Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Question That Never Goes Away

John 21:1-17
Easter 4
April 25, 2010
William G. Carter

We celebrated Easter three weeks ago. It was a grand day. Bright flowers, great music, good crowd, and a few children with chocolate hands. As the days march on, I remember what a young boy said to me one Easter day. It was the year we ended the worship service by singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Everybody came up, took their place, and belted it out. I don’t think this little guy had ever heard that piece of music before, because he started to clap when the last note rang out. I had stepped until the pulpit to give the benediction, so he stopped. But you could still see the thrill and excitement written on his face.

In fact, he met me at the back door, shook my hand, and blurted out, “I wish it could be Easter every day of the year!”

I share his hope. On Easter, the pews are full. The plates are full. The people are full. There’s an air of excitement. We know it is our big day. It would be nice to have a little bit of that same power, that same exuberance, all throughout the year.

But it seems difficult to keep it there. Listen to Simon Peter. What does he say after Easter? “I’m going fishing.” And not only him – Doubting Thomas, Sarcastic Nathanael, Blusterous James and John, and two others. They weren’t “fishing for people,” either. Jesus was risen and gone. Sounds like they were going back to the old ways. Easter didn’t hold their excitement.

They went out, got into the big boat, fished all through the night, and caught nothing. It was slow going, a long night. Whatever disappointment they felt was matched by their weariness. This is life after Easter, the slow slump after the Big News. And I suppose John tacks on this story after his Easter story, if only to remind us that the sanctuary is not always full, the joyful noise is not always plugged in, and even a handful of believers take off to go fishing.

That in itself is a helpful reminder. Every Sunday is not a revival. There is a rhythm to the practice of faith. We can’t expect to be excited all the time. In between the mountains of enlightenment, there are valleys of boredom and routine. We have to slog through the underbrush, and there’s no quick assurance

I got a note from one of our former members last fall, and kept it in a file reserved for good reminders. I save some of the cards and notes that I receive, especially if they can give me encouragement at a later date. This lady and her daughter moved to a city in a southern state some years ago. They immediately hooked up with this busting church in a busy part of town. They have four worship services each Sunday, each one of them jammed. You can never find a parking space. Two different choirs, both of them enormous. The preacher has a deep tan, and preaches a lively sermon. Whenever she came north to visit family, she made a point to tell me how that church is so wonderful.

Then last November, she sent me a note. Attendance has dropped off. Two choirs merged into one. It’s easier to find a parking space. The preacher seems tired. It just doesn’t seem the same. She wrote all these things in a card, and sent it to me. I said to myself, “I’m going to keep this card.” I found it deeply encouraging. And if she ever appears again, and tells me that big church has turned things around, I’m going to pull out that note and remind her of what she wrote.

The plain fact is every Sunday is not Easter. We cannot live by adrenaline alone. It simply doesn’t jibe with human ups and downs, with the cycle of seasons. The sage of Ecclesiastes said well: “There is a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted, a time to break down and a time to build up, a time to seek and a time to lose.” Shortly after Easter, Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, said, “I’m going fishing.”

Yet something happened. Actually a number of things happened. This story, which most scholars declare was tacked on to the end of John’s Gospel, reminds us that the Risen Jesus continues to be alive. He may have ascended to his Father in heaven, as he promised Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, but he keeps coming back. As the Bible scholar Raymond Brown notes, all of the resurrection appearances have Jesus returning from heaven. He keeps showing up, mostly unnoticed or unidentified. And those people whose hearts are prepared will see him. That is the promise after Easter.

The seven of them in that big fishing boat see a stranger on shore. They don’t know who he is. He calls out to them, and they don’t recognize his voice. How long has it been? A couple of weeks, maybe; John doesn’t say. He calls them “little boys” and asks, “You don’t have any fish, do you?” No, they don’t have any fish.

“Put your net on the right side of the boat; there are some over there.” They are too tired to argue, too worn out to question him. They toss in the net, and all these fish start jumping into it. It’s so heavy they can’t even haul it in. Suddenly the light goes on for at least one of those “little boys.” He knows of only one person who would be playing with them like that, only one person who would be so generous, so insightful, so astonishing. And here he is, a hundred and ten miles away from Jerusalem, where they last saw him. He came to them where they were, at dawn. One blurted out, “It is the Lord!”

When Simon Peter heard this, he was so thrilled that he jumped into the water to make his way to the shore. It’s a comical scene: he leaves the other six guys to drag in an overflowing net without his help. Even then the scene turns on a dime. No sooner does Peter hit the shore, when he spins around and goes back toward the boat. Some might think he went back to help the others; I happen to believe it’s what he saw that made him really nervous.

Jesus the Stranger, who had called out to them - asking for fish - already had some fish. He was cooking them on a fire, and not just any fire. It was a charcoal fire. The Gospel of John loves its details. Some details are obscure, like the number of fish that they caught (153); don’t know what that signifies. But we have heard before about a charcoal fire and Simon Peter. Anybody remember the moment?

When Simon Peter denied Jesus on the night of his arrest, it happened by a “charcoal fire.” Three times, Simon Peter was asked if he knew Jesus, and three times he said, “I do not know the man. I am not one of his disciples. I wasn’t in the garden with him.” The cock crowed at dawn, just as the Lord has predicted.

Now, at the end, all is said and done. On the other side of the cross, after the tomb is found empty, Jesus finds Simon Peter a hundred and ten miles away. Jesus comes to him at dawn, that is, at cock crow. He is waiting for Simon Peter by a charcoal fire. And he is ready to ask three times: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” He is given Simon Peter the opportunity to undo what he denied.

“Do you love me? Do you love me more than these?” That’s the persistent, troubling question. It lingers for Peter, for all of us. “Do you love me?” That’s his question when you’ve gone back fishing, when you have run away in fear, when the initial embrace is completed, when the excitement has died again. “Do you love me?”

The poet, Stephen Dunn, struggled with this question. He had long ago turned away from believing the Lord, much less loving him. And then he took his little girl to a subversive week of Vacation Bible School. He hadn’t counted on her learning stories and songs about Jesus. He and his wife had thought they had given up on belief, but now he’s not so sure. Here is his poem, called “At Smithville Methodist Church”

It was supposed to be Arts and Crafts for a week
But when she came home
with the “Jesus loves me” button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the song
the sang when they weren’t
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?
Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism.
That other sadness.
O.K., we said. One week. But when she came home
singing, “Jesus loves me,
The Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus
doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.
It had been so long since we believe, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and our friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead
that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child.
On parents’ night there were the Arts and Crafts
all spread out
like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark
And Hallelujah
and one in which they had to jump and down
for Jesus.
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what’s comic, what’s serious.
Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can't say to your child
"Evolution loves you." The story stinks
of extinction and nothing
exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
She sang the song,
occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

It might be that subversive week could save the poet’s life. Too early to tell. He might stop relying on easy answers that explain life but do not hold him. As he says, “I didn’t have a wonderful story for my child and she was beaming.” He didn’t have a wonderful story for himself either.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said. “I will come to you.” One of the implications of a Risen Christ is that he can find us, that he can come to us. We may not notice him right away, but he’s there. Or he’s here. Or he meets you in the grocery store, or the hospital waiting room, or the dark room where you’re bored, or the bleachers of the basketball game, or in the parking lot of the mall, or the place where you’ve gotten into deep trouble. And he asks, “Do you love me?”

Twice he asks Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” And twice Simon Peter responds, “You know I’m your friend.” So Jesus moves in closer, meets Peter where he is, and asks a third time, “Simon, are you my friend?” To which Simon says, “Yes, you know I’m your friend.” With that, Easter becomes an assignment: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep.”

The Easter lilies have been taken away. The hymns are back to normal. A few of the faithful have gone fishing. Yet there’s no telling where a Risen Lord may find us. He may stay quietly anonymous, guiding and helping behind the scenes. He may speak the word that opens our eyes or redirects our attention. He may call us toward our own charcoal fire, where he could remind us of our failures before he forgives us in his mercy. We cannot know when he will come or how he will reveal himself.

What we do know is that he keeps asking the same question, over and over: “Do you love me? Do you love me more than these? Are you my friend?”

He will wait for the answer. And his question never goes away.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Friday, April 9, 2010

When You Want to Throw Something at the Band

Something different this week . . . here's one of Bill's "jazz sermons" on 1 Samuel 18:6-16. This video was recorded during a jazz worship service at First Presbyterian Church, Naples FL, in early 2009. Bill and his Presbybop Quartet were leading the morning worship service. For music videos from the same event, go to

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Alive to God!

Romans 6:4-13(a)
Easter Sunday
April 4, 2010
William G. Carter

“Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.”

During Lent, we’ve been talking about the seven deadly sins. Those of us who have taken the trip have selected our favorites. And this spiritual journey has reminded us of what we already know. Sin is not merely something we do. It’s not only something we commit. Sin is a force in human life. Sin with a Capital S is a destructive power, and it will kill us. And as we moved toward the cross, we remember that Sin is what murdered Jesus.

It begins with Pride, the arrogance of pushing God from the throne and seating ourselves upon it. We heard also of Envy, as religious leaders conspired against Jesus because they desired the same blessing he had received. Greed worked on Judas, who sold out his Lord for cold cash. Human Anger grew into a god-like wrath that condemned an innocent man to crucifixion. Lust and gluttony, the twin sins of appetite and addiction, reduced Jesus to mere flesh and screamed out for more violence against him. Those who loved Jesus most slipped into Sloth, ceasing to pay attention to him and shrugging off God’s love and justice.

What killed Jesus? At least seven different variations of sin. They conspired put him on the cross. Sin is deadly. The Gospels are clear about that.

Yet this morning the news comes morning from a graveyard. Sin killed Jesus, but he is again alive. Every evil known to us turned on him, but he came back. The Good News of Easter is that Jesus is stronger than the forces that kill. Sin has the power to take life, but the mysterious power of God-in-Christ will give life back. That is what we struggle to understand today.

A few Easters ago, a couple of people were leaving church at the same time. They chatted on their way to the parking lot, both of them remarking on the big crowd, the exuberant music, and the enthusiastic spirit. “That’s how it should be,” one of them exclaimed, “because God raised Jesus from the dead.”

Her friend Jerry nodded toward the church building, and said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to say anything in there, but Easter needs to be something more than that.” Her name was Ellen, and she stopped cold in her tracks. “What do you mean?” she said.

Jerry said, “If all we’re doing on Easter is remembering some one-time event, something that happened once to somebody a long time ago, it is either a curiosity of nature or a fairy tale. But if God raised up Jesus, of all people, the same Jesus who was a victim of human cruelty and cussedness, it’s a sign to everybody that cruelty and cussedness don’t have the final power over our lives.”

It sounds like the sort of thing that the Apostle Paul was talking about in our scripture lesson. He is writing to some new Christians in Rome, and trying his best to answer a very practical matter. They have heard about the Gospel that he’s preaching. They know, at its heart, that the Gospel is about forgiveness. God forgives the sins that we have done. On the cross, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them,” and in the mystery of grace, this is exactly what God the Father does. God cancels the power of the wrongdoing and does not hold it against them.

Imagine a couple of those city boys in Rome. They know they have been forgiven for all that they’ve done wrong. “So Paul,” they say, “Friday night is coming up. Since we’ve already been forgiven, since God is a forgiving God, does that mean we can go out and sow a few oats? God forgives us, right?”

Well, the Apostle Paul thundered back to the Romans and said, “No way!” Then he took a deep breath, put on his teacher’s cap, and reminded them of their first experience of faith. “When you were baptized in Christ,” he said, “you were sunk down into the water. The old ‘you’ was killed off. And when we were raised out of the water, we were alive again, a new creation.” There is death and resurrection – the mystery of Easter is worked out in our souls.

The insight here is tremendously important to our spiritual life. We die to everything that kills us: to the old habits, the destructive compulsions, the deadly behaviors. And in dying to such things, Christ raises us, brings us back alive, and fills us with his Easter life. Because of Jesus Christ, we need not be destroyed by deadly sins. We can hand them over, let them go, and let them die with Christ – for we have the very real hope that we will be raised with him. Life begins again.

In a book on leadership, Garry Wills writes about Harriet Tubman, the remarkable slave woman who led African slaves to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. That invisible railroad came through these parts, and one of the whistle stops was in nearby Montrose.

Here’s the interesting thing: when Harriet Tubman was a teenager, she tried to stop the beating of a fellow worker. Her master hit her on the head, and the blow broke her skull. Harriet lingered near death for weeks. For the rest of her life she suffered from occasional catatonic spells due to the injury. But the injury also set her free.

As Wills writes, “The blow that cracked Tubman’s skull struck off her psychic chains. She had already died once; she had nothing to lose.” Ever notice? Sometimes people can have an experience when they were as good as dead; and when they emerge, everything is fresh and new. They are not bound and held captive as they once were. In a very real sense, life begins after something has died.

Paul says this experience lies at the heart of the Christian life. We die to ourselves – our whims, our consuming obsessions – and we live to God. All the powers that damage and destroy don’t have any dominion over us.

A man was talking about his gambling problem. It started small: a few lottery tickets, the football pool. Before he knew it, he was taking grocery money and losing it in the slot machines. He said it got worse. “I lost my job, I lost my house, I lost everything dear to me. I wanted to lose my life; then I realized I already had lost that life. That was the day when everything began to turn around.”

That may sound harsh to a lot of us. Some of us would like to get by on our own steam. Sure, we might get into a little trouble now and then. But we never give up anything, nor do we take on anything. It might not make a lot of sense when Paul says we cannot live unless the old life has died. And yet, I have seen people raised from the dead. Something was killing them – and then they let go of it, and began to live.

I was talking with a woman in the hospital. She was there because she lost her gall bladder. But she wanted to talk about losing her life. She said, “I married a man when I was twenty, and our son was born six months later. Shortly after that, my husband drove off and never came back. I didn’t know if I could make it, if my son could make it.” But God raised her up - and I saw her sitting in church last Sunday. Sixty years later, that ending became her beginning.

This reminds me of the last words that Gracie Allen had for her husband George Burns. She had died, he was full of sorrow. One day he found a note in her handwriting. It read, “George, never put a period where God has placed a comma.” There is death, and then there is life.

We know about death. We lose jobs. We lose people dear to us. We lose the habits that we worship, and the tyranny of our appetites may be killing us. Yet Easter announces that the God who gives life is stronger than every one of these deaths. Can sin still kill us? Sure, it can kill – but sin is already dead. Its ultimate power died when Jesus died. All the deadly sins were thrown at him on the cross, and he took them with him into the grave.

And now he is alive again. By the grace and power of God, Jesus - in his humility and laughter - is mightier than the powers that think they can destroy us. “Those who have died with Christ” says Paul, “are those who have been brought from death to life.” Or as Saint Francis offers in the last line of his famous prayer, “It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.”

This is our Christian hope. So fear not, little church. Trust in a God who is stronger than the works of death. Thanks to what God has done in Jesus, we are completely, joyfully alive!

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Falling Asleep on Jesus

Luke 22:39-46
Maundy Thursday
April 1, 2010
William G. Carter

When Jesus got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (22:45-46)

It’s a story that finds itself on stained glass. Near the back of the first church I served, there was a window with Jesus praying in the moonlight. The Lord was on his knees. His hands were clasped tightly, as his eyes looked skyward. Peter, James, John, and the rest were scattered around him, snoring beneath the olive trees.

This was the favorite stained glass window for a man who sat in the adjacent pew. He clipped his fingernails during the sermons he didn’t like. When I preached, he gave himself a weekly manicure. Somewhere around the fourth paragraph there would be a haunting “click – click – click.” It was a signal he had stopped paying attention.

Now, I know a lot of preachers like to compare themselves to Jesus, and the more pious ones compare their church members to those sleepy disciples. That’s not always fair, yet in this case the comparison seemed to fit. He showed up early so he could get that pew. That window was the closest thing he had to sacred space. As Peter, James, and John began sawing wood, Dick was tending to his hangnails. If Dick had ever come to coffee hour, some joker might have asked what he thought of the sermon, but most people were pretty certain Dick never heard it.

It makes me wonder how many times I’ve fallen asleep on Jesus. He gives his commandments, but I’m not paying attention. He warns against trouble, and I fall right into it. He urges us to “watch and pray” and either I daydream or snooze. This is evidence of sloth, the one deadly sin we have yet to consider this Lent.

Sloth is an old word, from the Middle English word for “slow.” It is commonly equated with laziness, but that doesn’t quite capture its destructive power. Those sleeping disciples were not lazy – they were worn out. Luke says they had a long day, and an emotionally demanding evening. The Passover Seder was a big meal that drained energy for their digestion. There’s nothing sinful about sleepiness. No, the problem seems to be that they have checked out, that they have became numb and incapable of attention. What Jesus asked of them, they refused.

This has been going on all evening. He taught them to be selfless, and they squabbled about being important. He instructed them in non-violence, and they reached for two swords. Simon Peter declared, “I am ready to go with you to death;” well, we already know how that’s going to turn out.

Now at the time of his greatest need, as he prays a prayer that Luke calls “agony,” as he wrestles through the call of God upon his life, he hears them snore. They are ignoring him. They are indifferent to him. In the present of One who was the light and life of their world, they fell asleep on Jesus.

The venerable sin that we call “sloth” has a much better name. It’s the ancient Greek word “acedia.” It literally means to stop caring. To neglect the daily work that all of us have to do. To become indifferent to anything or anybody. To lose all sense of joy. To refuse the goodness of God and the world God created. To have the shadows of our own listlessness block out the sun in the sky. For this reason, the early desert monks called it the “noonday demon.”

A few years ago, Kathleen Norris began to write a book about sloth called Acedia and Me. The really scary thing, she noted, is that the more she thought about sloth, the more she saw it all around her. It was ravaging her husband who struggled with clinical depression that sucked the light out of his soul. It was prevalent in neighbors in her South Dakota town who had long stopped taking any interest in their outward appearance. It crept into her study, as she read glowing reviews of the books she had written, then daydreamed how she wanted to smash the computer so she wouldn’t have to write any more books.

In one scene, she tells of a trip to the Hawaiian rain forest of Kau’ai, as a tourist complained how she didn’t have enough places to shop. Kathleen wanted to scream, “Look at the beautiful place where we are,” then began to understand the woman’s spiritual condition.

"The tragedy of her hubris goes deep," she writes, "for she is the sort of consumer the tourist industry avidly courts by inserting generic shopping malls into breathtaking tropical valleys." She continues:

"How is it that we can grow so insensitive to the world around us? Acedia is at work in us when we prefer buying things to witnessing the beauty of nature, ‘reading’ catalogues instead of books, or lingering in a museum store instead of touring the museum itself. These are not insignificant choices, for in making them we risk losing our capacity for wonder. When acedia has so thoroughly possessed us, making life seem so dull that only artificial stimulation can get our attention, it may be crazy to suggest that the ordinary rhythms of time, the passing of day and night, have something to teach us, or that there is a world to be revealed when the mall is closed, the electric power has failed, and it is too dark to see anything but shadows and stars. Cast back on our lonely, raw, and wounded selves, we may find that nobody is at home." (p. 195)

That’s the deadliness of sloth. I think that’s what Luke is talking about in his first century terms when he says the disciples were sleeping “because of grief.” The grief we usually know keeps us wide awake, tossing and turning through the night. In the case of Simon Peter, James, and John, all the light had been sucked out of their souls. Their hope had been snuffed like a candle. They have shut their eyes to escape the brutal realities of life, and in turn those brutal realities got the best of them. Jesus is in trouble, and they have ceased to care.

Sloth is a deadly sin, and all of us must battle it. It is difficult to keep our eyes awake and our hearts attentive. If we care about important things, it is equally dangerous to start despising those who do not. Like the church leader who suggested to his peers that they should knock on the doors of inactive church members and scream them back to the sanctuary. His pastor smiled, “How is that going to work with those two grown kids of yours?”

If we’re going to do battle with sloth, we must begin with ourselves. We take note of the places where we haven’t been paying attention, take stock the moments when we ourselves have fallen asleep on Jesus, when we have ignored what he teaches, when we have allowed his promises to grow cold.

And if we’re paying attention tonight, the first thing we might notice is Jesus never shuts his eyes. Not once. He watches for God to reveal the divine will, and then he does what God requires of him.

Jesus stays awake and he never stops praying for a sleepy church. In the end, that is what matters most.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved