Sunday, June 27, 2010

Detours Ahead

Luke 9:51-62
Ordinary 13
June 27, 2010
William G. Carter

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Luke describes the Christian life as a journey. Faith is a travelogue between beginning and end. There is a starting line, for all of us begin somewhere; and then we are off to travel our lives with Jesus. It is an expedition full of adventure and growth. The journey is just as thrilling as the destination. As a way of teaching us about the journey, he describes the journey that Christ took.

There was a day, says Luke, when Jesus decided to go to Jerusalem. In the words of Isaiah, “He set his face like flint.” Jesus left behind the carpenter shop and the teaching stump. He left behind what was known, settled, and comfortable. And he stepped out to travel toward the cross. That was his destination, his calling. It was the way that he lived out what it meant for him to be God’s person in the world.

The Bible says this is our journey as well. It is journey where Christ is loved and honored. His concerns become our concerns. We are called to join the ministry of Jesus – come what may. We take up his mantle, and do his work with our own heart, minds, hands, and feet.

And that is exactly how the story unfolds for today. Jesus and the boys are traveling. They begin his final journey toward Jerusalem, a journey that will take half this book. He knows where he is called. He knows what he is destined to do. It doesn’t matter if others understand his purposes or not. Jerusalem is his end.

Along the way, in a story that is ready-made for a three-part sermon, he encounters three different people who could be part of his journey. Each one hears his invitation, each one responds a different way, and in each case Jesus reveals what could be a detour from being his disciple.

The first person steps up to Jesus on the road. He’s a volunteer and says, “I will go wherever you go.” It is a noble idea, but I think Jesus cracks a smile. It’s that very noble word “wherever.” The man says he will go “wherever.” Really? The word is worth a deeper examination. Are we willing to go wherever? Would we do anything?

Jesus pushes back. “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests…” He speaks slyly in a code language. In his day, there were some affluent people related to King Herod called “the Herodians.” They were people who fancied themselves as the ruling class. They lived in great comfort, and Jesus says, “If you want nice curtains and comfortable beds, the foxes have their holes.”

The Roman army was portrayed popularly as a flock of birds. Vultures perhaps, or certainly hawks. They swarmed into a village and plucked everything out of the ground. They take whatever they need from others, and fly away. “If you want to consume vigorously and viciously, the birds build their nests.”

“But the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” That is strange and disturbing. In the Jewish scriptures, the Son of Man was the supreme authority over all the nations. He has power, glory, and might. And in the same breath, Jesus adds, “He is homeless.” Or maybe another way to say it, “Every place is his home.” He gets around. And he’s not staying in the holes of rich foxes or the nests of violent birds.

It is a jarring retort. It is not merely that he declares we have to be itinerants to follow him. But he seems to be saying that we cannot be in love with our own comfort. If we follow Christ, there will be no pillows to soften the trip (I’ll say it with a wink: why do you think we took so long to pad those pews?). There will be no extravagance (like those school board members who got a free trip to Orlando). There will be no resting place to lounge and become lazy. A listless disciple is a contradiction in terms.

Oh, says Jesus, if you want to follow me, live modestly. Stay portable. Don’t anchor yourself in the ports that are protected from the acts of God. Become familiar with people who are deprived of comfort. Don’t let all the world’s goodies separate you from the world’s needs.

He says this, I think, because his face is set toward Jerusalem. He is called to give his life in the most costly way. This is the cross before him. Golgotha is not a place where he has gone before. It will not be familiar or comfortable. Jesus cannot expect it to be easy or fun. His destiny is not in a five-star hotel.

And then Jesus spots a second possible disciple. He is a recruit and he is willing to follow – or so it would seem. But he has a grief problem. He has a father that he needs to bury. We might think that is a justifiable excuse, but Jesus blasts him with a harsh word: “Let the dead bury the dead!” It is one of the rudest, coldest things that Jesus ever said.

Or is it? Our Men’s Breakfast group was studying this passage a month ago or so, and discovered there is more to the story. The Middle Eastern scholars tell us that, in that culture, the man was not asking permission to attend a funeral. If there was really a funeral, he would have been there. He wouldn’t have been hanging around the road, waiting for Jesus to walk by. Oh no, he would have been by his father’s coffin, surrounded by the whole family.

It turns out that it’s a traditional phrase. As somebody notes, say, for instance, that a Jew of Jesus’ day announced that he wanted to move to Brazil, assuming he knew where Brazil was. All of the neighbors would ask, “But aren’t you going to bury your father first?” His father might still be as healthy as a horse. The cultural expectations are that you stick around, that you take care of father and mother, that you put your own decisions on hold until your family responsibilities are concluded. If it takes another twenty years for the Old Man to die, it takes another twenty years. Your life has to go on hold.

So Jesus slaps the son with a hard word: Let the dead bury the dead. That is, he is saying, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own. But if you’re going to be part of my Father’s Kingdom, if you are going to be part of my kingdom, than I come first. The Kingdom of God comes before family duties and neighborhood expectations. Christ is more demanding, more central, more significant than anything or anybody. Especially if it’s a lame excuse by a man who is hanging around by the road and whose father is not dead yet.

Jesus says, “Follow me!” The man responds, “I’d love to, but . . .” I’d love to, but. Sometimes we say such a thing to define ourselves, over against the primary call.

I’d love to do the work of servant, but . . .
I would gladly serve as a leader, but . . .
I know the junior high group needs a teacher, but . . .
I know those hungry people have great needs, but . . .
I know there are mourners who would appreciate my consolation, but . . .

It can be a way of saying we recognize what God’s invitation entails. That is different from the first guy, who didn’t seem to know. Yet for some reason, even we know it, we cannot yet do it. We end up defining ourselves by saying, in essence, “I discern the need, yet here I am.” We keep it at arm’s length.

And then there’s the third person. He is another volunteer and willing to follow Jesus, too – but he states his condition: “Let me go home first and take my leave.” That’s what it really says – he’s not merely going home to “say goodbye,” or “bid farewell,” but to “take his leave.”

This is a phrase we don’t use very much, but they know all about it in the Middle East. If you are invited to a party, you honor your host by attending. If you have something else to do, and it cannot be rescheduled, then you ask permission to not attend, or to depart early. This is called “taking your leave.” It is requesting permission from the main figures of the household for them to excuse you. It is the polite thing to do.

So this third guy wants to go home and request permission from his father to let him follow Jesus. If it is the planting season, he’s out of luck. If it’s the growing season, he’s out of luck. If it’s the harvest season, he is really out of luck. Do you get the picture? He is putting his family ahead of the call of Christ. He is letting them call the shots on whether or not he will get in step with Jesus. As Jesus puts it, he is taking his hands off the plow.

It’s an issue, of course, that still comes up in a hundred different ways. As we will hear Jesus say in one of the texts this summer, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division . . . I have come to set father against son, daughter against mother” (12:51-53). Again, it’s a troublesome, divisive word - - because Jesus is saying that he is more important than those who are dear to us. He is at the center of our lives. He demands our complete obedience and our absolute attention. Jesus is the One who calls for us. He enlists us to serve, and empowers us to do so. He frees us from every other distraction, beginning with the relationships that lie closest to our hearts. And he persistently asks, “Do you love me more than these?”

Being a Christian is not merely a matter of going to church. It is first and foremost a following of Jesus. We learn how to do this better when we go to church, as the scriptures are opened, as the prayers are voiced, as the mission is named and engaged. But the heart of being Christ’s disciple is traveling with him, going to the places where he leads us and calls us. It’s doing the kinds of things that he wants us to do. We love the stranger, for Jesus breaks down human divisions and extends God’s reach. We welcome people regardless of politics, gender, or income, because Christ welcomes all to his Table. We offer the cold cup of water to those who are thirsty. We offer the kind blessing to the person ravaged with despair. And we keep listening for what he wants us to do.

Four summers ago, I was retreating in a remote monastery, and a woman came to visit her father. He was now one of the brothers there. He joined the monastic community after the death of his wife, who was also her mother. There had always been the tug on his heart to join up with such a community. He had heard about them as a young man, but fell in love, got married, went to work, and they had a child. He never forgot the Voice of love calling him to a life of prayer. They raised the daughter. His wife was sick, and he nursed her until death. Then he had a big yard sale, put the house up for sale, unloaded everything, and then joined the monastery. That was fifteen years before.

Now she had traveled for two days to visit him. Twice a year the abbot permits the visit. She drove out to meet him, bringing him a bag of chocolate bars to share. The vow of silence was lifted by the abbot. They shared good memories of times past, told stories about their current lives, laughed and joked. The visit ended with an embrace, a promise to pray for one another and to write once a week. Then he returned to the cloister and its silence.

Then she explained to me, “This is what God has called my father to do. I respect that. He will remain with these brothers until he dies and he is in better hands than mine.” She said, “I am grateful that he took time out to marry mom, to raise me, but now it’s time for him to do what God calls him to do. He has never been happier.”

It was a shocking, stunning conversation. It reminded me of the ongoing call and cost of discipleship. You and I are called to follow Christ too, even if we are not called in the same ways that man is answering his call.

Yet one thing was very clear to me: he is keeping his hands on the plow.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Forgiven Much, Forgiven Little

Luke 7:36-8:3
Ordinary 11
June 13, 2010
William G. Carter

"Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

I will guess that Simon went to a lot of trouble. It's not every day that Jesus comes by for dinner. As with every honored guest, you pull out the finest china, polish the silver, and press the linen napkins. Simon the Pharisee had a closet full of such things. He was an influential man with a beautiful home. In his employ were a number of well-trained servants who knew when to serve the soup and when to replace the salad forks. And also around that lovely home of his, there was a high fence with a single gate.

Now Luke does not mention the fence with the gate. That was an inadvertent omission. Luke meant to say it, but forgot to say it. There had to be a fence. Every really nice home has some kind of fence around it. Sometimes it is electronic and marked by little flags, to keep the family pets from wandering too far. Usually it is tall and imposing, to keep the undesirables out.

If Simon was a rich and influential person, as most first-century Pharisees were, there was a fence around his house. And about the time he expected Jesus to show up for dinner, he told one of the servants to go and unlock the gate. That's good old-fashioned, down-home, Middle Eastern hospitality. When you expect a guest: you open the gate.

Jesus is welcomed into his home. He is invited in through the gate. But apparently it was left open for a little too long – because look what else wandered inside. It’s a woman. We don’t know her name, but apparently everybody in town knew who she was. Luke calls her a “sinner.” We never learn what kind of sins she committed - - but we can probably guess. There’s probably a big capital “A” stitched to her smock.

Simon knows who she is. He has been watching her for years from behind his fence. He doesn’t know her name – or at least he never says it. But he is clear about her reputation. He regards her as trash, blown in from the street, and makes a mental note to close the gate more quickly next time. But on this occasion – his charitable invitation to Jesus might serve him and his purposes.

The fact is, Jesus has been troubling the Pharisees for two whole chapters of this story. They come to hear him teach, and then they see him heal. He announces the forgiveness of God – and they question this. A paralytic starts dancing – and they are amazed. Then Jesus goes to a dinner party at the house of a tax collector, one of those scurrilous collaborators with the Empire, and they complain that he is not very careful about his righteousness. He eats with the wrong people. He doesn’t stick to their rules.

This is a section of Luke’s Gospel with a number of controversies like that – and then Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to his table, in through his gate. And while they exchange pleasantries and pita bread, that woman walks in. She caresses his feet. She rubs perfume on his toes. A man’s feet are private. They are not for the massaging hands of a sinful woman. In his mind, Simon the Pharisee is very clear about what she is doing. He says as much to himself – and our modest Bible translators have cleaned up the language in English.

Do you know she is doing? To put it literally, she is “starting a fire.” She is crossing a moral boundary, right there, in a Pharisee’s house! So Simon says everything he’s been told to say, everything he’s been told to believe – that this woman was a sinner, that this woman is a sinner – she is trying to ignite some passion right there at his dinner table. It’s disgusting, it’s inappropriate. If Jesus were a real holy man, he would know what kind of person she is. And he would keep her on the other side of the fence.

This is a common approach to religion. We learn the lesson early. There is right and there is wrong. If you are right and others are wrong, some kind of fence should be erected.

When I was growing up, we were told very clearly who the sinners were. They were the people from Spencer Avenue who sat on the church lawn on Saturday nights, smoked cigarettes, and drank Genesee Cream Ale. They left the empties behind. As the ushers began to hand out bulletins before Sunday worship, an angry deacon went around the front yard with Hefty bag, scooping up the beer cans. More than once I learned the lesson: “those people are not welcome in our pretty little church.” They are sinners.

At one memorable congregational meeting, somebody stood up to declare it was the minister’s job to yell at those people, to chase them away. After all, he lived in the house next door that the church provided. You couldn’t expect one of the professionals who lived in a big house up on the hill to drive down and police the church yard. They were busy – they had plans to go to the country club and knock down a half dozen cocktails. That’s what the respectable people do. They do not mingle with sinners.

I like how Jesus handles this embarrassing moment. He tells a little story. It seems that every time he finds himself in an awkward situation, he tells a story. “Once upon a time,” he says, “there was this banker. She had two people who owed her money. Both of them defaulted. One owed about $70,000. The other owed about $7000. Neither one of them could pay. So she canceled both debts. Which one of them will love her more?”

Well, that’s easy. That’s a softball question. If you have been forgiven a huge debt, you’re going to love your banker a lot more than if you were forgiven a modest debt. Isn’t that right?

Why, just imagine if you needed a major operation that you could not afford? You really needed that operation or else you would die – but you couldn’t afford the operation. And then, the surgeon said, “Listen, I’m going to handle the cost of this. Don’t worry about a thing. I will cover it myself, because you really need that operation.” And he is good for his word.

Now, isn’t that better than owing somebody twenty bucks, and they say, “Forget about it”? Of course it is.

Jesus simply tells the story and asks the question. The answer is obvious. Whoever is forgiven a great debt is probably going to love the person who forgave them! That is the point of the story . . . and it’s dangling out here. Nobody seems to get it.

When I was fifteen or so, I had dinner at my minister’s house. His son Jonathan was one of my good friends. They were planning a cookout, as I recall, so Jonathan invited me for dinner. As his father, the pastor, was putting burgers on the grill, his mother called out, “Jonathan, I thought we had more hamburger buns. Go down to the corner market and pick up a pack. Take Bill with you.” We cut through the back yard, went along the ancient cemetery, came around the alley – and there they were, sitting on the church steps: six burly people, smoking cigarettes, and drinking Genny Cream Ale. They looked rough. They had dark hair and tattoos. They hollered, “Hey! What are you doing?” We ran all the way to the market and made our purchase.

Then we had a moral dilemma: we had to return the same way. Jonathan liked to act tough, so he took charge. We walked around the corner, right up the church steps, and he looked them in the eye, and said, “How are you doing? Nice night, isn’t it? My name is Jonathan.”

One of them said, “Hey, you’re the minister’s kid – I didn’t recognize you before. I thought you were just a couple of kids getting in trouble.” Then he looked over his shoulder and said, “This is a peaceful spot. We like it here – even if some of those church people are uptight. But your dad, he’s alright. Sometimes he stops by to talk to us. Never chases us away. So we sit here on Saturday nights and guard the place from hoodlums like you. It feels right.”

It was a strange conversation. And the next morning, right before worship, as some uptight deacon scowled while retrieving the one green can that the squatters had forgotten to collect, it seemed that he was overplaying his part. Did you ever notice? Some people are so darned righteous that they become obnoxious. And some of the people they would so quickly shoo away are kind, and protective, and strangely benevolent. Something has happened in them, but it really hasn’t happened in the so-called righteous person.

At the center of God’s Kingdom is the announcement of forgiveness, the cosmic cancellation of debt. It is the news that every single one of us has had a great debt canceled. We were in over our heads. There was no way we could pay – and God, the Rightful Owner of Everything, out of great mercy, said, “You are forgiven. You are free. Enjoy the grace of the kingdom.” There is only one way to respond – and that is with love. If we know that much has been forgiven, we will show great love.

Monday, October 2, 2006 was a bright beautiful fall day. The children at the West Nickel Mines School were surprised by a man who backed his truck onto the school property. A few knew him – he normally drove the milk tanker to some of their farms. This day, however, something was dreadfully wrong. He pulled out a gun, rounded up the children, and started firing. As state police stormed the schoolhouse, he turned the gun on himself.

This was a tragedy that should never, ever happen. The 24/7 news media descended on Nickel Mines, not really understanding that it is an Old Amish community. There were few interviews with the townspeople. No access was given for armchair psychologists. The Amish Christians would bury their dead with dignity. They would not invite CNN or Fox News to push their news cameras into their grief.

And then, a few field reports began to surface. There was word that within hours of the shooter’s rampage, some of the Amish families had gone to his home, to sit with his widow, to speak words of comfort and consolation. They held her hand, looked her in the eye, and said, “We forgive your husband for what he has done.” And not one visit, but many visits – followed by gifts of food and money from the Amish – as a way of announcing that there would be no revenge, no retribution, no more damage in response to that great sin. They forgave him, and released him from what he did.

On Wednesday at 5:30 a.m., two days after the tragedy, the grandfather of two little girls who had been killed was walking by the schoolhouse. He was reflecting on his loss. All of a sudden, a news team jumped out of the bushed, turned on lights and camera, and held a spontaneous interview. The reporter asked, “Do you have any anger toward the gunman’s family?” He said, “No.”

“Have you forgiven them?” He said, “Yes, I have forgiven them in my heart.”

“How is that possible?” He said, “Through God’s help.” The world just couldn’t believe this. It became the major story of the day: AMISH PEOPLE FORGIVE THE SHOOTER. And their mercy was expressed in more than words. When the gunman’s family gathered for his funeral at the end of the week at a nearby Methodist church, more than half of the seventy-five mourners were Amish. They believed it was the right thing to do. They joined in prayer, sang the hymns, and spoke of their love and support for his widow and family, and their forgiveness of him.

One theologian who wrote of the occasion did his best to explain to the world. When forgiveness is the ongoing practice of Christian people, it shapes everything that they do. They are able to forgive because they know themselves to be greatly forgiven. Because they believe God has forgiven them so much, they are free to forgive others and show great love. And a small piece of Lancaster County looked like heaven on earth. (Donald Kraybill, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy)

This is the kind of faith that saves us – a faith that we are forgiven greatly, and therefore called upon to love greatly. This is the faith that saves the whole world – and sends us out in peace.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Compassionate Thing to Do

Luke 7:11-17
Ordinary 10
June 6, 2010
William G. Carter

Through the summer, we will explore that phrase “Thy kingdom come.” The Gospel of Luke will be our main course, offering a diet of stories, parables, and dramatic actions. And the text for today comes from chapter 7:

Soon afterwards [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

I can't think of anything more difficult than losing a child. It ranks at the top of the worst situations we can ever know. And I have seen the situation plenty of times.

My first funeral when I came to town was a young man who started home on a Friday night and never got there. When we gathered for the service, his mother was numb. His sister was angry. Nobody knew what to say, until his mother spoke and said, "This is not right. A mother is not supposed to bury her son." What else can anybody say?

On the evening of my last birthday, after the balloons ran out of gas and the remainder of chocolate cake was covered and put away, I went to sit with a family who had just lost their son. He was a talented athlete. He had everything to live for, but chose not to live at all. We sat together for two and a half hours, most of it in silence. The line into the funeral home stretched around the block. Inside, teenagers draped on one another's shoulders. Over the quiet muzak, all anybody could hear were the sounds of sniffles and moans. The parents stood by the open coffin, shook hands, and said, “Thank you for coming.” What else could anybody say?

On such occasions, we speak carefully. In measured tones, we usually offer a brief word. We say, "I'm sorry for your loss," or "I miss your son," or "I give thanks for his life, and the joy that he brought you." Or perhaps we say something like this: "I don't know what to say . . . but I am here if you need me."

The mother in our Gospel story was surrounded by an entire village. A large crowd stood around her. She had lost her son. We don't know if he died from illness or accident. It didn’t matter. Everybody was there, surrounding his mother in support. God knows, she needed it.

She was a widow. In the Bible’s world, that means she had no income. The neighbors were sympathetic, although many of them prayed privately that they would not become like her. A widow could not work for pay in ancient Israel. She was totally dependent on the kindness of neighbors and remaining members of her family. This woman lost her only son, who had survived with her after his father had died.

What would you say? What is the compassionate thing to say?

As that woman and her crowd moved toward the cemetery, they were blocked by another crowd. Jesus was at the front of that crowd. He saw the coffin on the back of a cart, saw the somber men standing beside it, and saw the widow covered with a black shawl. It was a scene that stirred up deep feelings in the pit of his stomach. That’s where compassion is seated in the human soul: somewhere down deep. It begins to well up and swirl, sometimes physically shaking us into action. As somebody once said, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin..” (Frederick Buechner). Jesus was feeling it as he looked upon that scene. We can expect him to speak the compassionate word, to do the compassionate thing.

He is so full of compassion, says Luke, that he looks the widow right in the eye, and says, “Stop crying. Cut it out. No more tears.”

Clearly Jesus would have benefited from visiting a bereavement support group. They would have set him straight. Grief never happens in a straight line. It swirls around. It resists our management. Grieving people should weep whenever they need to. Anything can set off the feelings of loss, so we let them out whenever they come. Keep some extra tissues in your tunic, and don’t apologize.

And the Lord Jesus, so full of compassion, looks at her – looks at them all – and says, “Stop your weeping.” That’s strange. Let me just say it.

He has acted like this before. One day, he was teaching and healing. He was so full of power. Everybody was reaching to touch him. They could feel the healing power, and they saw others all around being cured. And he looked at them and said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (6:21). That was a strange thing to say, followed immediately with the words, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (6:25). It almost sounds like he is declaring, “Everybody gets a turn!” If you weep, you will laugh; if you laugh, you will weep; if you weep, you will laugh; and so on.

As a way of testing his own words, Jesus stops a funeral procession in a small, little town. He tells the mother of the deceased to stop her weeping. Then he speaks to the corpse, “Young man, I tell you to get up!” The dead man sat up and started to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Now, I can’t explain a story like this. It’s a kingdom story. It comes from that hidden realm where the life-giving God rules over everything, even death. That is how I understand the Gospel word “kingdom” – it’s the place where God is the ruler. Every once in a while, we hear these tales, or we see these visions, and we might believe that life as we know it is not the way life really is.

Over the years, I have taken part in enough funeral processions that I really don’t expect them to be interrupted. You’re born, you live, you die, you stay there – that is life as we know it. I visited a cemetery yesterday. The flowers from Memorial Day are still blooming. They were taken there by people who still grieve for loved ones, who accompanied them to plots and places of rest, and expect their loved ones to stay there.

But there’s the possibility that God has another kind of kingdom, that God is not bound by our rules. It pushes us to stay open to the ways that God truly runs the universe. These are the ways that lie outside of our control, and usually outside of our observation. But Jesus has come to lob them into our lives and awaken us to God’s grace.

Maybe you heard how the priest, minister, and a rabbi were all chatting over breakfast one day. The subject turned to death. Specifically, what do you want people to say at your funeral? The priest thought for a moment, and said, “I want them to look at me and say ‘he lived a holy and joyful life.’” It was the minister’s turn, and she said, “I would like to say ‘she made a difference in the lives of others.’”

As they spoke, the rabbi began to smile. “What about you, Irving?” said the priest. “What would you like them to say at your funeral?” The rabbi said, “I want people to say, ‘I think I just saw him start to move.’”

“Blessed are those who weep now, for they shall laugh.” That is the promise of God’s Kingdom. It is a promise from the future, hurled back toward us. This is how Jesus works, as you know. He is one with the Father, timeless and unbound by our conceptions of time. He brings us these promises from God and God’s future – and he helps us of the time when every sickness is healed, when all the hungry are fed, when injustice is dismantled, when every tear is dried, when life is given back in resurrection.

Jesus works with a backwards power. He is ahead of us – and when we hear of the amazing miracles of scripture, it is as if he throws a piece of the future backwards toward us. A crowd is miraculously fed here and now – it is a glimpse of what is coming for every hungry person. The blind person gains sight – it’s a vision of the Final Vision. A dead person is raised – that is a sign of God’s future, given here and now, for comfort, edification, and anticipation.

So maybe there’s more to compassion than offering a sympathetic ear or a comforting hug. Indeed these are gifts to all whose lives are disrupted by trouble and death. It is compassion, also, to point to a Living God whose ways are better than our own. There is a spiritual reality beyond the mechanics of our culture and the customs of our churches. Jesus calls it “the kingdom.” It is an upside-down, topsy-turvy, forward-backwards realm of grace. It’s a whole new order, whereby Jesus loves the unlovable, heals the incurable, and crowns the wretched of the earth.

His Mama sang about it before he was born: “God will lift those of low degree, and knock the high and mighty off their thrones” (1:52). Her Son began preaching it on the very first day: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free” (4:18-19). And now we are left with this disturbing little tale of a widow who lost her only son, only to have him raised from the dead and placed back into her arms. Something is afoot in the ways of God.

So I invite you to keep your heart open as we move through the summer and discover more about these ways. There’s no telling what a Living God is going to do.

For now, I want to set the Table with some words from a favorite theologian. He is an Episcopalian by the name of Robert Farrar Capon, and he puts all on the line this way:

Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to improve the improvable, not to perfect the perfectible, not to teach the teachable, but to raise the dead. He never met a corpse that didn’t sit right up then and there. And he never meets us without bringing us out of nothing into the joy of his resurrection: you, me… and poor old Arthur down by the docks with his pint of Muscatel in a brown paper bag. We are all dead. And he raises us all . . . because his Word is the word with the ultimate bark, and when he says, ‘Arthur, come forth,’ that’s all old Arthur needs. His nothin’ ain’t nothing no more.

When I preach something like that, I get two reactions. I see smiles. I see faces light up – faces which, in spite of a lifetime’s exposure to the doctrine of grace, seem for the first time to dare to hope that maybe there isn’t a catch to it after all, that even out of the midst of their shipwrecks they are still going home free for the pure and simple reason that Jesus calls them. I see barely restrained hilarity at the sudden perception that he really meant it when he said his yoke is easy and his burden light.

But after the service, in the time it takes them to get downstairs to the coffee hour, the smiles have been replaced by frowns. Their fear of the catch has caught up with them again, and they surround the messenger of hope and accuse me of making the world unsafe for morality.
(Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace, p. 129-130.)

Ah, don’t let the world squeeze you back into its mold. The Kingdom of God is Good News. It is the announcement that death does not have the final word on anything or anybody. Our deadly ways will not reduce the love of God.

In fact, the world tried to shut down Jesus. Nailed him to a cross, put him in a dark hole. But look: here he is – here and now – and he calls us to the banquet hall of his kingdom.

(c) William G. Carter
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