Saturday, December 25, 2010

On the Feast of Stephen

Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23
December 26, 2010
Christmas 1
William G. Carter

On the church’s calendar, December 26 is the Feast of Stephen. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the church. As you may remember from the book of Acts, he was one of the seven people appointed by the church to look in on the needs of the needy, particularly the widows and the poor. He was full of the Holy Spirit and very wise. And he quickly found himself defending the Good News of Christ from the very people who resisted the good news. Stephen became the first martyr of the church, and his Feast Day is a day to remember his faith, his good works, and the ultimate cost that he paid.

That may sound harsh, but we have already had demands placed put on us by the scripture texts. Matthew tells of what happened after the Wise Men departed the manger. King Herod tried to eliminate the newborn King, and Joseph had to take his young family to hide from their enemies. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus and his sufferings, but with the end that people will be redeemed. As the writer says, “Through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death … and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

Today is the Feast of Stephen, when we live Christmas forward and reflect on what the birth of Christ requires of us. There is a grand old Christmas carol that will guide our sermon time. It is rooted on the Feast of Stephen, and you will find it printed on the first page of the worship bulletin. Let’s join together and sing the first verse:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

Wenceslas was born in 907 AD. He was the Duke of Bohemia, and not actually a King. There were nine or ten famous rulers named Wenceslas. Some of them were Slavic kings, but the Wenceslaus in our carol was the earliest of the bunch.

His father was a Christian, but his mother was opposed to Christianity. After Wenceslas’ father died when the boy was thirteen, he was taken by his grandmother and raised as a Christian. His mother was furious about the influence that the grandmother had on Wenceslas, so she arranged to have her murdered when Wenceslas was 14. This, of course, did not endear the boy to his mother, and he continued to pursue his studies of the Christian faith.

About four years later, Wenceslas assumed the throne. One of his first acts was to exile his mother and send her out of the country. He pursued his grandmother’s desire to spread the Gospel among the Slavic people. Today he is honored with a statue on the Charles Bridge in Prague. Wenceslas was a stern but fair ruler. He was widely known for his kindness to the poor, and that what we celebrate in the next three stanzas of the Christmas carol. It is a conversation between the good king and his page – and we will hear them now sing that conversation to one another.

"Hither, page, and stand by me / If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he? / Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence / Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence / By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine / Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine / When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went / Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament / And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now / And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how, / I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page / Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage / Freeze thy blood less coldly."

The good saints like Wenceslaus and Stephen invite us to walk in their footsteps. That is why we remember them, mark their lives, and follow their example. The Christmas carol teaches us to care for those who are half-frozen and poor. This is what Wenceslas did. It is what we are called upon to do.

It isn’t easy. Duke Wenceslas discovered that his worst enemy was his own brother Boleslav. He took part in an assassination plot that was organized by rival politicians. In the year 935, Boleslav invited his brother to a religious festival, and then attacked him on the way to worship in the church. Wenceslas was killed when he was 28 years old. His brother soon regretted his own actions. Boleslav pledged to raise his son as a Christian and dedicate him to the priesthood.

Meanwhile, Wenceslas continued to influence the Christian people in Bohemia even after his death. Having died a martyr’s death, he was quickly named a saint of the church. There were numerous legends about good works that were done in his name. Today he is regarded as the patron saint of the Czech Republic. There’s a special legend that even the places where his foot touched down are marked by the warmth of his love. We will walk in his footsteps as we remember his concern for the poor and follow his generous example.

So let us join together in singing the final verse of the carol. Therein lies today’s lesson:

In his master's steps he trod / Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod / Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure / Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor / Shall yourselves find blessing.

Merry Christmas!

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Friday, December 24, 2010

It’s For Other People

Luke 2:8-20
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2010
William G. Carter

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord."

It was one of those holiday scenes that happen all the time, but is quickly missed. A family of four emerged from the shopping mall, their arms burdened with packages. They were tired but jubilant. Clearly they had everything they wanted. As they come out the door, they pass by a guy in a Santa hat, standing by a red kettle and chiming a bell.

The seven year old son stops in his tracks, turns and looks. His parents pause to retrieve him. The Santa with the bell asks, “Do you wish to help the poor?” The boy nods, but his father has other ideas. “Come on,” he says, “let’s go,” and tugs on the kid’s sleeve.

But suddenly, about ten steps away, the boy breaks free and returns. Fishing down deep in his pocket, he finds two coins and drops them in the kettle. Then he explains to his confused and impatient family, “Christmas is for other people, too.”

I suppose this is hard for us to see. We have been well-trained to believe Christmas is about us: that it is about our wish lists, our families, our decorations and customs. There are Currier and Ives pictures of the perfect Christmas engraved on our minds. We would like to have our loved ones around our tables eating our food and enjoying our generosity. It is hard to think about anybody else.

The other day, I hopped on the shoppers’ bus to Manhattan with one of my daughters. On Times Square, the red kettles were everywhere, attended by jolly elves who sang along with canned music. It some sight to see battery-powered karaoke machines with the imprint, “Property of the Salvation Army.” Most of the tourists passed them by, making their way to visit Macy’s or to catch a show. They were in the city to spend money, not share it. Each little flock trudged along in isolation and indifference.

It is hard to think that Christmas is for other people, too. We are told to indulge ourselves. In one high-end boutique on Fifth Avenue, I spied a nice blue dress shirt. The sign said, “40% off.” So I sneaked a peek at the tag – normal cost for one shirt is $295. Even with the holiday discount, I decided to pass; it was combed cotton, and I would probably shrink it the first time I washed it. As we stepped outside, just a few paces away a blind saxophonist blowing, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Somehow I felt compelled to throw five bucks in his instrument case. After all, it is Christmas. Christmas is not for me alone – it’s for him, too.

It is hard to keep this clear, but this is the essence of the story. Jesus is born in a little town with a distant memory and a murky future. The Caesar of that time, Caesar Augustus, had sent armies to occupy the region. Then he decided to tax the occupants so there were funds to pay for his armies. The local authorities set up a system to register each family in their home town, and that’s how Joseph brought his pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. Her son is born in the shadows of a greedy empire.

The news of the birth is announced to shepherds who work the land. We don’t know their names. Apparently they weren’t significant enough to be included in the census. But angels sing the news to them – and nobody else. It is “good news of a great joy for all the people.” For all the people. This little baby is going to rescue people from their isolation. He is going to save them from their indifference. He will heal them from the ways that their own selfishness has broken them.

It is good news for a shepherd. In that time, the city folk considered the sheep-keepers as thieves. They let their flocks graze on lands that were not their own. Even the religious elite decreed that all shepherds were sinners, not permitted to enter the Jerusalem temple until they atoned for every blade of grass that their animals stole from their neighbors. This is, after all, what religious people when they have a lot of time on their hands: they cook up religious rules to separate themselves from the commoners with dirty fingernails.

But the angels sing to the shepherds: “Unto you is born a Savior.” Unto all of you. This is “good news of a great joy for all the people.”

You see, God is on a mission to save the world. That is what Christmas is about. That is why the angels are singing. It is not because the C.E.O. of H. J. Heinz just got an 8.6 million dollar bonus this year. No, it is because God believes that other people matter, too. That God makes each human being with inestimable value. There is peace on earth among those whom God loves – provided, of course, that they share the love. It is the sharing of love that makes it real.

This is what the child Jesus will grow up to teach and exemplify. He gives himself to the world – and commands us to give ourselves to our neighbors. Forgive one another. Share what you have. Feed the hungry. Take care of the weak. Heal what is broken. And never give in to fear.

The fact is there is a lot of fear out there. It can tempt us to hunker down and insulate ourselves. But the angels come and dismiss the gloom of night. Unto you – all of you! A great joy for all the people! For other people. If Christmas this year is sad and dark, it could be because it has become all about you, and not yet about other people. Joy comes by stepping out of ourselves – and giving ourselves to the needs of others.

If we cannot hear the angels, we can listen to Stephen Colbert. About a week ago, with deep irony, he took on the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, and a few self-righteous Christians, and he said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition ... and then admit that we just don't want to do it." (December 16, 2010)

At the heart of the Gospel is God’s generosity. In the birth of Jesus, God comes for everybody. Christmas is not a private possession of self-absorbed people. Christmas is not the hoarded gift of a frightened church. Christmas is God’s gift to the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes and embodied in Jesus. It is found among people who are learning to cherish one another … to the glory of God.

One of my teachers told me about a missionary to China. His name was Oswald Golter, and he served in China in the 1940’s. He was an agricultural missionary and taught people how to raise crops. When the Communists came, they forced him to leave. So his supporters in America wired him a ticket, and told him to make his way to India to catch a ship home. When he arrived in India, he discovered many Jews were there in dismal poverty. They landed in India because India was one of the few countries in the world that welcomed the Jews after Hitler expelled them from Europe.

Dr. Golter was glad to see them. It was Christmas time and he said, “Merry Christmas!" They said, “But we are Jews.”

“Oh, I know, but Merry Christmas anyway. What would you like for Christmas?” They said, “But we are Jews.”

He said, “Oh, I know. But is there anything you wish you could have for Christmas?” They thought about it and said, “We wish we could taste again some fine German pastries.”

Dr. Golter went all over that city in India and found a shop that sold fine German pastries. He cashed in his ticket home and bought boxes and boxes of pastries. Then he delivered them to the barns and the attics and the sheds where those Jewish people were living and said, “Merry Christmas!” Then he wrote home and said, “Send me another ticket.”

Years later, he told that story to a group of preachers. One of them stood up, his fists clenched, and said, “Why did you do that? Those people aren’t Christians. They don’t believe in Jesus Christ!" Dr. Golter said, "But I do!" (Thanks to Fred Craddock for the story.)

Christmas is for other people, too. Joy to the world … the whole world … your neighbor’s world.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Three Reasons Why We Shouldn’t Listen to Angels

Matthew 1:18-25
Advent 4
December 19, 2010
William G. Carter

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Christmas is just under a week away. The trees are decorated. The candles are lit. The carols ring out. And the angels have come. You can’t have Christmas without angels.

The angels are God’s announcers. They stand between us and the Holy of Holies, and they speak on behalf of God. Without the angels making their announcement, Christmas would be just another peasant birth. All anybody would know is that a mother gave birth to her first-born son. But then the angel speaks and we learn a good bit more about the baby.

Angels can look like us. Mark tells of an empty tomb and says, “There was young man.” He sat among the tombs and said “Why are you looking for the living around here?” Strange question from a young man. The book of Genesis says two angels went to visit a man named Lot. He received them as human visitors and gave them something to eat. In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, the preacher says, “Some have entertained angels without knowing it.” We have every reason to think that some might be among us.

Yet the Bible is also clear: angels are not like us. Angels are not human. They belong to a different order of God’s creatures. They don’t seem bound to time and space like the rest of us. In Bible stories, they have the ability to appear and disappear. Today we learn that angels even can infiltrate our dreams. And they have the ability to terrify mere mortals. The most common response to an angel is fear, which is why most angels begin their speeches by saying, “Don’t be afraid.” And most of the time, it might not do any good. Fear does not evaporate by somebody saying, “Stop fearing.”

So today, I thought what I would do is mention three good reasons why it is risky to listen to angels. That’s what lies beneath of the Gospel lesson. Our text is Joseph’s version of the Christmas story. It is one of the few places where we actually hear something about the carpenter. It offers a three-fold warning why we have to be careful about listening to angels.

Here is the first reason: angels interrupt us. When an angel speaks, your life is going to be interrupted.

Consider Joseph. His life was going in a straight line. He had a calling as a carpenter. It was a highly regarded trade in every village. He was engaged to Mary, and probably had been engaged for a while. Quite possibly it was an arranged marriage, an agreement between two families that the local carpenter’s son would later marry a much younger daughter of the other family. If that doesn’t sound very romantic to you, there are imaginary novels you can read and movies you can watch. But the plain truth is that these were people who lived close to the soil, people whose customs were long-established, people who knew one another and lived quite close to one another. They were not strangers who met in a far-off college town. Their families were deeply invested in their mutual future within that marriage.

But then the news comes: Mary is pregnant. The child is not Joseph’s. Just when Joseph thought he knew what to do, the angel speaks in the middle of a dream. “She will bear a son,” said the angel, “and the child comes from the Holy Spirit.”

I’m sure the angel thought that was an impressive message, and to us, centuries later, it is significant in every way. But it is a disruptive announcement and hard to take at face value.

Technically speaking, every child comes from God. Each baby is a holy gift. What the angel is saying is that Joseph is unnecessary. For the child to be conceived, Joseph is not needed. On the one hand, that is an insult on his masculinity. On the other hand, God is insisting that this particular child must be born.

It is an awkward moment. If Joseph had dreamed of a perfect life, now people will perpetually whisper about him and his lady. If he had hoped for a spotless reputation, now everybody in the village will murmur that Mary and Joseph started the honeymoon a bit early. Life will be interrupted by a child. Even if the child is expected, planned, and wanted, it will be an interruption.

Just watch what happens when a young couple announces their first pregnancy. More experienced parents circle around in celebration. Congratulations float in the air. Then the old duffers turn away, wink at one another, and smile knowingly. It is a grand conspiracy of silence, and the old duffers are overheard to say, “Aren’t we glad to be through all of that?”

Two Clarks Summit professionals announced her first child was on the way. It happened exactly on their schedule. “Everything is going our way,” they exclaimed. There were lulled into thinking that the planets circled around them. And when the baby arrived, it was a new reality. That baby took a lot of work. Strange hours. Yucky-looking food. Disgusting diapers. Inconvenient illnesses. Extra expenses. Guilt that they weren’t present enough. And then the day after the mother went back to work, she was scheduled to make a presentation before the top management. She reached into the pocket of her blazer to pull out a baggie of mildewed Cheerios.

“Joseph,” said the angel, “Mary is pregnant. The Holy Spirit is giving her a baby.” The announcement came early. Joseph was not ready for it. God spoke through the angel and interrupted everything he wanted and expected. If you wish to live a perfect, calculated life, safe from every act of God, I would recommend that you pay no attention to angels.

That brings us to a second warning: be careful of listening to angels, because angels push us off the page.

The Bible offers a long record of how God gets involved in people’s lives. There are plenty of stories about unexpected pregnancies. In her old age, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. In her barrenness, Rachel is surprised with a son. In her disgrace, Hannah makes a deal to hand over to God her first-born son, if only God gives her that child. And ancient Elizabeth discovers her old husband Zechariah, a temple priest near the end of his career, finally has the ability to produce a child.

In this sense, Mary is in a venerable Biblical tradition of God’s surprising birth announcements. But she is also different – for she and Joseph are not yet married. The Bible had words about that situation, as well. What does the Bible say? It says Deuteronomy 22: “She is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of the people.” Any question? That is the rule, when a man discovers his fiancĂ©e is pregnant by somebody other than him.

For a lot of people, clear rules give great comfort. Everything is fixed and settled. Nothing is left for discussion or debate. Just open the book and follow the rules . . . except that we have a clue here that Joseph is struggling to merely follow the rules. Matthew tells us a few things about him. Joseph is a tzadik – a “righteous man.” That means he takes the scriptures seriously. But we are also told he is “unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace” and “planned to dismiss her quietly.” That is, he is going to take a softer, more compassionate approach to the ancient rules of Deuteronomy.

But then the angel speaks and says, “Joseph, take Mary as your wife.” Even though the rule in the Bible said, “Get rid of her,” there is a higher authority than the rules. And that is the authority of the One who makes the rules.

Now, this is hard for a lot of people to understand. They read the Bible. They find direction and purpose for their lives. They trust that the world is ordered in the ways that the Bible describes. They love the commandments: “No idolatry,” “No murder,” “No coveting.” No – no – no. But then something happens, something indescribable, something spiritual – and it scares them because it’s not on the page.

It came up often in the ministry of Jesus. The Bible said, “Don’t touch a leper” – and Jesus touched a leper and healed him. The Bible said, “Don’t associate with sinners” – and Jesus invited himself to share meals with them. The Bible said, “Stop work on the Sabbath” – and Jesus labored tirelessly to preach, teach, and heal on the Sabbath. Maybe he picked up this attitude from Joseph and how Joseph treated his own mother.

As somebody notes,

“Joseph is a good man… He loves his Bible and he knows his Bible... But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore he says, “I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.” Where does it say that, Joseph? It says that in the very nature and character of God.”

He was leaning in this direction, because he was a good man. But the angel appeared in his dream and pushed his compassion even further. That is to say, if you prefer a flat obedience, a life of inflexible rules, be cautious of listening to an angel.

This brings us to the third warning: Be wary of listening to an angel, because angels call us to make commitments and keep them.

Now, I wish to sift out any casual notions that Joseph was merely being a nice guy. We have been trained to think of him as a benevolent character on the front of a Christmas card, standing silently. No, the call of God upon his life was greater than that. He was interrupted by the announcement of a baby that was not his. His view of scripture and the moral law was filtered by the love and compassion of God. Now the angel invites him to keep his engagement, to stand by his betrothed, to forgive the intrusion of God upon her womb, and to raise Mary’s child as if it is his own.

I cannot imagine anything more difficult. I have known plenty of people who prefer a lofty aesthetic, an ambiguous piety. They talk about faith in general. They discuss endlessly this idea and that. They love the decorations of Christmas, the poinsettias, the perfumed music, the high drama, the beautiful art. But ask them to pin it down and they disappear.

The angel says, “Take Mary as your wife. Take her child as your own.” Do you know what that means? It means to dig in where you are. Trust the love you have for others. Take care of the persons God has put in your life. Welcome them as holy gifts, in all their specificity – even if it means handling dirty diapers, consoling those who cry in the night, and committing all your resources for their food and safety.

There’s a woman I know. She gave birth to two boys of her own. When they were mostly raised, she agreed to take in a foster child, an infant. She fed the baby, held her close, asked her sons not feel jealous. She has since taken in a number of foster children, all of them infants, many with profound needs. Most of them, she handed back to their parents when the time was right. She has cared for those, and begun their lives by surrounding them with the care and attention they needed. “It’s what I had to do,” she said. “And with each one, my ability to love grows even greater.”

The angel said to Joseph, “Raise the child as your own.” Take care of him. Give him a home. Instruct him in the carpenter shop. Teach him how to love God. These were the specifics of his assignment.

Today I think of Joseph. He could have lived the insulated life, the inflexible obedience, the ambiguous piety. He might have coasted along for years, uninterrupted and unaffected. Instead he listened to an angel who spoke to him in a dream, and he took Mary for his wife. He made a home for an unexpected baby named Emmanuel, God-with-us. It turned his future upside-down. Ours too.

I’m OK with that. How about you?

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Looking in the Wrong Places

Matthew 11:2-11
Advent 3
December 12, 2010
William G. Carter

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Years ago in a Christmas pageant, I discovered once again a little-known truth about God. The shepherds stood in their tinsel halos, surrounding the Holy Family. A couple of them were fidgeting. One waved to her grandmother, another elbowed his neighbor for a better view. Yet on cue, they sang the verses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Maybe it was the commotion of the pageant. Or perhaps the timeliness of the occasion. But I heard one of the truth about God in one of the verses of the carol: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. And God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear can hear his coming . . .” That is the truth: God gives in silence and nobody can hear it.

It was an ironic moment, because that Christmas pageant was not silent at all. I have never heard of a Christmas pageant that was ever silent. For that matter, does Christmas ever come silently? There is so much hustle, bustle, and commotion. The economy is shaken awake by shoppers. The clatter is everywhere. As Frederick Buechner once complained, “The lovely old carols (are) played and replayed ‘til their effect is like dentist’s drill or a jack hammer.” In some places, even “Silent Night” is played very loudly.

Remember the Grinch, up on his mountain above Whoville? His greatest protest about Christmas is “the noise, noise, noise, noise.” Christmas can be very noisy, especially if you’re not in the mood for it this year.

By contrast, when God comes, “how silently, how silently . . . no ear can hear his coming.”

I wonder about the silence. Specifically I wonder why God is so quiet. To hear some people talk about faith, God is not quiet at all. God blows a trumpet, smashes the cymbals, and announces the good news with seventy-six trombones. In some kinds of Christian churches, if there is any common denominator, it is the chatter. People give their testimonies as if they saw Jesus at the car wash or the grocery store. They go on Christian TV stations in Tennessee and speak of how the Holy Spirit has been instructing them to talk to other people. For a brief time, I lived near a Christian book store. You couldn’t go in there without some Christian trying to convert from the kind of Christian you were to the kind of Christian they think you ought to be. Chatter, chatter, chatter.

If I scrape away all the promotional talk, my actual experience of God is more like the Christmas carol: “how silently, how silently . . . no ear can hear his coming.” And I need to tell you that I have great sympathy for John the Baptist. He sends a message to Jesus to ask, “Are you the One who is to come? Are you the One or should we look for another?” Apparently whatever Jesus was saying and doing was much too quiet to convince John that the Messiah had come.

Now we remember John the Baptist as a noisy preacher. He was noisy. He had a loud voice. He preached fierce sermons. He screamed at the pious people who came to hear him speak. Then if they came forward, he held them under the river for a good, long time. John knew the Messiah was coming, that the Messiah would burn away sins with unquenchable fire. He knew the Messiah would singe people with his Holy Presence and straighten out their lives.

John the Baptist was a noisy preacher. It was his loud voice that got him thrown into prison. He mouthed off to King Herod, and publicly called him an adulterer. Everybody knew the king was immoral, but John the Baptist actually said it. Back then, politicians paid attention to the preachers. Herod threw him into a dungeon. According to one account, he still liked to hear John preach - as long as he was chained up and out of sight. John was known by his loud voice.

But for some reason, John grew disappointed with Jesus. Jesus isn’t busy enough, or Jesus isn’t obvious enough, or – most probably – Jesus isn’t loud enough. So he mouths off from the dungeon: “Are you the One? Are you really the Messiah? Are you the One that I’ve been telling everybody about? Or should we start looking for somebody else?”

I can understand this. My greatest difficulty with God is his hiddenness. I experience a God who is not obvious and does not make a lot of noise. A friend loses a job and I pray, “God, give him a job!” And there is no job; just a lot of silence. People that I love bury a child and I pray, “God, this isn’t right, make it better.” And we wait, and we wait, and it still hurts. A good man gets a bad diagnosis; he has lived an exemplary life and now he’s sick. I pray, “Lord, you are the Good Physician. Lord, in your goodness, make him well!” And there is silence and the cold wind begins to howl.

I wish it didn’t have to be that way. I wish God would do whatever I wanted God to do. I wish God would speak up on demand. I wish God took orders from me. And then I noticed – whenever I tell God what to do, it gets really, really quiet.

Just imagine John the Baptist, the greatest preacher of his day. John spoke up about the king, called him out as a two-timer. John was correct about that, and his good deed did not go unpunished. The first couple of weeks in prison, he probably felt pretty smug. He said to himself, “Self, I did the right thing. I spoke up for righteousness in an unrighteous world.” And if you know you did the right thing, you can (at least) take some comfort in your right-ness, especially as you wait for the Messiah to finally come and make everything right, especially when you know that the Messiah has already sneaked into town.

But as time passes, doubt creeps in. Is he really here? Is Jesus the Messiah? Is he really the Messiah? That’s what John wants to know. And I cannot fault him for that.

We would love for God to be more obvious. We want God to give us the old razzle-dazzle, to impress us with feats that are scientifically impossible. Wouldn’t it be great if God could cure the cancer, reverse the aging process, and compel our kids to call us every day? Wouldn’t it be beautiful for God to autograph every sunset, to feed every starving child, to bring balance to every chaotic mind? Can you imagine if God could wave the divine arms and suddenly every gun would stop firing, every greedy person would share, every lion would sing Christmas carols with every lamb? Wouldn’t it be great if the Messiah would come?

As somebody has said about our passage, “There is always enough misery in the world to believe the Messiah will come. There is always enough misery in the world to believe that the Messiah has not yet come.” (Fred Craddock) The point is this: if I believe he is still coming, I can imagine the Messiah to be whatever I want. What I might miss is what he actually is, and where he actually is working.

Maybe you saw the last issue of National Geographic. It featured a big story about King David. David was the greatest of Israel’s kings. He consolidated the monarchy, he built up Jerusalem, and he raised the nation of Israel to great wealth and prominence. Well, maybe. Now the archeologists aren’t so sure. According to the excavations, Israel was not so big, and David was not so tall. Some are wondering: was King David really so great, or was the truth more likely that the people wanted King David to be great? It’s hard to tell.

There is a gap between what we expect and what we receive. Expect the big Christmas gift; and when it comes, it’s not so big. Expect the Messiah to come and make everything right; and then Jesus appears, a peasant with a smudge on his cheek and splinters in his hands. Is this what we wanted? Is this what God sent us?

And he’s so quiet. Not that he has nothing to say; no, he has plenty to say. But it takes some work to understand him. Jesus speaks in parables and the points are not obvious. He sticks to the small towns when he could go to the city and make a bigger impact. He doesn’t spend a lot of time with the movers and the shakers, with the people of great influence. No, he wanders out into the fields and considers the lilies. And he never seems to be in much of a hurry. Ever notice that?

Do you suppose one of the reasons why we make so much noise at Christmas is because we don’t know what to do with the peaceful, slow silence of God? So we fill it with a lot of words. We make a lot of assurances. We sing a lot of songs. We spend a lot of money. We make ourselves busier than every other time of the year. Somehow we think we can outrun the silence, rather than allow to catch up to us and fill us.

After all, we remember what the rest of the Christmas carol says: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

The Messiah comes, but not with a lot of noise. He speaks but you have to lean forward to hear what he is saying. Recently I found myself in a bumpy time. My prayers were full of babbling, and I mustered up the courage to pray, “Lord, where are you? What are you doing? Why aren’t you here?”

I thought I heard something, so I leaned forward and asked again. “Where are you? What are you doing? Why aren’t you here?” I heard something that sounded like a whisper. The Voice was very soft.

I said, “Lord, I really expect you to do something. Why aren’t you doing something?” And a Voice whispered, “Because it’s not your turn. I will get to you, but I work with one at a time.”

It rings true to the scriptures. There are lots of stories about Jesus, how he heals, how he cures. But he never stands in front of a crowd, waves his hands, and instantly cures everybody. No, he blesses one, and blesses another, then blesses a third. And he doesn’t start with the famous people, so that love trickles down from more important places. He doesn’t go to the obvious places to do the obvious things. No, he takes whoever he meets, one at a time. That’s why he says to John’s disciples, “Tell your preacher what you see . . .”

“The blind receive their sight…” One day as Jesus traveled, two blind people followed him, stumbling over stones, crying out for mercy. They caught up with him at a house and he said, “Do you think I can do this?” They said, “Yes, Lord.” With that, instantly they could see and he said, “Don’t tell anybody.” And they wrote it down in the Bible (9:27-31).

“The lame walk…” A Roman centurion said to Jesus, “I have a servant who is lying down paralyzed. Say the word and he will walk. And Jesus said the word, the man got up to walk (8:5-13).

“The lepers are cleansed…” Jesus came down from teaching on the mountain, and a leper came near and fell to his knees. “If you choose,” said the leper, “you can cleanse me.” Jesus stretched his hand, touched him, and said, “I choose; be clean,” and the man was clean. Jesus said, “Keep this quiet,” and Matthew wrote it down (8:1-4).

“The deaf hear…” Something had gotten into a man who could not speak. His world was silenced. His tongue was stuck, his ears were clogged, until Jesus opened him up (9:32-33).

“The dead are raised...” A synagogue ruler found Jesus to say, “My little girl has died; would you place your blessing upon her?” Jesus followed him home, chased away the mourners, and lifted her alive. (9:18-26)

“The poor have good news brought to them…” Biblically speaking, if you don’t have the means to make yourself well, you are poor. If you cannot save yourself, that is your poverty. Yet Jesus makes his way to you. He announces that you are precious, you are not lost, your cause is not forgotten. He will get to you.

Don’t look for the Messiah among the high and mighty. Don’t look for him among the satisfied and the self-sufficient. His mission field has always been the same: the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf, the dead, and the poor. For the Messiah, they are all in a day’s work. According to Matthew and his stories, they may be wealthy or impoverished. Some are well-connected, others are disconnected. Not one of them needs to be named, yet he knows each and every one. And he stays with them quietly until they are healed.

Tell this to John the Baptist. The Messiah is among us and he stays busy. His work will not be flashy. He will not draw a lot of attention to himself, except as people see him where he really is. Without any fanfare, regardless of whether anybody actually notices, the Messiah comes to one person at a time, restoring and curing them out of the grace of God.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given . . .” This is the promise of Advent and Christmas. The Messiah comes, but faith pushes us to lean forward, to listen carefully, to watch and wait for him to come where he is needed most. Because the Christmas carol is true: “No ear can hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where dear souls receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Missing the Kingdom of Heaven

Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 2
December 5, 2010
William G. Carter

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John the Baptist is an awkward character for Advent. He usually shows up at this time of year to splash some cold water on our Christmas preparations.

While the shopping mall cranks up the carols before the Halloween candy goes stale, John stands up on a desert rock to shout “Repent!” At a time when people survey the catalogs and pick out nice clothes for loved ones and themselves, John simply wears the same garb – the skin of a camel, fleas and all. He will not RSVP for holiday parties. He probably won’t send a thank-you note if you send him a gift. He will sing carols at your front door.

If you want to see him, you have to travel to where he is, out in the austere desert somewhere southwest of Jericho. People speculate about him and wonder where he comes from. That’s easy: his father was an old man, a priest in Jerusalem. John takes his religion outdoors. He preaches to the snakes, both reptile and human. He has one sermon. It is very brief: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And all kinds of people go to hear him.

They take a bus of tourists out to see him. The road is dusty and the air conditioning doesn’t work. The fat people get off the bus, cameras around their necks. The host minister leads them in a brief prayer, and then explains that John is something of a throw-back. “He’s the last prophet of the Old Testament,” explains the minister. “Dresses like Elijah, eats like Elisha. Takes no prisoners whenever he preaches.”

The little band of tourists traipses around a large rock, looks for a place to sit, and there is no place to sit. It’s just as well. John sees them, screams at them, and condemns them for wasting money on a bus when they can walk. One of them says, “I’m glad we don’t have a preacher like him.” Pretty soon, their hair is blown backwards. So they leave to find a nice store with olive wood souvenirs.

As they leave, they pass some religious leaders on a retreat. These guys are easy to spot in their formal gowns. They have taken off time for the weekend, and gone reluctantly to hear this preacher. A few of the more-than-usually-stuffy ones are concerned about John’s rhetoric. He is preaching without a license, teaching without certification. That concerns them.

The rest of them wonder why so many people are slipping out of town to go hear John preach. They are curious. What is the attraction? What does he say? Why are so many people going to hear him? Well, they never find out. When John sees them, he picks up a rock and hurls it at them. Then he screams, “Go back to the fires of hell where you came from!” With that, he spins around and walks away.

What is the attraction of this man? Why do the Gospel writers want us to see him?

It’s not so simple to claim that John is preaching against the establishment. There is no evidence that he is taking on organized religion. He speaks of the same God. He speaks of the same Kingdom. Everybody agrees that John is grounded in the same scriptures as everybody else in Israel. “This is the one,” says Matthew, “who embodies the very promise of Isaiah – he is a ‘voice hollering in the wilderness.’ This is the one who prepares us for the way of the Lord.”

John makes that hope concrete. “There is somebody coming who is greater than me. I splash you with water, but he shall burn you with Holy Spirit. He will take a big hooked fork and separate the grains of wheat from the lifeless stalks. Then he will burn that chaff with unquenchable fire.”

You know, given the choice, I think I’d prefer John the Baptist to the One he’s talking about. With John, you get your hair blown back by a sermon and then you get wet. But to hear him speak of Jesus – John makes it sound like Jesus is going to change us.

For what does John say? “Even now the axe is swinging at the root of the tree, and the fruitless tree will be thrown into the fire.” John doesn’t have an axe – all he has is a sermon. And he points toward Jesus as the one who separates the fruitful from the dead.

Then John says, “You can’t say ‘leave me alone, I come from a good family.’” The Kingdom of God is not a status system where some people are better than others, where some people are better connected than others, where some people act more pious than everybody else. People enter only one at a time. Either they come to God, having turned away from everything else. Or they will be exposed as selfish and manipulative, trying to scam God and prove they are better than they really are.

John’s point is well taken. We cannot come to God, flash our passing report cards, and assume that we are good enough on our own to enter a kingdom that does not begin or end with us. Something else is needed. Something like faith, hope, and love.

God plants faith as a small seed in our hearts and then waits to see if it grows. Will the seed of faith grow to take over the work we do? Will it determine the ways we spend our time and our resources?

God announces hope; it’s not a hope in our own striving, not a hope in our own achievements – but rather, a hope that history is moving somewhere, a hope that God will finish everything once began, that God will transform all things with grace.

And then God surrounds us with love: there was love before we were born, there is love all around us. Every day, God comes to us as love. Then God watches to see if that love is actually shared. Are neighbors enriched by our love? Are the little ones protected? Are the hungry fed? In the ways we live and give, is there any evidence that we have been loved?

I used to think that John the Baptist was the harsh one, the demanding one. This time through the text, I realize he is pointing to Jesus. What does he say about the One who comes? Jesus will swing the axe, carry the winnowing fork, clear the threshing floor, and throw the chaff into the fire . . . Jesus is the One who will change us. Either he will make us more loving (and therefore more holy), or he will have little use for us (which would make us expendable).

The text for today is more about Jesus than it is about John. John takes his bony finger and points to a Savior who really can save us. He can save us from superficial religion that aims to merely make us feel good. He can save us from the presumption that sitting in church is all it takes to be a Christian. He can save us from ourselves and all the stupid things we do; if we hand ourselves over to him, he will not only rinse us clean, but burn away all our destructive urges.

Jesus can change us, save us, but he will not do it cheaply. Just as it once cost him his life, it’s going to cost us everything. He will do surgery on our souls, and it will take away our reputations. It will reduce us to becoming dependent, humble, and completely available. All our arrogance will need to be amputated. The path of healing will take a while, especially if it’s going to last. Yet this is the only way to keep us from missing the kingdom of heaven.

We have a God who not only wishes to untangle our crooked paths but expects us to be honest about them. This is the kind of Advent God who comes to us in Jesus. It’s the kind of God that John knows – a God with the power to raise us up from dead and lifeless stones, a God who makes us a tribe of children who hunger and thirst for the world to be healed.

Such healing will not come cheaply. We remember that, as we come to this Table and taste broken bread and the poured-out cup. And we hear the promise once again: healing can come; it can come for those who want it more than anything else.

Is this what you want?

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nobody Knows

Matthew 24:36-44
Advent 1
November 28, 2010
William G. Carter

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The candles are on their ring. It’s beginning to look a bit like Christmas. The church gets dressed in Hopeful Purple and Royal Blue. We pull out the hymns that we sing once a year and we sing them once again.

But did you hear the text from Matthew’s Gospel? Advent is not the favorite season for anybody who likes to be in control. It sneaks up on us when we aren’t looking. Jesus speaks of the coming of God, and does so abruptly. "The day is coming . . . and nobody knows when. "

Last Sunday, on the final day of the church year, we heard Jesus speak from the cross about the lack of human knowledge. "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing." Today, on the first day of the new church year, he speaks once again about the limits of what we can and cannot know.

The subject is the coming of the Lord. We don't know when it will happen. Three times Jesus says we will not know the time. And presumably we will not know what it's going to look like, because he is careful not to tell us.

In this section of Matthew's book, there are seven parables in a row that tell us to be alert. To stay on our toes. To keep our eyes peeled. God is on the way, and we need to be as ready as we can. Then, as soon as Jesus says this, he add, "but nobody knows -- not the angels of heaven, not the Son, only the Father."

When God arrives, it will be like the time of Noah. People were putting away the turkey, and pouring themselves another glass of wine. Their kids are home from college to announce their breakups or their engagements. Things are going on schedule, when suddenly it began to rain. And it rains and it rains, and most of them had no clue knew it was coming. When God get here, it's going to happen like that. Nobody will expect it. "Because," says Jesus, "when God comes to us, God arrives like a thief in the night."

That's the gist of what this passage is saying. And the challenge for you and me is to simply come to terms with this description of God.

In our theological galleries, we carry a lot of pictures of God. The Lord is my shepherd. God is a loving father who welcomes home every prodigal. God is a mother hen who gathers all the chicks. But today, Jesus draws a picture that I would never think to choose. According to Jesus, God is a Thief.

"Your Lord is coming," said Jesus. If the house-owner knew when to expect the thief, she would have stayed awake. But she didn't know. And thus she was prone to have her house plundered.

This is what God is like. It's not a picture that provides much comfort.

A man had his toaster stolen from his apartment. After the burglary, he did a survey. That's the only thing he found missing. So you know what he did? He changed apartments.

I can understand, can't you?

A woman I know recently lost her husband. It happened without warning. The heart attack came as a complete shock. And before the funeral was held, the first thing she did before she could sleep in her own house was to install a security system. Death broke in once; she didn't want any more intruders.

I can understand it, can't you?

Some of us remember when a thief broke into a church member's car while she was sitting here in worship. It was parked out on the edge of the parking lot. Sometime between the call to worship and the benediction, a criminal smashed into the car and stole a lot of money. That led the stewardship committee to remind everybody that it’s a good idea to bring our wallets and purses to worship. But the situation is not funny. It's not funny at all. It was a robbery. If you have ever been robbed, you know how it feels. Violated. Intruded upon. Broken into. Someone has come into a place that you held sacred, and they have plundered it against your will.

This is the picture of God on the first Sunday of Advent. God is a Thief who breaks into a place we thought was safe. And we can't protect ourselves from the plundering of our own houses.

The New Testament draws this picture on a number of different occasions. Two times Jesus speaks of the day of the Lord as the intrusion of a Thief. Twice in the book of Revelation, Jesus himself says, "I will come like a thief." The apostle Paul warned the people in one of his churches, "Don't let God jump you unawares, like a thief in the night." He had to warn them about it, for the simple fact that God is sneaky. God is not obvious. God is usually up to something when it doesn't look like God is doing anything.

In his commentary on Matthew, Dale Bruner says, "One of the most surprising facts in Jesus' end-time teaching is that the last times will be normal. According to our passage, there will be parties, gourmet meals, courtships, and weddings right into the cataclysmic coming of the Son of Man . . . The Great Tribulation occurs while superficially all seems well. To the unobservant, it's party time. Thus Jesus' teaching of end-time normalcy should move disciples to look beneath surfaces to the deep structures of life - to see what is happening at levels we do not usually think to look."

For those with eyes to see, God is always up to something. And the spiritual life begins with the practice of paying attention. Keeping spiritually alert. Asking: what is God doing around here? How has God broken into this situation? What is God up to? We pay attention to questions like that, and trust this will open us to sainthood.

And yet, God doesn't wait for us to pull together all the answers. God never waits to act until we get ready. God is free to act in any way conceivable or inconceivable. And the Thief will disrupt us.

That's how the story of Christmas began, after all. God broke in, regardless of whether anybody was ready.

Picture young Mary as a teenager. An angel arrives to say, "Mary, you're going to have a baby." She didn't ask for it. She didn't expect it. In a very real sense, God intruded on her . . . and life was never again the same.

Joseph was chopping wood out behind the shop. His arms stiffened like a timber when she broke the news to him. All his dreams of settling down to a comfortable future vanished in an instant. He loved her, but he didn't sign on for this. God had burglarized his settled household and his predictable future. And nothing would ever be the same.

That's how it is when God climbs through one of the windows after dark. Everything we thought was settled is now turned upside down. And there isn't a thing we can do about it. Nothing to do, but to get with God's program.

Now, this is hard for some of us. For most of us. I set two alarm clocks for Sunday morning because I never want to wake up late. We want to show up on time, take charge, and know what’s going on. I was sitting at a meeting in a country church last Monday night. Somebody said, “Who’s playing football tonight? I want to know if I need to go home early.” So the moderator of the meeting clicked his iPhone, and declared it was merely the San Diego Chargers. We could meet as long as we needed.

It’s nice to have the kind of information, that kind of certainty, that kind of control. Check the weather, read your e-mail in church, make sure the Lord didn’t arrive early and leave you behind. All of us do this. I do it. I picked up a used GPS unit for my car. Then I fired it up, and got directions to my parents’ house. The people in my car laughed at me, hooted at me. “But look,” I said, “it tells me the precise time that we are going to arrive!” They didn’t hear me; they were texting on their cell phones and posting on Facebook about my control needs.

Now, to be fair, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we get God to come on schedule? If we could get God to show up when we want God to show up? If we could force God to jump into those situations that we want fixed right now? It doesn’t seem to work that way. And in the absence of any real control over our lives, we manufacture all these different ways, all these different gadgets, to think we actually have control over our lives. It’s a lie.

God has the authority to turn out the lights, cut the power, and break into our house. I'll be the first to admit it. This is not a comfortable description of God. But this is the most honest picture we're going to get. God comes to us like a thief in the night.

And it forces me to face the truth about life and death. I take out insurance policies, but ultimately there's no insurance against an act of God. I'm saving money to use twenty years from now, but it may not even be necessary. Who am I kidding? My life hangs by a fragile thread. The people I love and hold so dearly are temporary residents here, as I am. All those toys I have accumulated, all those possessions I am hoarding, all those things are depreciating as I speak. And most of the gadgets that I cling to in this life are the things that give me the illusion that I don't need to depend on God. My money and my stuff tempt me to ignore the claim that God has on my life.

If I only knew what time the Thief was coming, I could stay awake and keep my house from being robbed. But guess what: I don't know what time the Thief is coming. No one knows the time, except the Thief.

I don’t have a lot on this year’s Christmas list. But I just wrote down the title of a book that I want Santa to put under my tree. It’s called Hannah’s Child and it is the memoir of a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas. He was one of Phil Muntzel’s classmates at Yale Divinity School, taught at Notre Dame and Duke. It was a single quote that caught my eye. Hauerwas writes:

For me learning to be a Christian means learning to live without answers. Indeed to learn to live in this was is what makes being a Christian so wonderful. Faith is but a name for learning how to go on without knowing the answers . . . that’s why I find that being a Christian makes life so interesting.”

I saw the quote, I wrote down the title of the book. Because I need people of faith to remind me that to trust in God is to trust in God. We don’t run the world. To honor God above everything else is to watch and wait when we aren’t always sure what is going to happen next. To honor God is to let God break in however and whenever that happens – - and in the meantime to hang on and trust in God’s covenantal love that everything will turn out well.

We do this because this is the kind of God that Jesus believed in. It’s the kind of God that Jesus reveals. God comes as sneaky as a thief. Ready or not. Advent is the season to prepare for this intrusion, and we prepare by keeping our hearts awake.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Save Yourself – and Us!

Luke 23:33-43
Christ the King Sunday
November 21, 2010
William G. Carter

The church practices a strange kind of politics. We call today “Christ the King” Sunday. We sing of Christ as sovereign. We declare Jesus is raised in glory, higher than every authority. When the world says, “Prove it!” we point to a cross. This is strange politics.

All the other kings of the world do whatever they can to save their own necks – they lie to get elected and immediately start running for re-election. They colonize other lands and declare it is their “divine right.” They blame predecessors for all the problems, cook up crazy schemes, tax their subjects to pay for those schemes, make people fearful to keep them in power, and generally foul up the air.

Nothing new about that. In introducing the biblical books of First Kings and Second Kings, the Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann says the titles of those books should end with question marks: “Kings?” You call these ‘kings’?!?” They know nothing about governing all the people and pander only to their friends. They know absolutely nothing about the common good.

The church says, “Jesus refuses the crown that Satan offered in the wilderness” and then we point to the cross. Listen to what happens there . . . (read the text)


There are a lot of things going on in that story. Some of them specific, some of them symbolic. What draws my interest, again and again, is the brief prayer attributed to Jesus on the cross: "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing."

It is a Good Friday word. When ministers in a town gather on Good Friday, sometimes they decide to preach through the seven last words of Jesus. I feel sorry for the preacher who gets picked to preach on the moment when Jesus says, "I thirst." What more can you say about that?

At least this prayer from Luke 23 gives us something to struggle with, if only because there are many people who don't think that this verse belongs in the Bible.

If you followed the reading in a pew Bible, you might have noticed there is a footnote after Luke 23:34. The footnote says these words do not appear in many early versions of the Gospel of Luke. Back when scribes had to copy the Bible by hand, some scribes left out this verse. Maybe by accident, maybe by intent; we don't know what they were doing. All we know is that they left it out.

It could be, as Raymond Brown says in his commentary on the passion story, that there were some Christians who didn't want to believe Jesus actually prayed for the people who nailed him on the cross. Specifically some in the early church thought it was too favorable toward the Jews. So they told their scribes to take out that verse.

I don't know if that's the case, but I can understand how they felt. It is one thing to hear Jesus say, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you (6:27-28)." It's another thing to see those words put into practice. It is a hundred times easier to blame somebody than it is to forgive them.

Whatever the reason for its slippery heritage, the verse belongs in the writings of Luke, because Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, they don't know . . ."

According to Luke, that is the fundamental characteristic of the human race: we don't know. In Luke's second volume, the book of Acts, he tells a story about the apostle Paul. Paul stands up in Athens and says, “I passed an altar to the Unknown God, the One of whom you are ignorant. Let me tell you who that is: that unknown God is our Creator. That unknown God is the very One we all seek. And yet, we don't know him."

What was the testimony of the early church? Listen to what Luke says in the third chapter of Acts: "You and your leaders killed Jesus, the author of life, and you did it out of ignorance. You did not know." (3:14-17)

Or in the Gospel of Luke, in the Palm Sunday story, Jesus comes down the hill, around the bend, and sees the Holy City. And he weeps, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only you knew the things that make for peace. But you do not know."

So it’s no surprise that Luke (and only Luke) reports what Jesus said on the cross: "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing. (23:34).” They are ignorant.

I don't know how you feel about that. Those of us who are parents tell our children, "Don't ever call anybody "stupid." Yet that is the blanket description given to all people everywhere. Agnostos, literally “they don’t know.”

For Luke, it doesn't seem to matter who we are. We can have doctoral diplomas hanging on the wall. Or we can graduate Magna Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks. Some of the people who put Jesus on the cross had advanced degrees in theology. Others were adjunct professors in Political Science. Jesus says of both, "They are ignorant." You see, it is one thing to know. It's another thing to know.

That is the ignorance of which Jesus speaks, the gap between knowing -- and knowing. It is possible to memorize all the Bible verses in the world, and still be ignorant. We can gain all kinds of practical knowledge and still not “get it.” We can enroll in Bible School and earn a four point average, and still miss the point. That is the problem.

"Forgive them . . . they don't know what they are doing." That’s the prayer of Jesus. O come on, now, they know what they're doing. They're getting rid of a trouble-maker. They knew about trouble-makers. They had a Bible. They read the prophets. They knew what happened to God's prophets, and they kept doing it themselves, in their own time and place. You see, it is one thing to know. It's another thing to know.

It’s tempting to think you and I have overcome the ignorance. This is the age of instant information, after all. We have more knowledge at our fingertips than any generation before us. If we don't know it, we can download it in a few seconds. Maybe the world’s problem is that it needs more education. What do you think?

I will never forget what they told me as they gave me a tour of the Lackawanna County prison. It was before it got a makeover, when it still looked like a scene out of a Dicken novel. The grim surroundings matched the grim looks in the prisoners’ eyes. We were told not to speak to anybody, just look at them. Back outside, one of the jailers said, "Our society needs to educate people so that they don't commit crimes and end up in a place like this."

Then we got in a van and continued the seminar in an office park. They took us to a sound-proof conference room and spoke of employees who steal computers, raid the loading docks, and take drugs. Those were white-collar problems. What is the solution? They said, “Education. Education is the answer."

Later on I began to wonder. What kind of education keeps people out of jail? When some people would rather die than give up drugs, is their problem a lack of schooling? I may be wrong, but I do not know a school in Lackawanna County that provides a class that teaches thieves to stop stealing.

Yet we keep believing the old line that we can make progress if we accumulate more knowledge, fund more research, build bigger hard drives. We stockpile our facts and nothing really changes. We know all kinds of information, but we miss the Mystery of the Gospel, that in Jesus Christ “all things hold together."

The more I think about it, the more I believe this is the crux of the matter. Jesus says, "Jerusalem, you did not know the time of your visitation." The King came into your town and you did not recognize him. You didn’t even notice him when he prayed, "Father, forgive them. They don't know."

What don't they know? They don't know who that is, hanging on the cross.

Let this be a reminder that, before we point fingers at people who did not recognize the God who came in Christ, we can miss him too. This is part and parcel of “not knowing.” In fact, there is never an occasion in the whole Gospel of Luke when a single human person affirms Jesus as the Son of God. According to Luke, the only ones who really know Jesus are the angels and the devils. Nobody else.

Luke says that, on the day Jesus rode a donkey into the city, the crowd shouted, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" (19:38) Just a few short days later, some jokers took a magic marker and wrote an inscription over his head on a two-by-four, "This is the king of the Jews." (23:28). They did not know who he was, nor did they know what kind of king God had crowned him to be.

And do we know? We cannot claim any superiority in this. The text is a warning to good, upstanding church people. We are not better than anybody else when it comes to recognizing God. If we think we are superior, we run the risk of becoming shrouded in a fog of self-importance. It is possible to become so preoccupied with expertise and spiritual success that we miss the heart of the Gospel. And the heart of the Gospel is this: God helps those who cannot help themselves. God saves those who are otherwise un-save-able.

No amount of spiritual sophistication can unveil a hidden God. No level of education will open our eyes to glory. No scientific knowledge can carry us into the presence of the Holy One. Something else is needed. All we can do is to stand bare-headed, broken-hearted, open-handed, and say with all humility, "God forgive us; we don't know."

Today, the promise is that the prayer has been answered. That's the crux of the matter, isn't it? "Father, forgive them." The gospel is defined by forgiveness. The gospel is coming home to God and discovering that, through no work of our own, all our debts have been cancelled. All our sins are forgiven. All our pettiness has been wiped away.

It’s like the story Jesus tells of the prodigal son who comes to his senses in the pig-pen. He decides to try one more time to take advantage of the Old Man. So he cleans himself up, practices a pious little repentance speech, and goes home. When he appears at the far end of the driveway, his father drops everything. The father breaks all Middle Eastern customs and runs to his returning son. The father cuts off the canned repentance speech and throws a big "Welcome Home" party before either of his two sons can do anything about it.

All the neighbors say, "Look at that! Such shameful extravagavance, wasted on a sinner!" And Jesus smiles a sly smile and says, "You’d better look, all right. That's the very picture of God's good news."

Can you believe it? The key is in the prayer of King Jesus on the cross. "Father, forgive them." In that prayer, he uses the word "aphiemi." It means "a great big cancellation." The point is: God doesn't merely forgive our sins; God cancels them. God lets them go. God sends them away, dismisses them. That’s the word “aphiemi” – to cancel, to send away, to dismiss.

This is disruptive grace. Just imagine: even in God's heavenly domain, there's a hallway of cubicles, each one filled with accountants and bookkeepers. Every day at 2 p.m., God walks down the hall, knocks on a door post , and says, "Give me the ledger book that you have been keeping on Larry Jones." And God finds that page, finds the line where every sin have been recorded. God pulls a gallon bucket of White-Out of a robe pocket and spills it all over your page. Then God says, "Well, that's that."

You never had to ask God to do that, because Jesus has already asked him on your behalf: "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing." In that prayer is the essence of the Gospel!

I like the words of an Episcopalian priest named Robert Capon, who puts it this way:

There is no sin you can commit that God in Jesus hasn't forgiven already. The only way you can get yourself in permanent Dutch is to refuse forgiveness. That's hell. The old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong. Heaven is populated entirely by forgiven sinners, not spiritual and moral aces. And hell is populated entirely by forgiven sinners. The only difference between the two groups is that those in heaven accept the forgiveness and those in hell reject it. Which is why heaven is a party - the endless wedding reception of the Lamb and his bride - and hell is nothing but the dreariest bar in town.

Jesus died for those for whom he prayed. His love is self-giving, and it is the sign and signal of God’s heart. Our part is to trust this is true, to believe God can love us so much as to give us a fresh start, a new beginning, by cancelling the wrongs we have done and the pain we have perpetuated. “Father, forgive them . . .” This is the true King’s prayer – and we trust it has been answered.

This is a strange politics. The real ruler of the world is the One who refuses to save himself. He chooses instead to save all of us, provided, of course, that we want to be saved.

(c) William Carter
All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Eyes of Your Heart Enlightened

Ephesians 1:11-23

November 7, 2010

William G. Carter

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

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

I will understand completely if your heart did not flutter with the reading of the text. It comes from the first chapter of Ephesians and it is a little over our heads.

There is a lot of high-faluting language. The writer speaks of huge concepts that aim pretty high. We have a spiritual inheritance, he says. Our destiny is to live out God’s eternal purpose. As we set our hope on Christ, we live for the praise of his glory. Nobody but a preacher talks this way. After you depart from worship, and converse with loved ones over lunch or on the phone, I cannot imagine anybody saying, “I am claiming the riches of my glorious inheritance among the saints.”

This is the letter to the Ephesians. There are a lot of big words in Ephesians, words like salvation, redemption, predestination, and revelation. Nobody normal uses words like these. Such words shut down conversation. Should we speak them, people look at us curiously and clam up. They figure we know what we are talking about, and they need a dictionary just to look them up.

Much of this sounds like church language, like worship language. You have probably noticed we say things in this room that we say nowhere else. Just recall the long sentence that concludes today’s text. It sounds like it belongs in a creed: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come, and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” It’s hard to know when to take a breath! In English, we add some punctuation, but the first version of the letter was one long burst of energy.

I am aware that nobody talks like that, outside of a church. In fact, few people talk like that inside of a church. Within these walls, there are sign-up sheets and lists of ushering duties. People discuss how many mission projects we should do in December and whether we should sit when we light candles and sing “Silent Night.” One committee hopes enough money can be raised to run all the operations for next year, and another committee is grateful for the cleanup efforts around the grounds. The Deacons ask, “Is this the year to stop Christmas caroling around the neighborhood?” and others ask, “Should we deliver that big pile of canned food to the pantry between the worship services or after the second service?” Welcome to a week at First Presbyterian, the church on the hill. These are only a few of the conversations in the air around here.

And then we hear the line from Ephesians, “When you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in Christ, (you) were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.”

It might seem there is a disconnection between the high and holy words of our scripture and the kind of lives we actually live. That reminds me of the man who went to visit a Russian Orthodox Church. It was so much more than he could take in: the gold icons, the haunting chants, the heavy incense, the heavenly liturgy. “It was so incredibly beautiful,” he exclaimed, “but I have no clue what it has to do with my life.”

It’s possible to get the same feeling when we hear the lyrics of the Ephesian letter. The words swirl up high like chants and incense while somebody downstairs forgets it was her turn to bring muffins for coffee hour. Do you know about that disconnection? Some call it the divorce between Sunday morning and Monday morning – to put it as a question: what does the liturgy of Sunday have to do with the labor of Monday?

But here’s the thing: the first chapter of Ephesians would declare that the question is backwards. It should be: what does our labor on Monday have to do with our worship on Sunday? What is it that we discover here that makes a difference in everything we do all week? What are the mysteries in here that we live out when we step outside?

Eugene Peterson, retired minister, wrote recently that Ephesians describes the church that we never actually see. We see the building with the leaky roof, filled with its share of comics and
cranks. Ephesians sees a people in whom God is saving the whole world. Here in chapter one, for instance, the church is full of people called “saints,” the “holy ones.” Look around, they are here! (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, p. 14

What we see, of course, is the fidgety child, the guy who just stifled a yawn, the alto who forgot to turn her clock back an hour. Yet “saint” is the name given to each Christian by Christ. They are the holy ones because holy power is at work in them ever since God raised Jesus from the dead. To see ourselves as saints is to recognize a greater authority over our lives than the power of destruction or the quicksand of despair. Something really big is going on, thanks to the grace of God. Ephesians uses all those really big words to name it: “redemption,” “salvation,” “glory,” “wisdom,” and “power.” This is God’s mission to the world – if only we can see it.

I remember a favorite Norman Rockwell painting. It’s a shot of St. Thomas’ Church in New York City. It’s a gloomy day on Fifth Avenue and people are shuffling by. The priest has just given his sermon title to the sexton who puts the words on the bulletin board: “Lift Up Thine Eyes.” A flock of doves fly upward, and the pedestrians shuffle by with their eyes downcast.

“Lift Up Thine Eyes.” That is the message from Ephesians to the church. See that God has come down here to salvage the world, and then do something to take part in that work. Look through the moment to see what is truly going on. A child is claimed and commissioned by God. A community is fed at the Table by grace. See these moments in all their glory.

It is no wonder that the center of today’s text is a prayer. As Paul describes the holy work of God, he prays for people to have the eyes to see it. The prayer is a mouthful, but listen to it once again:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

That is the prayer: to have “the eyes of your heart enlightened.” To have your faith enlivened. To know the hope, to claim the spiritual riches, to live in the shelter of God’s power. The prayer is grounded in a relationship. As we come to know God, we see more and more glimpses of what God is doing. As we discover how much God loves us, we grow in our love for the poor and the rich, the hungry and the self-satisfied.

We pray to have the eyes of our heart enlightened. And we recognize that the grace and mercy of God lie beneath everything we say and do.

A high point in New Hampshire is Mount Monadnock, a large slope that many of the natives of New Hampshire never climb. Just as the dwellers of Manhattan never visit the Statue of Liberty, the folks of New Hampshire drive by Mount Monadnock. The poet Robert Siegel drove by it all the time. One day he saw the sign for the turnoff and said to his wife, “Isn’t it about time we saw this famous mountain for ourselves?” The experience led him to write a poem:

We see the sign, “Monadnock State Park”

as it flashes by, after a mile or two

decide to go back, “We can’t pass by Mondnock

without seeing it,” I say, turning around.

We head down the side road – “Monadnock Realty,”

“Monadnock Pottery,” “Monadnock Designs,”

but no Monadnock. Then the signs fall away –

bothing but trees and the darkening afternoon.

We don’t speak, pass a clearing, and you say,

“I think I saw it, or part of it – a bald rock?”

Miles and miles more. Finally, I pull over

and we consult a map. “Monadnock’s right there.”

“Or just back a bit there.” “But we should see it –

we’re practically on top of it.” And driving back

we look – trees, a flash of clearing, purple rock =

but we are, it seems, too close to see it:

It is here. We are on it. It is under us.[1]

I suppose some people come to church looking for God. But God is too close to see. God is here. The immensity and glory are under our feet. God is under everything we are, and everything we can hope to be.

Pray for the eyes to see.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

[1] Robert Siegel, “Looking for Mt. Monadnock,” The Waters Under the Earth (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003) 70.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Spotting the Counterfeits

2 Timothy 3:1-17
Ordinary 29
October 17, 2010
William G. Carter

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In one of her books, Kathleen Norris recounts the tale of an old-timer in her South Dakota town, a man named Arlo. Arlo sat down with her at a steak house one Saturday night, and out of the blue he began talking about his grandfather. Granddad was a deeply religious man, or as Arlo put it, "a damn good Presbyterian." He went to church. He prayed regularly. More to the point, when Arlo got married, his grandfather gave him a Bible. It looked like an expensive gift, bound in white leather, with the young couple's names embossed in gold letters on the cover.

"I left it in its box and it ended up in our bedroom closet," Arlo said, "but for months, every time we saw granddad he would ask me how I liked that Bible. My wife sent a thank you note, and we thanked him in person, but somehow he couldn't let it lie. For years, every time we saw him, he always asked how we liked that Bible. I always thanked him, again and again, and he would ask me about it the next time I saw him."

"One day," he said, "I discovered the joke was on me. I finally took the Bible out of that closet and I found that granddad had placed a twenty-dollar bill at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, and at the beginning of every other book, over thirteen hundred dollars in all. And he knew I'd never find it."

It's a funny story, and it says two things which are important as I start this sermon. First, the Bible is a special book, full of all kinds of hidden treasures. And second, the Bible seems so special that we are inclined to keep it in a closet a lot longer than we should.

The text for today is a text about texts. It's one of the few passages where the Bible talks about itself. That, in itself, is instructive. Usually the Bible is too busy pointing to God, or speaking about God, or revealing what is doing for the world in Jesus Christ. It doesn't talk about itself. Not much, at least.

The psalm for today is one exception. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible -- 176 verses -- and it is a sustained meditation upon the benefits of reading the Bible. "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path."

At the other extreme, another place where the Bible talks itself is the last chapter of the second letter of Peter. The writer refers to the letters of Paul, which were circulating around the church at that time. "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lost your own stability. But grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:15-18)

What is striking in our text for today is that this is the only place where the Bible refers to itself as inspired. According to this writer, "All scripture is inspired by God."

Now, for a lot of people, "inspiration" is a spooky word. Since this is the only place where that word is used in referring to the Bible, it's not clear what that means.

A few hundred years ago, with the rise of the scientific method, a number of inspiration theories began to emerge. Someone said, "Obviously God whispered the divine message into the ear of the writers, and they wrote what they were told." Someone else said, "The Holy Spirit came, and overwhelmed people, and their hands began to move mysteriously, and they began to write the words the Spirit wanted them to write." I don't know what you think about it, but such ideas sound a bit far-fetched for me. That doesn't explain why the gospel of Mark has three different endings, or why part of the eighth chapter of John (7:53-8:11) is missing from the oldest manuscripts.

The Bible has a history. It was written over thousands of years by a lot of different people in different circumstances. That's where God was -- not whispering, or moving people's arms -- but by putting the writers in the right place, at the right time, so they could tell what they had seen and heard. And the more we know about the Bible and its history, the better we can appreciate the subtle ways God has worked through the writers of Scripture.

There's a hymn by the contemporary writer Brian Wren which points to the ways in which the Bible came to be written (PH 330):

Deep in the shadows of the past, far out from settled lands,
Some nomads traveled with their God across the desert sands.
The dawn of hope for humankind was glimpsed by them alone:
A promise calling them ahead, a future yet unknown.

While others bowed to changeless gods they met a mystery:
God with an uncompleted name, "I am what I will be";
And by their tents, around their fires, in story, song, and law
They praised, remembered, handed on a past that promised more.

From Abraham to Nazareth the promise changed and grew,
while some, remembering the past, recorded what they knew,
and some, in letters or laments, in prophecy and praise,
Recovered, held, and re-expressed new hope for changing days.

For all the writings that survived, for leaders long ago,
who sifted, chose, and then preserved the Bible that we know,
Give thanks, and find its promise yet: our comfort, strength, and call,
The working model for our faith, alive with hope for all.
("Deep in the Shadows of the Past" (c) Brian Wren)

The Greek word for "inspiration" seems to have been coined for the occasion. The word is theopneustos. Theos means "God," pneustos means "breath." So the term is "God-breathed." From God's respiration came the Bible's inspiration. This was a way of announcing the Bible's authority and importance.

But ever since, people have gotten nervous about burning the Bible in the same way they are nervous about burning a flag. There was a church that was cleaning its closets. Someone found a pile of tattered Bibles. Some of the covers were missing, the pages were worn. So she threw them into a dumpster in back of the church. A Sunday School teacher was shocked. She climbed into the dumpster and tossed them out, all the time mumbling, "This is a disrespectful way to treat God's word." Then she tucked the worn-out Bibles in a closet where they could collect mildew and mold.

Like I said a few minutes ago, the Bible seems so special that we are inclined to keep it in a closet a lot longer than we should. The problem is, it doesn't do any good that way. You can point to a Bible on the shelf and say, "Behold the Word of God," but so what? I think the one thing the church must press itself to do is to take the Bible out the museum and put it in our heads, our hearts, and our souls. Inspired? Yes. But it also ought to be helpful.

It matters where we get our input. A preacher friend once preached a stewardship sermon that I thought was pretty good. Before your eyes glaze over at the mention of a stewardship sermon, I need to say he was speaking about the stewardship of our spirits, about taking care of our interior life. He notes,

"There are so many things which tempt us, with which we can fill our hearts and minds. There is music which denigrates people and extols destructive power, and music which celebrates life in its wondrous facets. We can focus on what's wrong about life and blame God, or we can consider what is right and give God glory. We can enjoy the exposes of human weakness and evil or we can marvel at human achievement and generosity in spite of weakness . . . The decision to set our minds on higher things is an act of will. It is a decision we make every day, consciously and unconsciously. It is a way of thinking and living. As we choose to guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, the healing and redemption in Christ will break in upon us, and our lives will reflect it. Whatever we choose to think on makes all the difference." (quoted in Speaking of Stewardship)

That seems to be the essence of what this text has to say. God has breathed out a Bible. It's chock-full of stories, wise sayings, songs, and prayers. In giving this gift, God has given us something to think about, to reflect upon, to turn toward. Without it, it would feel like being stranded in an elevator for sixteen hours, and there's nobody interesting to talk to, and no word from beyond your own circumstances. Sooner or later, you would start bending in on yourself. But when you hear somebody announce from beyond the door, "I'm coming to help you," it makes all the difference in the world.

The fact is, there's a lot at stake. That's what prompted a church leader to write this letter to a young pastor. He knew what we could become if we simply went with the flow, took life as it comes, and coasted in the currents of the world. Did you hear how our scripture text began?

"People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power." (2 Timothy 3:2-5)

It matters where we get our input. And it matters that we have a church to help us work it through. "As for you," says the writer, "continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have know the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." Do you hear the presence of the church? Teaching, learning, believing, instructing. This is no private enterprise, but the building up of the whole body of Christ.

Maybe you heard about the man who turned to the Bible for guidance. He decided to pray, flip open his Bible, and put his finger down. Wherever he put his finger, that was God's word to him. So he prayed, flipped it open, and put his finger on Matthew 27:5. "And Judas went and hanged himself."

That didn't sound very inviting, so he did it again. He prayed a brief prayer, opened up the Bible, and touched down on Luke 10:37. "Go and do likewise."

Now he was starting to worry, so he decided to try one more time. He prayed. He flipped open the Good Book. He put his finger on John 13:27, where it is written, "Do quickly what you are going to do."

In that scenario, we expect the Spirit to make all the connections. It borders on the sin of tempting God; that is, demanding God to give us just what we need, at the moment when we need it.

What we have is the Bible. What we've been given is the Bible. And the Bible teaches us that the first commandment is, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength."

Let me speak a pastoral word here: if you are not involved in some systematic study of scripture, your soul may be in a lot of trouble. If you come to church for a few tidbits or trivia, you're missing the great riches of our faith. If the only place you get your news is from the Wall Street Journal or MSNBC, then reality is filtered through somebody else's lenses . . . and you may not be getting the full picture of a God who loves you so much that he did not spare his own son.

The Bible is inspired; but it matters more if it's useful. And the only way to understand its usefulness is to pick it up and read it.

Peter Gomes, the Harvard University preacher, tells about the time when an anonymous benefactor offered to donate as many Bibles as were needed to fill the pews at Harvard's Memorial Church. The donor didn't specify any particular translation, so Gomes suggested the Revised Standard Version. Before the order was placed to the publisher, however, he decided to run the idea by colleagues on the staff and faculty. They were suspicious. "What is the benefactor up to?" someone asked. Another said, "If you put Bibles in the pew racks, you are only inviting people to steal them." Somebody else warned, "People will think this is a fundamentalist church if they see Bibles lying around. You might have an image problem."

Gomes realized his colleagues meant well, but he went ahead and accepted the gift. Bibles were placed in the pews of Harvard's Memorial Church, and fortunately, he says, quite a few have disappeared over the years.

You know, the highest compliment you could ever give me is if you met me at the back door and said, "I've decided to take the Bible home with me." That would be great; provided, of course, that you don't keep the book in the closet.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved