Sunday, September 10, 2017

Do You Have Enough Faith?

Matthew 17:14-23
September 10, 2017
William G. Carter

When they came to the crowd, a man came to Jesus, knelt before him, and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’

 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.’ And they were greatly distressed.

The TV preacher looked at the weather map and was not the least bit discouraged. Then he looked back at the camera and said, “If we pray hard enough, God will send the hurricane out to sea and it will never touch us. We just have to have enough faith.”

Tell me friends, do you have that kind of faith?

There's another preacher down in Houston who has been quite successful at telling people to have more faith. “If you have faith,” he says, “God will make you successful too.” That’s his message. Then he extends his arms toward an arena that seats 16,000 people, all of them hungry for riches, success, happy children, and recordings and books of his sermons which are conveniently available in the church’s bookstore.

As one of my teachers used to say, “Every preacher has only one sermon that they keep preaching over and over again. They may use different Bible texts but there's only one sermon that they speak.” You think that's true? It's true for the preacher down in Houston. “If only you have enough faith, God will enrich your life and make it better.”

But maybe you saw the news as I did. When the first big whopping hurricane hit Houston, that success preacher was slow to respond in reaching out to people who were homeless or flooded. And then he kept changing his story to avoid the awkwardness what he has said repeatedly over the years, that if you have enough faith, God will make your life turn out well.

So this was on my mind as I worked with the Bible text from today. A father is concerned about his son. The boy has a severe case of epilepsy and it is harming his life. Now, that’s a first century family. They didn’t know what to do. They heard about Jesus, but for some reason they didn’t go directly to him. They went to his disciples – and the disciples could not cure him.

But then Jesus comes to town, so the father rushes toward, falls to his knees, and spills out the whole story. Jesus responds in a grumpy way: “How much longer must I put up with you people?” Take note. We don’t know if he’s talking about the man, his family, the townspeople, the world at large, or just the disciples. He doesn’t specify.

Yet this is the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel, the One with great authority and power, the One who heals “everybody.” So he calls the boy toward, casts out the illness (which is personified as a hostile force), and the boy is healed instantly. End of story.

Well, not so fast. The disciples pull aside their Lord to ask, “How come we can’t do that?” And the episode becomes a teaching session about faith. “You don’t have enough faith,” he says. “In fact, if you had faith that size of that little, bitty mustard seed that I keep talking about, you could move mountains.”

Now, as you know, that’s the verse, the single verse, that all the smiling TV preachers latch onto. And it’s true. Jesus said it. It’s in the book. There are other verses in the book that sound like this one. Gives the impression that anybody with enough faith can pray away a storm, or at least have their best life now!

Just one thing to remember: there are other verses in the book too. In fact, in the very next verse, we hear Jesus saying he is going to the cross.

Do you hear the paradox of that? The man who can heal everybody is going to be betrayed, condemned, and killed. The Lord with great power and complete authority will be crucified. The One who chastises his own dear ones for not having enough faith is going to suffer on the cross. How do we hold that together?

It’s difficult, especially if you subscribe to those people who insist that faith makes you successful.

Years ago, Robert Schuller, bless his heart, spoke at the chapel of Princeton Seminary. The room was packed to hear that cheerful can-do preacher speak about his beliefs. After he spoke, there was a question-and-answer period. One of the theology professors raised his hand, and Dr. Schuller called upon him. “Tell us, Dr. Schuller, what you believe about the crucifixion.” Without blinking, the cheerful preacher said, “Like every successful person, Jesus had his share of setbacks.”

Across the chapel, there was a unanimous groan. If we read the Gospel of Matthew, the cross is more than a setback. The crucifixion of the Son of God is a rejection of God himself. It is a defiant response to a man who taught us to love one another, and then showed that love as he healed kids with epilepsy, fed the multitudes, and forgave the sinners. To put him on the cross is to declare, that regardless of whether or not we think he’s a good man, we don’t want him.

And it’s even more than that. Jesus knows the cross is the inevitable outcome of loving God in a world like this. Yet he goes willingly and does not waver. Do you know why that is? Because when he goes to the cross, it is a matter of faith – his faith. He trusts in God so completely he will risk his life to do the will of God.

Imagine what kind of faith you must have to risk your life. Imagine what kind of faith you must have to bear the sins of the world upon your shoulder. Imagine what kind of faith you must have to face destruction, indifference, cruelty, and total darkness. As the early church would say, “The world is saved through the faith of Jesus.”[1]

So the first thing the Bible story reminds us that we are not free to pick a favorite verse out of the text and isolate it from what's around it. Faith like a mustard seed that moves mountains and going to the cross are connected in Matthew’s mind. And looking to Jesus, I think we will see the connection. Faith is about being faithful. It’s not primarily about success; it’s about doing the right thing.

It’s the faithfulness of Jesus that saves the world from its brokenness. It’s his faithfulness that begins the world’s redemption. And it takes a good measure of maturity to be able to see that.

My friend Terry Chapman was in town last week. He's a pastor in New Jersey and has done some mission work in Africa. A few years ago, he visited a church where the sermon was titled, “Get God – Get Gold.”  The African preacher was wearing a white three-piece suit, and strutting around the stage to show off a big gold Rolex watch. “I got this,” he said, “because I got God. Why don’t you prove to me how much you want God?”  With that, the ushers came around with the offering buckets. People climbed over one another to fill them with everything they had.

You know, it’s almost enough to make you want to get your own show biz church. Almost.

Terry said, “It seems the more people suffer through tragedy or economic and political injustice, the more vulnerable they become to this thin veneer of illusory good news covering over a vast amount of fear and greed.”

So what do you think God wants from us? More faith, so we can improve our circumstances? Or more faithfulness to become more like Jesus?

As scholars reflect on the Gospel of Matthew, they see more than a biography about Jesus. They see the invitation to become his disciple. To study him. To imitate him. To do what he says, particularly when we see him doing it himself.

It starts as early as the Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you,” says the One who shows us what that looks like. Matthew’s Gospel is a manual of discipleship, a textbook for true faithfulness. Feed the multitude, give a cup of fresh water to the thirsty, heal the sick, visit the castaway, love those considered disposable, pay attention to the littlest ones, give money to the needy, and pray at all times. That’s faith – faith-full.

And we all need more of it, because the life of faithfulness is an invitation to bring every aspect of our lives under the obedience of a sovereign God. It matters to whom we bind our hearts, how we spent our money, and how we treat our parents. It matters that we belong to God before we bow down to the Emperor du jour.

Even in this Gospel of Matthew, which normally treats the disciples of Jesus with kid gloves, here we're reminded that the disciples were far from ever being complete. As good as they were, they did not have their act together sufficiently to heal as Jesus healed. What they needed was faith, more faith, more little-bitty-mustard-seed faith -- which I take to mean faithfulness.

In the long run, life doesn’t depend on how good we are, because we alone will never be quite good enough. Life depends on how good Christ is, how faithful he is in doing God’s mission to the world. And if he is that good and that faithful, we can trust him and live like him.

And that's what a church is all about. We invite people to follow Jesus. We can’t promise riches which rust, or big fat houses that are built on sand. But we can lovingly nudge one another to more faithfulness, more dedication, more commitment, more justice, and more love. That’s deep, soulful living, the life that really is life.

And there's a good word here, as we begin our fall program together. Whether it’s worship, whether it’s service, whether it’s singing, or especially if it’s Christian education, at the heart it’s the invitation to live the life of Christ. So let me encourage you to be part of what we’re trying to do here.

On Wednesday evenings around here, it’s discipleship night. We’ve had a great group of people coming to classes and choirs, and there is plenty of room for more. Our goal is to move from being observers to participants, to move from being like the disciples in our text who feel inadequate to serving God with dedication and joy.

That’s our continuing invitation, to help us all move from the prevailing whims of our culture to the God-centered life of service and praise. It is a journey to become faithful like Jesus.

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

[1] Romans 3:22-26, Galatians 2:16

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Jazz of Beauty

Psalm 27:1-4
Revelation 21:9-14, 18-21
William G. Carter
September 3, 2017
Jazz Communion

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:1-4)

Thanks to Keith Jarrett, I had a true-blue spiritual experience when I was seventeen. It was a moment so extraordinary than I don’t talk about it much, lest I cheapen it by overexposure. No, the experience was a gift, a gift that I now understand as a moment from God’s Spirit.

It was around the Thanksgiving holiday as I recall. I was in one of my recurring adolescent moods, and had retreated to my bedroom and shut the door. I don’t know if I had too much of my family or if I was simply in a foul funk. For some reason, I turned on the stereo, put on a set of headphones, stretched out on my bed, and listened to a brand new recording.

The album was called “Arbour Zena,” and I found it in the jazz section of a store at the local mall. It didn’t sound like jazz, not at first. A German chamber orchestra plays a suite of three Jarrett compositions. Keith, bassist Charlie Haden, and Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek improvise through the pieces. The notes swirl upward. Pretty soon, I was swirling upward too.

I had never had an experience like that. It was like I was lifted off the bed, floating three feet into the air. The music absorbed me. Time slipped away. For the moment there was perfect peace. Conscious thought ceased. It was as if I was held in greater hands and I didn’t want it to end. When the music concluded, I was back on the bed, perfectly still, with no need to do anything.

Pretty soon, I was seventeen again. But I have never forgotten the experience or its profound effect on me. One of the few times before now that I ever talked about it, I was at a complete loss for words to describe it. But the one word that lingered, the word I would use to describe it, is “beauty.” Complete, sublime beauty.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a moment like that. I suspect you have. If so, I suspect you have done what I have done: shake it off, dismiss it, and attempt to explain it away. Like Ebenezer Scrooge trying to explain away the appearance of Marley’s ghost: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.”

That moment for me, after all, came after Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe I had eaten too much pie. Or the turkey was pushing me toward the zone between wakefulness or sleep.

But as I’ve talked with musicians, photographers, poets, writers, painters, architects, hikers and bikers, I’ve decided not to dismiss the experience or reduce it somehow. For one thing, it was real. It was very real. For another thing, I’ve had more moments like that throughout my adult life. And each one has lifted me of the spiritual presence of beauty.

We don’t talk about beauty very much, either in church or out of church. Why do you suppose that is? Maybe it’s the same reason that Presbyterians don’t talk much about spiritual experiences. They lie outside our comfort zone. For the benefit of our visitors, Presbyterians are hard-working, rational types. Nuts and bolts are our currency. That’s why our sanctuaries are rather plain and our worship is pretty tame. Yet the moments of beauty still come, don’t they? Maybe it’s the song that makes our saxophonist cry.

“Beauty” is a word that doesn’t appear in the Bible very much. That’s telling, in all kinds of ways. Sometimes the word is translated as “pleasantness.” Beauty is what creates an experience of pleasure. You see something, hear something, smell something, and go “Ahh.”

The most famous of those occurrences is a verse from the Psalm that we heard. The poet wishes to be in the constant presence of God, or as he puts it, “to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” That’s more than spending all your time in a church, which might not be all that beautiful if you think about it. No, it’s bigger. It’s living in the presence of the Creator, of dwelling with the One who is the Source and Destination of all life. The Psalmist calls this “to behold the beauty of the Lord.”

Now this is not mere escapism, what Marx called “the opium of the masses.” And it’s more than mere optimism, although a positive attitude does tend to improve our lives and make us more pleasant to be around. The Psalm is pointing beyond escapism and optimism to the ultimate reality at the heart of all things. Fact of the matter is, Psalm 27 mentions evildoers, opposing armies, and devoured flesh – but points through them to the beauty at the heart of God’s creativity.

And that’s the truth of the text from the book of Revelation. In the concluding pages of the Bible, the prophet John sees a New Jerusalem coming down here. We don’t fly up to heaven, it seems, heaven comes down here and it stays. John strains to speak language that touches the vision, much less describe it. The new city is enormous. The streets are paved with gold. The pearly gates are always open (if you think about it, that’s good news!).

Then we hear the city’s foundations are twelve huge precious stones. Here’s a curious thing about those jewels: some of them are known to us (emerald, topaz, amethyst) and some not so much (chrysolite, jacinth, chrysoprase). The prophet doesn’t even have the words to describe how beautiful they are. They are beyond him, in every way. But they are real.

And the even more curious thing, if you know the book of Revelation, is that you have to wade through twenty chapters of pain, war, destruction, and desolation before anybody can see the totality of the beauty. Along the way, you might catch a glimpse of the beauty. Maybe you might hear a song or see a vision and it’s enough to keep you going. When these moments come, they are gifts, because most of the time, life has its challenges.

Try telling the people of Houston that the world is a beautiful place. This week, they might beg to differ. The scenes after that storm and all the rain are heartbreaking. But in the middle of all that destruction, there are glimpses of beauty, particularly of people helping one another, or brief rainbows pointing beyond themselves.

I recall after 9-11 hit. As the shock subsided, all kinds of help was offered and given. One of my favorite stories was about the musicians who appeared at St. Paul’s chapel in lower Manhattan, which functioned as a rescue center. They pulled out their instruments and started playing chamber music, because they wanted to declare to the world there is more to life than all the pain. It was a holy moment, a beautiful moment.

So we thank God for the artists, photographers, musicians, and all others who point to something so beautiful that they can’t even describe it. And we pray for God to set us free from all that restrains us from what the Psalmist calls “the beauty of holiness.”

When Keith Jarrett presented the National Endowment of the Arts award as a jazz master, here’s something he said:

"Music is not something you can use words to describe. Music is either in the air and you find it, or it is in the air and you don't find it, but you just don't try hard enough. You can be educated to play the piano, you can be educated about chords, you can be educated about scales, you can be educated about everything there is you do with music, and you are still zero until you let go of what holds you back. And all of us could possibly not be held back, but most of us don't let it happen. My job, in my opinion, is to let it out.[1]

I heard him let it out one time. He was playing a concert at the theater across the street from my graduate school. So I paid a lot of money to take a date and hear the concert. I should have warned her. At that time, the pianist would come out on stage and improvise at the piano for an hour and a half. Jarrett got to be quite famous for this, traveling around the world to improvise the concerts.

The problem is sometimes he had a good night . . . and sometimes the music was way over anybody’s head, including his own. The guy can play. He’s an extraordinary musician. That night, he left us in the dust. My date kept looking at her watch. She went to the rest room during the intermission and I wasn’t sure she would come back. When she returned, she said, “Is the second half going to be as long?” We had just survived an hour of thunder. The second half forty-five minutes of the same.

To our amazement, the room exploded in applause when he finished. Maybe everybody was grateful. But then the crowd stood up, and I wondered if perhaps we were the only people who didn’t have a clue what we had just heard. It felt like our ears had been assaulted.

Keith Jarrett came out, acknowledged the applause, and then moved toward the piano. My girlfriend groaned. He sat down, cleared his head for a moment. Then he played, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was incredible. Simple, heartfelt, accessible, available beauty. The encore was only a few minutes long. And when he was done, there was complete silence in the hall. Nobody dared to disrupt the moment.

It was then that I first prayed the prayer that I have prayed every time since, whenever I have found myself in the presence of profound, indescribable beauty: “Lord, let it happen again.”

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

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Wherever the Messiah Is

Matthew 16:13-23
August 27, 2017
William G. Carter

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

If you were ever a little kid, did you have a favorite super hero? You know, the kind that you could read about in the comic books.

Batman was pretty cool, sticking to the shadows of night but full of ingenuity and agility. And he had all those nifty gadgets in his utility belt! Or there was The Flash, who could run faster than the speed of light. Or the Incredible Hulk with his radioactive strength. Of course, the favorite for a lot of us was Superman. Faster than a speeding locomotive, he could leap tall buildings in a single bound and catch bullets in his hand.

I was like most little kids. I spent a lot of time daydreaming about those super powers. If only we could have some special ability that would make us stand out or lift us above the pack. A lot of kids dream about that.

One of my daughters was enchanted by Harry Potter. When she was little, she would have loved to wave the magic wand to change back the clock, alter nature, cast a spell, clean her bedroom, or direct some zombies to do her math homework. Unfortunately she didn’t have the power. No super powers.

When you’re a kid, part of the appeal is the possibility of transcending your circumstances. If only you had that super power, you could say to the wind, “Be still,” and it would be still. You could say to the stones, “Become bread,” and there would be plenty of food for the multitude to eat. Why, I suppose you could even walk on water!

No wonder, then, that a kid like me could hear the stories of Jesus and be drawn to him. The Bible stories about Jesus revealed someone of great power and authority. That’s the Gospel of Mathew’s favorite word: “authority.” Three different times, Matthew says Jesus had the authority to heal every single sick person (4:23, 8:16, 9:35). Every one!

Jesus also had extraordinary power in his words. He could speak truth to the Pharisees and scribes, and make them quiver in their boots. He could speak mercy and restoration to the leper who had been cast out of town. He could speak forgiveness and healing to the one who was paralyzed.

Jesus was unusual. If you didn’t know better, you might think he can from the planet Krypton

So I can understand why Simon Peter has a hard time making sense out of him. Not only does Jesus have the power, but sometimes when he speaks, it sound like jibberish. Some of his words just don’t make sense. This man who seemed to have amazing power says to Peter, “I am going to the cross. I must give my life. I must hand over everything and sacrifice my life.” And Peter says, “That’s just crazy. It’s never going to happen to you. Not you, of all people.”

Jesus says, “Get behind me. You see things only from a human point of view, not a holy point of view.” You’re thinking from the perspective of a little kid who wishes he had super powers. You’re thinking that advancement is the key to all of life. You’re thinking beyond a first-century peasant who lives under constant occupation by a hostile military power. And it’s confusing. It’s extremely confusing.

It was confusing for many in that first circle of disciples. If Jesus is the Messiah, what is he doing on a cross? The Messiah was going to come and get rid of all the crosses. That’s what they believed. The Messiah would ride into town on a gleaming white horse. He wears a pure white robe, he is morally unstained, he stands taller and stronger than anybody we know.

And that means he will redeem Israel out of a thousand years of degradation. They have been kicked around by all the other nations, and the Messiah will make things right. He is going to restore the kingdom. He’s going to fix things that don’t work. He’s going to drive out the people from other nations. He’s going to make Israel great again! That’s what they wanted in a Messiah.

Whatever they needed, that’s what they wanted. Whatever they wanted, that’s what they expected. And why is Jesus talking about a cross?

No wonder most of them dwindled away after Jesus was arrested and condemned. He didn’t look strong and mighty. So much for all his super powers.

Yet here’s the crazy truth, the upside down truth: that Jesus is not only the Messiah, but that his “super power” is something called “kenosis.” That’s the New Testament word for it. “Kenosis” is the word from one of Paul’s letters. It means “to empty oneself,” to “lose oneself,” to “give one’s self away.” Jesus sets aside the glory that is rightfully his own and takes up the mantle of a servant.

This is hard for us to swallow, difficult to understand.

A number of years ago, my friend Jane was being examined by the presbytery as the final step before she could be ordained as a preacher. Some of you might have been there. The meeting was up at Camp Lackawanna. They asked her all kinds of questions. One old duffer, a minister well known for his grandstanding said, “Jane, tell us why Christianity is superior to all other religions.” (It tells you much more about the questioner than the one being questioned.)

Jane looked at him and asked him to repeat the question. “Jane, why is Christianity superior to all other religions?” That prompted me to think about it as well.

Now, Jane was good on her feet. Like a good rabbi, she questioned the question: “Why do you think we’re superior? What happens to others if we start declaring we are superior?”

Meanwhile, I was thinking how I would answer the question. And one answer seemed to come to me, as if a light went on. If I were to answer how Christian faith is superior to all other expressions of faith, I think I would say its superiority is in its humility. True Christian faith is shaped like Jesus, who set aside all the glory and took on the mantle of a servant, even to the point of death on a cross.

It’s hard to understand this. Jesus says the only way to understand it is through an experience of revelation, through an “a-ha moment” which comes as a gift from God’s Holy Spirit. That nobody can apprehend this truth unless the Spirit comes and breathes it anew, so that mind and heart can understand what is not obvious.  Otherwise it will not make any sense to those with any power or privilege.

And in those recurring moments through history when the church has been intoxicated with its own sense of power or privilege, it doesn’t understand – much less follow – the Christ who gives up everything for the life of the world.

For this is the truth at the heart of it all: once we used to say, “when the Messiah comes, there will be no more misery,” but now we affirm “wherever there is misery, there is the Messiah.”[1]

Try to let that sink in for a little bit, if you can. That’s the hidden truth at the heart of our faith. It’s not about being superior, but about becoming available. It’s not about being first, but humbly choosing to be last. It’s not about being right, but about being so completely humane that you shine like the sun in holiness.

Henri Nouwen wrote a book some years ago, based on a few talks about the move from setting aside all glory for the sake of becoming deeply human and thus holy. The title says it all: The Downward Mobility of Christ. It’s not about advancing, but emptying. It’s not about jangling the keys to the kingdom as if they are your accomplishment or your private possession, but rather about unlocking the prisoners and setting them free to experience the deep love of God . . . which is precisely what Jesus is all about.

And what would that look like, as a model for you or me? How might the followers of Jesus become more like him?

A woman who runs an after-school tutoring program was talking about her volunteers. It’s a pretty effective program. Kids stop by after school, before the parents pick them up after work. There’s a snack, and a few minutes of fun. As you would expect, the core of the program is a group of concerned volunteers.

She said they come in two kinds. The first group of volunteers has great concern for the kids. They exude expertise and years of experience. “Sit down, kids, and let me show you how it’s done. Let’s straighten out your nouns and verbs. Let’s make sure all your numbers add up. I will be the expert and tell you what to do.”

But the second group of volunteers, a much smaller group, takes a different approach. They don’t tell the kids to sit down; they go and sit with them. They learn their names. They never claim to be experts. They ask a lot of questions: where are you struggling? What don’t you understand? What would you like me to show you? Then they just sit there and listen. They set their pre-conceived agendas aside and let the kids do the talking.

“I’m grateful for all of my volunteers,” said the director, “but I’ve noticed that the second group is more effective over time. They come alongside the kids and try to understand the world as the kids experience it. They actually change the kids for the better.”

Simon Peter didn’t completely understand this. He knew Jesus was special, that he was different somehow. He saw the healings, the miracles, the astounding abilities. All he could perceive was the Lord’s power. But his insight went only halfway. What he didn’t yet understand is that the true power of the Christ (the super power, if you will) is his humility, his setting-aside the glory for the sake of serving others, his compassion, his willingness to come alongside us – and all others who need him.

Simon Peter figured out that the Messiah had come, and it was Jesus. The Spirit of God opened his mind just wide enough that he could perceive that. But he didn’t yet realize the whole truth of the Gospel: that the Messiah, the Christ, comes to us . . . not to fish us out of our humanity, but to inhabit it with us. For that is the promise that opens and concludes the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus is God-with-us always, even to the end of the age (1:23, 28:20).

   There is nowhere so dark that the light of Christ is not present.
   There is no place of suffering that the Messiah cannot enter.
   There is no cross that we carry that he has not carried already.
   There is no tomb so desolate and absent that Jesus will be shut out or shut in.
   He is with us. Always.

And this is the will of God, the divine gift, the Gospel truth that we are known and we are found because we are loved. That’s good news.

The Messiah is here, and it’s Jesus. And as someone has said, “The first task of a Messiah is to get people to stop looking for one.”[2]

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

[1] Fred Craddock first said this so well, and so clearly. See his sermon “Hoping or Postponing,” originally recorded on the National Radio Pulpit in 1978.
[2] Thanks, Fred Craddock. Op. cit.

Saturday, August 5, 2017


Matthew 13:44-46
August 6, 2017
William G. Carter

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it."

We have been working through the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, a collection of parables that Jesus told. The best definition of a parable came from the British Bible scholar C. H. Dodd. You may wish to write this down:

“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

I think that’s a great definition. It reminds us that we are dealing with a literary form, a figure of speech. We hear the words “metaphor” and “simile” and we returned to that seventh grade English class when we weren’t paying attention when the teacher taught us about metaphors and similes. Those are comparisons, as in “the kingdom is like hidden treasure” or a “like a merchant search for fine pearls.”

And the parable, says Dodd, is vivid and strange. The meaning is not obvious which is precisely why Jesus told so many of them. He wants his listeners to work at it, to chew on it, to be teased (as Dodd says) “into active thought.”

As we have worked through the thirteenth chapter of Matthew over the last few weeks, we have heard some of the strangeness of the parables:

The kingdom is like a farmer who throws seed all over the place. Some of it takes root, some does not. He is sloppy, which is another word for generous, so he throws the seed everywhere he can. He is not cautious or calculating. That’s strange.

The kingdom is like a farmer who sows good seed in his own field. Somehow weeds appear in his favorite crop. When the servants suggest he purify the crop, he says, “No, let’s wait.” That’s strange. I wish I knew that parable when my parents sent me out to pull weeds out of the family garden.

The kingdom, says Jesus, is like a little bitty seed that grows so large that it takes over the whole field. We don’t expect the little one to become so large.

And as we heard last week, the kingdom is like a woman in the kitchen who works some yeast through a lump of flour. What’s odd about that? It is a sixty pound lump of flour! That’s a lot of flour.

So today we hear the kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure. What’s so strange about that? It seems pretty clear that a lot of people never find the treasure. It is out of sight. It is not obvious. It is not readily available for just anybody to saunter along and pick it up. No, the treasure is hidden. So what’s the vividness, the strangeness of this parable?

Simply this: it is found by a man who is trespassing. The man who finds it has stepped onto land that doesn’t belong to him. It is not his land, so it’s not his treasure. So, in a way, when he goes off to liquidate his assets and buy that field, he’s going after something that still doesn’t belong to him. It’s not quite ethical. He has to have that treasure.

Please notice what he does not do. He doesn’t find the treasure, stick it under his shirt, and slip away. That would be stealing. He is not interested in stealing it; rather, he wants to own this valuable thing, whatever it is.  And he is willing to give up everything else in order to possess it.

At the same time, take note of what he does do. After he finds the hidden treasure, he hides it again. He hides it really well, because he doesn’t want anybody else to have it. He found it and he just has to have it. So much so that he will cash in everything else he owns, just to get that treasure.

Now, once again, that’s strange. If he gives up everything he has, how’s he going to eat? Where is he going to live? How will he take care of his family?

I mean, it reminds me of the man who was happily married for a long time. He had a few kids, had a nice house, drove a nice car, and all his bills were paid. One day, he comes home at supper time and says, “You’re all going to have to go and live somewhere else.” Why? “Because I found a hidden treasure.”

What do you mean you found a hidden treasure? He says, “Well, I was poking around a used bookstore, and there on a dusty shelf, was a first-edition Gutenberg Bible. You know, the very first bible printed on a printing press. It’s in excellent shape. It has buried under a couple of comic books, near some old Reader’s Digest condensed books. It’s priceless. I couldn’t believe my good fortune!”

Well, says his wife, what did you do? He says, “I covered it up, and then meandered around the store so I wouldn’t look suspicious. After a while, I found the owner and said, “I’d like to buy this book store.”He looked up from his computer and said, ‘You would?’ And I said, ‘How much money would you like for the bookstore?” Without blinking he said, ‘A million dollars,’ so I said, ‘It’s a deal.”

His wife is looking at him like he has two heads. “You just bought a bookstore?” He said, “I have to put together the financing. But if I cash in my retirement savings, and sell the house and the car, and sell you and the kids into slavery, I think I can acquire that book by buying that bookstore.”

She said, “What are you going to do with that book? Will you resell it?” He says, “Oh no, I’m going to keep it.”

She said, “I’ve grown attached to living here. I think I’d like to stay.” He said, “Well, I simply have to have that book…”

Can you believe that? I can’t believe it. The story is so ridiculous, such a complete exaggeration. What’s so special that you would give up everything to get it?

Good question. The parable doesn’t say. It’s an open question where we must fill in the answer. What answer would you give?

To tell you the truth, I was sitting in a picnic bench in New Mexico last month, and somebody asked me a version of that question. We were eating enchiladas at a conference center. Evening was upon us. We finished our dinner, took a sip of coffee, and watched the hummingbirds flit around. And my host posed the question this way: “What is the one thing so special to you that you could never give it up?”  

I looked at my beautiful wife and she said, “Be careful what you say.” She’s a smart woman. But I said to her, “You married a guy who got a philosophy degree in college. I like questions like this.” Besides, the friend who asked the question is a retired geologist from NASA, so he was used to dealing with extremes. I mean, if you take it seriously, it’s really some question.

What’s the question again? “What is the one thing so special to you that you could never give it up?”

What prompted the question was a decision that my friend’s daughter had made. She was raised Presbyterian, but she converted to another faith when she fell in love and married.

So I thought about that: could I ever give up being a Presbyterian? I’ve been taking part in the church for 57 years. Is that the one thing I couldn’t give up? Well, I wouldn’t want to give it up, but the day will probably come when I retire, and there might not be a Presbyterian church wherever I go. And if I retire and stay here, it would not be neither fair nor helpful to keep worshiping here. I would inevitably step on my successor’s toes, so I’d have to worship somewhere else. That wouldn’t be the end of the world. If I had to give it up for the greater good, I would do so.

What is the one thing that I couldn’t give up? My friends? I love my friends, but friends have been coming in and out of my life since I was eight years old. I have a lot of long-term friends, but none of them are permanent.

Could I give up my family? I wouldn’t want to; I love them very much. But who knows how much time we will have together? It’s taken a long time to get the kids launched. We hope they stay launched. And I’m hopeful that I’ll have another thirty years with my wife. But who knows? It is a happy marriage, and fruitful in so many ways, but one day death will separate us. That’s just reality. And life will go on. Different, but it would go on.

Could I give up my relatively good health? I wouldn’t want to; I’m feeling pretty good these days. But when you’re a pastor, you know that one good slip on the ice could ruin your health. Illness an strike at any time. Weakness can surprise us. None of us are exempt from that. I think of my father, gone two years ago this July. Strong as an ox, tallest man in my world, and then his rational mind started to go, and there was a long, long slide to the end. Would I want to cling to my health, stay strong, and live forever? Truth be told, that’s not reasonable. Wisdom comes from numbering our days.

“So what is it?” he asked. What is the one thing you want more than anything else, the one treasure that you have to have, the one thing you would never give up?

I’ll tell you what it is for me. It’s Jesus. Because if I had to lose everything else, I’d want to know that I could lean on him. That I would land safely with him. That in spite of my imperfect faith and wayward inclination, he would still take me in

It’s like the passage where Paul writes to the church in Philippi. He loved those people, but he was separated from them. He loved his Christian freedom, but he was stuck in a prison cell. He had a tremendous family of faith, a righteous religious heritage, but that didn’t count for much when you live behind bars. So he writes to those good people in Philippi with words that will be read at my funeral some day. Listen:

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things . . . in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own …but one that comes through faith in Christ.[1]

When all is said and done, when everything is cashed in, when we (quite literally) buy the farm, our hidden treasure is Jesus. He is the Christ, the Living One, the Life-Giving One. And he is at the center of all things, waiting to be found, waiting to take first place in everything.

Because there is nothing more important than him, nothing more important than his truth and his grace. So we seek him, and keep seeking, in the great promise that he has already found us.

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

[1] Philippians 3:8-9

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Matthew 13:31-33
July 30, 2017
William G. Carter

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

It never fails. Say it’s a Sunday morning when we have a baptism. There is a mixed crowd of long-timers and newcomers. The baby is beautiful, the family is all smiles, the Presbyterians are delighted. And then at the door, one of the newcomers says, “Why in the world did you say, ‘We believe in the catholic church?’”

She’s referring to the Apostles’ Creed , of course, and curious why we would say such a thing. With a smile, I usually respond that nobody has a proprietary lock on the word “catholic.” There is Roman Catholic and Polish National Catholic, and people in both camps have assured me that they have little to do with one another. I once had a Russian Orthodox priest tell me that nobody is catholic – much less orthodox – except for the likes of him and those who agree with him. “Really?” I answered. “I though t those evaluations were above our pay grade.”

It reminds me of the old groaner about the guy who is being shown around the heavenly mansion with many rooms. St. Peter takes him by a locked room with no window. They heard loud hymn singing from within, and the man asks St. Peter, “Who’s in there?” “Those are the Baptists,” says Peter, “and they think they are the only ones here.” (Take note it’s a locked room. I’m not sure if it’s locked from the outside or the inside.)

“I believe in the one holy catholic church.” We say that a lot around here, almost every week, but I’m guessing that we really don’t give it much thought. We say “catholic” with a small “c.” We tell the inquisitors that means “universal,” as in “the big church, the complete church, the everywhere church,’ the “one in the Spirit, one in the Lord” church.

Perhaps they’ve been shaped to still fight against the Reformation, as some of us were instructed  long ago to keep the battles blazing. If you talk to the Presbyterians in Pittston or Dunmore and ask, “What makes you Presbyterian?” they might very well reply, “We’re not Cat’lic.” Except that Jesus says, “Maybe they are.”

What does it mean to be the catholic church? Or better stated, the church catholic?

All of this arose for me when I heard again the second parable from today’s text. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. A woman mixes it into some flour until the whole thing is leavened.”

On first reading, it’s the phase “the whole thing” that catches the ear. “Holos” is the Greek word for “the whole thing,” the same “holos” which is smack dab in the middle of the word “catholic.” Catholic is “the whole thing,” not just one small part of it, but the whole thing.

And that pushes a bigger question – is the Christian church, or one slice of it, the sum of all God’s activity in the world? To sharpen the question and provide a good answer, we have the words of Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian writer and wit. He says there’s a visible church and an invisible church. Listen:

The visible church is all the people who get together from time to time in God's name. Anybody can find out who they are by going to church to look. The invisible church is all the people God uses for his hands and feet in this world. Nobody can find out who they are except God.

Think of them as two circles. The optimist says they are concentric. The cynic says they don't even touch. The realist says they occasionally overlap.[1]

His point is simply that God is at work in the whole world, not merely in the church. And sometimes the church does God’s will . . . and always the church’s prayer is answered, “Thy will be done.” Are you catching what Buechner is throwing? “Catholic” refers to the “whole thing,” to all of God’s activity.

Needless to say, that’s a lot more activity that we can comprehend, which is precisely the one detail in Jesus’ parable. How much flour are we talking about? “Three measures.” Biblically speaking, how much is that? That’s about a bushel of flour, about 128 cups. That’s sixteen five-pound bags. And when you add in the forty-two cups of water to make it come together, you have about a hundred pounds of dough. That’s an enormous amount of flour, enough to bake enough bread to feed a large crowd of people.

And here’s this woman, this kingdom woman, who is working in the yeast in all of that flour. Imagine that!

If you can picture it in your head, you know her work is going to take a while. This is not a rush job, and neither is the work of God. Maybe you have noticed God is in no particular hurry. We pray, we trust Somebody is listening, we trust that our prayers will receive some kind of answer. But if your prayers are anything like my prayers, the most frequent answer is “Wait and see.”

This woman is working an enormous pile of dough. She’s working the whole thing.

The second thing we know, especially if we’ve ever worked with yeast, is that the whole thing is going to rise. Yeast works in secret. You work it in, you leave it alone, and it does its thing. Amy Jill Levine, the Bible scholar, points out that Jesus refers to a certain kind of yeast. It’s a sourdough starter. It ferments the flour. The whole thing bubbles up if you just give it some time.

And that’s the promise of God’s dominion, what Christ calls “the kingdom.” It bubbles up, it grows. It rises in secret, and the whole thing is a mystery.

I recall the descriptions of Christianity in China. In 1949, Mao Tse-Tung came to power and threw out all the Christian missionaries. He set up a secular state and outlawed any Christian activity. During the Cultural Revolution, all religious life was officially banned in China. After Mao’s death and the partial opening up of China, somebody discovered there were over 67 million Christians now in the country – and our missionaries weren’t over there doing the converting. It’s a glimpse of how God’s kingdom will rise.

The whole thing is a mystery. Like that little mustard seed, so small, so inconsequential, so inadequate, such an unlikely metaphor in that previous parable Jesus offers. Yet the little mustard seed grows into an enormous bush, so large that the sparrows come and make their nests there. How does something so small grow to be so large? How does sourdough yeast ferment in secret and enlarge an enormous lump of dough?

The biologists will remind us that yeast itself is a living organism, a single cell living organism. Quite literally, when someone massages in the sourdough starter yeast, they are infusing that lump of flour with life. So it’s no wonder that Jesus invites us to look within the mysteries from the field and the kitchen, and wonder at the quiet, mysterious, life-giving work of God.

And it’s good to keep this clear. Often, we Americans latch onto stories of enormous size and explosive growth, as if bigger is always better. The little corner grocery becomes a massive Wegman’s chain. The guy who built gadgets in the garage creates a worldwide technology business. The living room Bible study becomes a megachurch, and so on. But none of these scenarios equate to the kingdom of heaven, mostly because they are about us and our own efforts.

By contrast, remember what Jesus says about the kingdom. It’s all upside down:

·         What is greatness in the kingdom of heaven? To become like a small, trusting child. (Matt. 18:4)
·         Who is first in the kingdom of heaven? The last. (Matt. 19:30)
·         Who receives the blessings of the kingdom of heaven? The poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, and those thirsty for justice. (Matt. 5:3-9)

In God’s kingdom, there is no room for any kind of arrogance, self-promotion, or violence, because it is God’s kingdom. It is God who rules over the kingdom of heaven. And that kingdom is not located on a distant cloud sometime in the afterlife. Rather, it is the very quality of life for which Jesus teaches us to pray: the will of God, on earth as it already is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). This is what grows. This is what rises. Not the accomplishment or the arrogance of humanity, but the rule of God over all life.

The apostle Paul could testify to this. He writes a letter to a church in Rome, full of people he had never met. And he declares on the largest possible screen, “All things work together for God for those who love God.” It’s meant to be. It’s predestined. The kingdom is going to happen.

And it grows, with us or without us. The good seed sprouts up in receptive soil. The good crop lasts among the weeds. Like an otherwise insignificant mustard seed, it digs deep roots and extends wide and hospitable branches. And all of this happens because of God. God make it grow. Or to put it another way, wherever there is growth in love, mercy, and justice, God is there, extending his rule until the final day it is everywhere.

The word for today is catholic. As in “the whole thing.” As in the huge lump of dough where God is already in the kitchen, working in the yeast until it becomes inseparable from the flour.

And I don’t know, really, what all of this means. I doubt there is a lesson here. I certainly don’t have a cute little story to bring it home. All we have is a one sentence parable. It’s a little bitty parable as small as its own mustard seed and it offers a glimpse of a truth much larger than our heads and hearts can comprehend.  

Here is that truth, as far as I know it: we are part of something so much greater than we can understand. Call it “the salvation of the world.” Call it “the redemption of the universe.” Call it “the invitation to return to the Garden of Eden.” Call it whatever you can, even though none of our words will ever contain it completely.

Jesus calls it the “kingdom of heaven.” It comes in the assurance that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God. Nothing at all. God’s love is already planted like a little bit of yeast in a great big lump of dough. Just wait – everything will rise.

The lady at the back door said, “Why do you say the word ‘catholic’? It’s not your word.” I smiled and said, “It’s not your word, either. It’s God’s word.”

And trust me when I tell you that everything that belongs to God will rise.

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

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (New York: Harper and Row)