Saturday, October 14, 2017

By Grace Alone

Ephesians 2:1-10
October 15, 2017
William G. Carter

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.


Not so long ago, in November 1999, something extraordinary happened. The Lutherans and the Roman Catholics made up. I don’t know if there were formal apologies, or if there were official confessions of sin, but I do know that the two parties agreed on a matter that once splintered the church.

They made this statement: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to do good works.”[1] It only took 482 years to agree on this and make it official, and only seven more years for the World Methodist Conference to agree. Nothing happens quickly in the church, but when it does, it’s pretty big.

“By grace alone…” In 1517, those were fighting words. At that point, Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk teaching at the University of Wittenberg. He had been raised in the church, the one church, and the church had warned him that he was never going to be good enough to get into heaven. Not directly at least, and not without thousands of years in purgatory to first burn away his sins.

This was the prevailing message of the medieval church – that you’re not good enough – and the Roman church had used that message to its own benefit. If the Christians aren’t good enough, than they need to go to church more. If the Christians aren’t good enough, than they need to work harder, repent more deeply, give more generously, and obey whatever the medieval church tells them to do and believe.

Brother Luther was a sensitive soul and took the message to heart. In the monastery, he exceeded all the others with his piety and zeal. He would spend as much as six hours a day in confession, scraping away the defenses in his soul, to tell his confessor what a terrible person he was. He was a monk in a severe monastery – and he was spending all that time confessing his sins. Makes you wonder what he actually did in his spare time, or at least what he imagined he was doing.

Spiritually speaking, there was no way. He was stuck. Life was hard, purgatory was going to be harder, and heaven was only a dim gleam, to be accessed only by confessing all his sins all the time. It was all pretty grim. Sometimes he would finish a marathon session of telling the priest his sins, doing the penance, and then returning a few minutes later to start all over again because he had remembered a few more.

As I mentioned last week, he was nudged out of his self-mortification when the monastery sent him into the classroom. As he began to teach the Bible, he made many powerful discoveries. (This is how it is when we teach the Bible, you know: the teacher learns a lot!) And one of the central discoveries was this: the Christian church tends to add a lot more layers of complexity to the simple grace of God. Sometimes we have to scrape away the extra stuff – the demands, the obligations, the requirements – to simply hear anew that God comes to rescue us in Christ, that God comes to save us from our worst impulses and darkest inclinations.

Our text from the second chapter of Ephesians is one of the most succinct descriptions of this saving activity of grace. We were lost, but then God found us, blind until Christ turned on the lights and gave us the gift of sight. We have been rescued, not because we are worthy, but because the Rescuer loves us.

This is how the letter to the Ephesians describes what has happened. Sin was taking the life out of us until God came and interrupted the destruction. We were following the passions of our five senses, captive to our own desires and addictions, and then God comes and retrieves us.

As Ephesians will go on to say, we were divided among ourselves – Jew against Gentile, sister against brother, neighbor against neighbor – the only thing we could agree upon was turning away from God – and then Christ came, and took all the warring factions upon himself. Now Christ is our peace.

The effects of the rescue are threefold: God made us alive together with Christ, raised us up with Christ, and seated us with him in the heavenly places. With, with, with – salvation is a restoration of union. Whatever the previous estrangement, whatever the hidden or obvious separation from Christ, now all has been restored. The hard labor has been done by God.

It’s pure gift, a gift that comes from God’s kindness[2]. In every sense, it is a gift of being raised from the dead, which is why one scholar calls this section of Ephesians, “Salvation by Resurrection” (Markus Barth).

But in October 1517, these were debatable words. Martin Luther had been teaching the Bible at the Wittenberg, and the teaching experience had clarified his vision. He saw how much the church had added to the simple gift of God’s grace.

Chief among the additions was the selling of indulgences, as championed by a Dominican named Johannes Tetzel. Tetzel made his way around Germany, declaring that he had certificates of forgiveness for sale. The practice was sanctioned by Rome, and had become a considerable fund-raising scheme.

From Tetzel and his ilk, you could purchase these certificates that announced that God would shave some time off your millennium in purgatory, or that your deceased loved ones wouldn’t have to spend so long in afterlife torment. Conceivably, if you planned to take part in some licentious activity on Saturday night, you could get a certificate on Friday to declare you were forgiven in advance. All for a price, of course.

Luther was furious at the practice. He had seen some of the corruption of the church, a corruption which is part of every organization that has people in it. He knew first hand that there are power plays, that every leader is tempted by the power of their office. So he nailed 95 complaints to the door of the university church, in an attempt to correct what he saw as an abuse of power and a distortion of the Gospel.

The Gospel is clear: “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

So let’s talk about grace a little bit. What’s so amazing about grace?

In a recent book, Eugene Peterson asked, “What is it? What does it consist of?” He noted, “Grace is an insubstantial, invisible reality that permeates all that we are, think, speak, and do. But we are not used to this. We are not used to living by invisibles.” Then he found a metaphor: it’s like swimming in water.

If you look at water, if you pass your hand through water, you can see it’s not going to hold anybody up. But swimmers know if they relax on the water, it will prove to be miraculously buoyant. And if they make a succession of little strokes in the water, they will begin to make some progress. It can’t be hurried. You have to trust the water. It only makes sense if you get into the water, rather than remain fearful on the bank of the river.

Grace is not what we do; it’s what we participate in. As he notes, “But we cannot participate apart from a willed passivity, entering into and giving ourselves up to what is previous to us, the presence and action of God in Christ that is other than us. Such passivity does not come easy to us. It must be acquired.”

He goes on:

In fifty years of being a pastor, my most difficult assignment continues to be the task of developing a sense among the people I serve of the soul-transforming implications of grace – a comprehensive, foundational reorientation from living anxiously by my wits and muscle to living effortlessly in the world of God’s active presence. The prevailing North American culture (not much different from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman cultures in which our biblical ancestors lives) is, to all intents and purposes, a context of persistent denial of grace.[3]

It is grace that saves us, the grace of God that declares acceptable what is otherwise unacceptable. “This is not your own doing,” says Ephesians. “It is the work of God,” the hard work of Christ bearing all sin on the cross, the hard work of raising to life what was dead, the hard work of winning over God’s beloved children who think that if only they work harder and obsess a bit more, they will earn the love of God.

Grace says, “Give it up. You are already loved and forgiven.”

So Martin Luther shares his own story, and writes:

Although I lived a blameless life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God. I also could not believe that I had pleased him with my works. Far from loving that righteous God who actually loathed him. I was a good monk, and kept my order so strictly that if ever a monk could get to heaven by monastic discipline, I was that monk. All my companions in the monastery would confirm this. And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.”[4]

It was only when he heard the Gospel anew, “by grace you have been saved,” that he knew the one thing greater than our goodness is the goodness of God, the God who accomplishes what we cannot, the God who rescues us from our addiction to self-destruction, the God who declares, “You are mine; I have bought you at a price.”

Before he died a couple of years ago my dad was a high achievement individual. You might imagine my surprise one night when he told me on the phone that he had started meeting with a spiritual director. It was astonishing for an engineer for whom everything was quantifiable to begin exploring the mysteries of divine love. But I suppose that work is waiting for all of us to undertake, sooner or later.

So every Thursday night, when Mom went to church choir practice, Dad met with a retired Presbyterian minister named Vince. Vince had been a high achievement person too. For many years, he served with distinction as the pastor of a nearby church full of IBM engineers, and it was a good fit.

But he had some bumps too. A hidden bout with alcoholism prompted him to retire early and move to a small cottage on the edge of my hometown. He had gone to rehab, gone to AA, and gotten his life together. One day, in a chance conversation with my Dad, he enquired if Dad would like to get together and talk about spiritual matters. So they did.

At the time my dad had gotten quite involved with the local Presbyterian leadership and was elected to serve as the moderator of his Presbytery. He took along all his concerns and questions for those spiritual conversations. He would say, “Vince, what about this? Or what about that?” Vince would listen, pause, and smile. And then Vince would say, “Glenn, it's all about grace. It's only about grace.”

I'm sure my Dad pushed back; in fact I am certain of it. And he would say, “Yeah, Vince, but what about this matter? And what about this other matter?” He would fuss a bit. Again Vince would wait him out, smile, and say, “Glenn, it's all about grace. It's only about grace.” And Vince kept repeating his hard-won statements to the point that my Dad began to repeat them for himself. And I can't tell you how grateful I am for that lesson.

So let me remind us of the words that started a Reformation in the church, words that Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and all the rest of the Christians can affirm: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to do good works.”

It’s all about grace. It’s only about grace.




[1] “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” November 1999
[2] Romans 2:4, 11:22; Titus 3:4
[3] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2010)  pp. 94-96
[4] Quoted in Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974) 276.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

By Scripture Alone

Hebrews 4:12-13
October 8, 2017
Reformation Series
Rev. William Carter

This month marks 500 years since Martin Luther sparked a spiritual revolution that we call the Reformation. It began on October 31, 1517, as he posted 95 theses on a church door and invited an academic debate. Neither he nor the Roman church had any idea what that basic act set in motion.

We are going to revisit Luther’s work in sermons and adult classes this month. In the sermons, we will explore three mottos that marked the Reformation: “soli scriptura,” by scripture alone; “soli gratia,” by grace alone, and “soli fide,” by faith alone. Then on October 29, Reformation Sunday, we will sing Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and reflect on how the Christian church might need to be reformed in our own day.

So to begin, let us hear the Word of the Lord as it comes to us from the Letter to the Hebrews:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

In the beginning, there was only one church. Now there’s a different brand of church on a lot of street corners. That would have been an unusual situation in the early 1500’s. The western church had its headquarters in Rome, and it was the only show in town, at least in Europe.

The kings and queens gave their solemn allegiance to the pope, who ruled over all Christendom, quite literally the dominion of Christ. The church was the center of all commerce. It was the glue of civilized society. It held the keys to the kingdom of God, and determined who would go to heaven and who would burn eternally. So it was always important to be on the good side of the church.

The church’s power was absolute. Its authority was unquestioned. If anybody misbehaved, they were punished publicly while the church approved. If anybody doubted the faith, they were reprimanded and threatened with fire. If a public tragedy occurred, it was widely believed to be God’s punishment for the sins of the people. And the only way out was to do what the church told you to do, and to believe what the church told you to believe.

Ah, “the good old days!”  Compare that with where we are now. There was no freedom to think for yourself. The church told you what to think. It shaped your entire life. There was no freedom to do as you wished. Life was difficult, and there weren’t a lot of options on how to spend your time. It’s nearly impossible for us to imagine what life was like for the 16th century Europeans.

And then the Reformation happened. How can anybody explain it?

Intellectually, people were starting to think. Some of their thoughts were new. It would be another 150 or 200 years before the Europeans began to imagine how life might be constructed if the church wasn’t calling all the shots. Yet there was the stirring of a renaissance, a French word that literally means “rebirth.” There was a rebirth of imagination, literature, music, and the arts. Some dared to think freely, on their own time, of course,

But some of the leading thinkers were unshackled by tradition. They could read and write. Certainly this new form of humanism was fermenting across the land.

Economically, the times were changing. The old medieval system of a Lord in his castle and the servants in the fields was breaking down. People were finding opportunities to work in the cities. There was a migration from the countryside to the towns. As they lived closer together, there was more conversation, less isolation. People started to question the autocratic rulers who directed their lives, or tried to.

There was also a new form of technology, something called the printing press, which was the first form of mass communication. Words could be set in type, and then duplicated and sent far and wide. This prompted a desire for literacy – the printing press is no good if people cannot read – and therefore education was increasingly seen as a noble pursuit of the common people.

Things were changing intellectually, economically, and technologically. And into this situation comes an Augustinian monk named Luther. He had joined the monastery in a time of personal anxiety. One day a lightning storm came too close. It terrified him to think that he could die and would not be good enough to stay out of hell. So his way out was to join a strict monastery, to purge his soul before it ended up in purgatory.

Luther was a bit obsessive. He went to confession four times a day, usually for an hour and a half each time. He would unburden his soul to a very patient priest, receive the penance, stand up and step out of the confessional booth, and then think of some sins that he had not yet confessed. Spiritually he was stuck.

We can be certain that he was an exhausting brother to have around the monastery, anxious, zealous, frustrated, and frustrating. But in a smooth move, he was ordered by his superiors to teach at the new University in the town of Wittenberg. He didn’t want to do it, but he was ordered to do it. The task unsettled him even more.

Luther was certain that he was ill equipped to teach. So, in addition to his obsession with confession, he became obsessed with study. His textbook was the Bible. He started studying the Psalms, which he already knew from praying them continuously at the monastery. Then he moved to Paul’s letter to the Romans, and that’s when the light went on.

The year was 1515. Martin Luther started digging into the toughest, densest letter of the apostle Paul, and he got stuck in the very first chapter. He got as far as verse 16, where Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”

Now, wait a minute: his whole life was about shame. He was ashamed of the thoughts in his head, ashamed of the functions of his body, ashamed by how much shame he felt. It never occurred to him to be unashamed, especially of the gospel and the power of God. And then to read that this saving power comes through faith, not by our inadequate thoughts and deeds, but through faith . . . well, the thought of it buckled his knees and drove him to the ground.

Then he went on to the next verse: “The righteousness of God is revealed through faith by faith…” Luther had been convinced of the righteousness of God; he believed it was a terrible justice whereby God was absolutely right and the rest of us are completely wrong. But to have the words “Gospel” and “righteousness” in the same phrase? That was troubling, intriguing, perplexing. It drove Luther to deeper study, deeper reflection.

As somebody says,

“Luther came to the conclusion that “the justice of God” does not refer, as he had been taught, to the punishment of sinners. It means rather that the “justice” or “righteousness” of the righteous is not their own, but God’s. The “righteousness of God” is that which is given to those who live by fiath. It is given, not because they are righteous, not because they fulfill the demands of divine justice, but simply because God wishes to give it… It means that both faith and justification are the work of God, a free gift to sinners.

As a result of this discovery, Luther tells us, ‘I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.’”[1]

All of that long story is introduction and illustration of our text, from the letter to the Hebrews:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

The word of God is living and active. The philosophers will say the Reformation emerged from free thinking folks who bucked against the Roman system. The economists will say that the feudal system was breaking down and pushing people toward financial freedom. The techno-wizards will say the printing press spread around Luther’s sermons and forged new communities. But at the heart of it all, God spoke.

That’s what the Bible means by “the word of God.” It’s not referring to a Book, it’s pointing to a Voice. The Bible records what faithful people have heard God say through the ages, but what we really need is to hear God speak. And the great miracle of miracles comes when God’s Spirit breathes alive the ancient words that God first spoke.

Now, there’s no other Book that is so accessible to scrutiny and study. The Bible is unique. The Muslims do not scrutinize their scriptures; they recite them, without commentary. But the Bible has been discussed and debated, questioned, explored, and studied, ever since the Jews began to collect the texts of their storytellers, sages, priests, and prophets.

The Christians come out of that tradition. Our Bible is an open book. It’s a human book, with human stories and human literary forms. It is also a holy book, not merely because of what it says, but because of the God that it points to. It is the primary means by which God gets through to us, an open book waiting to be read and studied.

But God will only get through to us if we open the book. And if God gets through to us, it’s like a two edged sword. It cuts away all the distortions and the lies. It frees us from all the tangled deceptions of the human mind and heart. It slices away all the nonsense that we tell ourselves.

So imagine you’re Martin Luther, and your whole life has been an anxious climb to self-improvement. You have tried to claw yourself toward perfection and you know you’re failing miserably. You’ve angered your father who thought you belonged in law school, and you’ve joined up with a monastery that somehow reinforces all your spiritual inadequacies.

And when you’re ordered to teach the Bible, you start to read it, really read it – and you discover at the heart of whole thing is the Word that you are forgiven. Not because you’re good, not because you’re earned it, but solely because God says you’re forgiven. All those spiritual burden that you’ve been carrying are sliced away by the sword of the Lord.

The “righteousness of God” comes by God declaring you are righteous, when you know that you’re not, but you trust that God makes it so.

This is where the Reformation begins, friends, where it begins again and again: as God speaks and slices away all the excessive demands of religion and invites us to trust that we are loved with an eternal, holy love.

For Martin Luther, it sent him on a lifelong trajectory of studying the Bible, reading it night and day, writing commentaries, preaching sermons, teaching classes, and eventually deciding that the Bible is so important that he translated it out of the old churchy language of Latin into the language of his German neighbors. His conviction was that the Bible belongs in a language that can be understood.

And this will be how God speaks to us: through the ancient texts, in our own language.

But beware of the day when God speaks anew: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Before God, no creature is hidden…”

With that, the medieval church would find itself exposed, its unquestioned authority punctured by the Bible and the German scholar who studied and taught it. Luther would go on to say, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it.”

More on that next week, as Luther nails some of his newfound understanding to the church door.



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

[1] Justo Gonzales, The Story of Christianity: Volume 2 (New York: Harper Collins, 1985) 19-20.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Church That Christ Chooses

The Church That Christ Chooses
Mark 3:13-17, Exodus 19:1-6
October 1, 2017
FPUC Owego Bicentennial
William G. Carter

(Jesus) went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.


Every time I come into this building, I am overwhelmed with memories. This is a room full of people I love, some of them living, some of them dead and cheering us on from the bleachers of heaven. I can’t come into this room without hearing my father sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” in a voice so low that it could crack concrete. He sang it loudly because the church taught him to believe the words.

It was here that Sheldon Seibel presented my third grade Bible which I read during all the sermons I couldn’t understand. It was here that the Holy Spirit brought faith alive in my heart and mind, and here where faith was confirmed three times by prayer and the laying on of hands: first at my confirmation, then at my ordination as a teenage deacon, and 32 years ago this weekend as a minister of Word and Sacrament.

It was here that a pastor’s son and I made paper airplanes out of worship bulletins and dropped them from the balcony “accidentally on purpose.” It was here a youth minister told us that behind all those marble tablets on the walls are the earthly remains of those they name. And it was here that I was asked to play the piano in God’s sanctuary for the first time. It was Christmas Eve, the song was “Silent Night,” and nobody told me in advance that they would turn out the lights. Nobody gave me a candle!

It was here that I came to learn and love the Bible. I learned a lot of texts that stick with me. The 23rd Psalm, the Beatitudes, and the Lord’s Prayer earned me that third grade Bible. Words like “Let not your hearts be troubled” and “Rejoice in the Lord always” give confidence to my soul. “Enter his courts with thanksgiving” remind me how John Calvin says the primary virtue is gratitude, a virtue far above my head. The Holy Spirit brings the Bible alive in this room.

But as much as I learned, the one question where I will always stumble is the question that the Gospel of Mark answers for us this morning: What are the names of the twelve apostles?

Simon Peter, James and John. Andrew, Phillip, and Bartholomew. Matthew, Thomas, and the other James. Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanean, and Judas Iscariot. There are twelve of them, just like the twelve tribes of Israel – and I couldn’t name those tribes either, not without some help. We should be gentle on ourselves. Many of us past the age of forty can’t remember the three things that we wanted to pick up in the grocery store.

The Gospel of Mark makes a list of the twelve apostles, those Jesus appointed to stay with him. That’s not to say they all stayed with him. They weren’t perfect. There is Judas, of course. But the other eleven also scattered after Jesus was arrested. Jesus chose them, and they weren’t perfect.

In fact, of all the Gospels, Mark is the one who paints the most negative picture of the twelve. Every time Jesus asked a question, they got it wrong. He taught them every day, and they never understood. One day, he explained how he would be crucified in Jerusalem, and the twelve started bickering among themselves. He said, “What are you arguing about?” And they said, “Lord, which one of us twelve apostles is the most important?” They didn’t understand him.

Simon Peter, James and John. Andrew, Phillip, and Bartholomew. Matthew, Thomas, and the other James. Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanean, and Judas Iscariot. That is the list. There are a few things that I want you to notice.

It’s not a complete list. These are the names of twelve men, and everybody knows there are more women in church than there are men. That is a statistic to be proved by looking around. Elsewhere, the New Testament reminds us that some women followed Jesus and funded the ministry of Jesus out of their own purses.[1] It never says the men coughed up any money. They argued about money but they didn’t seem to contribute any. Mark’s list is not complete. Women belong on the list. And in many congregations, women actually run the place.

What’s more, this is not an accurate list. Forget what somebody told you about the Bible. The Bible does not exactly agree who is on the list.[2] Matthew copies Mark’s list, but Luke doesn’t mention Thaddaeus. Instead he mentions a second man named Judas, son of James. And when we get over to the Gospel of John, he mentions somebody named Nathanael. We don’t even know who that is. Some pious scholars scramble to say things like Thaddaeus, Judas, and Nathanael are all the same person – but the Bible doesn’t worry about straightening that out.

The only time we see anything like all twelve disciples standing still is when Leonardo DaVinci told them to get on the same side of the table so he could paint them into his picture!

This is not a complete list. It is not an accurate list. But let me say it: this is a diverse list. Sure, Mark tells us about twelve men. In our imaginations, we can picture them at thirty years old with curly hair. Yet it’s hard to imagine a group like this ever being convened.

There are two sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew, James and John. They left behind their fishing boats and their fathers. Jesus came from the hill country, a euphemism for “the sticks.” We don’t know anything about Thomas, Thaddaeus, or James 2.0.

But we know something about Matthew – a tax collector, a despised collaborator who worked for the Empire. He swindled his own neighbors to fund the foreign soldiers who occupied their town.

Standing next to Matthew is Simon the Canaanean – a Zealot, a revolutionary with a dagger under his cloak, ready to take out the tax collectors like Matthew. And Jesus called both of them to be part of his team. That would be like inviting Al Sharpton handing the matzoh to Pat Robertson to the same Passover Seder. Or seating Mitch McConnell and Elizabeth Warren in the same church pew.

Not only that. We are pretty sure that eleven of the disciples came from the northern territory of Galilee. The twelfth may have been the man from Kerioth – “ish-Kerioth” or “Iscariot” – Kerioth was a town way down south in Judah. So there may have been eleven Yankees and Judas the Confederate. Jesus wants them all at his side. Diverse backgrounds, different political views, distinct geographies – none of that matters to him, because he chooses them all.

Think of how remarkable that is, that the grace of Jesus Christ would transcend human opinions and divisions!

In the year 1849, a thirteen year old boy sat in these pews. His name was Washington Gladden. He grew up to become a nationally known preacher and writer, so famous that they named my elementary school after him. In 1849, he worshiped here every week, twice a Sunday, with morning and evening worship services.

According to his autobiography, it didn’t always go well. As he wrote, “I will not deny that those sermons were often a weariness of the flesh. A keen theological argument would have been interesting, but it was largely a restatement of platitudes; it hardly ever touched life in the remotest way.”[3] Obviously those were the days before John Mahler.

One Sunday in 1849, the minister stood in this pulpit and prayed for African American slaves. There was a furious outcry from a lot of the members, all of them white: “How dare he do that?” Then there was another outcry from another group of church members, who disagreed with the first group and approved of the minister’s prayer. Sounds just like church, doesn’t it?

The split became so vicious that the second group, including Gladden and his family, moved down the block to create the Congregational church. These were all Christians, with different views.

And it wasn’t until 1912, probably for reasons both theological and economical, that the two competing congregations reunited. Washington Gladden, now retired and living in the area, helped to broker that reunion. Decades after the Civil War, the Christians got over themselves and reaffirmed that they belonged together.

That latter moment provides the photograph of the true Gospel. Diverse, young, old, male as well as female, whoever, wherever, however. There is no unanimity in the group, but there is harmony as Christ calls us to sing together. That’s the World Communion truth and the point of it all. Standing at the center of this new community is Jesus. He is what they hold in common.

Look at the list. We have two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, and James and John. But that can be awkward. Ever have two brothers who agree on everything? I love my brother; we agree on a lot of things, but not everything.

And who knows how many of them were married? Earlier this Gospel says Simon Peter had a mother-in-law. I guess that means he had a wife. But we don’t know her name, or how she felt about him quitting the fish business and running after Jesus. Did they have kids? Did she have to watch them while he gallivanted around Galilee?

It’s almost as if Mark says that family status is irrelevant when it comes to following Jesus. What matters is that you know that he is calling you into a community called “Church” – and that he is giving you work to do.

That brings us to the heart of the matter. Jesus calls the twelve and gives them two-fold work: to proclaim his Message and to cast out the demons.

The Message proclaimed is clear: that God is coming close, that God shall rule over earth as clearly as God rules heaven, and that we must make the necessary adjustments to welcome God’s ownership of our lives. “Preach the Message,” Jesus says. The time is right here, God rules over us right now, so change your lives to claim God’s love.[4]

To cast out demons is first-century code language for confronting everything that resists God. If illness twists people out of shape, we must confront it. If hatred oppresses a human life, we must cast out the hatred. If evil sneaks in, and entices us to give in to lesser gods, we speak the truth that only the God of heaven is worthy of allegiance. It is hard work casting out the demons, if only because they look so respectable. But Jesus gives ordinary people his power. He equips them to work together, to make a difference for God and humanity.

This is what matters. Jesus calls together a bunch of diverse people, with different backgrounds and skills. He says, “Proclaim the authority of God over all of human life!”

From this we can extract all kinds of ideas. Here’s one: in Christ’s diverse community called “church,” you might not get your way all the time. You might not get your way at all. Instead you are called to work together to pursue God’s way. The most important question before the church is always this: What does it mean, in our place, in our time, that God rules over human lives? What would it look like for us to build the love of God? To welcome the justice of God? To do the work of God?

I’ve noticed that when churches stop asking these questions, they start to fizzle out. Perhaps they get tangled in personality disputes; the “Sons of Thunder” start mouthing off rather taking care of the neighborhood, or Matthew the tax-collector and Simon the revolutionary start plotting harm to one another in the parking lot. If a church, like any other organization, is merely a human organization, it can go off the rails in a hundred different ways. And it will need a Book of Order to keep Christian disciples from beating up on one another.

But the true church of Jesus is always more than a human organization. It is a holy fellowship, commissioned by Jesus to do the work of God. We are God’s tactical team on this planet. We welcome God’s Breath to fill our lungs, we pray for God’s Power to push us into action, and we know God’s Spirit will raise our spirits. Christ infuses his people with his own presence. When we put a bridle on our own whims, when we submit our willfulness to God’s greater will, the Gospel Message takes on skin and bones – and the world’s demons can be chased away.

That is why we are here, my friends. That is why he chooses us. We are part of a world-wide movement to enflesh the life of Jesus Christ. We are here to love all the people that Jesus loves. We are here to do the work that Jesus inaugurated. And to every destructive power that threatens God’s children, we say, “Christ is risen! Get you gone!”

We don’t have to have faith all figured out in advance. We don’t have to be right about everything. We don’t have to compel everybody else to agree with us. We don’t have to worry about who is on the list and who is not, because it is not our list. It is Jesus’ list.

So we gather around his Table to sing that Jesus our Lord is at the center of it all. In broken bread, we affirm that his steady work of salvaging the world is the most important work of all. We do this work together, and we do this work with him. It won’t be easy. Crosses will be handed to us. Betrayers will appear from time to time. Faith will be tested. Even strong Simon Peter will have moments when he thinks he is unworthy, and he probably is.

But here we are, “chosen of the Lord and precious.” We are the church that Christ chooses. Look around. We are the kind of people that Jesus loves. We are the ones who bear his love to the world. And if Jesus can love us, he can love everybody. It's our job to say so - and to love them on his behalf.

Happy birthday, church of God! Let’s proclaim God’s love and get on with our work.


© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.




[1] Luke 8:1-3
[2] Compare Mark 3:13-19 with Matthew 10:1-4 and Luke 6:12-16
[3] Washington Gladden, Recollections (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1909) p. 33.
[4] Mark 1:14-15

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.