Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Very First Thing That God Did

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Trinity Sunday
May 30, 2010
William G. Carter

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live…

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first,
before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Today is called Trinity Sunday. It comes every year on the week after Pentecost. It is the one day that the church sets aside to ask a really big question: what kind of God do we have? Other Sundays mark special events – the coming of a Savior, the raising of the dead, the visit of the Spirit. We hear curious teachings, dramatic stories, and controversies that Jesus creates and escapes.

So today we pause to think about God. What kind of God do we have?

Each of the scripture texts offers an answer in progress. The Psalm speaks of God the Creator. There isn’t much scientific offered, because God stands outside of the human sciences. We can turn to the sciences to learn how things work. There are mechanical rules and forces like gravity, but we did not design them. We can name each star and chart where we see it, but we cannot make our own stars. In the end, we can only be filled with awe.

And then to think that God even notices us! As the Psalmist sings, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

What kind of God do we have? There is no first-hand description, for no one has ever seen God. The best we have is Jesus, and then we have to figure out the best language to talk about him. He speaks of our ignorance in the Gospel of John, and how we cannot even bear to know everything he has to reveal to us. And that, he declares, is why the Holy Spirit has come: to keep teaching us, to keep guiding us, to keep leading us ever more deeply into the heart of God. God the Father sends God the Spirit to glorify God the Son.

And if that causes your head to spin, you are thinking rightly about the Trinity. We are too small to understand our God, but our God stays in perpetual motion: teaching, guiding, speaking, declaring. Once in a while, we understand a little bit more, because Jesus – through the Spirit – speaks about the Father. (John 16:12-15)

What kind of God do we have? Of the three provisional answers today, my favorite comes from the eighth chapter of Proverbs. The book of Proverbs gives us a poem. It’s an unusual poem. It is not the kind of poem that rhymes, which is a good thing since it’s in Hebrew. Rather, it’s the kind of poem that imagines.

On the very first day of the universe – before God created that first cup of coffee, even before God created “morning” - the very first thing God ever did was to create a playmate. God did not go it alone. God wanted some company. God dreamed up a conversation partner, somebody to bounce off some new ideas. So God created a lady and named her Wisdom. When the first fields were created on the very first planet, God and Wisdom joined hands and skipped through the fields. Daisies sprung up in each of the places they touched down.

When God started hurling the stars into the sky, Wisdom said, “You missed a spot – put one over there!” “In fact,” said Wisdom, “if it’s not too arrogant, how about if you group some of those stars like a metal cup? And over there, how about an archer with a belt?” God said, “What’s an archer?” And Wisdom said, “I guess you had better dream one up!”

This is how it was, when God created the heavens and the earth. God had a good friend to offer some help.

According to the poem, she is very Wise. Her primary ability is to speak. She is incapable of speaking a false word – every pearl on her lips is the absolute truth. One day, she noticed God down by the river bank, scooping up some mud, and shaping it into a Mud Person. God said, “Watch this!” and blew some Holy Breath into the figure’s nostrils. It came alive! Wisdom said, “Is that it? It’s kind of funny looking. Better give it some hair.” So God blinked – and the Mud Creature had hair. Wisdom said, “Oh, come on, be generous! Give it some more hair!” So God blinked again, and Wisdom giggled and said, “I wasn’t thinking you should put any hair on its back.”

Off she bounded, with God right behind. Together they fashioned palm trees, volcanoes, and dung beetles, mountains, oysters, and coyotes. Suddenly Lady Wisdom giggled again. God said, “What’s so funny?” She whispered something into the Creator’s ear, and God smiled. So God said, “Let there be dinosaurs!” and there were dinosaurs. Wisdom laughed, “That will teach those silly creationists.”

This is how it was, when God began to create the heavens and the earth. It was playful. It was fun. Together Wisdom and the Creator dreamed up the three-toe sloth. At first, most of the three-toed sloths of the world were in the French Alps – but they had nowhere to swim, so God flew them down to the rain forests and put them near the pools.

Another day, Wisdom returned from a morning jog. “Just got back from the Garden,” she said, “and I think we have a problem.” God looked up from the telescope he had just created and said, “What’s going on?”

“Well, it’s that hairy Mud Creature of yours. He was trying to catch a squirrel and give it a kiss. It was ugly.”

God sighed and said, “Why can’t he be more like me? The idiot needs a brain.” Lady Wisdom said, “Go one better – make a woman. Consider him as your rough draft.” And it was so.

This is how the Jews imagine God: as playful, as creative, accompanied by the very first work of creation, Lady Wisdom. Listen to what she says: “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.” It sounds a bit like the first words of that hymn we like to sing: “I danced in the morning when the world was begun, and I danced in the moon and stars and the sun.” The hymn, as we have it, sings specifically of Jesus – at Bethlehem he had his birth, he danced on a Friday when the sky turned back – that’s Jesus. But hundreds of years before Jesus appeared, the Jews knew God to be a playful presence in the world, taking delight in all creatures, and speaking the life-giving truth.

So when Jesus appeared, people who believed in him already had a language for speaking of him. Jesus is the Wisdom of God – the difference being that there is One God, with Wisdom as a Holy Personality. And just as, in the Jewish imagination, Lady Wisdom danced with the Creator on that first morning, the Triune God – Father, Son, and Spirit – danced in complete community and creativity. This is how Christians imagine our God.

The question today: what kind of God do we have? The poem in Proverbs 8 imagines a God who delights in everything that is made, a God who enjoys the beauty and the intricacy of everything that springs from the Divine Imagination. Elie Wiesel says God made us because God likes good stories – and you and I are full of them.

It’s interesting to me that, over the centuries, Christian doctrine has imagined God in different ways. Often the ways that people depict God say more about the people who are doing the imagining, and the times they are living in, than it does about God. When King James tried to unify the British Empire, he authorized a new translation of the Bible so that everybody in the Empire would be reading one text. He also required an oath of allegiance that declared the Pope had no authority of him, and thought of a dozen ways to give the Puritans a hard time. As far as I can tell, this also seems to be about the time when British Christians started declaring that “God is in control of all things.” Not merely sovereign, but “in control.”

That kind of language, that “controlling” language, is very different than the playful language of our poem in Proverbs. To speak of God as “controlling” is to presume a consistency that the Jewish scripture does not maintain. The God of Israel is elusive, unpredictable, just out of sight – yet very much the force behind all life. God can be experienced as the foundation that will not be shaken, yet equally known as the wind that disrupts and topples. “The Voice of Glory thunders,” says the Psalmist, while at least one prophet met God in “the sound of sheer silence,” otherwise translated “a still small voice.” God is so great as to come anywhere, to speak in thunderclaps and silences, and to say anything. That unpredictability is part of God’s playfulness, and it evokes awe.

But there is also God’s great delight. Not only is God powerful enough to save us, God chooses to do so – because God enjoys what God has made. Listen to the words of Lady Wisdom: “I was God’s daily delight, rejoicing with God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” That tells us more about God and the source of our greatest human hopes.

Yesterday morning was a beautiful morning. For no apparent reason, my wife and I got up early. Pulling on our housecoats, we took mugs of hot coffee to the front porch. A number of you know where I live – it’s a housing development. We chatted quietly, waved to the occasional dog-walker, and commented on how hard they were working. The lawn mowers had not yet started. It was a sleepy morning or so we thought. As we sat there, we began to pay attention.

A Downy woodpecker climbed up a tree, while another peeped around the trunk and said, Boo! Two chipmunks scampered after one another. Jamie said, “Look at that!” and pointed to the plume of a baby squirrel’s tail as it moved through the grass. An indiscriminate bumblebee moved from one flower to another, humming as he went. The roses winked at the day lilies. Antiphonal choirs of birds sang separate symphonies to one another. The coffee grew cold as we took in this spectacle – everything was so completely alive, so completely joyful. We were part of this amazing frolic as the world began to wake up.

It was then that I heard Lady Wisdom say, "When God made the earth, I was God's daily delight, rejoicing always in the inhabited world, and delighting in the human race."

And I can believe it.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Noisiest Place in Town

Acts 2:1-21
May 23, 2010
William G. Carter

A young woman was chatting a couple of months after her ordination as a deacon in a Presbyterian Church. “The biggest surprise,” she said, “was how much noise I have heard.” Kind of a curious thing, I suppose, but for those of us who spend any time around the church, we know exactly what she’s talking about.

It wasn’t simply that there was more than one conversation going on around the table at a meeting. We have all been to that meeting. It wasn’t merely the official conversation at the meeting, and the informal conversation in the parking lot – but that there’s constant conversation all the time. That wherever God’s people seem to be, they always seem to talking.

This is the way it has always been. Pentecost is a celebration of speech. It is a celebration of conversation and voice. From the very beginning, Pentecost was the holiday when Israel celebrated that God spoke. God’s commandments were written down to instruct Israel in how to live, how to walk, and how to love.

So they gathered some time centuries later. Suddenly, in the name of Jesus, the Spirit comes again and everybody’s talking. That is one of the amazing details of the story from the book of Acts. God comes in the Spirit, the church starts talking, and nobody can shut it down. Nobody can restrict it. Speech continues. Like it or not, the church keep yapping.

What they are yapping about is that Jesus is risen from the dead. The content is not obvious in the Acts 2 story that we heard, but from the context, it’s clear. The people gather fifty days after the resurrection. They had seen Jesus and heard from him, up until the day when he ascended into heaven. He told them to stay together, and to pray.

And on the day of Pentecost, all of a sudden – WHOOSH! On the fiftieth day, as all are gathered to celebrate the giving of God’s good words, suddenly the Spirit comes. The Word is alive, in the air. Every voice speaks. Everybody talks. Each person, in his or her own tongue, declares that Christ is risen. That Christ is Lord.

You can’t shut down this kind of thing, particularly when people want to talk about it. Oppressive nations have discovered this, whenever the church takes a stand for human rights, decides every person is valuable and loved by God, and tries to enact this in public policy – the oppressive governments try to shut this down. They are always amazed how the church just keeps talking.

This seems to be the character of the Holy Spirit. There is a phrase that shows up in the Book of Revelation from time to time: the “seven Spirits of God”. I take it to be a figure of speech. Seven signifies perfection, seven means “complete.” The one Spirit has this multiplicity of presence, constantly speaking, constantly voicing, constantly bringing to reflection and practice everything that is God’s will. It is overwhelming to think about the reality behind this figure of speech: the “seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” In work in you and you and you.

And there’s more to God than we can even handle – especially around here.

It reminds me of that crazy scene in the movie, “Bruce Almighty.” Bruce, played by Jim Carrey, is sitting at God’s computer, and fielding all the prayer requests. During a brief stint as the Almighty, he is put in the chair to answer all the prayers from around the world. In a matter of seconds, he is overwhelmed by how many people are chattering, speaking, talking all over the globe – whatever language, whatever religion, just all at once. Boom – it’s more than he can handle. He simply can’t be as supreme and holy as he thought. God smiles and says, “It’s not easy being me.”

This is what happens as God’s Voice gets into all of us. This is what happens as people of good faith find themselves filled and affected by the Holy Spirit. There’s noise, there’s content, there’s even flak – I think that’s what that young deacon was talking about. She was overwhelmed to see what can happen when God is at work in so many different people, in so many different ways. And when the church comes to conscious speech about this, the miracle of Pentecost is that the church finds its voice.

There are times when we might wish for peace and quiet. I’m afraid that, as far as the church is concerned, the only time we are full of peace and quiet is when we’re dead. I’ve seen a couple of peaceful, quiet churches – they are something less than Christian – they even put God to sleep!

Some years ago, I heard a sermon about the “Quiet Side of Pentecost.” It was a sermon about God as our companion, dwelling silently within and around us, never making much of a peep. I’m not sure that sermon came out of the Bible. There is constant noise among the people of God when they are alive in the Spirit. The first Christmas came quietly. The first Easter happened out of earshot of the disciples. But on Pentecost, the Spirit comes and the church begins to make a lot of noise. That’s how it is to be Christian. The God of Israel keeps speaking….

And maybe that’s the best way to understand a day like this. There is so much going on in this church. This building is bustling every day of the week – primarily the Spirit of God has gotten into this church. Today we welcome fourteen new leaders, celebrate dozens of church teachers, and announce God’s love for a brand-new little baby. There are fellowship events getting planned, mission trips forming, and a youth group that never likes to sit still. There are people learning about the Bible, people praying for justice and good health, people dreaming up how to enjoy and teach a lot of children at Vacation Bible School. And those are the things that quickly come to mind. There’s never a dull day at the Church On The Hill.

Today is Pentecost, the day when we celebrate that God breathes his own life into the church. It comes in wind and fire. There is plenty of noise. And I get the distinct impression that we are part of God’s great plan to rescue the world.

Happy Birthday, little flock. Happy Birthday! You have never looked so beautiful and alive.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, May 16, 2010

God Has Gone Up

Acts 1:1-11 / Psalm 47
Ascension / Easter 7
May 18, 2010
William G. Carter

When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

A few years ago, my friends at the Stony Point conference center received a large collection of religious art. The retired dean of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine was cleaning out his closets. He gave much of his collection to my favorite conference center.

One of the pieces is a plaster sculpture of the Ascension of Jesus. It’s designed in hot, wild color. The exact scene is not immediately obvious. But if you look carefully, at the top of the panel, you see two feet dangling out of the sky. From down below, that's all anybody can see of Jesus ascending.

When people see it, when they recognize it, the scene stirs up a chuckle. Jesus is lifted up from the earth. A cloud takes most of him from our sight. All we can see of him are the bottoms of his feet.

We don't talk much about the Ascension of Jesus, even though the event rates two lines in the Apostles' Creed: "He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God." It is the only part of the creed in present tense. Yet it sounds unusual to present-tense people.

Not long ago, I read a theology book by one of my former professors. In all 300 pages of his systematic theology, he never says a word about the Ascension of Jesus. Apparently he didn't feel it was important enough to mention.

At the other extreme, there's a minister up in Endwell, New York, who talks about it plenty. He says the Ascension suggests the existence of space ships in Bible. Some 40 days after Easter, it was time for Jesus to depart this planet. Along came a U.F.O., and Jesus said, in effect, "Beam me up, Father, there's no intelligent life down here."

We want to take the Ascension seriously, but let’s admit it: Jesus rising into the sky is a most unusual event. It seems unreal to the modern mind, a relic from the days when people thought the universe was stacked in three stories: heaven above us, earth around us, hell down below. Galileo and his children have changed all that. When the first astronauts blasted off into orbit, they went up, circled the earth, and came down. "Did you see heaven?" somebody asked. "No," they replied. Because spatially speaking, at least, heaven is not up there. So it's hard to picture Jesus physically floating into the sky.

Maybe that explains why most New Testament writers don't draw the picture for us. Only Luke dares to describe the scene, and he does so twice. The Gospel of Luke doesn't end with the resurrection, with Jesus appearing here and there. No, Luke stretches out the story for another forty days, ending with Jesus being lifted up into glory. Then Luke begins his second volume, the book of Acts, with the same scene. The story of Jesus ends with the ascension. The story of the church begins with the ascension. For the writer of Luke, the single, pivotal event upon which the ages turn is the ascension of Jesus Christ.

Even so, it is a most curious event. Maybe the ascension of Jesus belongs on the ceiling. It doesn't translate into anything the world down here can easily understand. So the question remains: what does it mean to live beneath his feet?

Well, like the writer of Luke, some people hear this story and they are impressed with it. Ignore the discrepancies with modern physics and take it as it is. After all, it's not every day that you see somebody shooting up into the air without a rocket pack. In my reading this week, I came across one pious Bible commentator, who says: "How thrilling it must have been to see the Lord rising into the sky!" Luke, in his own small way, notes that after the disciples saw the ascension, "they worshiped with great joy; they were continually praising God." In other words, they were excited. They were impressed.

If this story is trying to fill us with excitement, God knows we need it. Here we are, some 40 days after Easter. Summer is coming. Any time now, we might start receiving those last minute phone calls, where somebody says, "Sorry I can't take up the offering tomorrow, but my tee time got moved up to 8:30." As the days lag on after Easter, enthusiasm begins to wane. Maybe we need an impressive event like the Ascension to fire us up.

Just ask those people down in Texas. They have a church that tries keep everybody fired up. One year, they booked a series of special events. One week, they brought in a professional knife thrower who quoted scripture. The following Sunday, they welcomed a beauty queen who had given her life to Christ.

Then came the spectacle of spectacles: they got the bright idea to re-enact of Christ's rising into heaven. A large crane was wheeled into the church's parking lot. On cue, the congregation sang a hymn, and a man in a Jesus suit was hoisted a hundred feet into the air. The crowd said "ooh" and "aah." Just then a mysterious Voice spoke through a 200-watt amplifier, "Why do you look into the air? The same Jesus who ascended will return the same way as when he left." Whatever else we can say about that stunt, it was impressive.

Maybe that's why Luke tells this story: to jump start the twenty-eight chapters of the book of Acts. Maybe that's what the church needs: a little spark, a little fire.

But wait a minute... No sooner does Jesus ascend, when two angels appear to say, "People of the church, why are you standing around looking up in the air?" There's work to be done.

• Jesus said, "You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem," the city where he died.
• "And you shall be my witnesses in Judea..." Through the entire region.
• "And you shall be my witnesses in Samaria..." That is, in the land of Jerusalem's enemies, among people of questionable backgrounds and uncomfortable habits.
• "And you shall be my witnesses to the end of the earth." In other words, we need to get busy. We'd better get organized. We have to train our people. We have work to do.

That's how it is to be a witness. That's what it takes to be a Christian. We can't stand around with our noses in the air. Whatever it was that the disciples saw on the sixth Thursday after Easter, the ascension was not intended to distract the church from its mission. Rather it sent out the church to serve.

I don’t think we need to get tied up on the questions of physics. We don't worry if Jesus went up, or if he went out of sight. The Ascension has a deeper meaning. It signifies the power and authority of Jesus. As John Calvin noted, this is not a story about Jesus going to a place. This is a story about Jesus assuming a function. He is going up as the Lord of all. He has gone to the throne of power. Forty days after rising from the dead, he took his seat at the right hand of God. Jesus Christ has power and authority over all. And we're on his side. He said it himself. "You shall receive power..."

Maybe that's what the church needs -- a glimpse of power, a view of authority. It gives you confidence, knowing you've got the right man on your side. Who's in charge? We're in charge! That's a good feeling.

But then I heard how tempting that feeling can be. I heard a couple people talking in the grocery store about the next election. One of them said, "We need to put the right people in power. They will put all the crazies in their place. We need to show those people who is in charge."

Now that's the voice of power, for sure. At least, that’s how the world perceives power - - as a force for exerting influence and control, a way to push others around to get what we want. But if the church comes looking for power in the Ascension of Jesus, we're going to see power unlike any kind of power the world has ever seen.

In that plaster sculpture, in those feet dangling from the sky, there’s a small but essential detail: the feet of Jesus have nail prints. The Jesus who is lifted up into heaven is the Jesus who gave his life for the world. As Jesus is raised up to rule over heaven and earth, he rules with sacrificial love.

Just recall the story. The disciples wanted to know: "Lord, is this the time to restore Israel's power? Are you finally going to make us number one?" And how did he respond? Jesus raised his crucified hands in a sign of blessing. Then he told them to stay in the city and pray. The very people who bow at the feet of Christ are instructed to pray. This is a Lord who reveals power totally unlike the power of the world.

So what's the point of a story like this one? If we stare in wonder at the event, we discover it is a distraction. If we come to claim its authority, we find it offers another kind of power.

Perhaps it's best for the Ascension to stay over our heads. That will keep the world down here in perspective. Strangers walk up and down the street, and Jesus sees every one of them from his vantage point. If there is weakness from disease, any violation caused by violence, any deprivation from poverty, the Lord stands above it. The Ascension offers a perspective on the world, a way for us to perceive reality. As theologian Leslie Newbigin says, "It's wrong to try understanding a Bible story from the perspective of the world. That's backwards. Christians are those who understand the world from the perspective of the Biblical story." (Truth to Tell, 47)

Jesus has gone up. He is the Lord. That is the one thing the Ascension can teach us: that we don't need to be afraid of anything. Nothing in heaven, or earth, or under the earth, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Savior. Or to put it another way: Fear not; Jesus Christ is Lord.

This is a prophetic word. Every day we hear about people who are afraid. Just like that man from a church who went out to visit somebody who had been absent on Sunday mornings. The conversation began pleasant enough, but then the second man began rambling on about the state of the world. "I just don't understand things anymore," he said. "Nobody is in control. People are running wild. You have to look out for yourself these days. I am going to look out for myself," he said. "What do you mean by that?" his friend asked.

"I mean I've got guns," the man replied. "A couple of pistols, a rifle. I keep them by my bed every night, so that when the revolution comes, when they come up to my house and try to take it away, I'll be ready. I'm not going to just sit by and do nothing. It's a fact that the government doesn't care anymore. Nobody cares, nobody is in charge. Things are out of control." (Will Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, p. 105)

Do you hear what the man said, "Nobody cares. Nobody's in charge. Things are out of control." Out there in the world, that's a very clear message. Here in the church, however, we see things differently. Jesus Christ is Lord. Of what shall be afraid?

Back in the 1930's, the shadow of Nazi cruelty covered Europe. At one point in his teaching career, theologian Karl Barth is said to have stood up in front of a student audience to announce, "I have rediscovered the necessity of the ascension."

"How can you turn to an ancient story of the church?" someone asked. "With all the violence and oppression brewing in the world, with the mass build-up of weapons, with the public glorification of military might, with prejudice and hatred rearing their ugly faces, how can you talk about a Bible story from the first century?"

Barth smiled; then he said, "When the lights go out, it's good to know who's in charge."

In other words: Don't be afraid; Jesus Christ is Lord. God has gone up, and sits upon the throne.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, May 9, 2010

What Was Left Out of the Bible

What Was Left Out of the Bible
John 21:24-25
May 9, 2010
William G. Carter

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

I can’t think of a stranger ending for a book in the Bible. The writer says, “There is a lot more to the story than what I have written down.” That’s a crazy way to end the story. He is saying: “Here is my tale; and there’s a lot more to it, but I’m not going to tell you what it is . . .” Nobody ends a story like that.

After all, John has already ended his Gospel once. Everybody agrees the story of Jesus ends with chapter 20. Old Doubting Thomas blurts out his affirmation: “My Lord and my God!” It’s where the whole Gospel of John has been headed. Then, as a pastoral note, John quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” It’s a beatitude for those after Easter, for those like us who live centuries after Thomas and the others. We were not there, we did not see, but there is a blessing in our believing.

Then John says, “There were a lot of other things that Jesus did, a lot of other things that Jesus said. I didn’t write them down. But I wrote these things down, so that all of you will believe, so that you will be brought to life through your believing.” That’s the conclusion of chapter 20. The end. The finale. The curtain comes down. The story is over. The postlude begins. We are done. It is finished.

But for some reason, John can’t keep it there. He won’t shut it down. He picks up his pen and adds another chapter. We’ve heard it over the last two weeks: a surprising catch of fish, the rehabilitation of Simon Peter, the probing three-fold question of “Do you love me,” and the prediction of Simon Peter’s death.

Then we come to this text: the author signs off. His church stands around him and says, “What he says, we know to be true.” With that comes the final line: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Now, that’s just crazy.

John has already told us there are stories that didn’t make it into his book. That is always the author’s prerogative. John is writing to cultivate our faith. He spares us the stories that really don’t matter. We never discover Jesus’ favorite meal. We do not know if he snored when he slept. We have absolutely no description of how he looked, whether he was short or tall, bald or clean-shaven, whether or not he had every broken his arm or gotten a splinter in the wood cutter’s shop. We never learn if he was married. Apparently those details were not important.

What we do know is that Jesus comes to reveal God to the world. Through a carefully crafted narrative, John tells one important story after another, aiming us toward that final confession with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” He transforms water into wine, the mundane into the sacramental. He points Nicodemus, the religious insider, and the Samaritan woman at the well, the ultimate outsider, toward a God who moves freely to bring us alive. Jesus heals a crippled man on the Sabbath, because God can act whenever he wants. He feeds a huge crowd with real food – and refuses the ensuing popularity contest. One event after another, spiced with long speeches that push us beyond our calculated views of God – this is what the Only Begotten of God provides as a gift.

And John says, “There’s even more to the story. “All the books in all the world could not begin to write down everything that Jesus has done.” All the books, in all the world? Really? That’s the language of extreme excess.

As best we know, the Gospel of John was written about 90 AD in the Turkish city of Ephesus, a major center of learning in the ancient world. Some 45 years after John wrote this book, the Library of Celsus was finished in downtown Ephesus. It was one of the greatest libraries in the Roman world. The Library of Celsus could hold twelve thousand scrolls – that was more than anybody could ever imagine in the time of the Gospel of John.

Before the Library of Celsus, there was the Great Library of Alexandria. The original plan was to build the largest library in the world, with room for 500,000 scrolls. It was enormous, and John would have had this in mind. At least, we think it was enormous. We don’t know; Julius Caesar was blamed for accidentally setting it on fire.

Today we could visit the Library of Congress and walk the hallways of its three different buildings. According to the reports, the Library of Congress has 650 miles of shelf space. It holds 32 million books, 61 million manuscripts, one million issues of newspapers, half a million microfilms, six thousand comic books, and a Stradivarius violin. Every business day, about 22,000 new books arrive to be catalogued.

And John says, “Even if you had a Library of Congress in every town, there wouldn’t be enough room to hold all of the books that describe what Jesus has done.”

The language is excessive. It’s extravagant. Sometimes the Bible just talks that way. At the end of the book of Ecclesiastes, the wise sage says, “Of making many books, there is no end” (12:12). As a bibliophile, I know that to be true. There are more books on my shelf than I need, and three more arrived in an Amazon box on Friday. Each week in our office, we receive three more catalogs full of new religious books. I’ve been slowly writing a couple more books of my own. Sometimes late at night, doubt sinks in and I ask myself: does the world really need more religious books?

Raymond Brown says John is giving us a hyperbole. He’s overdoing it. He’s amplifying the reality. He’s overstating the case. After all, John is a preacher. Preachers have been known to speak and talk in enormous terms. As a way of helping us imagine the size and scope of their topic, they speak in an extravagant tongue.

In the late 19th century, a Kentucky preacher criticized a new science that he believed was an enemy of the Gospel. It was the new science of psychology, and the preacher thought it was bad news. So he described it to his congregation by saying, “It’s a blind man in a dark cellar at midnight without a light looking for a black cat that’s not there.”

Fred Craddock says the evangelists in Appalachia talked that way. One time, he says, a visiting preacher came to his church in Tennessee and tried to explain the length of eternity. He said, “How long is eternity? Imagine a granite mountain. Imagine a dove that flies by that granite mountain every thousand years and touches it with the tip of its wing. When that dove has successfully leveled that mountain down to the ground -- in eternity, that’s before breakfast.”

Jesus talked this way. “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” (Matt. 5:29) Now, does he really mean that – or is he amplifying to make a point? We must decide. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” (Mark 10:25) “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3) Or this little pearl for the second Sunday of May: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his mother cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

The power of such speaking is its extravagance. This is super-charged language. It has the power to slap us awake, to stir our hearts, to shock us with the truth, to renew our commitment. We know this – especially when we speak of things that are really important and deeply true.

I think of the great American poet, Stevie Wonder. He sings a song about love, and says, “I’ll be loving you always . . .”

until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky,
until the ocean covers every mountain high,
until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea,
until we dream of life and life becomes a dream,
until the day is night and night becomes the day,
until the trees and seas just up and fly away,
until the day when 8 times 8 times 8 is 4,
until the day that is the day that are no more…” (“As”)

If we don’t have a poetic bone in our body, we might simply say, “I’m going to love you a long time.” But there’s something about this incredible excess, this generosity of description – it expands our little worlds, it enlarges our imaginations, it points beyond the settled limits of what we can see and what we’ve become comfortable in expressing.

So John concludes his book by saying the book isn’t finished. The story of Jesus keeps going on. If we could write down all the things that Jesus has been doing, it would fill all the books, on all the shelves, in all the libraries of the entire universe. (That’s the word: “cosmos” or “universe.”) This is John’s way of announcing the resurrection continues. The Risen Jesus keeps bringing our souls alive. Faith is not settled and nailed down as soon as the Bible is published. If anything, the Bible prepares us for an ongoing conversation. That is its purpose.

The true authority of the Bible is that it points us to a living God. The God we meet in Jesus Christ lives off the page. This is not a God we can figure out, manage, and therefore dismiss. God keeps moving, keeps working, keeps creating and sustaining and growing the faith of those who are open to such power. When it comes to God, there is always more to the story than we think there is. God is at work in ways we cannot yet – or ever – understand. That’s OK – only God is God.

And I guess that’s why I feel kind of sorry for people who have everything figured out. They are stuck with themselves. They are restricted by their own understanding. They believe in a puny little god who doesn’t ever challenge them, doesn’t ever push them, doesn’t ever shake them up. Their god is only as big as their Bible – and that’s not the biblical God.

It strikes me as kind of boring to take a couple of snapshots of ancient civilizations, and say, “That’s how it’s supposed to be for us, thousands of years later.” Sometimes when some politician is looking for votes, he (and it’s always a “he”) will make some noise about a biblical view of marriage. Well, let’s look at the Bible and see what it says. Let’s start with Abram and Sarah – God promised them a baby, but they couldn’t have a baby. So Abram convinced Sarah that maybe he should slip into the next tent and sleep with Hagar. Can’t say if Sarah agreed with him, but he did it anyway. Hagar got pregnant, bore him a son – and it didn’t turn out very well. Then Abram and Sarah had a baby of their own, with Medicare picking up the tab. Now, that’s the work of an interesting God. Abram and Sarah had one significantly dysfunctional household – but God blessed them anyhow.

What scripture prepares us to see is that we have a God who enters our messes, and rescues us right in the middle of those messes. Not only that, we have a God who is capable of creating some enormous messes out of our settled little lives, and we have to hang on and trust that somehow God is going to carry us through.

How about David? God christens him as the king of Israel while there’s another king still on the throne. We know that’s not going to progress in a tidy, straight line.

Or what about any number of those prophets, who were given a Word from God to speak – and as soon as they opened their mouths, they were going to get into trouble? The prophet Jeremiah whined and say, “God, I don’t want to speak your Word; but if I shut my mouth, it burns like a fire in my bones.”

The Bible is full of stories about a God who refuses to stay neat and predictable. When we get to the stories of Jesus, we hear about a Holy One who disrupts one person’s life after another. He goes to a synagogue, and some wild demon starts screaming at him, “I know who you are, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Well, yes, he has. Jesus comes to win back this world, one soul at a time, and it’s going to be messy. It’s going to be unpredictable. It’s going to take some time. But this is what he comes to do, and this is what he continues to do. And if we could ever write down all that he does, it would fill all the books, on all the shelves, of all the libraries in the universe. Because Jesus is the Living God, and he is still working.

So here’s my advice to you: stay open. Remain available. Listen for what he is saying to you. He may be calling you to dig more deeply into the commitments you have made. Or he may be calling you to some new adventure that will shake you awake and nearly scare you to life. So stay open to the living power of God in Jesus Christ. It is always greater than we think it is. It is at work in more situations than we can ever possibly imagine.

The Bible is a gift to us. And its primary power is that it prepares us to see a God – it prepares us to love a God - who keeps working off the page.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Staring Death in the Eye

John 21:18-23
May 2, 2010
William G. Carter

Jesus said Simon Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which [Peter] would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

The kids in my house have introduced me to a great movie. It’s called “Big Fish,” and it’s the story of Edward Bloom. Edward is a storyteller, a spinner of wild yarns. Every night he sits on the edge of his son’s bed and talks about his extraordinary encounters with giants, werewolves, and imaginary villages.

One night, he says, when he was about ten years old, he and four of his friends went looking for the house of an old woman. She lived out beyond a swamp near their Alabama town. Rumor had it she was a witch, that she had a glass eye that was both mysterious and menacing. Edward told his friends, “They say if you look right at her awful glass eye, you can see how you’re gonna die.” The other kids look at one another, struck with horror. Then they dare one another to walk up and knock on the door.

Only Edward will do it. Two of the kids slip back through the swamp toward home, leaving two slightly terrified brothers to hide and watch Edward approach the house. They weren’t the least bit interested in meeting the witch, and catching a glimpse of their final breath.

It’s a weird and spooky thing, don’t you think? How many of us would want a preview of our own death? To glimpse the fleeting moment when we leave behind this life? A lot of people are afraid of death, nervous about it, anxious about how they make their final exit. Will an illness take us? Or an accident? Will we see it coming or will it catch us by surprise? When death knocks on my door, will I be alone – or surrounded by people who love me? Will I leave behind a long bucket list of things I wanted to do? Or will I die with a sense of satisfaction of a life well-lived?

These are difficult questions, and we would rather postpone them as long as possible. It might be best to leave them unanswered, so that death does not disrupt our living. It’s true that the one perfect statistic is that all of us will die – it’s running at a hundred percent – but it might not be of any comfort to know when, how, or where. Just imagine if you knew the countdown of days, hours, and minutes; it could seriously mess you up. So many of our day-to-day decisions are based on forgetting we are finite. Imagine an eighty-year-old man who buys a house with a thirty-year mortgage – he is a hopeful man.

In the final story of the Gospel of John, the Risen Christ says a strange and somber proverb to Simon Peter: "Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished, but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."

It is a very odd thing to say, so odd, in fact, that the gospel writer stops to explain it. John claims that Jesus says these words to predict the kind of death that Simon Peter will face. They come out of the blue, totally unconnected from the context. As he heard last week, Simon Peter has just confessed his friendship to Jesus. We would expect the Lord to trade pleasantries with his friend. But instead, he predicts his death.

According to tradition, Simon Peter was killed in Rome. Supposedly he faced crucifixion, but didn’t think he was worthy of the same death as his Lord. So he insisted on being crucified upside-down – his arms outstretched, a belt around his waist. By the time that John wrote down this Gospel, in about 90 AD, Peter would have been long gone, maybe as long as 25 years. So here the story is told backwards, as if Jesus is looking forwards.

But needless to say, it’s still a creepy thing. I can understand why Edward Bloom’s friends were hiding in the bushes while he went up to knock on the witch’s door. Simon Peter looks into his Lord’s eyes, and catches a glimpse of his own end.

And what Jesus tells him – what Jesus may be telling all of us – is that death is about losing control. That is probably why we want to postpone any talk of death, especially in our culture – because we don’t ever want to talk about losing control. Jesus says, “Someone else will take you where you don’t want to go.” You know, if there’s anything we want, it is control. We try to control our lives, our schedules, our emotions, our children. If anything scares us about growing older, it’s losing control. Will I still have power over my own body, my memory, my finances? Will someone else have to dress me? Will they take away my driver’s license and “take me where I don’t want to go”?

In his final words to his friend Peter, Jesus says Peter’s destiny is to lose control. That is his fate, and in a way, it really shouldn’t have surprised the fisherman. From the very beginning, Jesus invited Simon Peter and everybody else to “follow him.”

• Follow where? Wherever he goes.
• But where are we headed? We will find out when we get there.
• But what are we going to do? Feed his sheep, tend his lambs, and whatever else he wants us to do.
• But where is the itinerary? What is the agenda? Why can’t we be in charge? And the answer: we are following him. We cannot call the shots if Jesus Christ is Lord.

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr, who said it most clearly: “When Christ calls [people], he bids [them] come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time - death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old [person] at his call.” (The Cost of Discipleship, 99). Discipleship is a kind of death. We follow Christ as Lord, and die to any sense of our own importance, die to our exclusive personal agendas, die to anything or anybody that presumes to put any other claim upon our lives. Christ comes first in everything we do or wish to do. We follow him. And if we are clear first and foremost about that, any other kind of death is really not going to matter.

In the movie “Big Fish,” Edward Bloom takes the dare of his friends, and goes up to the vine-covered house. Just as he reaches to knock on the door, the door swings open and there’s an old woman with tangled hair and patch over her right eye. "M'am," says the surprised lad, "my name is Edward Bloom and there's some folks here who'd like to see your eye." He leads her back to the place where two brothers, Zacky and Don, are still hiding.

She glowers at the two boys, and flips up her eye patch. A flashlight illumines the mysterious crystal eye. Zacky sees himself as an old man falling off a ladder. Don sees his own demise too. The two of them fly out of there, back toward town, leaving Edward to walk with the woman back toward her house. He has not gazed at her eye, and curiosity gets the better of him.

And he says to her, “I was thinking about death and all, about seeing how you're gonna die. I mean, on one hand, if dying was all you thought about, it could kind of screw you up, but it could kind of help you, couldn't it, because you'd know that everything else you can survive?" That’s really wise advice.

The final gift of Jesus for his friend Peter is the chance to stare down his own death. Peter had died before – he died one Thursday night beside a charcoal fire, when three times he lied and said he didn’t know Jesus. The guilt on his heart just about killed him as he heard the rooster crow.

And now, that very morning, he stood beside another charcoal fire as the Risen Jesus asked three times if Peter loved him – each time he confessed “yes,” his voice got stronger, clearer, as the old fearful fisherman was killed off so that the new Simon Peter could live and follow his Lord. Just like Jesus, he passed from death to life, and death no longer had any power over him.

Out in an Alabama swamp on a moonlit night, Edward Bloom got his wish. The old woman smiled with a crooked grin, and turned so her eye faced the boy. We do not see what he could see, but we do see his face. He glares, and then says with a smile, “Huh, so that’s how I go.”

Finishing the story, tucking in his son, a grown Edward declares, "From that moment on, I no longer feared death."

That could be the most important lesson of Jesus and his resurrection: to not be afraid of death. To follow without fear. To pick up the work that he calls us to do. To love all the people that he loves. We can stare death in the eye – and always look through it, beyond it – until we see the face of our good friend Jesus. And we hear him say, “Die to yourself, and come follow me . . .”

[Note: I am deeply indebted to Scott Black Johnston, pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, NYC, whose good work with this scripture text has shaped this sermon.]