Sunday, February 28, 2010

God of the Belly

Philippians 3:17-4:1; assorted Proverbs
Lent 2
February 28, 2010
William G. Carter

"Their end is destruction; their god is the belly..."

When we began our Lenten exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins last week, we heard how Jesus was tempted to make bread from stones. He had fasted for a good long time, and he was famished. So it’s appropriate to consider the stomach, and specifically the sin of gluttony.

Gluttony is one of the stranger items on the list of deadly sins. Overeating does not seem like a misdeed. A mistake, certainly. It drives up blood pressure and clogs up most of our pipes. Chronic munching puts a tire around the midsection and can wear out our knees. It can become harder to process the blood sugar, and that puts great strain on circulation and eye sight. Our physicians warn us of such things. Sometimes we survive the wake-up calls. But other than wearing out these fine physical machines that God bequeathed us, over-eating doesn’t seem like much of a sin. And if it is, the annual Thanksgiving feast is quickly forgiven.

What’s more, it’s important to remember that gluttony is not the same as obesity. I had a friend in high school who had a part-time job in a neighborhood bakery. It was his job to make the donuts. He was already a large individual, and came by that honestly through two very large parents. All through school, the other kids picked on him mercilessly. We never saw him over-eat. He regularly packed a baggie of carrot sticks in his lunch bag. He got a lot of exercise. Truth be told, he never wanted to touch another donut after standing over the vat and finding himself splashed with grease. Just because somebody is big, it doesn’t mean that they are a glutton.

A definition may be in order. By a deadly sin, we are talking about some human practice or attitude that destroys us when it takes over our lives. All of us have to eat to survive. Eating and drinking are essential practices for life. On the face of it, gluttony begins when we think that if we eat more, we will live more. Logically we know this is not true; more food slows us down. But there are situations when a hunger becomes all-consuming.

The collection from Israel’s wise proverbs reminds us of this. I had a few favorite verses from today’s first reading, and maybe you did, too. My favorite comes from chapter 23: “Do not be among winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat; for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe them with rags.”

I don’t normally use the word “winebibber,” but I didn’t have to look it up. The sage is warning against obsessions with food and drink. It’s expensive, for one thing. If you eat filet mignon every night, it will cost a lot of money. If you fall inside a wine bottle, it can take over your life.

In one memorable conversation, a man tried to tell me that drinking red wine was good for his heart. He explained that’s why he drained a case a week. Maybe his cardiologist was proud of him, but the rest of his relationships were in a shambles. And his kids hated him.

The ancient church leaders gave this a good deal of thought. They paid close attention to the ways we consume – beginning at the dinner table. The way we eat can warn us about the ways we live. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, offered six warnings for the supper table. Don’t eat too soon, don’t eat too expensively, don’t eat too much, don’t eat too eagerly, don’t eat too daintily, and don’t eat too wildly.

No, no, no – they said. Let the taste sink in. There is ancient wisdom here. In one of the monasteries I have visited, the abbot noted that tasting our food is a spiritual matter. As he explained to the guests, “We eat together, after the whole family has arrived. We serve one another, to ensure that every one is fed. We put our fork on the table after every bite, to savor the taste of every morsel God provides. We put on the table only what we can eat comfortably, so that nothing is wasted or forced. And we restrain ourselves to enjoy sweet desserts only when we celebrate something important.”

This strikes me as good advice for a fast-food nation. Imagine how much better food would taste if we tasted every bite, if we sat together, rather than roll through the drive-thru window and rush on our way to the next stop.

Eating and drinking are spiritual matters. They reveal something more than food and beverage. We hear this in today’s text from the letter to the Philippians. In the middle of his most affectionate letter, the apostle Paul makes an abrupt shift. He had just finished telling the people in that church how much he loved them. He invited them to have the mind of Christ, to live for one another’s benefit. “You shine like the stars in the sky,” he says, “and you give me joy.”

Then he must have put down his pen, gone for a walk, and heard a troubling update on that church – for he suddenly gets cranky. He comes back to write, “We have enemies against us in the life of faith. I told you this before, and now I tell you with tears.” It is an odd shift. Who are these enemies, Paul? How will we spot them? He writes, “Their end is destruction, their glory is in their shame, their god is the belly . . .” It is a most suggestive phrase.

Now, we don’t know specifically who Paul had in mind. He doesn’t name these people. But he defined them by their appetites. He describes people who are bent on consumption. Whatever they see, they have to devour. There is a great hole at the center of their being. They are trying to fill it any number of ways. It’s not merely that they are eating too much; Paul is speaking euphemistically, not literally. If anything, the problem seems to be that whatever these enemies have, they must have more. They have given up on worshiping the God who feeds us; instead they now worship their hungers.

You know, there is ancient wisdom here. As I’ve given this some thought, gluttony is more than eating and drinking. It is a habit of consumption – specifically, a habit of over-consumption. It’s swallowing more than our share of whatever God provides. It is to feast conspicuously while others starve. Gluttony is to burn up ever more gasoline and electricity than we need. It is, in a sense, to stockpile more clothing than our closets can hold, to hoard more than we will ever use, and to spend more money than we have.

The antidote is living more with less. There is a restraint that makes room for other people. There is a simplicity that gives more for others to enjoy. There is a modesty that is not impressed with whatever the Thought Tyrants happen to be selling us. And it opens raw the hungers that all of us have – without making any false promises that the word’s stuff will ever satisfy us.

The apostle Paul writes as a hungry man. He is starving for Jesus to come and satisfy our deepest needs. “We have one foot in God’s commonwealth,” he says. When we were baptized in the name of the Trinity, God issued to each of us a passport from heaven. Our homeland is the place where God rules. But here and now, surrounded by so much chocolate, we have to stay disciplined enough to maintain our deepest appetite for God.

A fine meal can be savored as a holy gift. We can enjoy the meats and sweets, but our stomachs will growl again. If we stuff ourselves with food and drink, these tasty delights become a deadly distraction from the true hunger that all of us have. In the words of Frederick Buechner, “A glutton is one who raids the icebox for a cure for spiritual malnutrition.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 31)

He knows what he’s talking about. His own father struggled with self-doubt, spiraling to his early demise through one empty happy hour after another. Buechner said, “My father’s alcoholism was one of our family secrets. We more or less kept it under wraps, monitored our own drinking to moderation, and never dealt with it.” It stayed there, he said, until many years later, one of Buechner’s daughters stopped eating.

It was nothing scary at first, he says. She was the kind of girl who thought she would be prettier if she lost a couple of pounds. So she stopped eating breakfast, had a carrot, or Diet Coke for lunch, maybe a low-cal salad for supper. Months went by, and it became scary. Her skeletal appearance frightened him. He hovered over her, she backed further away. As he discovered, her anorexia had the dark magic of promising freedom and independence, while taking away her freedom and promising someone would take care of her. Both cravings were satisfied at once, and it began to pull him in its destructive wake as well.

As he tells the story, “My daughter was in danger of starving to death, and without knowing it, so was I. I wasn’t living my own life any more because I was so caught up in hers. If in refusing to eat she was made as a hatter, I was madder still because I knew nothing about what I was doing to myself. She had given up food. I had virtually given up doing anything in the way of feeding myself humanly…. I had no peace at all. If on one particular day she took it into her head to have a slice of toast, I was in seventh heaven. If on some other day she decided to have no supper at all, I was in hell.”

“I choose the word hell with some care. Hell is where there is no light but only darkness, and I was so caught up in my fear for her life, which has become in a way my life too, that none of the usual sources of light worked any more, and light was what I was starving for…”

“The only way I knew to be a father was to take care of her, as my father has been unable to take care of me, to move heaven and earth if necessary to make her well, and of course I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have the wisdom or the power to make her well . . . The only way she could ever be well again was if and when she freely chose to be. The best I could do as her father was to stand back and give her that freedom even at the risk of her using it to choose for death instead of life.” (Telling Secrets, pp. 23-27)

In the grace of God, she was saved. Her rescue came as she was hospitalized miles away, tended by specialists, and her father couldn’t do anything for her but pray. Fortunately she made the decision to eat and live. She decided to give up on devouring herself by not eating.

These are deadly sins that we are talking about. They are misfired behaviors that can wrap around our legs like vines and tug us toward hell. Gluttony is an appetite that feeds upon itself, gnawing on our vital organs, promising a satisfaction that will never come. Gluttony promises glory, and threatens to humiliate us. Our belly becomes a poor substitute for God.

Like the other deadly sins, we don’t defeat this easily, for in Plato’s ancient description, we are “leaky vessels.” Whatever is poured into us will continue to leak out. Friends and companions can remind us of this. They can offer the support and love we need, and stand in God’s stead. They help us face the truth that carbohydrates cannot make us happy. Liquor cannot dilute our pain. We cannot puff up our pride by bloating ourselves.

We can only come before the God who loves us, tired and weary tough we may be, and we can take freely from the gifts that God gives for our health, for our nutrition, for our balanced diet.

It occurs to me that we are gathering for the Lord’s Supper next Sunday. The menu is set: we serve bread and wine, and the main course is salvation. I invite you to come hungry. I invite you to come hungry for Christ.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Believing the Press Releases

Luke 4:1-13
Lent 1
February 21, 2010
William G. Carter

During the season of Lent, we are going to consider the Seven Deadly Sins. There are various versions of that list. At the top of every list is the sin of pride. Pride.

“What’s wrong with pride?” asked the fourth grader. “Our teacher told us to take pride in our work, and I want to do a good job.” So she spells each word correctly, double-checks the arithmetic before turning it in. She cheers for the basketball team when they score. She does as her teacher says, and takes pride in fine work.

Counselors tell us to muzzle any negative voices in our heads. Be positive. Do not disqualify yourself. Stretch to your capacity. All of that is helpful, especially as a person grows into their own skin. There are personal qualities to claim, abilities to develop, and boundaries to explore. We were created to stretch.

And yet, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.

The problem is an old one. Back in the Garden of Eden, the serpent said, “I know how you can be like God. Just have a bite of that apple. If I had an arm of my own, I’d pull it down for you. I guess you will have to reach for yourself.” Eve and Adam both reached . . . and their reaching got them banished from the Garden.

Of course, people will make the most of their circumstances. There’s another ancient story in the Bible, just a few pages after the Eden disaster. Once upon a time, when there was only one language in the whole earth – I think it was Hebrew. Since everybody spoke one language, everybody started to get organized. They joined forces. They sought to make a name for themselves. They agreed to build a tower that stretched all the way up to the heavens.

As the ancients tell the story, God began to feel threatened – and that’s why God confused their single language in a kind of reverse-Pentecost event. Suddenly some spoke Swahili, others spoke French, still others spoke in a rare Mandarin dialect. That fractured community lost interest in their common tower, and God breathed a sigh of relief. For the very first time, diversity trumped arrogance, and God had some elbow room.

Stories like these warn us about getting too big for our britches. They remind us there are limits to our lifespan; we will not live as long as Moses or Methusaleh. There are limits to our physical ability; the gladiator Samson got a haircut and lost his legendary strength. There are limits to our understanding; even that know-it-all apostle Paul had to confess that he could not understand God’s ways. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” he asked. “To God be the glory forever.”

Yet we keep stretching. We keep reaching. It seems to be written into our DNA. Years ago, scientist Michael Crichton wrote a novel called Jurassic Park. Remember that book, the movie, and all the sequels? It was a hypothetical yarn about cloning ancient dinosaurs and setting them in a theme park. After all, the investors reasoned, we have the technology. We can do this. It never occurred to anybody that it would be a bad idea…until the dinosaurs started acting like dinosaurs. Sure, it’s possible for a human being to to clone a velociraptor – but why would you want to?

It has to do with stretching . . . with reaching. The old church fathers called it “superbia.” That was the Latin word. Superbia referred to “aiming at what is above.” It is the word we have translated in English as “pride.” The first and deadliest of the sins is to reach for what belongs to God. We blur the distinctions between creature and Creator. We forget who we are.

That’s why the Gospel lesson is so important to remember. Whatever else we say about it, it is a test of pride. Jesus has been keeping a Holy Lent in the wilderness. He has been serious about it: fasting for forty days, praying for guidance, and listening for God’s claim on his life. He has been doing what he can to keep clear about who he has been called to be.

But forty days is a long time, a really long time. He is famished, says Luke, and his stomach begins to growl. The growl continues to grow. Soon it is purring like a fierce cat, and then the tempting words are formed: “Listen! (says the tempter) You don’t need to go hungry. I thought you had the power to set the stars in the sky? Can’t you create something to satisfy your appetite?” Jesus listened to the growl. He held his aching belly.

Just then, he saw a big rock, about this size. It was the largest around. And the voice said, “If you are the Son of God, you could turn this rock into a huge loaf of bread. And it wouldn’t need to be a private miracle out here in the desert where nobody will see it. Think of how many hungry people you could feed if you turned all these rocks into bread. You would have the poor eating out of your hand.”

And Jesus said, “No.”

So the Tempter took a deep breath, and said, “You’re probably right, Jesus. If you fed the people today, they would be begging for more bread tomorrow. Since you are the Son of God, it’s a better idea to take a broader perspective, take a deeper view. What we’re talking about is significant change, about doing what’s best for the largest number of people. Don’t settle for this little bitty desert – let’s get you set up as a politician. In an instant, Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. “Their glory and authority belong to me,” says the devil, “and I would gladly give it to you. Just say the word, and I will put a crown on your head.”

Here, says Will Willimon, we pause to wonder: whoever gave all the nations of the world to the devil? Did God say, “I have no interest in such grimy affairs. Here, Satan, I’ll let you take the politics”? We don’t know. All we know, says Willimon, is that, when it comes to politics, there does seem to be an obvious linkage with worship of the devil. (Sinning Like a Christian, p. 38)

But Jesus says, “No.” He will not sidestep the cross in order to become the king.

“Now, just a minute,” says the Tempter. “Aren’t you the Son of God? On the day when you were baptized, didn’t you hear that voice from heaven calling you the Son of God? If you are the son of God, we need to line up some people who believe in you - - and I have just the thing.”

So the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem. They left behind the desert, went to the Holy City. And they climbed to the top of the Holy Temple. “Pretty impressive, don’t you think?” The devil said, “Look at all those people down there – I’m going to get them to believe in you.”

Jesus said, “What are you thinking?”

The devil said, “Well, you know the Bible, just like I do. And there’s that Psalm – Psalm 91 – about how the Lord will bear you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand. The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Jesus, if you’re the Son of God, jump off of here and let God catch you. Go ahead and do it, while I stand here and hum that song. The Bible says God will hold you in the palm of his hand. Let’s see if that is true.”

Jesus said, “No.”

Then Luke says that the devil sauntered away, leaving Jesus until “an opportune time.” He stays out of sight, until the very end of the story. As Jesus is crucified, the tempter’s words are repeated. But this time they are on the lips of soldiers who work for the “kingdoms of the world.” They say, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Even one of the criminals nailed next to him says, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us.” This is the “opportune time,” and the devil’s words are now on human lips.

What are they asking? If you are the Son of God, then act like we think the Son of God should act. We are the ones who define you, Jesus; pay no attention to what God says. It’s all about us – save us, do it on our terms, fulfill our needs, answer our desires – forget about God; it’s all about us . . . or at least, it’s all about you, and what you might do apart from your Father.

And Jesus hangs there on the cross until he dies; in his silence, he says, “No.”

There was a spiritual writer of the seventh century, by the name of John Climacus. He understood clearly about “superbia,” the sin of pride, and what it threatens to do to a person. Here’s what he says:

Pride is a denial of God, an invention of the devil, contempt for men. It is the mother of condemnation, the offspring of praise, a sign of barrenness. It is flight from God's help, the harbinger of madness, the author of downfall. It is the cause of diabolical possession, the source of anger, the gateway of hypocrisy. It is the fortress of demons, the custodian of sins, the source of hardheartedness. It is the denial of compassion, a bitter pharisee, a cruel judge. It is the foe of God. It is the root of blasphemy.

Now, does that sound a little harsh? I thought so; and then last Friday, a world famous golfer stood to make his apology. Tiger Woods took a short break from rehab, and this is what he confessed:

I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish. I don't get to play by different rules. The same boundaries that apply to everyone apply to me. I brought this shame on myself. (2/19/10)

As we make our way toward the cross, we pay attention to pride. Pride is more than the positive feelings that accompany good work. To quote C.S. Lewis, it is “a spiritual cancer” that takes over the soul. It is possible to be so full of ourselves that there is no room for God. Or just as deadly is when we allow just a little-bitty-Sunday-only spot for God. Integrity evaporates, justice is forgotten, peace is replaced, others are bulldozed.

Like all of the deadly sins, pride starts small, and then begins to take over. We won’t pick up the dirty clothes, because it’s beneath us. We refuse to take a service job or a volunteer opportunity, because we are qualified for so much more. We want to be a positive influence, but begin to push our opinion, defend our position, exert our force – and we seek our own way, rather than open ourselves up to God’s way. We win an argument, and then we need to win the next argument, and the next . . .

Perhaps the clearest sign that pride is slowly choking us to death is when we refuse to take any direction from anybody else. We can’t even listen to God. Nobody can tell us what to think or what to do, because we know better. Should that happen, it is a stage four cancer.

The antidote to pride is humility. It occurs to me to quote an anonymous sage: “If you get an attack of importance, call your mother or scrub a toilet. Either one will put your talents in perspective.”

Jesus did not take the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness. His road was the humble road, all the way to the cross. When he got there, jokers put another kind of crown on his head, a crown of humiliation, a crown woven from thorns. But that did not define Jesus, either.

No, Jesus was defined, as we were defined after him. It was the day of his baptism, when God said the same thing to Jesus that God has said to us: “You are my beloved child. Now, get to work…”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Our Old Friend Sin

Psalm 51
Ash Wednesday
February 17, 2010
William G. Carter

“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Psalm 51:3)

Writing from the confines of a monastery nearly fifty years ago, Thomas Merton was shocked to hear about how casinos had changed:

I’ve heard tales, he wrote, “of the sedate gambling places on Lake Tahoe, the ones that are prim and country-clubbed, and which cater to decent people, with dealerettes in prim black dresses, and soft Muzak, and nary a drink on the premises, and the nice old ladies coming up to gamble in buses from the cities of the Plain. I am utterly disheartened. What has happened to good old sin? Here I am behind these walls, doing my bit and counting on the world to do its bit, with barrelhouse piano and the walleyes guys in eyeshades, with long cigars, raking in the pieces of eight, and the incandescent floozies lolling over the roulette wheels. Tell me - - am I wasting my time?”

Merton wasn’t wasting a minute of his time, of course. He was a Trappist monk. He had dedicated his life to contemplation and prayer, to see both God and the world more clearly.

What he saw, if only from his imagination, was how respectable sin had become. The casino was no longer a frontier watering hole, where cowboys threw knives at one another and the blackjack dealer with an ace up his sleeve. No, the excitement and waste of gambling had been scrubbed up. The casino was redefined as a legitimate business.

Fifty years ago, the widespread view of gambling was still shaped by straight-backed Protestantism. Gambling was something seedy, something illicit, something that immoral people did to perpetuate their immorality. But the report coming to Merton’s monastery was how the modern casino was becoming a nice night out, with world-class entertainment, bright lights, and good-hearted clientele.

“What has happened to good old sin?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. It’s not as obvious to spot anymore. What our church-going grandparents would have clearly rejected has now been repackaged as something for us to enjoy. The advertisements declare, “Everything is for our delight, as long as it’s in moderation.”

Those of us who pay attention know that “delight” is an empty promise of so many of the world’s goodies. Moderation is hard to maintain if something should hook us. A despondent man recently gambled away his children’s college savings. He will return next weekend to see if he can win it back. If he can’t, he may have to tell his wife.

What I suggest we talk about this Lent is not gambling, but sharpening our view of how sin works. There is a long-honored spiritual tradition of discernment, by which Christian people survey their lives and pay increasing attention to the snares that threaten to destroy our lives. We look at ourselves honestly. We take note of how sin has become our good old friend, and ask how Jesus might be a better friend. We take note of the quiet forces at work in our lives, which, if left unchecked by the grace of Christ, could wrap around our legs and pull us into hell.

The people of God have worked hard to see these destructive forces, and to give them a name. By the fourth century after Jesus, an Egyptian monk named Evagrius had identified the Eight Deadly Thoughts. These were notions that get into our heads, become habits, and begin to take over. For the next four hundred years, the church began to talk about this list, refine it, add to it, edit it, and struggle with it. In time the Eight Deadly Thoughts became the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth.

I need to say from the outset: this is a slippery list. Each is an attitude, a perspective of the spirit. They might be re-described as attributes. They seem so ordinary. What St. Evagrius once called “pride” may look like what we call “self-esteem.” Taking time for yourself and buying that vacation get-away can quickly degenerate into sloth. Envy is the engine that drives much modern advertising, telling us that it’s OK to have what our neighbors have. Greed will appear obvious and distant in the scandalous bonuses on Wall Street, but I have seen entire families destroyed as siblings pounce on one another after the attorney reads Mama’s will.

We have to pay attention to these quiet, destructive forces, and learn to resist them, for they stay with us our entire lives. That’s going to be my work during this season of Lent, and I invite you to make it your work as well. With seven opportunities to preach until Easter, I will be considering the Seven Deadly Sins. We will try to name each one, consider its enticement, and explore how to resist it. It will not be easy, for preacher or pew, because these deadly sins will do whatever they can to charm us like a Lake Tahoe casino. They will lie and tell us how respectable they are. They will make false promises that “a little bit won’t hurt.” They will do everything they can to distort or hide the great saving love that God for each one of us.

My hope is that, at the end of Lent, we can admit with the Psalmist, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” There is nothing frightening about that. It is a blessing to know ourselves deeply, and to specify where we are tempted to be something other than what God created us to be. If we can be honest with how we stumble and fall, we will be open to the greater blessing to know God; for God is the One who promises to create clean hearts within us, who offers to replace our sin-weary souls with new and right spirits.

This is our Lenten journey. These forty days, as the stories and poems of scripture take us toward the cross, we will watch for Jesus Christ who travels with us. He is a more faithful companion than the sins that constantly nip at our heels. Beyond any of our temporary achievements, it will be his grace that saves us.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Not Just Another Love Song

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Tranfiguration (C)
February 14, 2010
William G. Carter

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

In a culture that once knew a lot more scripture than it seems to know now, here is a passage that most of us know pretty well. It’s familiar to a lot of us, probably one of the top five favorite Bible texts. If the 23rd Psalm has been read at many funerals, 1 Corinthians 13 has been invited to a great number of weddings.

Some of you may have seen the movie, “The Wedding Crashers,” even if you don’t want to admit it in church. John and Jeremy are two guys in their 30’s. Professionally speaking, they are divorce mediators, partners in the business. Socially, their summer fun consists of crashing weddings. They go uninvited and try to pick up available bridesmaids or female guests. John and Jeremy go to a lot of weddings each year.

At one wedding, they place a wager. The priest says, “And now for our next reading, I’d like to ask the bride’s sister Gloria up to the lectern.” John whispers to Jeremy, “20 bucks, First Corinthians.” Jeremy murmurs back, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.” Gloria announced, “And now a reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.” Jeremy groans and hands over the money.

He shouldn’t have taken the bet. Everybody likes this text. When I plan each wedding with the bride and groom, they often want to personalize the service. Maybe they will add some special touches. For instance, last summer I did a wedding on-stage at the Scranton Jazz Festival! That was a first; and the groom is playing bass at today’s jazz service. But one point where every non-conventional couple slides into conformity is when they choose the Bible readings. “We want 1 Corinthians 13,” they say. Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

For Valentine’s Day, I have struggled to see if there is something new that I can say about this old love poem. And I think I can find at least three different things.

The first is this: 1 Corinthians 13 is a Valentine sent to the wrong person. Can you imagine that? Imagine that you sit down at an expensive romantic dinner. The candles have been lit, the wine has been poured. Across the table is your beloved. There is a pink card upon your plate – and somebody else’s name is written on the envelope. “Go ahead,” she says, “open it!” As you open the card, you try not to show any embarrassment or confusion. And then you discover to you dismay that it has been addressed to somebody else.

In the same way, this scripture passage is not addressed to us. It’s taken from a letter written to somebody else. Paul wrote these words to a Christian congregation of some fifty or sixty souls. Corinth was an ancient port city in southern Greece. Word had reached the apostle Paul that the church was split into factions. They were, in turn, envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude. Each little group was insisting on its own way.

Those of us who are parents can remember those moments. Picture a couple of kids fighting in the back seat. Each is tugging and pulling on the same toy. Tempers flare. Voices rise. You might have to yell, “Hey! Cut that out!”

That’s how it was in that church. Yet Paul does not address them as children. He points their gaze above the dispute. He speaks to the greatest human virtue. Paul sings this ode about love – and there isn’t anything else like in all of scripture, in all of classical literature. “Love is patient, love is kind . . . Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, believes all things . . . Love never ends.” He declares its attributes, as if it is a person.

The kind of love he celebrates has a name: “agape.” That’s the Greek word. “Agape” is the kind of love that swirls around in the atmosphere. It’s up there, heavenly – but in the Christian story, it does not stay there. Agape Love forgets about any presumed superiority. It comes down. It forgets itself. It gives itself for the benefit of another. Agape forgets itself, in service to the one who is loved. It does not puff up; it gives away.

So let’s put this in context. There was Paul, sitting in the city of Ephesus, troubled by what he is hearing. He scratches his head, and wonders how this group of Christ-followers could have turned against one another. After all, Jesus has come to the world from above. He has given himself to people in need. He has healed the sick, fed the hungry, preached good news to the poor. How can those people who follow Jesus turn on one another?

There were a lot of problems in the little church of Corinth. Perhaps the biggest problem, the umbrella above it all, was arrogance. Some of those folks fashioned themselves to be better than the rest – more spiritual, more knowledgeable, more closely informed on what the Invisible Spirit of God is doing. Paul was in favor of spirituality, knowledge, and information – but there was precious little love in how those people were living.

I apologize for bursting any Valentine Bubble, but this famous scripture text was not given to cultivate romance. If we want romance, we should read the Song of Solomon! Rather, this is addressed to a group of grouchy, contentious Christians. It’s not really addressed to us – unless we are grouchy and contentious.

That brings me to the second thing that I want to say. The thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians may be a Valentine sent to the wrong person. But if you look over the shoulder of whoever is receiving it, there is something here for us as well. We are reading somebody else’s mail when we read this passage – but as we read it, it can enrich us as well.

I remember going to a greeting card store one February. Amid the scented candles and flavored chocolates, there were three long racks of Valentine cards. Two people that I knew were working their way through the racks. I don’t know if they knew one another. One was a widow. The other was a divorced man.

The fact that they were both there, thumbing through the cards, may stir up all kinds of speculation. Each one was smiling, so I’m guessing this was a pleasant experience for them. Either one may have been discovering love in some new way. Or perhaps they were enjoying the moment of reading cards that they were not ready to send or receive. It is a striking sight; not wanting to embarrass either one, I slipped out unseen, that they might enjoy the moment without having to explain it.

When we hear Paul speak so eloquently of love, we hear him sing of the greatest human experience. We don’t have to be married to admire two people who are committed to one another. Neither must we be married, nor in a relationship, to know how it feels to love and be loved. The apostle Paul himself was probably unmarried; truth be told, I’m not sure who would have wanted him. But he had tasted a thousand times the experience of giving one’s self for the benefit of another. That is the heart of Agape Love – and it is central to what we believe about Jesus.

Like I said, Paul describes Love as if it is a person. It always is. The people we love may be imperfect; God knows the people who love them are imperfect. But there is something still here for us. Here’s what I like to do – try inserting the Lord’s name in this love poem, and hear how it sounds: “Jesus is patient, he is kind. Jesus does not insist on his own way. Jesus is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. He bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. He does not end.”

This is the way of God among us. Agape Love is embodied in Christ, who pours himself out for the benefit of the world. The apostle Paul wrote to remind that first-century gathering of Christians in a far-away city that there is more to this life than bickering. Pain, no matter how brutal, does not need to define us. We have seen and heard of God’s love in the self-giving grace of Jesus Christ. Everything he did - and still does - is for the benefit of others. In the power of his Spirit, he acts to improve the welfare of those around him. He comes to heal our common brokenness. He works to make us new.

So that takes us to the third thing that needs to be said. The Valentine may have been first addressed to somebody else, yet there’s something here that is valuable and life-giving for us. Love has the power to change us, to make us new; for love is the very power of God, and it is working to redeem the whole universe.

Paul gives us a big text in 1 Corinthians 13. The apostle is talking about matters so enormous that we cannot quite take them in. He points to the ways we treat one another as he points to nothing less than the transformation of the whole universe. It’s hard to understand that, especially if it is Valentine’s Day and the mailbox is empty. Some days all we can see is a dim glimpse. But there are moments – we know there are moments – when something startling and new can happen.

The writer C.S. Lewis had a book about love. In it, he writes,

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will ... not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable." (The Four Loves)

To love is to be vulnerable. Like all wise sayings, it was rooted in human experience. C. S. Lewis was quite content in his quiet life as a college professor. He was satisfied talking about matters of the heart from a distance until one day he was surprised by joy. Quite literally, her name was Joy. She was as brash as he was bashful. They fell in love. They married. He took in her two sons. Joy got sick, and he cared for her. Then came the moment when only God could care for her, and she went completely into the arms of God, as all of us someday will.

Single for most of his adult life, Lewis found himself changed. Joy had sneaked past his defenses, and he had come to welcome love’s intrusion. And once you love somebody like that, once you feel in your bones what it's like to love and be loved, that love can change you.

"Anybody who loves is vulnerable," says C. S. Lewis, and we can presume that includes God, too. Nobody loves us as much as God loves us. Frequently we ignore that love, or shrug it off, or say, "Thanks, but I really don't think I deserve it." And yet God keeps loving us, with a love that never ends. God’s love is the power that holds together the universe. Love is the power God wants to put to work within us, until the day comes, finally, when all of us become completely lovable and the whole world is redeemed.

In the words of our hymn, “Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Go Away From Me

Luke 5:1-11
Ordinary Time 5
February 7, 2010
William G. Carter

There are many stories in the New Testament about people who are called to serve God and follow Jesus. Of all those stories, this story makes the most sense.

Remember the story about Paul? (Acts 9:1-20) He was persecuting the church, dragging Christians out of their houses and condemning them to death. One day, he saw the Light, and it knocked him off his horse. It's hard to relate to such a dramatic conversion, but there it is.

Remember the story about Matthew? (Matthew 9:9-13) One day he was sitting at his tax collection table, minding his own business and counting the change. All of a sudden, Jesus looked at him, and said, "Get in step and follow me." Matthew didn't take time to think about it. He stood up and went. It is difficult to understand such an abrupt decision, but there it is.

Remember the story of Nathanael? (John 1:43-51) His brother Philip told him about Jesus. He sounded interesting, until Philip said, "And he's from Nazareth!" Nathanael said, "Can anything good come out of that one-donkey town?"

Just then, Jesus said, "I saw you under a fig tree before Philip called you." Suddenly Nathanael states a Christological formulation: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!" It is curious to hear about such instant orthodoxy, but there it is.

But the call of Simon Peter? That story is far more satisfying. The way Luke tells it, Simon wasn't sure that he fit into the whole Jesus business. It took some time for him to figure it out, and even then he had some misgivings. Did you hear what he said? "Get away from me, Lord. I'm not a good enough person for you." That's the way Luke tells it.

If you listen to the gospels of Matthew or Mark, the story is much shorter. In those more familiar accounts, Jesus showed up one day and said, "Come, follow me!" Immediately Simon Peter dropped his net on the shore and off he went. No questions in his heart. No doubts in his mind. No inner conflicts. No sense of inadequacy. Immediately he went.

But as Luke tells the story, the call of Jesus could have happened to you or to me. By the time Jesus gets to the beach in chapter five, he has already been to Simon Peter's house. He went there after preaching in the synagogue. Simon's mother-in-law did not hear the sermon. She stayed home with a very high fever, and they asked Jesus about her. So Luke says he stood over her and screamed at the headache. The headache left her, so she got up and made some soup. Jesus went to that house long before he ever mentioned a job change to Simon Peter.

And there is no telling Simon would have taken the job anyway. Who wants a Boss who screams at your mother-in-law's headache?

Then Jesus went down to the lake to preach on the beach. It would have been a serene place to hear a sermon, but there was a crowd pressing up against him. So he climbed into Simon's boat, pushed out from shore, and began to speak some more. All of this happened before he said, "Come, follow me."

After Jesus finished speaking, they pushed themselves into really deep water. Jesus proved himself to be the first in a long line of preachers who could offer some advice on fishing. It didn't sound like good advice, and Simon said as much. Fish feed in that lake at night, not broad daylight. They stay close to the rocks near shore, and not in the deep. But Jesus insisted. Simon and his helpers threw in their nets and the catch was unbelievable! Fish began to swim into the nets and jump into the boat. There were so many fish, the boat began to sink with Jesus still in it.

Somebody waved to the partners on shore: "Get another boat out here, so we can save the Savior." It was a silly thing to say.

For one thing, there were too many fish, and too little deck space. For another, a Savior doesn't need much saving. The other boat came out anyway. The fish began to jump into that boat. The boat began to sink. Next thing you know, all those men began to yell at one another: "Get these boats to shore."

Peter was on his knees, absolutely enshrouded in amazement. Then he said the first truly intelligent thing he said all day: "Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

If you ask me, this is a story that I can understand. It is not an instant success story. Instead it is time consuming, unfinished, and it smells like fish. At a moment when Simon Peter the fisherman gets the catch of the century, he wants to push away the Founder of the Flounders.

And who can blame him? The church has manufactured its own mythology about the first disciples. We have spun tales about their grounded faith and their perfect understanding. We want to believe that they had their collective act together. We want to affirm the people around Jesus as competent and capable, always knowing the correct answer to a question or the perfect solution to a problem.

But that was not the case. The twelve disciples were ordinary people, like you and me.

I don't know about you, but that makes me feel a whole lot better. Following Christ is difficult enough. It is an awesome task to live as God's person in a world like this.

It is even worse when you're a leader, under the scrutiny of the others, with demands put on you to lead God's rag-tag bunch. Who among us is qualified to lead, let alone follow? Who among us has enough holy traits, or few enough bad habits? Not one. According to the Bible, all kinds of people have said so.

Abraham said, "I'm too old."
Jeremiah said, "I'm too young."
Moses said, "I don't talk so good."
Mary said, "I am only a woman." God never hears any new excuses.

Simon Peter pulled in a load of fish, and said, "Lord, get out of here. I can't handle this. It is too much for me to take in. I am not the kind of person who can handle such generosity. I am not good enough to have you in my boat."

Call him, if you will, the patron saint of inadequacy. Simon Peter stands in a long biblical tradition.

These days, church people still squabble about who is good enough to serve the Lord. When that happens, I suggest we read the Bible. None of us are good enough, but God wants us anyway.

That is not to say the work is easy. Jesus said, "I want to invite you to give up fish to go fishing." Ever since the time of Jeremiah (16:16), whenever anybody talked about "going fishing," it was a metaphor for doing God's work. When Jesus said, "Go fish," he meant to gather in as many fish as we could, so that God alone can sort out the good and the bad, and ultimately God alone can decide what to keep and what to throw back.

For our part, we are called upon to throw out the net as far as we can, and then see what happens.

So the first word he speaks: "Don't be afraid!" We can be amazed, painfully aware of all the problems we face and the limitations we know.

Yet he says to us, "Don't be afraid!" It is Christ's call, Christ's work, and Christ's miracle. The invitation never begins nor ends with us. The One who calls us is the One who knows that he only has imperfect people to call. For our part, we simply have to decide if we are going to get out of the boat once we land on shore.

As Joseph Fitzmyer points out, when Simon says, "Go and leave me," Simon acknowledges that Jesus is rooted in "a realm or sphere to which he himself does not belong." The One who calls us in the midst of our inadequacy is the One who ultimately judges us adequate. None of us are ever good enough, but God is good enough. And that's where we must start and finish.

The people who should scare us the most are the people who answer the call of Christ with such smug self-confidence that they know exactly what they are going to do. The person who thinks that she or he has all the answers frightens me. People like that are scary, because they follow their own agenda - - and do not pursue what is most healthy for the whole body of Christ. A self-righteous servant is a contradiction in terms. The only person whom God can use - - and by this I mean the only person - - is the person who can hold humility in one hand, and in the other hand, confidence in the Gospel which redeems us.

The invitation to serve and follow Christ is greater than any one of us can fulfill. When the invitation comes, we are called beyond any feelings of inadequacy to grow into the role, to claim the purpose, and to invest ourselves in Christ's future. It is a future when we will be presented, not in our own power, but in Christ's power, fully mature, fully humble, and full of love.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, so let me end with a favorite football story. A number of years ago, Dr. John Hubbard, the former president of the University of Southern California, took a trip to Texas. While he was there, he met Tom Landry, the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. When he left, Coach Landry gave him a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt.

Sometime later, Dr. Hubbard put on the shirt, and went out to play a round of golf. His caddy noticed the t-shirt and said, "Sir, are you the coach of the Dallas Cowboys?"

Without thinking, Dr. Hubbard said, "No, I'm not the coach. I guess I'm a scout."

The caddy was deeply impressed, and said, "I play football for Cerritos Junior College. Someday do you think I could play for the Cowboys?" Dr. Hubbard sized him up and responded, "Son, I don't know if you have the size to play professional football. But keep at it, for you never know what might happen."

By the time he sank his final putt, Dr. Hubbard was feeling a little guilty about what he said, so he turned to the caddy and said, "I want you to have this t-shirt, but I'm afraid it is too big for you."

The young man smiled at him. Then he said something very wise. "Don't worry, sir. I'll wear it until it fits."

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Note: Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (New York: Doubleday, 1981) 587.