Saturday, December 9, 2017

Checkpoint in the Desert

Mark 1:1-8
Advent 2
December 10, 2017
William G. Carter

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

If we want to have a spiritual Christmas, we will inevitably run into John the Baptist. This strange prophet makes his annual December appearance. He never gets his picture on a Christmas card, and if he did, the message would be, “For our house to yours: you brood of vipers, repent from the wrath to come.” John is direct. He is rude, even to the point of being offensive. Word is that his father had been a Jerusalem priest, but John is standing outside the bounds of the Jerusalem temple. And he is speaking up.

He seems an odd caricature, a prophet right out of the pages of the Old Testament. There hadn’t been any Jewish prophets for five hundred years. The landscape had been quiet. If God had been speaking, it wasn’t in a Voice loud enough for anybody to hear. Suddenly, there is the voice of thunder: let there be John! He appears. The inference is that he comes directly from God, if not biologically, certainly spiritually.

To reinforce the shock of his arrival, the Bible describes his appearance. John dresses like a wild man and smells like a camel. He’s covered in animal skins and he eats bugs.

Yet don’t ever be distracted by his appearance. John is a messenger. The purpose of his life is to point down the road, to alert us to Someone who is coming, Someone who makes him look small and insignificant. He’s talking about Jesus, of course. John asks, “Are you ready for him to come? Are you really ready for him to come?”

That’s the Advent question. We can answer quickly and say, “Yes, of course we want him to come.” We’re tired of a godless December. There is the constant bombardment of noise, with favorite carols played so frequently that they sound like jackhammers. The mailbox is full of catalogs we’ve never heard of, hawking products that we didn’t know we wanted. The appeals for donations are overwhelming, souring us on some of the very causes that we normally cherish. Yes, we’re ready for Him to come.

And John stands up on a rock, “You think you’re ready? You really think you’re ready?” With that, he hollers at the top of his lungs, “I splash you with water, but the One who is coming will set you on fire.”

Well now, wait a second, nobody said anything about fire. Fire is pure energy. It’s dangerous. Fire consumes. It burns down houses. Fire purifies. Everything burned away. Fire is such a powerful symbol. Do we really want God to come like fire?

It’s a good question. A lot of people want something much tamer in their religion. It’s OK to have an experience of God’s all-consuming glory, but if we could, let’s keep it to an hour and sing only happy songs that we already know. And it’s OK to have our conscience tweaked and our hearts appealed, but please don’t make any real demands on us.

The poet Annie Dillard was raised a Presbyterian in Pittsburgh (in America, that’s like Presbyterian Central), but when she was a teenager, she made an appointment with the pastor at Shadyside Church to say she was dropping out. The whole thing seemed to focus on conformity: fit in with the crowd, be respectable, couch your truthful speech in innocuous inanities, and above all, don’t ever go overboard with your religion. Annie had enough of what she perceived as a culturally sanctioned substitute for religion.

Her pastor said, “Oh, you’ll be back someday.” Annie wasn’t so sure.

Years later, after she won a Pulitzer Prize in literature, Annie reflected on what it would be like to truly encounter God. It seemed such a contrast to the over-domesticated approach to religion that usually masquerades as faith. So here’s what she says in one of her books:  

The higher Christian churches -- where, if anywhere, I belong -- come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect in any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.[1]

“I baptize you with water,” says John the Baptist, “but he – the One who is coming – will baptize you with the fire of God’s Spirit.” The true God comes to repair and redeem the world, which is a way of saying the world can’t stay the way it is. We can’t remain the way we are. There will be a disruption of the status quo and a restoration of what God has intended all along.

Are we really ready for that? And if we are, how will anybody know? As John will say in another text, we have bear fruits worthy of repentance. That is, it’s not enough to simply say that a difference is necessary. We have to act like we are changed. We must produce the kind of behavior that shows our renewed allegiance to God.

Every day, it seems the morning news brings another sordid account of how all kinds of people have gone off the rails. I don’t need to tell you what you already know. People do unspeakable things to one another. There are lawsuits filed every day, some of them justified, some of them not. There are crooks getting away with their crimes, and some of them even get their pensions restored.

We don’t like to deal with uncomfortable truth, especially about ourselves, especially about the things that have been done to others, and the things that have been done to us.

Perhaps the most unsettling news is the continuing revelation of public figures who cannot keep their hands to themselves. Many of them are men with a whole lot of power and money, and these are merely the ones who make the news. It is as if John the Baptist is calling us to a time of reckoning, and it’s far from over. For far too long, some people in our society have plundered others, assuming they had the right to do whatever that wanted. Now the awkward truth is begun to be revealed and named. This year, Time magazine’s Person of the Year is the whistle blower.

As a woman in my own family said recently, “It happened to me. I never said anything because I just thought that’s the way men are, and I didn’t think it would do any good to speak up.” I assured her it’s always the right time to speak up, even when it’s difficult, even when it’s controversial, even when it’s going to stir up controversy. For it’s not only wrong to hurt another person; it’s equally wrong to believe you are not worthy of speaking up about the hurt that has been done to you.

Listen, this is uncomfortable. I know. And as a pastor, I want to push the conversation to a higher level. Here is what matters most: Who has the maturity to tell the truth?  Who has the moral courage to do something constructive about it? And who is able to ask honestly for forgiveness -- and who is Christ-like enough to grant it?

I’m not pointing the finger at anybody, because there is no superiority in my soul. And neither do I think we should callously point the finger at some outsider, particularly a public figure we don’t like. It’s a lot more constructive to take a good long look in the mirror, acknowledge what we have done, ask God for mercy, and then go about rebuilding whatever relationships we can.

Today John the Baptist holds up the mirror. He invites us all to take a long look. He doesn’t do it because he’s mean. He holds up the mirror because he has been sent by God to prepare us for the Christ who is coming. And he asks us if we are ready for him – if we are really ready.

And he does it, because all of us are the beloved daughters and sons of God, all of us, without exclusion. There is a dignity to be claimed which will not allow us to be perpetrators or victims. God is come to set us free – and the way that God does this is by giving us the courage to tell the truth, the truth about ourselves – and the truth about God. It is indeed the truth that will set us free.

In one of his poignant reflections about human life, the great mystic Thomas Merton has this to say:

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use my life in desires for pleasures and thirsts for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and clothe myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

In other words, a lot of the time we are faking it. We pretend we are something we are not. And life goes askew when we only for ourselves, either to maintain our false sense of power or to give in to the wounds of our victimhood. But here is the truth, said Father Merton: “The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God.”[2]

This is the same God who says, “I love you. And I love your neighbor as much as I love you. And I want all of you to live in the justice of my peace, and to prepare your souls for the day when I am completely among you.”

The day is at hand, my friends, to come home to God. The day is near. Live as those who belong to the day.

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

[1] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977)
[2] Thomas Merton, Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2015) pp. 56-57

Saturday, December 2, 2017

If God Would Come

Isaiah 64:1-9
Advent 1
December 3, 2017
William G. Carter

    O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
       so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
     as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—
     to make your name known to your adversaries,
       so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
    When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
       you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
    From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
     no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
   You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.
     But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
   We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
     We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
   There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you;
     for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
   Yet (“nevertheless”), O LORD, you are our Father;
       we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.
   Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever.
       Now consider, we are all your people.

One of my favorite Christmas carols is a song that we don’t sing much anymore. The opening stanza goes this way:

     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…

I’m sure the hymnal editors have good reasons for leaving this one out of our hymnal. For one thing, it’s an invitation for gentlemen to rest in God’s merriment, and maybe the gentle women feel like they are left out. For another thing, the Christmas carol also mentions Satan, who is an unpopular figure for all kinds of reasons. Nobody wants to give the devil his due, especially in December.

But I wonder if there’s a deeper reason why the song has fallen out of favor. This is a song that declares that gentlemen have gone astray. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, a lot of gentlemen have been going astray. And it’s awkward and uncomfortable, to say the least.

An early edition of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” was published in 1833, about ten years before Charles Dickens quoted the first line in his famous story, “A Christmas Carol.” In some ways, that favorite holiday tale is rooted in the words of this holiday song: Ebenezer Scrooge is full of dismay. He despises the merry gentleman in their tall top hats, and chases away a scruffy kid who sings the tune at his keyhole.

And if you  watch or read “A Christmas Carol” this holiday season, ponder it as an exploration of how far the world has gone astray – not just Scrooge, but all the rest of us, too.

That’s how the song describes it: “to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” The carol doesn’t distinguish: English gentlemen in top hats, properly dressed women in church, scruffy carolers – all have gone astray.

Look – I bring this up because of Isaiah’s song in chapter 64. It’s one of the traditional scripture texts for this First Sunday of Advent. Isaiah has every reason to sing tidings of comfort and joy. He has watched as his people returned from exile in a foreign land. God has brought his children back to the Promised Land. They’ve been in Babylon for forty long years, and now they are home.

Yet even though they have returned home, it doesn’t feel like home. God had promised to gather them from east and west, north and south, but the homecoming has felt empty. And Isaiah the prophet dares to name what a lot of people were feeling. What all of us are capable of feeling.

He shakes his fist at heaven and yells, “If only you would rip open the heavens and come down…” That’s the prayer – and it is met with complete silence. Do you ever experience that silence?

This is where Advent begins: a shaking fist, a silent heaven, a feeling of homelessness right in the middle of familiar surroundings. Advent begins where our spiritual lives begin: with our own longing, with our own spiritual hunger, with the recognition of our own need, with a foreboding sense that life can go off the rails.

Now, unless we are drowning ourselves in eggnog, many of us know how this is. Somebody was talking about pulling out the box of Christmas decorations. “I’m dreading it,” he admitted. “It’s a lot of work, the kids are gone, and frankly, bright lights and tinsel aren’t going to improve my mood.”

You can call him Ebenezer, I suppose, but I think he’s on to something. If this is going to be a spiritually rich Christmas, it’s got to come from something more than a dusty box of manufactured lights. Joy and wonder don’t come out of a faucet; they are gifts from a heaven that normally seems closed.

Isaiah takes the opportunity to think about the mess we’ve made of things. Maybe that’s why God is so quiet. The prophet says, “We have all become like one who is unclean. Even our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” That is, even when things were going well, there was also something terribly wrong. “We all fade like a leaf,” he says, “and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

It sounds like that bumper sticker that Kathleen Norris describes. She saw a rusty beat-up car in Williston, North Dakota. On the bumper it said, “O Lord, Give Us Just One More Oil Boom. We Promise Not to (Leak) It Away This Time.”

Or maybe it wasn’t merely that we were a disappointment to God; God has remained hidden to us. Twice Isaiah says, “God, we’ll tell you why we sinned. It’s because you were hiding.” You weren’t around. You weren’t clear and obvious. “Because you hid yourself, that’s why we transgressed.” (64:5, 7)  In other words, “Lord, you were nowhere to be seen. What did you expect?”

“If only you would rip open the heavens and come down.” If only. I wonder how the politicians would have voted this week if God was standing in their chamber. I wonder how any of us would behave if God were clear and obvious all the time.

“If only you would rip open the heavens and come down.”

This is where Advent begins – with this ancient song of Isaiah, a song of dismay. The song is troubling because it’s so honest. One of the reasons why we go to church, I think, is because God is so quiet out there in the world. We go about our days, listening for a Voice, but there is no speech. We hear a lot of noise out there, a lot of commotion and confusion, and if God is speaking, the Voice is being drowned out. And we come to church, and it isn’t always a deeply spiritual experience. Sometimes, maybe, but not always.

Maybe it’s the mess we’ve made of things, or maybe it’s God’s shyness. You read the Bible, and the words stay stuck on the page. You try to pray, but the words don’t connect. And you try to remember the times when faith gave you joy and excitement and clear understanding – and you start wishing that you felt some of those things right now.

That’s where Advent begins, with recognition of our own incompleteness. That is what Isaiah is talking about.

Isaiah says, “Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.” (64:10-11)

If only. If only God would pull open the clouds and come down here. That is the gutsy prayer of a Jewish prophet. And the one thing that makes it a Jewish prayer is the same thing that makes it a Christian prayer: namely, there’s a covenant going on.

In the midst of heavenly silence and earthly dismay, the prophet Isaiah lays it on the line. He wants God to speak, but God won’t speak. He wants God to appear, but God won’t appear. So Isaiah says something that you and I could say. He says, “God, we belong to you, and you belong to us.” That’s the covenant.

He says, “Now consider this: we are your people.” Lord, you claimed us as your own, and now you’re stuck with us. That’s good Jewish theology. That’s good Presbyterian theology: you told us you wouldn’t let go of us, so we’re not going to let go of you.

Here’s how he says it: in the wonderful word “nevertheless” –

     Nevertheless O Lord, you are our Father.
     Nevertheless we are the clay, and you are our potter.
     Nevertheless we are all the work of your hand.

That is the basis of the hope we always have, regardless of how tough it is or how silent heaven might be: we belong to God. God has claimed us as beloved sons and daughters. And nothing can take that relationship away from us. We are claimed in baptism, sealed in bread and cup, nourished by the scriptures, sustained in prayer – nothing can remove the covenant that God has established with all of us.

So the Christmas carol declares: “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!”

Somewhere in his writings, C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy. But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”(1) There must be nothing plastic or artificial about our hope. It has to be real hope.

Advent begins with an earnest prayer: God, come down to us. Come to us, for we have wandered in your absence. Speak to us, for we have filled the silence with a lot of our own noise. Come to us, abide with us, and fill the emptiness of our lives with the fullness of your joy. Please, O Lord our God, come as Creator to this, your creation. That is the great Advent prayer.

And the Christmas answer to this prayer will be that God does come. But God does not come as Isaiah expects, in the shaking of mountains and the burning of fire. Rather, God comes in the humility of a Child. In all of scripture, that is the clearest display of his awesome power: a great and powerful Savior is revealed in the vulnerability of a little human child. This is a mystery, and it is best revealed in patience, in prayer, in never-ending anticipation.

“Rip open the heavens and come down, Lord.” Come down…like Jesus.

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

(1) Willimon, William. “Going Against the Stream” The Christian Century, Dec. 19-26, 1984, p.1192. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

All in All

Ephesians 1:15-23
Christ the King
November 26, 2017
William G. Carter

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? At the heart of it are long run-on sentences. Our teachers told us to avoid them. When you write a sentence, they taught, make it a single thought. Don’t skitter sideways and add a lot of extras. But whoever wrote this passage can’t hold back. There’s a lot to say, and it all forth pours like a gushing stream. The language is generous, the tone is enthusiastic, and the pacing is feverish.

And why? Because Ephesians is a love letter written to the church on a very good day. There isn’t a document in the New Testament that better describes who we are as “church” and what we are doing for this hour of worship.

It offers a good reminder to those of us who make going to church our habit. We see the same old people and Ephesians says, “Chosen of the Lord and precious.” We look around and see the visitors, returned exiles, and the curious, and declare, “I pray Christ will show you the great hope we share and the immeasurable riches of the Gospel.” This is a document that declares there is always more going on than we first perceive.

Ephesians points to the cross of a dying man and says, “Salvation by reconciliation!” The letter points to the empty tomb and declares, “Seated at the right hand of power in the heavenly places!” The writer points to the sky and says, “Far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

This is Ephesians. Most of the text can be sung. The words are lyrical, the mood is positive, and everything is caught up in joy.

The poet who composes this love letter, St. Paul or whoever it was, sees a church “without blemish.” He doesn’t notice the clueless congregation where the treasurer had his hand in the offering plate. He looks beyond the gossip in the parish parking lot and the ineptness of the preachers. For him, there is something more at stake.

This is the most curious detail of the letter for me. Either this guy is walking around with his head in the clouds, unable to notice the potholes that will make him stumble. Or he knows all about the potholes but refuses to let them win, because he knows something bigger is afoot. I think it’s the latter. For Ephesians sees a world where Christ rules over all things. Not merely a world, but a whole universe. Christ is the king. He rules over all.

On a hunch, I did a quick word search in the letter. I wanted to see how many times the word “all” appears. In the English translation that we use in worship, “all” appears thirty-three times. Listen to the occurrences, just in our text: “all the saints,” “all rule and authority and power and dominion,” “head over all things in the church,” and he “fills all in all.”

We are talking about a Savior with some size. He has deep regard for “all the saints,” not merely those who perpetually show up with a casserole for fellowship dinners, but all of them.

Christ the King exercises “All rule and authority and power and dominion.” I suppose you can pray to him to give you good weather for a baseball game or family picnic, but this is the Lord of heaven and earth who sets the stars in their courses and hurls the comets across the galaxy.

This is his church, of course, so he is “head over all things.” It is his Word that speaks, it is his will that is done, and it is his agenda that redefines all our agendas. He fills “all in all.”

There’s a statue of Jesus out in our narthex. I brought it back from a wood carver in Haiti many years ago. We were coming through customs in Kennedy Airport. In front of me, our mission trip leader carried a similar wood carving, also a portrayal of the Lord. He had acquired it as a gift for Tony Campolo, the great Baptist preacher who created the literacy mission that we had gone to visit.

Sam carried his wood carving to the man at customs. He asked a couple of questions, took a quick look, then stamped the passport and motioned him through.

I was next in line. To protect the wood carving from getting chipped, I had wrapped it in a bath towel and a bit of duct tape. The towel was coming undone, so that you could see the Lord’s eye peeking through. The guy at customs took one look at me, took a look at the statue, and then asked the immortal question in a Brooklyn accent: “Alright, how big is your Jesus?” I still chuckle to think about it.

How big, indeed? Is he truly the Savior of all things, or merely a personal good luck charm? Does he care about all people or only about us? If he is the Creator through whom all things are made, is he mightier than your cancer scare? If he “has broken down the wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile, is he greater than the racism that still tears this nation apart as well as the arguments that splinter our families? How big of a Savior do we have?

The first chapter of Ephesians says there isn’t anybody any bigger. Jesus is older than Moses, wiser than Socrates, and by the looks of it, in much better physical shape than Buddha. They’re all dead; he’s been raised from the dead. They all came and went; Jesus is still with us. And not just with us; he is with us; yet so far beyond us.

The problem, it seems, is that we lose track of what Ephesians calls “the immeasurable greatness of his power.” Or to quote the title of an old classic by J. B. Phillips, “Your God is Too Small.” Phillips wrote as a British clergyman in the middle of the last century. He took on some of the prevailing views of God and Christ that kept recurring in British society, which he calls the Resident Policeman, the Parental Hangover, the Grand Old Man, the Meek-and-Mild Milquetoast, the Heavenly Bosom, and the Managing Director. None of these notions are big enough for God, he argued.

And then, in a most quotable quote, Phillip says, “God will inevitably disappoint the [person] who is attempting to use [God] as a convenience, a prop, or a comfort, for his own plans. (But) God has never been known to disappoint the [one] who is sincerely wanting to cooperate with [God’s] own purposes.”[1]

And what is God’s grand purpose, according to the letter to the Ephesians? Nothing less than to reconcile heaven and earth, to bring together everything that would otherwise be torn asunder. It will involve the saving of everything that God loves. This is what God is up to, this is what Jesus Christ has been sent to do, and this is what the Holy Spirit continues to stir up. And it’s big, really big.

Years ago, someone asked a question to Will Willimon, the Methodist preacher. Willimon is quite a character. He’s a wonderful preacher; Baylor University once named him as one of the twelve best in the English- speaking world. Will said he loved the parish, but then he took a university chaplaincy job. He also said he never wanted to become a United Methodist bishop, but when the United Methodists elected him a bishop, he didn’t turn down the job.

You never know quite what he’s going to say. His most recent blog posting, mind you as a retired Methodist bishop in Alabama, is titled, “Roy Moore Can Never Be Ordained in the United Methodist Church.” It’s a sassy little article, and Willimon doesn’t care if you agree with him at all.[2] He’s simply stating the case. 

So anyway, one day when Dr. Willimon was the chaplain at Duke University, he’s shaking hands after worship at the door of the university chapel, an enormous structure in the middle of the campus. A man shakes his hands and says, “Well, that was a bit unreal, don’t you think?” Willimon said, “What? The pipe organ music? The grandeur of the liturgy? The extraordinary preaching? What was so unreal?”

The critic said, “All of it. It’s like we are escaping the real world by coming in this cloistered tower, like we’re getting away from it all.”

Willimon raised one eyebrow and said, “Au contraire! You’ve got it all backwards. Sunday worship is when actually move into the real world, where we are given eyes to see and ears to hear the advent of a Kingdom that the world has taught us to regard as only fantasy.”[3]  There’s nothing more real than this.

Do you ever think what we do when we worship on Sunday mornings? We pray our prayers, sing our hymns, offer our gifts, and listen for God speak in scripture and sermon – all for the greater purpose of getting our hearts aligned, our heads screwed on straight, and our hands extended to those in need. This is where and when we are reminded that God is saving the world and Christ has come to rule over all.

That’s why we are here - to affirm that there is no greater power than the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. And we keep singing this truth until “the eyes of the heart are enlightened” and everybody knows that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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

[1] J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small: A Guide for Believers and Skeptics Alike (New York: MacMillan, 1955) p. 49
[3] Later quoted in William H. Willimon, What’s Right with the Church (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985) 121.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Use It or Lose It

November 19, 2017
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
William G. Carter

"For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away." 

I should probably admit from the outset that I'm not sure what to make of this parable. There is a lot about this parable that troubles me, and I’m not sure what troubles me most.

As a man departs on a long journey, he entrusts his property to three people. If we’ve have ever taken a long trip, we understand this. Some snowbirds here will soon flutter down to warmer climates. They will hand off the house keys to somebody they trust and give instructions: “Make sure the driveway gets plowed and the pipes don’t burst.” It’s their property. They want to return to something intact, just as they left it.

What they don’t want is for the caretaker to rent out the property while they are gone, or put an addition on the house, or generally make money on their property while they are gone. So it troubles me that the Absentee Owner in the parable turns the caretakers loose to do whatever they want.

What’s more, the man in the parable must have been very, very rich. He needed three caretakers to preside over his property. Imagine how much he must have owned! So he does something that, on the face of it, seems patently unfair: he divides his property in three uneven parcels among three people of vastly differing abilities. That troubles me.

I’m the oldest of four children, and my mom has always said, “Oldest doesn’t count. You’re all equal.” So every Christmas to this day, equal number of presents, equal amount spent. She reinforced the equality by saying, “One of you can cut the Thanksgiving pie, but you’re the last one to select the piece.” So with surgical skill, I would cut that pie precisely to ensure that my siblings didn’t get one crumb more than me. After all, we were equal.

But not so in this Bible story. One guy gets his piece, the next one gets twice that share, the third gets five times that share. It doesn’t matter if they were loved equally; there was an inequality in abilities. I know that’s probably true, and the story is about stewarding the man’s resources, but that troubles me.

I’ll tell you something else that troubles me: it’s all about the money. A “talent” was not a skill, but a huge sum of money. In biblical times, it was about twenty times the average income. So fire up the calculators. According to the old numbers of the 2010 census, the median household income in our town was $65,000. Multiply that by twenty, and you’re talking 1.3 million dollars for the one-talent peasant. I think he had to dig a really big hole.

So we’re talking about sums of money that were more than the three “servants” would have ever seen in their lifetimes. I think I can understand why the third guy hid the funds. The money wasn’t his, for one thing, and he didn’t want it to be stolen. And he didn’t trust himself to have the money lying around, where he might be tempted to borrow a little, or use a little, or even spend it on himself. He wanted to be faithful, so it troubles me that he is condemned.

And that’s not all that troubles me. The owner of the property was very, very rich. Scandalously rich! One-percent rich! And he gets even richer. He praises those who double his money and then takes it back from them. As for the hapless, one-talent man who plays it safe, the boss takes his money back from him too. He’s sitting on a lot of wealth, and he has just gotten a lot wealthier.

That fact is not lost on those who know the land management practices of Jesus’ time. There weren’t a lot of absentee landlords in first century Palestine, but there were a few, and no doubt some of the peasant could tell stories of their own. The third man’s retort tell the truth: the Absent Boss reaps where he did not sow, he gathered produce where he did not plant the seed. At the end of the tale, he is indeed revealed to be a harsh overlord. 

As one Bible scholar notes, “The third servant is a whistle-blower who has unmasked the ‘joy of the master’ for what it is – the profits of exploitation squandered in wasteful excess.”[1] As we would expect, the whistle-blower is the one who gets punished, cast into the outer darkness of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Is this what the kingdom of heaven is like? I don’t think so.

For one thing, this is a parable. It's a story that compares itself to the kingdom. It's not the kingdom itself. And there's no simple one-to-one correlation, either. The story doesn't mention "God"; it describes a rich landowner. We are left to step into the parable, look around for an insight, and then come back, somehow wiser.

Usually this tale is told at stewardship time, since the lectionary reading always lands around November. The preacher is tempted to reduce this to a small, moralistic lesson in giving: don’t be afraid to try, be good stewards of your ability, take some risks, never say my little contribution won’t matter, people may not be equal in talent but they can surely be equal in effort, and especially, increase the Master’s money. All of that is helpful – but it’s too small for the kingdom.

No, it seems Jesus wants us to see something else, something deeper. Certainly God’s kingdom is not about exploitation, about taking advantage of other people for your own personal gain. I’d like to think that those fat cats who plunder others are the ones who will one day weep and gnash their teeth. There are a lot of Bible passages that suggest as much, not least of which is the prophet Zephaniah, who made an appearance this morning: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (1:18) God’s kingdom is not about “reaping where you did not sow.”

Some would say it’s more about reaping what we do sow. The apostle Paul wrote that message to the Galatians: “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.”[2]

OK, then, what are the best practices for sowing and reaping the eternal life of the Spirit? We have some clues.

Servant A and Servant B take an active responsibility in managing their Master’s resources, while Servant C plays it safe. O church of God, what a terrible and withering thing it is to pull back and play it safe! I can tell you about a lot of churches that drive down the road in neutral, never risking a thing, never ruffling the Empire’s feathers, never trying anything new, always ready to hit the brakes at the slightest bump in the road … while riding in neutral.

Can I confess something I do around here when nobody is looking? I exert Editorial Privilege in our print publications. And whenever one of our leaders submits an event notice that begins, “As we do every year, we will have our Annual Blah Blah Blah,” I strike the whole first part of it, because it smacks of “same, same, same.” Ho hum, boring, no life left. And when I can, I press gently to ask, “How can we bring fresh energy to the important things we do every year?” I would ask you to hold me accountable to the same matter. No playing it safe, no coasting in neutral.

I think it also needs to be said that God does love us all equally, but God equips us with differing abilities. I have a family member who recently retired from a very responsible job in a major corporation. She was given a brilliant mind and a decisive spirit. Then her Presbyterian church selected her to serve on the Deacons (“That’s where most of our women serve,” the kindly recruiter said.)

And when she showed up at her first meeting, they spent well over an hour arguing about who should receive the leftover flowers that nobody picked up after Sunday worship. She called me to unload for a while, and asked, “Are all church people like that?” I said, “Uh, no…they were probably wanting to fill an empty slot on the ballot.”

She said, “If they took me seriously, they would have asked me to do something that I’m capable of doing.” Good point. The kingdom of heaven is full of people who are able to do different things.

And there’s something else in this parable: those who are capable are given more to do. Did you notice that? The man who entrusts his riches comes back. He hears the reports on what the three servants have done in his absence. Two of them doubled the riches, one of them did nothing. The two that doubled are rewarded, and the one who hid his share is cursed and cast out.

But take note: when the first two enter into “the joy of their Master,” they are given even more to do: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things.” It’s kind of comical: the Master entrusted them with roughly thirteen million dollars and two and a half million dollars, and refers to the sums as “few things.” In the joy of their Master, they are given exponentially more to do. It’s the old adage, “If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person,” taken to the ten-thousandth power.

Yet it’s more than that – they enter “the joy” while their third companion knows only fear. That’s the gulf that separates those who belong to the Kingdom and those who belong to the outer darkness: the gulf between joy and fear. The joy is expressed in action, in responsibility, in fresh thinking, in taking risks.

By contrast, “wickedness” is equated with “laziness.” And in the end, the lazy and wicked servant is ultimately described as “worthless.” That is, he who was valued enough to be entrusted with a lifetime of wages now has no value to the Master. He had so much promise, but in the end his own shiftlessness has condemned him. He squandered an enormous opportunity.

As someone notes, “In almost every other parable in the Gospel, pride of some sort is attacked. This parable is unique in attacking humility. The special peril for the one-talented person is thinking one-talented people don’t matter much.” And if you think this, you are “able to build an effective barrier between oneself and work.”[3]

So I hear this parable inviting us to keep at it, to keep living out the Gospel while we wait for the Master to return. We can’t compare ourselves to others in the same work. We must not disqualify ourselves because we don’t have the ability or resources of someone else. It would be lazy, even downright wicked, to stop serving those in need, loving the unlovable, or working for the healing of the broken and the broken-hearted.

According to Matthew’s book, this Gospel treasure is entrusted to us over and over again. The invitation is to get on with it. To live out of the grace, mercy, and justice of Christ. To regard the invisible riches entrusted to us as riches. To make a difference in the world with what we have received. That is the invitation.

And the invitation comes with a warning: if we don’t risk living out the Gospel, we risk losing out on it all.

When it comes to the Gospel, use it or lose it.

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

[1]William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) pp. 150-168
[2] Galatians 6:7-8
[3][3] F. Dale Bruner, The Churchbook (Waco, Word Publishing), p. 909.