the crucifixion of Jesus is the power of God – and to say it to an empire that worshiped the kind of power that used chariots and iron spears.

And what he is doing is offering his best thinking to matters that otherwise seem worldly and mundane. “Brother Paul, can we eat meatballs dedicated to Mars, the god of war?” Or: can we eat chicken wings dedicated to the god of the Eagles?

And do you remember how he responds? By reminding them of the creed: “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” In other words, think big!  Think as big as God!

If in your Christian conscience, you find the pagan world confusing, if not downright dangerous, remember God, the One God, the real God, the big God! God made all of this, even if the world has forgotten its origin,  even if the people of the world have grown indifferent to their single Creator. So there is one God, source of all life, maker of the beef for your chili dogs and the shrimp for your gumbo.

Take these matters that seem so trivial – and use your very best Christian thinking to find a way forward!

One year, I was proud of our confirmation class. Every class is smart, and this class was exceptional. They asked tough questions. They wanted real answers. I was so impressed, in fact, that when the day came for them to meet with our elders, I said, “Ask these elders whatever you want.” The elders looked at me, like, “Hey, why are you doing this? We didn’t have to endure you in class.” But I said, “Give them the best answers you can,” and I was proud of our elders.

First question, out of the gate: “Who was Jesus, really? Was he God or was he human?” The elders looked stunned, but slowly they rose to the occasion. Next question: “If Jesus is alive, where is he right now?” One of the shortstops fielded that ground ball. Then another: “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I thought that kid might get a ground rule double on that one, but an elder took a stab and caught the ball.

Then came the question from a 14-year-old that I knew was coming: “Why can’t we drink wine for communion?” One of the confirmation parents was an elder, and she started getting red in the face. “Now, wait,” I said, “let’s give them an honest answer, rather than simply say ‘You’re too young for wine.’”

The elders thought for a minute and one of them said, “Communion is when we affirm Christ gave his life for us, and that his Easter life is now in us, so we don’t want to cheapen it by thinking it’s a drunken party.” I was so impressed, I wrote that down. And another said, “If we aren’t drinking wine in church, why start now? It’s not our practice.”

Then somebody else said, “In our Book of Order, it says if you serve wine (and you can), then you must serve grape juice as an alternative in order to be sensitive to those who have a problem or an addiction to alcohol.” And the kid said, “Really? I didn’t know that; what a nice thing to do.” All of them got an A+ on that exam.

It’s not only about being right. It’s about being kind.

So the apostle Paul gives his counsel. “If eating creates a problem for somebody around you, you don’t have to eat. As followers of Jesus, you are free to eat (or drink) whatever you wish, but don’t use that freedom to destroy the soul of another person for whom Christ has died.” Because that’s the issue for the Christian community we call the church. We look to God, the one God, the true God, the big God – and we pay attention to one another.

Remember what Paul says a few chapters after this? “Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. (Love) does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful… love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love does not cease.” (13:4-8)

We don’t live for ourselves; in love, we are subject to one another. This is how we live. We help one another. We watch out for one another. We work for the good of all. We pay attention to one another. And we are only as fast as the slowest person among us. Love binds us to regard each person, and wait for each one, that we might travel together toward God’s kingdom.

As football fans know, next week nobody will be waving Terrible Towels. For those of you who are not football fans, these are the gold and black terrycloth towels that Pittsburgh Steelers fans wave whenever their team takes a breath, and the Steelers didn’t make it into next week’s big game.

The Terrible Towel was the idea of Myron Cope, longtime Pittsburgh broadcaster, who died ten years ago. Myron cooked up the idea in 1975, and it really caught on. Every year, over a half million Terrible Towels are produced to be sold for about $7 dollars each. 

What a lot of people don’t know is Myron Cope donated the trademark for his towels to the Allegheny Valley School. That’s a network of homes for people with severe disabilities. Myron could have made millions on the Terrible Towels, but he donated all the proceeds to the school, because he was grateful for what that school did for his son Danny.

You see, Danny is a resident of one of the Allegheny Valley facilities. He is now 50 years old. He has never spoken a word, and has severely limited reasoning abilities. Whenever the Steelers play and their fans wave their Terrible Towels, Danny may not understand any of it.

But that’s all right, because what really matters is that his father never ran too far ahead of him. And that is the measure of love.

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

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011) 239.
[2] Ibid. 229.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Free, Like a Single Person

1 Corinthians 7:20-35 (29-31)
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 21, 2018
William G. Carter

The first issue today is deciding where to begin the reading in chapter seven.  The lectionary reading says verses 29 to 31, but those are the concluding verses of a paragraph. The paragraph begins with the words, “Now concerning virgins,” and I’m not sure we want to begin there. So we back it up for verses to verse 21, and discover Paul is talking about slavery. Well, that’s a little awkward. And then if we back it up one more verse, to verse 20, we discover that is really the theme verse. So let us attend to the reading:

Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.
Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.
Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.

I wonder if Paul ever dreamed that his correspondence would end up in the Bible. He traveled around the Mediterranean world, preaching the Gospel and planting congregations. After he Paul would start a church in a major city, give them the basic teaching, get them up and running, and then move on. Sometime later they tracked him down to ask, “Hey, what about this?” Sometimes we forget that Paul wrote his letters to offer practical advice

It was inevitable he would go to Corinth. Corinth was a port city in Greece, not far from Athens. Paul struck up a friendship with a married couple, Priscilla and Aquila, two exiles from Rome who were ordered to leave because they were Jews. They worked together. Paul preached in the synagogue each Sabbath, declaring that the Messiah had come, and it was Jesus. It went well, then it didn’t go well, and Paul moved on. He was there for a year and a half. He left behind a congregation that got a new preacher, but that preacher didn’t have all the answers.

When Paul was among them, they heard him preach about the end of the world. It was an idea right out of the Jewish scriptures. The Day of the Lord will come. God will appear as the final judge. All the world’s wrongs will be righted. Every human tear will be wiped away. Every human institution will come to an end, and the faithful will greet the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s going to come in the twinkling of an eye. It can happen at any moment. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Watch for the Lord. Do his work while you wait. This is what Paul preached. Then off he went, floating across the sea.

To the Corinthians, that was good news. They lived in the afterglow of that sermon. And then, one of the Corinthians ambled up to another in coffee hour on week. He said, “You know, Demetrius, I’m still remembering everything Paul preached to us. He said the Lord will come at any time. But here’s my issue. I’m engaged to get married next month to my fiancĂ© Junias. If Jesus is coming back at any moment, do you think we should go ahead with the wedding?”

Demetrius looked at him, and said, “Andronicus, what do you mean?”

Andronicus took a swig of his coffee and said, “Well, I was thinking. If the Lord is at hand, why get marred? Why spend all that money on a priest, a caterer, florist, and a band if the end of the world is near? For that matter, why get married at all? It seems like marriage is an earthly institution, not a heavenly one. What do you think?”

What do we think, indeed? I’ll bet some of us haven’t thought about that. At a Christian wedding, the couple says “until death do us part.” We can assume “death” includes the end of the world. In heaven, every married person becomes a free agent once again, just like all the single people. Presumably all of us will be too busy singing in the choir to be married up there. At least, that’s always been the New Testament view.

One time, some people tried to trick Jesus on just this issue. They asked him about a hypothetical woman who kept being married after one husband after another died. “In the resurrection,” they cajoled him, “whose wife will she be?” Or to put it in a first-century context, whose piece of property will she be? Jesus gave a heavenly answer: the resurrection is so much more than what we know down here. In this age, some people marry; in that age, the coming age, God’s ways are so far beyond human institutions such as marriage. (Mark 12:18-27)

Now, the Mormon Church sees it differently. The Mormons believe that if you get married down here, you will still be married up there. When a divorced woman heard that, she said, “I knew there was a good reason why I’m not a Mormon.”

Well, back to Corinth: Marriage, Singleness, and the End of the World – those were some of the hot topics at the Corinthian coffee hour. Demetrius and Andronicus, our hypothetical Christians, wanted to know. As best we can tell, that’s why Paul wrote this section of the letter – to answer their concerns.

As far as we know, Paul never married. Just as well, I suppose; we can’t imagine who might ever want to married to him. But he did try to answer as faithfully as he could. Three times, he gives the same advice: “I’d suggest that you stay the way you are.” The return of Christ will sneak up on us. It will break in like a thief in the night. His reasoning went like this: don’t invest yourself in the present order when the end of all things is at hand. Don’t spend a lot of energy building something that it not going to last.

For Paul, his first impulse was to say, “Andronicus, cancel the wedding. Jesus is returning at any moment.” If you are single, stay the way you are. If you are married, remain married, but, well, on the other hand, uh, well . . . and then his circuits begin to fizzle.

No sooner does Paul say all of this when he realizes he had better qualify what he says. He remembers Junias with her dark pretty eyes, and how she lights up with joy whenever Andronicus walks into the room. Surely he cannot oppose a couple’s happiness, especially when we don’t really know when Jesus will actually arrive. He remembers that couple, remembers how much they love one another, and how can he speak against that?

Paul knows what all of us know. It takes a lot of energy to be married. It’s not easy to love, much less to remain lovable. I still chuckle over the television commercial. A wife is trying on a new outfit in front of a mirror. She asks the fateful question, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” Immediately he says, “Do you think I’m stupid?” Marriage has its share of landmines. One false step and something could blow up.

But singleness is no piece of cake either. It’s different for everybody. Some who are single are content to stay that way; any kind of relationship would be a complication. Others grow weary of preparing meals for one, and wish they had somebody with whom to share their lives. And then there are those who become single, by divorce or death. That is hard too. Single people misfire as much as married people do. There is no advantage to one situation or another.

Maybe all of this begins to dawn on the apostle Paul as he’s writing this letter. His reason is awkward. Hopefully, even though the ink was already dry, he realizes he made an awkward move. Before he talks of marriage in this chapter, he was talking about slavery. Marriage and Slavery. Oh – I know, for a few of us, we might think, “What’s the difference?” But listen to this: in this piece of his writing, Paul comes as close as he does anywhere of pointing to a day when people will no longer be slaves to anybody else – the day of the Lord is coming, he says. Christians are called to live as free people. Speaking of the liberating love of Christ, Paul says, “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.”

Meanwhile the Corinthian church wanted to know: if we are Christian, should we be married, or should we be single? Here is Paul’s best answer: whatever sets you free. “The present form of this world is passing away,” says Paul. “I want you to be free from anxieties.” What he says to all married and single people is this: I want you to be free to love and serve the Lord.

Whether single or married, that’s a central good issue for all human relationships. Do our situations set us free to love God and neighbor, or do they restrain us? Do they point us toward Christ, support our Christian walk – or do they sidetrack us with lesser concerns?

A good marriage can be the smallest form of Christian community. Two of God’s children work out their faith through the life that they share. Every day there are opportunities for encouragement, trust, and love. Everybody who has been married also knows it is the school for learning patience and the workshop for practicing forgiveness. A good marriage is one that brings out the best in each person. When it’s working well, two people become better human beings. And there is nothing to build deeper intimacy than a faith that is shared.

I’ll never forget bursting into my parents’ bedroom one evening when I was a little kid. Yes, I should have knocked – there they were, on their knees beside the bed, saying their prayers – and I heard them praying for me. Of all the things I might have seen, that was so embarrassing, so deeply personal. It left an impression I have never forgotten. They shared Jesus in common. It shaped everything in their life together – and together they were free to follow as his disciples.

Those who are single can also be free, in much the same way. Some years ago, the writer Kathleen Norris spent extended time in some Benedictine monasteries. She struck up a friendship with some nuns, and one day she got up the courage to ask them about celibacy. Kathleen is a Presbyterian like most of us, and she was always curious about nuns, but never knew how to ask.

One nun said, “In my singleness, I learned to accept my need for love, and my ability to love, as great gifts from God. And I decided to express that love by remaining single in a monastery . . . My primary relationship is with God. My vows were made to another person, the person of Christ. All of my decisions about love had to be made in the light of that person.”[1]

Norris discovered that the word that these single women used to best describe their lives was “freedom.” They were free to keep their energies focused on ministry and communal living. They were free to love many people without being unfaithful to any of them. Another nun said it this way. “We’re not making babies, but we can make relationships.” And they are relationships where life is given as a gift to others.

We can be married, or we can be single – but the apostle Paul invites us to this kind of freedom. Thanks to Jesus Christ, “the present form of the world is passing away,” he reminds us. And in its place, he dreams of a new creation that is completely filled with love for God and neighbor. That is really the issue – and whether we are single or married, this liberating love is the end and destiny of the entire Christian life

(c) William G. Carter

[1] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) 251.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Not Your Own

1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Ordinary 3
January 14, 2017
William G. Carter

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

When we read the letters of Paul, we are quickly reminded how the church had to make its way on the frontier. Many cities and civilizations were well established. Yet the gospel was completely new, even strange.

Nowhere was this more awkward than the affluent city of Corinth. Situated as a port city in the southern part of Greece, the merchants enjoyed great wealth. With a strategic location for the travelers of the world, Corinth was a crossroads of world cultures and an intersection of new ideas.

At the top of the mountain overlooking the city was a temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. If you were looking for love, Corinth was a city that was prepared to meet your temporary needs. The temple employed about a thousand specialists (let's call them "love merchants"). Their commerce was blessed in the name of Aphrodite. If you get my drift.

The Apostle Paul landed in Corinth around the year 42 or 43 AD, and stayed for a while to preach the gospel. He made some friends and worked very hard. After a while, he built a congregation of about fifty souls. Then, as now, building a church was a difficult enterprise.

It's difficult because people have long established habits; the news better be pretty good on a Sunday morning for them to give up their blessed weekend. It's difficult because Paul preached the gospel from the traditions of Israel, proclaiming a Messiah to people who weren't looking for a Messiah, teaching the Ten Commandments to folks who had never thought of disciplining their lives.

It’s difficult because the Christian faith point to central mysteries that demand some mental work. If there was common sense in the message Paul preached, the Corinthians could lean forward and nod in agreement. Yet for him to speak, for instance, of a crucified Messiah, it sounded almost as foolish as the notion of a resurrection.

Nevertheless Paul made some traction. He established a congregation. Then he moved along. That was his custom: go to a major city with a lot of international traffic, start a congregation so the faith can pollinate and spread, and go somewhere else.

It was a good plan for starting churches, but tough for sustaining them. In Paul’s absence, questions bubbled up. The church says, “We know you didn’t have time to tell us everything, so what about this? What about that?” Five or six years after Paul departed, they sent their concerns in a letter. Somehow it gets to him and he responds. What we have in the letter we call First Corinthians is part of his response. It’s the second half of a conversation that we haven’t heard.

Yet we can piece together many of their concerns. Apparently one of the concerns is freedom. They heard Paul say, “We are free in Christ.” Thanks to Jesus, we are not bound to the status quo. We don’t have to do whatever everybody else around us is doing. We can claim a different set of values. We can live a different way. Thanks to the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are free.

The Corinthians heard him say, “We are free,” and breathed a sigh of relief. In fact, that’s all they may have heard him say. We are free. I am free. And if that’s all you hear, it resonated with a long-established principle that still guides a lot of people in our own time and place. And here is the principle: that I can do anything I want. That I am free to pursue my own desires. That I am under no restriction about how I wish to live my life.

When my sister and I were teenagers, we were sitting on the couch one night watching a beauty pageant. One of the contestants declared, "I am my own person, I think for myself, I am responsible for my own dreams, and I am sufficiently empowered to pursue them."

My sister said, "Wow! She's got it together. I bet she's going to win." Indeed she did.

The idea sounds so enticing, that "I belong only to me," that "whatever I want to do, I can do." It sounds like freedom, but it’s something else.

This is the point at which the Apostle Paul enters the conversation. The word in the air is that “all things are legal for me,” a wonderful liberating freedom, and Paul quickly adds, “That doesn’t mean that all things are good and helpful.” You hear the difference?

He goes on: “Yes, all things are lawful, but some things dominate us, enslave us.” Think of the kid who starts smoking and then can’t give it up – that’s enslavement. Think of the man who loves good food and can’t get enough of it – it dominates him. Think of the person who takes a quick peek at a naughty picture, or puts a bet down on a card game, or kisses somebody they don’t even know. They felt free to do something, and then it builds, and grows, and takes over.

Is that freedom? No, it’s another form of enslavement. A lot of addictions begin with a supposition of freedom: that we are free to do whatever we want.

I’ve been a pastor long enough that I’ve heard the stories. The happily married man who fell into an internet chat room and couldn’t get out. The woman who did some babysitting on the side, and put the money on lottery tickets. The business man who took trips and ended up in places his family didn’t know about. All of them free, or so they thought, until all of them were enslaved.

That’s what Paul is warning his people about.

Ten years ago this spring, my dad and I took a tour of biblical sites in Greece. We spent a whole day in what’s left of Corinth. It is an astonishing place. Over there was the port, on the isthmus of Achaia. Over here, the market place, where goods, services, and news of the day were traded. And up there, the mountain that once housed the Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, with a thousand of her servant in shacks going the whole way up the hill.

Our travel guide said, “Maybe the best way to explain Corinth is to tell you it was a sailor’s town.” At that, my dad began to blush. Out of high school, he had served in the navy. He knew what it meant to go ashore in a foreign city, a place you had never been to, a place you would never see again, a place where secrets would be kept and all pleasures were available for a price.

I said to my dad, “Did you ever go to a sailor’s town?” He was a pretty righteous man, so he blushed and sputtered a bit. Then he said, “Not me, not in that sense, but a lot of my ship mates did.” And the inference was the shore leave didn’t turn out well for most of them. As Dad went on to say, in his own modest way, they kept a lot of penicillin on the ship.  

“All things are lawful for me,” says the apostle Paul, “but not all things are beneficial.” “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.”

It’s like the kid who goes into the shopping mall for the first time with a twenty dollar bill. Grandma sent it in a birthday card – twenty dollars! They can do whatever they want with it. They are free to spend it however they wish. Where to go first? Candy store? Clothing store? Get the ears pierced? Get something else pierced? Inevitably they discover most things they want will cost a lot more than twenty dollars, so they can’t wait to come back with more money and get whatever they want. They are free!

That kind of freedom is only an illusion. She is not “her own person.” She is merely a consumer. The consumer is that sub-class of the human species that believes that purchasing gives them purpose, that acquiring the external object will fill the hole in their own souls, that if they can only get more toys they will be content. It’s not freedom; it’s another form of slavery.

To this mindset, the apostle Paul speaks a Christian truth: that we don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to Christ. We are free from living like the rest of the pack because we belong to Christ. We are liberated from the need to consume other things, or consume other people, because our value comes from the love of Jesus, “who bought us at a price.”

In this passage, this is how he refers to the death and resurrection of the Lord, how it has both freed us from sin and death, but bound us to the One who truly gives life. “He bought us at a price.” The language is from the ancient slave market, where redemption meant purchasing a slave in order to set them free. That is the meaning of redemption.

So how should we live as free people? Paul says, “Glorify God with your body.” What a radical thing to say! Some people have always thought religion is supposed to free you from the baggage of flesh and blood, that somehow the liberating ideas will lift us out of our carcasses and closer to heaven. Absolutely not, says Paul. True faith begins by inhabiting our own skin, by walking on our own feet on the land where everybody else walks.

After all, we just celebrated Christmas, the stunning revelation that the Eternal God who is Spirit was found in a human baby named Jesus. The Word took flesh. God spoke in human words. In the human touch of Jesus, God healed aching human bodies and fed human stomachs. The word “spiritual” does not signify something amorphous. St. Athanasius put it this way, “God sanctified the body by being in it.”

Or as the apostle Paul declares in this word to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” By the way, Paul, which comes from God? Our bodies or the Holy Spirit? And the answer is “both.” Because we belong to God, for we’ve been adopted as the children of God. And what we do with our bodies is a reflection of God’s Spirit working in us and through us.

So the youth group kids said to their grandfather, “Grandpa, you have to stop smoking. Your lungs are a temple of the Holy Spirit.” And the mother can say to her teenager, “Please stop eating so much junk food; your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” And the apostle Paul could say to all the Corinthian sailors who were wandering up the hill, “Knock it off; our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit.”

It matters what we do with our skin and bones, it matters what we speak with our tongues and how well we take care of our feet. It matters if our A1-C is too high, or our blood pressure is too low, or if our PSA isn’t staying level. It matters if we don’t get enough exercise, or if we fill our blood stream with addictive substances, or if we intoxicate our minds with too much cable news. Our bodies matter, because our lives matter, because God can work to redeem the world through our bodies.

We know this to be true. In the name of Jesus, we do not feed the hungry by wishing it so; we prepare them meals. In the power of God, we do not comfort the grieving by praying for them from a distance; but by taking their hands and listening to their broken hearts. In the communion of the Holy Spirit, we do not correct the world’s injustices by merely thinking about them; we speak up with our tongues, organize up with our minds, step up with our feet, and push up for change.

Paul remembers his people and says, “You were bought with a price.” Look at the cross and consider the extravagant price!

And when it sinks in how much God has loved us to claim us as God’s own, it will make perfect sense to glorify God with our bodies.

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