Sunday, August 29, 2010

Seating Charts and Guest Lists

Luke 14:1, 7-14
Ordinary 22
August 29, 2010
William G. Carter

"For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

The only way to get into this text is to tell you a true story about something that happened this summer.

This year the hot concert ticket for my age group was a Troubadour Reunion with James Taylor and Carole King. The two singer/songwriters reunited on the fortieth anniversary of their first concert together. They announced a world tour, stretching from Melbourne, Australia to three sell-out dates in Madison Square Garden. It was exciting news for a lot of us old-timers.

So when I got advance notice in February that the tour was coming to Wilkes Barre, there was no question that we were going to get tickets. I circled the concert date: June 28. I asked my wife to circle the date and write “Date Night” in Valentine Red ink on her calendar. We were talking to our friends Barbara and R.C., and they wanted to go, too. Since I’m on the Official James Taylor E-mail Fan List, I offered to get us four tickets at the best possible tickets, just as soon as they went on sale.

There I was, sitting at my home computer, waiting for 10:00 a.m., ready to click through the Ticketmaster site with my credit card in hand. I wanted to get us good tickets, so I was ready to pounce.

The moment came, I selected “four bargain tickets at the best price,” and there they were: $120 a seat. I was ready to click and purchase, except just then a familiar hand descended upon my shoulder, and a very wise voice declared, “We can’t afford $120 a seat.” She was right. It has been a particularly tight stretch for us, with three of our four in college and some necessary repairs around the house. So I clicked around to see what other options might be available.

There they were: four seats at $39.50 a piece. With Presbyterian prudence, I clicked and purchased, only to discover at checkout that an additional $12.50 per ticket surcharge was added by the website. I swallowed hard, but thought of how much fun it was going to be. I made the purchase, told my wife a little white lie that I got the tickets for less than $40 each. Then I called our friends, told them how much they really owed us, and forgot about the whole matter until June.

A few weeks before the concert, we began to make dinner plans. We had learned that two other friends, Jim and Jan, had also picked up tickets. So the three couples agreed to meet at Revello’s for Old Forge pizza. We would get there at 5:00 for a 7:30 p.m. show, and that’s what we did.

As we waited for the pizza to come to the table, Jim mentioned they were splurging for great seats in honor of their anniversary. They were going to be down on the floor, pretty close to where the original $120 seats had first tempted me. I confessed that I didn’t know where our seats were going to be located. It was probably somewhere up in the nosebleed section. But it didn’t matter. It was a nice night out, and we looked forward to hearing that old-time music from the 1970’s.

We paid the bill, parted in three different cars. I made sure Barb and R.C. had their tickets. My wife mentioned that we had to make a stop at a drugstore, but we would right behind them. “See you there!”

It was, of course, a sell-out crowd. That became really obvious about two miles away from the arena. Bumper to bumper traffic, stop and go, impatient concert-goers making risky traffic moves. I don’t do well in such a situation. My normal level of impatience increases exponentially. I start driving with my horn – and I have an embarrassing little horn on my Toyota. It wasn’t doing any good any way.

We were being steered toward the Wyoming Valley Mall to park somewhere near Sears. It would be about a ten-minute walk to the arena. And to make matters worse, the cell phone began to ring. It was Barb. Something strange had happened with the tickets, she said. She and R.C. had arrived before us and found our block of four seats. Indeed they were up high, near the next to last row, a few yards away from a blinding spotlight. “We will meet you by the East Gate,” she said, “and then we’ll tell you what happened.”

We looked at one another, shrugged, and trudged on foot past a sea of parked automobiles. The concert was ready to start when we got there. The usher scanned our tickets at the East Gate, and found Barb and R.C. “It was the strangest thing,” she said. “We were sitting way up there, waiting for you, when some kid with a security pass around his neck came up. He said, ‘Do you like James Taylor?’ Dumb question. ‘Are you looking forward to seeing Carole King?’ Two for two. Then he motions toward the floor and said, ‘I have two tickets down there in upgraded seats if you want them.’”

Well, I have to give my friend Barb a lot of credit. She held her ground, motioned toward our two vacant seats, and said, “We are waiting for our friends Bill and Jamie. They are running late, but they are going to be here any minute."

The young man looked at her, looked down at the floor, looked at our empty seats. He said, “Well, OK, I have two other tickets on the floor next to yours, but that’s it.”

That’s when they called us. We met them at the East Gate and they are telling us this story. The concert is about ready to start. An usher pointed us down toward the floor. We went down, and further down. We got to the floor, saw a sea of seats, wondered where our seats were. The backup band was cranking up, the people were on their feet cheering. We can’t hear anything, we can’t see anything.

We ask another usher. He says, “Oh, over here.” He takes us down past Jim and Jan, past a number of Presbyterians now convinced that I am overpaid, all the way around the circular stage, and into the VIP seating. We are stools immediately next to the stage, on stools at little round tables, no more from here to the first pew from the rotating stage. Our seats are immediately adjacent to the bullpen where the musicians are hanging out. When Jamie pulled some M&M’s out of her purse, I offered some to Arnold McCuller, the backup singer. He said, “Thanks, man.”

Later we found out the four seats cost $350 each, not counting the Ticketmaster surcharge. Apparently they couldn’t move a lot of $350 seats in Wilkes Barre. So randomly, out of the blue, they offered the four seats to us. It was amazing – the music was right there! The musicians winked at us every time the stage spun around. The whole experience made me feel -- it made me feel -- it made me feel like a Natural Woman!

We sent text messages to our kids during the show. One of them wrote back, “Wow!” Another said, “Good for you!” A third said, “You are so lucky,” and I wrote again, “I am a Presbyterian. I don’t believe in luck, I believe in God.”

Now, that is my way into this scripture text. Jesus said, “When you’re invited to a big party, take the cheap seats. Don’t presume that you are important. Remain modest, so that you are not embarrassed if you have presumed too much. And should somebody ever say to you, ‘Why are you sitting in those lousy seats? Move on up closer,” you will be exalted.

Jesus says this is a principle of the kingdom of God: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” At the center of that sentence is the experience of humility: choosing the unimportant spot, going to the insignificant places. He gives us his word: if we have not learned humility, we will. Sooner or later the lesson will be taught to you. The door to God’s kingdom is a very low door. You can only get through if you kneel. If you stay small.

Now, I realize that my story of the concert tickets is not a perfect analogy. It would not take a lot of poking to find it full of holes. But that recent experience serves as a reminder for me and a suggestion that sometimes grace happens. Sometimes when you aren’t expecting it, God breaks in. Sometimes when you have done all you can and it isn’t enough, God finishes what you cannot. Sometimes when you find yourself pretty low, God lifts your up.

I say “sometimes” because Christian faith does not offer a magic formula, a secret handshake, or a hidden secret. But faith announces a God who is a God of grace. And one of the signs that this is true is that things have a way of working out better than they should. Lost job, lost child, lost love, lost security – all of these losses are real. They come to us all, and they tend to level us.

But then, something happens – over there, or right here. Something good. And you realize all over again that the universe does not orbit around you. Rather, all of life is infused with this hidden goodness. We name it as a personality trait of the kind of God that we have. God is full of grace; and the first ones to see it are those who stayed low.

Jesus uses the seating chart of a wedding banquet to teach a spiritual truth. He sees how people will thoughtlessly scramble for the best seats, as if they deserve them. He knows how the high and mighty are often tempted by their own abilities and resources. They might start thinking they are better than everybody else. This distances them from their neighbors, and obscures the fact they are creatures. They go to a wedding banquet and forget that it’s not their party. Everybody is a guest! When we forget this simple truth, we may quickly discover there is a thin line between grace and disgrace.

Before he was even born, Jesus’ Momma sang about this. She attributed it to God’s justice: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (1:52-53).” The theme verse is this: “God’s mercy is for those who fear him (1:50).” Or to put it another way, “Watch where you sit.”

There is a mercy for all the people who honor God more than they honor themselves. This is the Gospel in our text. Today it would be enough to simply pause and name the truth of it. But Jesus doesn’t pause there, and neither do we. He keeps speaking of God’s kingdom as a party, as a blessed banquet. It’s a celebration full of bread and wine, where the main courses are forgiveness and joy. And he says it is a lavish feast!

Well, try to remember the last lavish feast you attended. You dressed up, took a gift, and looked for the little place card with your name on it. This time you sat where they told you to sit. You didn’t have any pretenses. But when you got home, there was the weight of obligation. Have to send out the thank you card. Better put them on the guest list for your next party. It can become this endless little circle, airtight and suffocating, always the same people saying the same droll things, comparing their last vacations, describing how successful their children have become, downplaying their peccadilloes, giggling together at the misfortunes of those at the very next table. You know, I think I’ve been to that party – what a complete and utter bore!

So you know what Jesus does? He’s sitting there at the Sabbath banquet at the house of a major religious leader. He taps his drinking glass with a dinner fork, and clears his throat. Then looking at his host, in a voice loud enough for the church to hear, he says something we should never forget: “Next time you feast, invite those who could not repay you. Invite the poor to a table with linen napkins. Welcome the crippled and the lame to a party that has forgotten them. Host the blind who cannot see what they are eating.”

You know why he said it? He said it because every last one of us is a guest at God’s Table. We don’t deserve the invitation, but we are included anyway. And the very grace that welcomes us must be passed along to everybody else.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Crooked Spine, Crippled Spirit

Luke 13:10-17
Ordinary 21
August 22, 2010
William G. Carter

"And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Luke is just as surprised as anybody: the woman appeared out of nowhere. She had not been noticed. Nobody had ever seen her. Once upon a time she had been somebody’s daughter. Perhaps she was still somebody’s mother. But for eighteen years or more she had been invisible.

She was bent over. She could not stand straight. Now, for the first time in her life, she appeared.

We don’t know her name. Jesus calls her “a daughter of Abraham,” so we know she is part of the family. But other than that, she had no name, no stated relationship, no other identification. All we know is she had spent eighteen long years staring at the floor. Every waking moment of the day, she watched one foot shuffle in front of the next.

In the day of Jesus, that’s what a lot of women did. Outside of the home, women were to make no eye contact with anybody other than their husbands. It was deemed improper. So this “Daughter of Abraham” could fulfill the neighborhood expectations. Her spine was bent forward in the shape of a capital C.

It’s hard for many of us to imagine what that was like, so let me invite you to try it out: lean over, hunch your shoulders, bury your chin, and look down. Don’t move your head from side to side – with your neck firmly fixed, look around. You can look to the right, you can look to the left – but you can never gaze ahead. At best you can catch a twisted glimpse of the man who is in front of you. All the time, an invisible weight is holding you down.

That’s how it was for her. Eighteen long years of it. She was out of sight. Invisible. Dependent on others for anything beyond sideways navigation. And one day, all of a sudden, she appears.

Leave it to Luke to mention that he sees her. If you read through his Gospel, you notice he has an eye for the women, particularly the women that nobody else notices. He tells of Elizabeth, ancient as the Old Testament, and every bit as pregnant as Abraham’s wife. He sings of mother Mary, and reveals what treasures are locked up in her heart alone. It is Luke who tells us that women traveled with Jesus and the twelve: Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others – and they sponsored his ministry out of their own purses (8:3).

Luke pays attention to all of them, and sees those whom the men ignore. He takes us to the kitchen in Bethany, where Martha is grinding out the hummus while her sister pays attention to Jesus. He sees the widow who supports the temple with two copper coins. After Jesus is condemned to death, he turns to a group of Luke’s women and tells them not to weep. Women stand guard at the cross after all the others have run away. In Luke’s account of Easter, women are the first to hear the angel’s sermon at the empty tomb. The men want to dismiss this “idle tale,” but their witness is vindicated.

It’s no surprise that he sees this bent-over woman in the synagogue. And he knows the argument that will be used against her healing. Three times already, Jesus has broken everybody’s expectations of the Sabbath. In Capernaum, he cast out a wild spirit that driving one man crazy (4:31-37), and while they bickered about it, he went next door to Simon’s house and shouted at a mother-in-law’s fever (4:38). On another Sabbath, he allowed his disciples to pick some grain and eat it (6:1-4). On yet another, he restored a withered man (6:6-10).

The religious rule-keepers saw what Jesus was doing, and their complaint was always the same: “there are six days when you shall do your work, and the seventh is a Sabbath rest before God.”

Now, I suppose there was actually a time in history when people actually kept that commandment. At least some of them did. As children, we were told in my house to sit still on Sunday and read the funny papers; God didn’t want us to work. Many of those days, I could see my mother carving the roast and leaning over the stove. Sometimes we were given some Sunday chores after dinner, while my dad did his homework for Monday work. It didn’t seem so restful.

Sabbath Rest is a selective discipline. Four summers ago, my wife and I found ourselves on the Isle of Lewis, off the coast of Scotland. On Sundays in Stornoway, everything shuts down. The Presbyterians dictate it. Margaret, the non-Presbyterian owner of our B & B, complained of the Sabbath when she dared to hang wet laundry on the line. After she returned inside the cottage, one of her pious neighbors sneaked over, took the wet laundry down and tossed it in a basket, so that Margaret would not be tempted to break the Sabbath by letting the sun do its work.

Later that same day, we were invited to the home of a local preacher. We had been pointed out to him as visitors. I don’t know how they knew – apart from my clerical collar and Jamie’s pant suit in a room full of dresses. The Good Reverend was a bit of an author, and had recently published a book on the proper ways to observe the Sabbath. I was pleased to receive a copy of the book. And then we were pleased as his wife brought in a large spread of jellies and scones that she had whipped up in her floral print dress.

Are you getting what I’m throwing here? Don’t believe for a minute that first century synagogue leaders had a corner on hypocrisy. Especially when it had to do with Sabbath keeping and their inability to see women as human beings.

If today is a Sabbath, how shall we keep the day? That’s the question. And it’s an important question because Sabbath is the essential character of God’s Kingdom.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who once wrote the definitive book on keeping Sabbath. He writes: “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone else.” (p. 14)

The Rabbi knew there is a battle going on in our lives. God claims our very lives, but there are forces that threaten to demean us, to enslave us, to bend us over nearly in two and beat us down. We don’t know what weight was on the shoulders of that previously unseen woman in the synagogue where Jesus taught. But something had twisted her like a pretzel. There she was – a child of God’s covenant, a daughter of Abraham – yet largely invisible to her neighbors, mostly unseen because of a lingering physical condition.

What she needed – what all of us need – is to hear the rest of the Sabbath commandment. The synagogue leader that day got the rule right, but he missed the reason for it. It’s true – Deuteronomy 6, verse 12 – “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the sevent day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” That’s the rule, but here’s the reason – Deuteronomy 6, verse 15 – “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

Sabbath is the day of freedom. Sabbath is the day when you tell Pharoah and his task masters, “I don’t belong to you any more.” Sabbath is the day when you stand up straight, and you look square in the eye every counterfeit power that would try to bend you in half. Sabbath is the day, says John Calvin, when you rest from your labor so that the God who saves you can do good work in you. Sabbath is the day, the regular returning day, lifts you high with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

This is why we keep the Sabbath, and this is how we keep it: the God of Israel frees us in Jesus Christ. God frees us from every demeaning force that would try to make us less than human. And so, Jesus the Lord declares, “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

There are eighty-five ways to slip back into bondage, maybe eighty-six . . . so the Sabbath is given to us as a gift of freedom here and now, and as a rehearsal for the Kingdom that Christ is establishing. To quote again Rabbi Heschel, “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. Sad is the lot of (the one) who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath.” (p. 74)

And what is the beauty? That the God of Sarah and Abraham loves us, claims us, sets us free from every oppression, straightens our crooked spirits to live in complete praise and joy. I don’t know how you planned to spend this day, this Sabbath day, but I invite you to let it release you from ever twisted power that would otherwise demean you.

For the Sabbath is the day that the Lord has made, to the end that we hear how much God loves us, learn what God calls us to be, and discover what God empowers us to do.

I like a story that a friend tells. A little girl lived in a small country town, far from the situations you and I take for granted. It was just a few years ago, but it was one of those towns where driving down Center Street is like driving back into the thirties. She lived in a little house and went to a small school. She had loving folks and, from time to time, a good teacher. But the way she was growing up was not the way you would want your little girl to grow up. She had a cleft palate and the money for the repair wasn’t there. By the time she was seven, she knew how cruel the world was. She heard the phrase, “Only a mother could love that” and she understood it.

One day a special teacher visited the school and put the children through some basic speech tests. When it was her turn, the little girl went into the classroom that had been set aside for the exams. “Just stand over there by the door,” the teacher said from her desk at the far end of the room. “I want to test your hearing first. Turn your back, face the door and tell me what you hear me say.”

“Apple,” the teacher said in a low voice. “Apple,” the little girl repeated.

“Man,” the teacher said. “Man,” the little girl repeated.

“Banana.” “Banana.”

“Okay,” the teacher said, “Now a sentence.” The child knew that the sentences where usually fairly easy—she wasn’t the first child to take the test, after all. She’d heard you could expect something like, “The sky is blue” or “Are your shoes brown?” Still, she listened very carefully.

So it was, that with her face against the door, she heard the teacher’s whisper quite clearly, “I wish you were my little girl.” (Thanks to Jana Childers for the story!)

This is how God sees us: as daughters and son. We are precious, not because we are good or perfect or completely straight; we are precious because we are loved.

And this is the day, the best day of the week, when we live that truth from the top of our head right down to the soles of our feet.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, August 15, 2010

When Jesus Divides the House

Luke 12:49-56
August 15, 2010
Ordinary 20
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Today’s Scripture text comes from the lectionary. I didn’t choose it. In fact, I have been trying to protect you from it for a very long time. That’s why I have never preached on it in twenty-five years. Come to think of it, I probably should have extended my summer vacation.

Our passage is a surly little set of verses. We don’t know what sets off Jesus, but something has done it. After shouting at his disciples for wanting to blast a Samaritan village with heavenly fire (9:55), now Jesus announces he has come to bring fire to the earth. After inviting the twelve disciples to chill out, to consider the lilies and enjoy the carefree birds, he immediately announces that he is stressed out to get baptized – even though he was baptized nine chapters before.

The heart of the text is a rant against families, from Jesus the Home-Wrecker: “Don’t think for a minute that I came to bring peace; I have come to bring division.”

I imagine the Middle American Christian Family, or MAC Family, arriving for church this morning. All of them emerge from the same car - - three children, a mom and a dad. And Jesus starts in: “I’m going to split you, three against two, and two against three.” Is he having a bad day?

Not long from now, I plan to visit my dad and see if I can help him catch on a few things around his house. So it is somewhat disturbing to come to church today and hear Jesus say, "I have come to set a man against his father."

In a time when parents take their children off to college, we know how fraught the moment is with emotional energy. Nevertheless it is ominous to hear the Lord say, “I have come to set a daughter against her mother, and he mother against her daughter.”

It sounds like Jesus is standing against the family. If you're like me, you don't want to hear that. We want the church to encourage family members to get along, to bring people closer together, especially if they live under the same roof, to be an advocate for unity, not division. Yet Jesus says the very purpose of his mission is not to stop family fights, but to start them.

I confess I've spent most of this week trying to find a way help us swallow these words, but I couldn't find a way to do it without causing indigestion.

I notice, for instance, that Jesus speaks only of son against father, daughter against mother, and perhaps most logically, daughter-in-law against mother in law. It's a short list. For instance, Jesus doesn't speak of husband against wife or neighbor against enemy. No, Jesus draws upon a list from the prophet Micah (7:5-7).
He points to a division between generations: children against parents, parents against children. One generation shall stand against another. Your enemies shall live in your own house.

The hard truth today is Jesus Christ our Lord is the cause of this great conflict.

Now I realize people of different generations often spend time beneath the same roof, even if they come and go at different hours. In many cases, we get along. We co-exist, we even like one another. So it is harsh to think Christ comes to divide, separate, and set people against one another.

If this is true, I'm going to have to throw away next year's Christmas cards. I got them on sale during the week before New Year's. They have a picture of blue angels singing about the coming of Jesus into our world. The messages are cheerful: "Joy to the world. Peace on earth." I may have to throw those cards away, because that is only one part of the Christmas story. There's another part, too -- after the baby Jesus was born, his mother took him to the temple. She wanted to present him before God, just as scripture told her to do. While she was there, an old man named Simeon shuffled up to her. He peeked into that blue blanket, and praised the Lord for what he saw. And he said, "This child is destined for the rising and falling of many . . . and Mary, because of this child, a sword will pierce your own soul too." (Luke 2:25-35) From our house to years, "Have a Divisive Christmas."

Jesus was born into this world; and his own family was not exempt from the sword. If anybody should have had a happy home life, it should have been Jesus. If anybody should have lived to a ripe old life with his parents, it should have been Jesus. But that's not how the story goes, and he knew it.

For he said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace; I have come to bring division."

The more these words sink in, the more I think to myself: how did he know? Our world has been visited by the Son of God, and his visit has created all kinds of problems. Just when we were touched by grace, sin grabbed hold and didn't let go. Just when we saw glimpses of unity, division disrupted our better intentions. Just when we thought we knew the way beyond hatred, a sword started swinging.

How did Jesus know? How did he know that, in the year 1850, forty-six members of the Presbyterian church in Owego, New York marched out the door to form their own church down the street? Apparently one Sunday morning, the Presbyterian minister dared to pray for slaves. A lot of church members got upset about that and they screamed at the minister. Then, in turn, those forty-six members got upset with the people who got upset with the minister. So in the name of Christ they left and began a Congregational church one block away.

How did Jesus know? How did he know that, just a week ago, a teenager would crawl through a church window in Carbondale, sneak into the sanctuary, and steal a chalice full of communion wafers? They were transubstantiated leftovers. The Catholic officials said that theft desecrated the whole church and they had to purify it. A neighboring Baptist said, “There go the Catholics; you would have thought Jesus could take care of himself.” Christian denominations are divided. They are divided because of Jesus.

He said it would be like this. How did Christ know that the people who follow him always seem to be at one another's throats? Get two or three Christians together, and you have four or five different opinions. Study a difficult topic in light of our faith, and tempers will flare and voices will raise. Work toward a consensus, plow some common ground, find a shared vocabulary, and someone will certainly wag a finger and say, "You're wrong."

This past week, I have met good Christian people who are offended when Muslims wish to build one more mosque in Manhattan. Other good Christian people are offended at those who are offended.

It comes with the territory. Sometimes it’s our own tendency to tear apart rather than stitch up together. We prefer to draw lines in the sand. Choose up sides. Affirm our own correctness. We want to pick up our own swords rather than carry the cross given to us.

In a sermon that a friend preached, he said a line I have never forgotten: "Some believe the heretic is the man who gets burned at the stake; more likely the heretic is the one off to the side who fans the fire."

So I'm starting to understand why Jesus had to say, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace; I have come to bring division." He comes, and the division begins within ourselves. It doesn’t start between us – the division starts within us. And we discover that we have to decide if Jesus Christ really is who we believe him to be.

• For he knew that the best way to create dissension, difficulty, and strife was to start loving everybody. Yet he kept loving.
• He understood that the quickest way to disturb a close group of friends was to invite an outsider to join them for supper. Yet he kept inviting.
• He realized that the fastest way to divide a house was to treat everybody fairly, to consider everybody equally,to forgive everybody without any desire to get even or to keep score. Yet that was the cross he chose to carry. And it's the cross he hands over to us.

Did you think any of this Christianity stuff is easy? Of course not. It’s true, and it gives us life, but it’s certainly not easy.

For Jesus taught them, saying, "Love your neighbor. Do not judge. Go an extra mile. Make peace with your accuser." And in response, a large crowd of thugs came out against him with clubs and swords. One of his own disciples pulled out a sword and came out swinging.

Jesus said, "Put your sword back; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." And somebody said, "But Jesus, you said it yourself: you came to bring a sword."

Well, he swings a different kind of sword than we might think. I remember a picture from the early church. It's a portrait of Jesus from the book of Revelation. The poet envisions Jesus with pure white hair as a sign of holiness. His eyes are like fire, as a symbol of fierce love. In his hand he holds seven stars, as a sign of power. And from his mouth (what else?) comes a sharp, two-edged sword. That is how Jesus divides – through the word that he continues to speak. When he speaks, the house is divided – and his word cuts through.

I can't speak for you, but I am not always sure I want that. If I take Jesus seriously, I will have to change who I am. I recognized my own unfinished business. I know all too well the unredeemed corners of my life. I have an elaborate defense system that protects me from every unwelcome intrusion. And I recognize that I don't God to get that close . . . even though the one thing I want more than anything else is for God to get that close.

"I have come to bring division," he says. Try as I might. I cannot defend myself against those words. I can only respond to them. And I know what that would mean.

o With a word of truth, the Lord divides my life into true and false.
o With a word of health, the Savior separates us from all that is sick and pathological.
o With a word that demands a life and death commitment, he trims away every lazy allegiance, every partial affirmation, every half-hearted hope. Thus he displays one more time that he is the Living Lord of our lives.

As one New Testament preacher puts it,

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

The question is: do I really want to be exposed like that? Can I let the Risen Lord cut that close? Am I willing to let a living God make a difference in my life? Am I willing to love him more than anything or anybody? Am I willing to trust him enough that I would lose my life for his sake?

If our faith is real and alive, we know that these are the questions that we live with. Even when we think we answered them before, they return. Because he speaks a living word that divides us from all that is false, deadly, and destructive – a living word that brings us alive and steadily transforms us into a new creation.

All it takes is a simple "yes" . . . and a laying down of arms. Then the transformation can begin.

I can't tell you how it's going to go. I doubt that it's going to be easy. But I can tell you one thing for sure. When the Lord gets to work in our lives, when he demands our absolute commitment, when he calls for the fullness of our love, the place where he always begins is the place closest to home.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Maintaining a Light Grip

Luke 12:32-40
Ordinary 19
August 8, 2010
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The picture is in my hallway at home. We found it in an antique store in Massachusetts. From the moment I saw it in the window I heard it call out to me. Here’s what it looks like: a young shepherd hugs a little lamb, with these words inscribed from Jesus: “Fear not, little flock. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you a kingdom”

It’s usually hung right there on the wall, right in the middle of our comings and goings. It offers a word of comfort in the crossroads of our front hallway. Whenever I give it a glimpse, I am reminded of the promise of Jesus in our text. God takes “good pleasure” in providing the kingdom to us.

We have been talking about this kingdom through the summer. It is a new dominion, a network of shalom. And in God’s good pleasure, Jesus gives us one invitation after another to live in this new realm, to stake out heaven on earth. Today he maps out two more ways to claim the kingdom: by voluntary downsizing and radical generosity. As he commands us, “Sell your possessions and give alms.” Then he adds, “Make yourselves purses that never wear out.”

I saw you squirm over there – I’ll bet you think this is going to be a stewardship sermon. In the broadest possible sense it is. But I’m not sure “stewardship” is the right word. The better word is probably “generosity.” In fact, sometimes, late at night, I get this crazy idea that we ought to rename our “Stewardship Committee” as the “Generosity Committee.” Generosity is the name of the game.

Presbyterians like that word “stewardship” because it sounds like we are in charge of what we have, that we have oversight, that we use proper caution. Presbyterians love the word “caution.” That’s why we can be lousy stewards. But the better word is “Generosity.” That is the Kingdom Behavior: to give freely, joyfully, without restriction, without the restraints of caution. We unclench our grip on what God has given to us, and the gifts fall into the hands of those who need them most.
That’s what Jesus is talking about. The evidence that we belong to a Generous God is that we act generously ourselves. So he says: “Sell your possessions, give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out.”

Nobody is born to do this. It goes against all of our natural tendencies. The world teaches a selfish lesson that goes like this: if we want it, we should grab it. If we grab it, we should keep it. If we keep it, we must increase it. The assumption is that it is ours, all ours. And it is so seductive that it can suffocate us.

I came across a poem by Tom Disch. The title says it all: “The Garage Sale as a Spiritual Exercise.” Listen:

Once someone loved this piece of junk
If only for a moment at the mall
With its wrappings intact
And its price so much reduced.
You need me, it whispered,
And he couldn’t disagree.
So he bought it, the way he bought
Everything he’d ever been sold,
In the belief that it would do the job.
And it did, for the longest time,
And never broke down or wore out
And in fact has outlasted him.
Because here it is, a sickly blue,
In the basement of the Methodist Church,
And not it means to have you.
You sneer at it and think: No way.
You can see only its tackiness,
The virus invisible back at the mall
Which now blots out all its viable features
Like triumphant acne. You don’t see
The years of loving drudgery,
The promises fulfilled.
It needs you now, don’t turn away.
Take it to the lady and ask what it costs.
Don’t be proud. Remember the Beatitudes
And who gets into the kingdom of heaven. (The Gospel in Our Image, p. 81)

Who gets in, you will recall, are the “poor in spirit.” Or as Luke defines them, “the poor.” God’s beloved are those who go without, by choice or by discipline. They are the ones who know that blue trinkets do not sustain our lives.

Given the choice, we might prefer the lies of the world: if we want it, we should grab it. If we grab it, we should keep it. If we keep it, we must increase it. Sometimes we will spend it only if we think we can gain more.

Somebody was telling me recently that local bus service to Atlantic City isn’t what it used to be. Once there were firty-five buses a day from Wilkes Barre to the boardwalk at Atlantic City. Now there’s only one. Anybody want to guess why? Nobody is going to take a bus to a casino three and a half hours away when we have two casinos in our backyard.

I heard that, and I wondered why anybody would want to go to a casino anyway. Is it because they are generous people and want to make a large donation to organized slime? Probably not. They go because there may be the chance, the slim chance, that they could make more money themselves. For a lot of people, it becomes an addiction, a vain dream to increase one’s income. More important than spending their paycheck on food.

Today we hear Jesus say, “Give your money away.” That’s crazy. That’s counter-intuitive. It doesn’t make sense right away.

He says this, of course, in light of the surrounding verses that God comes without any suggestion. It’s like the person who returns from the wedding banquet. Don’t know how long the party will go – but he will return at any time. He might be out all night – you never know – but he will come back. So stay on your toes!

Jesus says it’s like a thief who breaks into your house. If you knew the time and day of the burglary, you could be ready. You could defend yourself from that larceny. But God is a Burglar who lifts the window when you’re not looking. Suddenly everything is up for grabs.

I’m not sure about the direct connections between these texts, by the way. One minute Jesus speaks of giving away money. Next second he says that God will break into your house.

But it does remind me of the parable that Bob Young didn’t preach on last week. He had the good sense to leave it alone, and so he left it for me. It is the parable a few verses before our text. It speaks of money and possessions, and it speaks of God’s abrupt arrival.

Once upon a time, says Jesus, there was a man who didn’t have enough closet space. So he built some barns to store some stuff. That’s the parable. It’s a joke. I bet they roared with laughter when they heard that one. Want to know what’s so funny? The average house in Capernaum, the town where Jesus lived, was about fifteen feet by fifteen feet. It was quite comfortable for a family of six (mom, pop, two kids, and the in-laws). Jesus says there’s this crazy guy who has so much stuff that he needs to build barns to store it. Isn’t that ridiculous?

Not only that, says Jesus. He had so much stuff that he tore down his barns and built bigger barns. In a country full of first-century peasants, that is absurd. That’s insane. No one can have that much stuff. No one!

Well, maybe I do; I am thinking about building more closets. I want to hide my stuff so it doesn’t look like I have too much stuff. I recently went over to my favorite new store, Ollie’s Junk Emporium. Ollie’s specializes in all the overstock stuff that they can’t move at Big Lots. So I went to Ollie’s and bought two books on Storage Solutions for Dummies.

Well, what does that man do in Jesus’ story do? He talks to himself. Of course he does. He has to talk to himself, because he has excluded himself from his neighbors. It was a matter of necessity. In downtown Capernaum, one fifteen by fifteen hut was next door to another 15 by 15 hut; they shared an exterior wall. And there was another 15 by 15 hut on the other side, and another directly behind it. So if he had so much stuff that he needed to build some huge barns to store it, that meant he had to move out of town. He had to move away from his neighbors because he had so much stuff. Of course he could only talk to himself.

And what he said was, “Self, I need more storage space. I need a bigger silo.” This guy was rich, and isolated, insulated, detached from his neighbors, all because he had too much stuff.

Then comes the punch line: his life is interrupted by God. Suddenly all those barns full of stuff do not matter very much. He miscalculated what is important. Jesus calls him an idiot. Reba McIntire would call him “a mo-ron.” To think he was stashing all he had - - out of fear.

We have an unpredictable God. The problem with an unpredictable God is simply this: no amount of cash, no amount of real estate, no amount of goods can ever insulate anybody from God. God loves us enough to want our full and complete attention.

Oh, I know: people skip out of church sometimes because they have so much property. And they need to take care of their property, especially in the summer. So it tugs them away from worshiping God, from serving God, from releasing and announcing the good news of God. That’s why Jesus says you can’t worship God and worship your stuff. You got to pick one. You can worship only one.

That’s why the Torah spoke of the Jubilee. Every seven years, you give your fields a year off – a Sabbath of rest, a Sabbatical. And every seven-times-seven years, you take all the land you have bought and sold, and you return it to the original owners. That was the Jubilee Year. You can read about it in Leviticus 25. It was God’s original way to remind the faithful of Israel that the land never really belonged to them. Promised Land came as a gift from God. So you received it, used it, gave it a periodic rest. You worked it, produced from it, shared from it. And one day, the moment came when you handed all of it back. This was God’s Holy Commandment for the Jubilee Year, the fiftieth year.

Walter Brueggemann, the great scholar, says there was never any proof that Israel actually did this. The Law was in the Book, but, well, you know what kind of excuses we make: what’s mine is mine, and God didn’t really mean what he said, and well, you know, all of us have to make a living, and make up every excuse you can, to ignore what God has taught us for our own welfare.

To live for God’s Kingdom is to maintain a light grip. To be ready at any time to let goods and kindred go. And we keep a light grip on our money and possessions, not because we are afraid of God, but because we love God, because we trust God.

We give alms (and make offerings), not because we are nice people who wish to share our spare change with the needy, but because the money is not ours to begin with. Money is merely a collection paper and discs of metal which we infuse with value. We use it to provide food and shelter. Sometimes we stockpile it to provide security and hope. But the day is coming – or is it the day of the Lord that is coming – when all of us will learn the big faith lesson that everything comes from God, and everything returns to God.

This is the financial secret of God and the Kingdom. The blessed ones are those who hang onto God as their treasure. They trust that what they need will be provided as daily bread. And if they find themselves with more than they need, they refuse to let it lure them into selfishness. Woe if God should come by surprise and expose them as morons.

Attitudes about money and possessions reveal a lot about what we believe, whom we love, and where we place our trust. It is a parlor game in some homes to see how much they can acquire. If there isn’t enough closet space, they will build a home the size of a barn. And sometimes people start believing they are better than the people around them, simply because they have more than their neighbors.

You may know the formula: more stuff, more money, more education, more vehicles, more clothing equals better persons. It is so tempting that they will vote for politicians who subtly promise them a bigger income. Some will take a grocery bag of quick cash even if it pollutes their neighbor’s drinking water. And they end up talking only to themselves, having moved outside the city limits of God’s Kingdom. There’s a New Testament word for such people: mo-rons.

Heaven, by contrast, is a commune, where everybody is equal and everything is shared. The water is free. Everybody is well fed. The only person who is better than the rest of us is the one with nail holes in his hands and calluses on his knees. We might not even notice him because he tends to blend in.

Nevertheless, Jesus is our treasure. He wants to rule our hearts. But he can only gain our hearts if we loosen our clutches on the very things he has given us. You see, in the kingdom of Jesus, only one thing makes us rich. Know what it is? It’s generosity. Generosity makes us rich. We learn that from Jesus himself, for he gives away everything. That’s why he is our treasure.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved