Sunday, September 26, 2010

Real Life

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Ordinary 26
September 26, 2010
William G. carter

They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

They are shelling out big bucks to hear a woman by the name of Joyce Meyer. She’s one of those TV preachers, and some folks here might have seen or heard her. She is well known. When Joyce Meyer puts on one of her teaching conferences, it is cast as a tent revival in a convention center. She recently took over an auditorium in Saint Louis, and her organization sold four thousand hotel rooms. Most of the people who came were women. They heard her speak about this and that. Her main topic is how the Christian life results in prosperity. You heard me correctly. If you follow the biblical principles that Joyce teaches, you will become affluent and rich. God will bless you by giving you more money.

Now, it’s really interesting to me that such a message would be so popular in a time of economic difficulty. People are willing to shell out $60 a seat to hear how they, too, can become rich. And when each hour-long presentation concludes, they flock to her merchandise tables to buy Joyce Meyer’s DVDs at $20 a piece. Or they buy downloadable MP3 files to enjoy on a morning walk. The people at each of the St. Louis merchandise tables are three-deep, all of them ready to consume her message, and learn how you too can follow the Lord Jesus Christ and gain a full pocket book.

I pick on her because she is not an isolated phenomenon. Since Wall Street’s semi-meltdown in the last months of President Bush’s term, lots of Christian-types have been stepping up and preaching this kind of thing. “Follow the Lord Jesus Christ and it will pad your wallet.” Tithe and you will be blessed ten-fold – that’s why you tithe, right? To get the money back ten-fold.

This is not a new phenomenon. There’s some of this floating around in the First letter to Timothy. Before we ever get to the text for today, Paul says that the bishops of the church should not be “lovers of money,” and the deacons should not “be greedy.” And immediately in the verses before our text, Paul warns against the wacky Bible teachers of his own day, particularly those, he says, “who imagine that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Tim 6:5). They will tell you whatever you want to hear, in order to gain a profit.

The underlying assumption is this: more money will make you more happy. A lot of us live by that. At least one person I know posted on Facebook this week, “I wish I was a billionaire.” Well, don’t we all? Don’t we wish that each one of us was a billionaire. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, indeed, if every person we know could be a billionaire. It could repair poor roads, improve tough schools, and pay off college tuition bills (I am thinking about that a lot, for some reason.) All of this swirls around. Here’s the assumption: if I could get money, even if it’s at the expense of other people, than I won’t have the same difficulties that they do.

In the late part of the first century, some people were coming along and saying, “You know, this has been a strand in Jewish thinking.” For instance, there’s a verse in the Psalms that says, “I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (37:25). If you take God seriously, things will go well for you.

And we would like to believe it: the Christian faith promotes a generosity of spirit, and says we should expect that generosity from God. If I show up for worship, my life will improve, right? If I keep praying, all my worries – particularly my financial worries – will drop away.

I may regret saying this, but I will say it anyway: nothing is ever as easy as the preachers would want us to believe. Write that one down in the margin of your worship bulletin. Nothing is ever as easy as the preachers would want us to believe.

For one thing, riches are unpredictable. Can any American doubt that in 2010? Paul knew it at the end of the first century, and the Jews knew it and wrote that down in their Bibles, too. The apostle quotes from the book of Ecclesiastes, written a few hundred years before him: “As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. This is also a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; what gain do they have from toiling for the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 5:15-16)

500 years ago, John Calvin could declare, on behalf of all the Calvinists who would follow him, that hard work produces its own reward. According to Calvin and his bunch, a full day of work is what we need to put in, so that idleness would never taint our spirits. If we don’t have enough to do, or if we are between jobs, keep at it. There is always something to do – a neighbor to assist, a home to improve, a skill to develop. Hard work produces its rewards.

But where this thinking has always gotten foggy has been in the attempts to connect such rewards to faith in Jesus Christ. Like I said, things are never as easy as the preachers would want us to believe.

Paul joins the conversation at this point. He is instructing Timothy to scratch below the surface of these causal connections between God’s love and financial blessing. There is no simplistic connection. He reminds Timothy of the same theme he has developed throughout this entire letter: that there is a quality of life that is independent of how well off we are, or how financially settled we are. He calls it “the life that really is life.” Or to be blunt about it -- “real life.” That is what the Gospel of the Living Christ offers us: real life.

It’s worth reflecting on what real life might be. What does it look like? A couple of weeks ago, David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times. “The first decade of the 21st century will come to be known as the great age of headroom,” he said. People have built enormous houses and driven oversized cars. As he describes a town like Clarks Summit, the rule seems to be the Smaller the Woman, the Larger the Car. He writes, “So you would see a 90-pound lady in tennis whites driving a 4-ton truck with enough headroom to allow her to drive with her doubles partner perched atop her shoulders. When future archeologists dig up the remains of that epoch, they will likely conclude that sometime around 1996, the U.S. was afflicted by a plague of claustrophobia and drove itself bankrupt in search of relief.”

That approach doesn’t seem to be working for many of us. Not any more, if it ever did. And it raises the question, “What is real life?” In Paul writes to Timothy, he sets up a checklist. Food and clothing, check; they are good. Temptation, trapped by senseless desires, not so good. Love of God and contentment with what God gives, those are good. The love of money, that’s the root of all evil. Righteousness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness, put them on your list of good pursuits. Wandering away from the faith and piercing yourselves with many pains, not a good idea.

What is the life that really is life? I’m at the point in my life where I notice how all my high school classmates are turning out. I think of two different women that I had eleventh grade crushes on. One went to nursing school, married a software engineer, now lives in a 5100 square-foot house in the suburbs. Another went to nursing school, heard the call to the mission field, and started a health mission in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Both of them are Christians, but I’m guessing real life is different for each of them. The first one is very settled, has everything in place, and wants to vote for politicians who will protect all of that. The other has taken great risks for Jesus. Her eyes are crinkled from smiling so much; the first one looks very weary.

Or I know two different guys from the high school band, both of them from the trumpet section. They went to the same college to study Music Education. One of them married a girl in my church youth group, produced three kids, started a jazz band, taught in a high school, and then abandoned his home in midlife for a series of one-night stands. The other got a job in an elementary school, has stayed there for twenty-three years, and still jumps out of bed to keep teaching those kids. He also plays the keyboards and sings for weekly mass. Is there a connection between faith and reliability?

Paul says to Timothy, “Look around! Pay attention to the pursuits of the people around you.” Pretty soon, the truth of their lives will be revealed. If all a person does is chase after money, they may get what they pursue, but they won’t have much of a life. Maybe that’s why some of the unhappiest people I have ever met are those touched everything and it turned to gold. I have to wonder why that is.

And then there’s that monk in the New Mexico monastery. He walked away from a successful and lucrative career as an engineer. He gave up all his stuff and signed it over to the abbot. Why? He said, “All my success was killing me. It robbed me of everything and everybody I loved.” So he gave up everything but God, and devoted himself to a life of prayer. These days he just glows with the Holy Spirit.

Or that family in D’Iberville, Mississippi. I went on one of our mission trips. The organizers gave me a clipboard when they discovered I was no good with a hammer. They pointed me down the street and said, “Go talk to people, and listen to their stories.” One man invited me into the house he had gutted. Nine family members were living in that house when Hurricane Katrina hit it. The governor of Mississippi had banked this guy’s relief money and forgotten to send it. But somehow the man wasn’t bitter. He said, “We lost everything, but we have one another, and most important, the Lord still has us.” His face lit up when I mentioned I was a preacher, and he told me to sit down so we could talk about scripture. Is there a connection between his faith and his life? A life that really is life?

I think there is a connection, and it’s never as easy as any preacher wants us to believe. But the ancient insights of this New Testament letter raises the question of what we really value.

To the person who wants to be a billionaire, let me ask: “What would you do with all of that money?” Would you get a big house, build a tall fence, install a security system to keep your stuff safe? And would you spend every night worrying that people valued you only for your money? What kind of life is that?

And when I hear about Joyce Meyer, charging people $60 a seat, and lying to them that Jesus wants them to be rich, and then she flies on to her next speech on a ten million dollar private jet, I want to call it for what it is: it is an unholy pyramid scheme. It makes the very richest get richer at the expense of everybody else, all under the umbrella of “free enterprise.” What kind of life is that? It reminds me of the fortune cookie that my friend Andy opened one day at lunch. He cracked it open and found the ancient wisdom in four words: “Greed leads to poverty.”

By contrast, Timothy is given the Christian charge. Paul writes, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather to set their hopes on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

And then Paul speaks this charge as well: “Do good, be rich in good works, be generous and ready to share.” This is the invitation for every baptized person, every week, every day. We do not live only for ourselves. We live for God and God’s entire world. That is the good life. That is the real life. When we look at the bank statement, we may have a lot or we may have a little. But when you get right down to it, here is the truth. We are only as good as the good that we do.

Do good. Be rich in good works. Be generous and ready to share. This is how we store up “the treasure of a good foundation for God’s future.” This is how we “take hold of the life that really is life.”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Praying for Everyone

1 Timothy 2:1-7
Ordinary 25
September 19, 2010
William G. Carter

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone...

Years ago, I visited a church and met an older lady with uncommon eyes. They were luminous, glowing, in a color that I could only describe as periwinkle. That’s not a color most of us would know. We would have to find it again in the crayon box. Periwinkle is a cross of blue and grey. Her eyes had a touch of grey, suggesting wisdom, and blue, signifying clarity and concern. She carried herself with an uncommon dignity and grace. There was some special quality to her character. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

The short conversation ended, and we moved on. I turned and looked over my shoulder at her again, and my host noticed this. He said, “She’s something, isn’t she?” What do you mean? And he said, “That’s Caroline. She’s always praying. In fact, she has probably been praying for you since she met you.”

There is a special quality of grace that gets lived out by people who pray. As we spoke last week, Paul is discussing grace, and the way it works itself in people’s lives. Grace is the power of God that changes us. Some of the change has to do with character, specifically in the concern we show for others. In the opening line of today’s text, a mature Christian says to a young church leader, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.” Or as somebody else translates this, “Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know.”

We are talking together this fall about the riches of the Christian Gospel. God bequeaths certain treasures to those who love Jesus. It is a spiritual inheritance, passed from one generation to the next. The treasure for us today is prayer.

Now, we pray a lot on Sunday mornings. There’s a prayer of confession, where we name our human brokenness and ask for God’s healing. Before we hear the scriptures, we have a prayer for illumination, because we need God to turn on the lights and give us understanding. Right after the offering , there is a prayer of thanksgiving, as we offer our lives, our money, and our talents in response to God’s grace. And if you take a good look at the songs we sing, most of them are offered as prayers: we praise our Maker, we ask for guidance and help

But it’s a special kind of prayer that is commended to Timothy, the young Christian: it’s “praying for everyone.” Technically speaking, this is a kind of prayer called intercession. In our text, it is a noun unique to the First Letter of Timothy: enteuxis. It has to do with a “coming together.” Some would translate it as “an interview.” It’s the meeting of hearts, minds, and spirits as we express concern for other people to the God who hears us all.

When “enteuxis” becomes a verb, it is defined as the work of a priest. The priest is the one who oversees the meeting between God and all people. And the priest offers up prayers for everybody. The New Testament regards all of us as priests in this way. We offer up prayers for one another, as the priesthood of all believers. That’s what “intercession” is all about. That’s what it means to “intercede” for those around us. We do the priestly work of praying for one another.

Now, I don’t know what happens when we close our eyes. But the text today suggests that when we pray, we are undertaking a ministry that moves in two ways. First, prayer looks high toward God’s kingdom, looking for it to come to earth as God reigns in heaven. Second, prayer looks low. It is a primary way for us to perceive the needs, the hopes, and the possibilities of broken and unfinished human lives. We lift them before a God who lives in the future, knowing that God can step into the present, and bring the healing that his beloved children need.

Some think that, by praying, they can change God. Maybe so. There are a few places in the scriptures where it suggests this might happen. More frequently, however, prayer changes us. As we pray, it affects some kind of difference in our character. If we pray for the poor, sooner or later we start working for their behalf. If we pray with thanks for the people here, there, and around us, pretty soon we speak compliments to their faces. If we pray for direction, as time passes, the direction opens before us, and we trust this new path is God’s gift. It’s the praying that changes us.

This is one way that God works out grace within us: by calling us to pray, by inviting us to pray, not only for ourselves, but for others, whether we know them or not. The writer of this letter says, “Pray for the kings and queens, for the generals of the world, for the public officials and the presidents.” That strikes some as strange.

I remember somebody saying to me once, in no uncertain terms, that she wasn’t going to pray for our president. She didn’t like him. I’m not going to tell you which president it was. That doesn’t matter. We talked about it, and I decided to risk losing our friendship. “You know,” I said, “I’m not sure we can grow up in the Christian life unless we get to the point where we pray for everybody, even those we do not like.” She wasn’t convinced, at least not for a while.

The Bible lets us listen in on Jesus as he prays. He prays for the people who love him, then he prays for the people who hate him. On the cross, he even prays for the people who put him there. “Father, forgive them,” he prays, “for they are clueless.” Personally, let me say that gives me a great deal of hope.

Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies. This is a unique teaching of our Lord. What separates us should never define us. As we develop a concern for our sisters and brothers, we also lift that concern before God. If we pray only those we like, for those we admire, only those we love, what good will that do in moving ahead with God’s kingdom? So we pray for everybody. That’s the invitation. In a remarkable line from our text, “God has the desire to save everybody.” Not those who are like us, but those who are different. God’s grace is for every single person, each one made in the divine image.

So it is that regular prayer for other people, other situations, even for our enemies, expands our understanding of God’s work and God’s love. We should never play it safe when we pray, withholding those matters from God that we should trouble him with. Rather we lay our hearts completely open, and speak of the concerns that matter most. If we keep doing that, sometimes we have our eyes opened to see more of what God is doing in the world.

A woman named Courtney was angry with her ex-husband. Tom had dumped her for a younger woman, acting as impulsively as their own courtship had begun. Then his new relationship began to have troubles. The ex-wife found herself praying for him. She didn’t do it because she liked him or wanted him back. She prayed because they had once shared their lives for twenty-seven years. She knew him well enough to know his bad habits. She could also read his face when he was hurting. This gave her grave concern for him as a person, so she prayed for him. No one was around when she did it. Their grown children would have protested, “Mom, what are you doing? Let him clean up his own messes.”

But she prayed from a distance. Boundaries were still clear; she had no interested in dropping by to visit him with a kiss or a casserole. But she prayed for him, imagining that she was gently lifting Tom into the light of God’s presence. She didn’t have all the right words, and she didn’t need the words. In time, their grown kids took her cue. They showed some kindness to their wayward father. Tom softened, and calmed down. The new marriage had its troubles, and eventually it ended. But somehow another deeper kind of reconciliation began. God was using all of this prayer to make something fresh and new. When the dust settled, everybody had become different people.

Praying will change us. That’s not why we do it. Prayer is not a means of self-improvement. But it is a way of inviting the Spirit of God to work in somebody else’s life – and in our own. God can cleanse us. God can begin to mend what is broken. We gain a deeper sense of God’s justice, of how God can set some things right. This becomes clearer as we pray, as we push in the clutch and engage the gears in our souls.

This is one of the secret treasures of Christian faith, known only by those who keep praying. If we pray for other people, it will push us beyond our selfishness. Sometimes we get stuck, whining about our own needs, whimpering that God isn’t doing enough about us. When that happens, perhaps we should start praying for others around us, beginning with those who are most affected by the matters that causes us to whine. As we keep praying, we can begin to see the large scale map of human brokenness. And we also begin to see how we ourselves could contribute to some tangible, specific solutions.

Consistent prayer for other people will lift us out of our own isolation. It will push us beyond our cautious withdrawal from others and their troubles. It will build bridges. It will enlarge hearts. And others don’t even need to know that we are praying for them. But we know. And God keeps working in all of it.

This kind of prayer is not as complicated as some would think. You don’t need a lot of flowery language. Don’t need to worry about having the right words. Don’t even need any words at all.

In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson suggests a process for praying for others, and words aren’t necessary:

First: relax and breathe gently. Become aware of God’s presence, and imagine it as light and warmth. Allow this glory to fill your consciousness.

Next, when we are in God’s presence we are not alone. We are there with all God’s children held in the divine embrace. Choose one of those children who has a need for healing of body, mind, or heart.

Next, lift this person into God’s light. Visualize God’s love bathing the person, and gently penetrating defenses, dissolving pain, cleansing wounds. Use any images that see appropriate: dark becoming light, ice melting, confusion ordered.

See the person in a state of wholeness in God’s light, newly created, fresh and beautiful as seen through the eyes of divine love.

Ask God that this beauty be fully realized according to God’s design for this person. Thank God for whatever gift of healing is given. Release the person into God’s care until you pray again.

As Marjorie says, this kind of prayer tutors us to use our imagination more actively. We begin to visualize restored relationships. We “see” old animosities dissolve. It’s not trying to manufacture results, as much as envisioning with God the restoration of creation. (from Soul Feast, Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)

“Here’s the first thing you need to do,” says old Paul to young Timothy. “Pray for everybody. There is one God. God wants everybody to be healed and filled with divine knowledge.” The day is coming when the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

And the first step for moving toward that day is to start praying. To start praying . . . for everybody.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Interrupted By Grace

1 Timothy 1:12-17
Ordinary 24
September 12, 2010
William G. Carter

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

There’s a cartoon in a Christian magazine that comes to mind. It’s a Sunday morning, and a large man is standing up in his church pew. He looks pretty rough, something like the cross between a motorcycle biker and a pirate. He wears a kerchief on his shaved head, has a black eye patch, and a large hooped earring. His right shoulder bears the tattoo of a woman’s name, which has been crossed out. Right below the tattoo is a nasty-looking scar.

Well, there he is, surrounded in a church, next to a lady in a red velvet hat and a man in a suit jacket. He opens his mouth, reveals a few missing teeth, and speaks his testimony: “Jesus has made me into a different person.” The people around him look awkward and uncomfortable. See that picture, hold it in view.

If we’re going to talk this fall about the riches of Christian faith, we need to begin with a scene like this. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the experience of personal transformation. The Good News is that God changes lives. It began when God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, revealing him to be the human face of God. Ever since, Jesus has secretly made his rounds, affecting people, showing them mercy, and making them different.

Now, this can taste a bit awkward and uncomfortable, especially if we are accustomed to leaving church on a Sunday pretty much the same people as when we came in. It runs counter to the popular view of Christian faith. For a lot of people, Christianity is a stabilizing force. It provides order and comfort, routine and predictability. Pioneers once built churches in the center of every town, to announce clearly that God was in the middle of civilized life.

A lot of those early churches were Presbyterian churches, with an emphasis on order and proper behavior. People could look at those stirring structures with their solid foundations and tall steeples, and surmise that the Christian Gospel is about stability. That it’s about continuity, permanence, and a settled life. The assumption for years was that anybody who is anybody would go to such a church: business leaders, bankers, school teachers, attorneys. Stable people go to a stable church, and that makes for a stable community. That was the assumption; fair enough.

But this view has always been in tension with the kind of God that we have. Sometimes the Bible will say that God is a Rock, immovable and fixed, that God is our sure foundation. But the Bible also says God comes as the wind, free and unbound, powerful but invisible. We can say all we want about our long-established traditions of faith. And just when we get all of that settled, God shows up to disrupt everything we thought to be nailed down.

The pirate on the Harley shows up on Sunday to sit right next to the lady in the red velvet hat. He declares, “Jesus made me into a different person.” Some are curious what he was like before, others are worried what this might mean for them.

There is a name given to this disruptive power of God. It’s called grace. Grace is God’s good will as it plays out in our lives. God loves all of us enough to want what is best for all of us. That means God is going to do whatever it takes to grab us, to hold us, to shake us free from whatever is killing us, and then set us down to start all over again. This is what grace can do.

Grace is more than a sugary affirmation that we are nice people with a nice God who calls on us to keep being nice. That’s not Christianity. Christianity says God is on the loose, that Jesus didn’t stay nailed down, that the Spirit of God blows like a Category Six hurricane. As Annie Dillard once quipped, instead of handing out worship bulletins, “Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982).

Lest you think I exaggerate, I remind you of Jesus. He was crucified because he didn’t fit in. He did not teach in safe, predictable ways. He healed unconventional people without any regard for religious rules. He talked back to people who thought they were in charge of the world. The most powerful people of Jerusalem decided to get rid of him; and then there were reports of how he came back, how he comes and goes among us, how he rearranges people’s lives. One of the last New Testament glimpses we get of Jesus shows his hair unruly, his eyes are ablaze, and he shouts, “Look, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Do we really want to mess with him? We might not have any choice.

And so we have this text from a first century letter. It comes from a time when the church was trying to hold itself together. It’s at least fifty or sixty years after the resurrection. The Christians have been at it for a while. They have preached the Gospel, but there are some people out there trying to distort the message. The people in the church were trying to live a joyful and holy life, but these were brutal times where the others around them followed whatever whims and desires caught their fancy.

So an early church leader claims the authority of the apostle Paul. He takes on Paul’s mantle as if it is own, and in words that all of us can claim, he says what he knows to be true: “The grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” That’s the heart of the Gospel – so I want you to say it with me. I’ll give it to you a piece at a time: “the grace of our Lord – overflowed for me – with the faith and love – that are in Christ Jesus.” That’s verse fourteen. It’s so important that we can say it every day.

Now, everybody knows the story of the apostle Paul. At first, his name was Saul, named after the first of Israel’s kings. Saul was a Jew, a good Jew. He trained as a Pharisee, which meant he memorized a large part of his Bible. He was serious about his faith. It gave him meaning and purpose. When the Bible said “pray,” he started to pray. When the Bible said “work,” he knew what to do.

And then he heard about those Jesus-worshippers, and it upset him. He believed they were wrong, and quoted his Bible to prove it. But they would not stop. According to one report, he went house to house, dragging out the Jesus-worshipers and committing them to prison. But they did not stop. So he got permission from the high priest of Jerusalem to flush out these Jesus-worshippers from the synagogues in his hometown of Damascus. Then he started down the road to arrest whoever he could find.

But on his way, he was blinded by a great light. A huge Voice quoted from the Bible, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It was the Son of David speaking to the son of Saul. The persecutor blinked and saw the very same Jesus that all his victims had been worshiping. The Lord’s eyes were still ablaze, full of fire. It was like staring at a laser beam. As novelist Flannery O’Connor once quipped, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” Paul started to change in a way that he could never change back.

These moments can come to us, and they do. The baby is born, such a little bundle of joy. You take him into your arms, cradle his head in the palm of your hand. And this tiny gift means you can’t stay out late, can’t run around any more, can’t quit your job because you hate to get up in the morning. You have to change, because the gift has come.

Or there is that health crisis, a diagnosis that scares you, or the accident on the operating table. Everything you thought was firm and settled is shaken so hard you can hear the rattle. It feels foggy. Your head spins with shock, your heart is pounding. And if God gives you a second chance, you think that maybe you should start playing your hand in a different way.

Perhaps it is the lost job or a lost child. Or the call that the brother you haven’t talked to for the past eleven years has suddenly fallen over dead. We have these disruptions from time to time. Each one presents a decision – do we hang on for dear life as we always did and smooth it over if we get through it? Or do we stare through the blinding light until we see the eyes of Jesus, pledging he will do everything he can to make us new?

A recovering alcoholic told me about the night he got pulled over after eight gin and tonics. The police officer asked a few questions in a language he couldn’t understand, so he opened the car door and lost his dinner on the officer’s shoes. It made an impression. When he sobered up some time later, he said, “Every day I have to decide that I will not get up and start chewing again on the charcoal of hell. It’s hard work, but for the first time in years, I think I’m alive.” Then he said, “My mistakes were God’s invitations. My wounds became God’s opportunities.”

This is how grace works. Grace might come like a blazing light, exposing everything that we have tried to hide in the shadows. Before grace shows us any mercy, grace always reveals who we really are. It’s hard work to be that honest. But when we look through that moment, when we see within it the purging, cleansing love of Jesus Christ, I think we understand the strange words of that favorite hymn: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”

Such was the experience of the apostle Paul and every generation of apostles after Paul. Whether it’s the simple affirmation each Sunday that “your sins are forgiven,” or the first-hand knowledge that you are currently being rescued from something that threatens to kill you and your spirit, behind it all is the mercy of God. Paul liked to sum it up by waving his arms, clearing his throat, and belting it out, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the absolute worst.”

Whether you agree with him and say, “Yes, Paul, you are about as bad as they come,” or whether you are in the middle of a moment when you claim the Worst Sinner Award for yourself, either way that’s not the final word. The final word is – well, let me see if you can remember it – “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ.”

You know, I’ve been thinking about that cartoon that I described. The rough looking biker-pirate, stands up in his pew, and declares to that settled-looking church crowd, “Jesus has made me into a different person.” I’d like to think that in the very next moment, in the very next frame, everybody turned to him and said, “Me too.” Because we are in this together. Christ’s grace can forgive and scrub each of us clean.

And if we keep cooperating with such mercy, he will continue to shine brighter and brighter until we take our place beside him as children of Light.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Not Your Grandparents' Jazz Band

Isaiah 44:1-8
Jazz Communion 2010
September 5, 2010

Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.

The details are sketchy, but the story is clear. Sometime in the spring of my junior year in high school, I got a new jazz record on the recommendation of a friend. “You have never heard anything like this before!” he exclaimed – and he was right. The album was called “Heavy Weather” by a band called “Weather Report.” I put it on, and I was never the same.

The opening song was called “Birdland,” and it’s the one that we have just heard. The music was different. The drums don’t go “ching-chinka-ching” like a swing band; the rhythm goes more like “wocka-wocka-wocka.” The bass player doesn’t always stay down low, where a bass player should. Instead he plays the opening melody way up high. The song is full of synthesized sounds and electronic gadgets. And the composer was not American; he was Austrian. That signaled something international was afoot.

My mom popped her head in the door. “What are you listening to?” I replied, “It’s a new jazz record.” She listened for a second, cocked her head, and then she said something like, “That’s not your grandmother’s jazz band.”

How true! My grandmother, now 96 years old, was the one who introduced me to the jazz world. She told ancient stories of seeing Benny Goodman lift his clarinet up high with Lionel Hampton chiming out on the vibraphone. She reported on the night in Oil City, Pennsylvania, when Louis Armstrong blew the roof off an auditorium. He had a stack of handkerchiefs on the piano, and as the music got hot, he took one after another to mop his brow. And as I’ve told some of you before, when I was a fledgling teenage pianist, she slipped me two Dave Brubeck albums in a brown paper bag, and my corruption was complete.

But when I put on that new album – when I heard the song “Birdland” that we just played – it was clear: this was not my grandmother’s jazz band.

The issue for today is change. The message could be simple: time rolls on, things has a way of evolving. There was an ancient Greek philosopher named Heraclitus who declared “the only dependable constant in life is change.” He was the one who famously announced, “It is impossible to step in the same river twice.”

Now, I know that’s a risky thing to say in a church. We like our pews bolted down. Most people want the worship service to stay in the same sequence. Our repeated rituals give comfort and security. If some of us had our way, everything would be frozen in time. Same people in the same seats doing the same things in the same way. That’s tempting, even for the preacher: I’d like to show up and preach the same sermon six or eight times in a row, and see if anybody notices.

I’m joking, but not really. I meet people who are shocked that a church would do what we are doing today. They can’t believe it – or more to the point, they can’t imagine it. Things have been so settled for so long. And should I protest, “but we’ve been bringing jazz into our church for nineteen years,” they look mortified. Mortified! Yep, that’s the word: mortified, as in the words “mortician” or “mortuary.”

If you know anything about jazz, you know the music keeps developing. Jazz is a wide river with many swift currents. It keeps moving. Jazz is a living tradition. It is alive from within. And it reminds us that anything alive will keep moving. If it stops or stays the same, it will die. Even though we’re playing music today that is thirty or forty years old, it is full of life and energy – and something new emerges in each fresh performance.

That’s how it is with faith, as well. When the prophet Isaiah writes his poem from chapter 44, it seemed as Jewish faith had run its course. People had been at it for a while, and it didn’t seem to be “working.” They had tried to live faithful lives, but it hadn’t gone anywhere. The Babylonians had sacked their country and kidnapped all their smart people. Those left behind didn’t know what to do. Pundits offered a variety of options. The weak-kneed leaders who were still around suggested settling with the status quo. Cable TV nut-jobs mouthed off 24-7, declaring that the only way forward was to turn the clock four spins backward. Just pretend that we can go back to the good old days . . .

All of a sudden, God speaks up and offers a third option. In chapters 43 and 44 of Isaiah, God declares something new. “Don’t be afraid,” says the Lord of Israel, “I am with you.” God says, “Don’t be afraid – I am about to do a new thing. Don’t be afraid – I am not going to remember your mistakes. Don’t be afraid – if you have been parched soil, I am going to rain down fresh water. If you have been withered and dried up, I’m going to pour my Spirit upon you – and not only you, but your descendants. I’m going to give you so much blessing that it’s going to spill on the people who come after you.”

It’s an amazing promise, and it declares that change comes from God, because life comes from God. Change happens because God is alive. The same creative Spirit that inspires a musician to create a new tune or improvise a new line is the same Spirit that refreshes dry and dusty people. “Don’t be afraid of this,” says Isaiah. “Don’t be afraid if the same God who gave you life comes again to fill you with life.” Don’t be afraid if God begins new initiatives, or if God raises up new people. God says, “I am the first and the last; there is nobody else.” And the Eternal One already knows the things that are to come.

I find some comfort in these words, particularly when I feel like life is stuck, or when I worry about the state of the world. The only future is God’s future, and I don’t have to be afraid of that. Just hang on, keep trusting, keep swinging. That is what we do.

Sometimes it helps to revisit the times and places when we were fully alive, and to mine them for the riches that they still have to share. Remember that wild tune we played, where the bass plays high, and the drummer goes “wocka-wocka-wocka”? When Joe Zawinul wrote that tune “Birdland,” he was remembering some of the most exciting moments of his life.

Birdland was a nightclub on 52nd Street in New York. Zawinul said, “It was the most important place of my life – I met Miles Davis there, I met Duke Ellington, I met my wife in that club.” In his imagination, he revisited the big band music of people like Count Basie. He remembered how alive it was, how exciting it was. So he reached back and grabbed that music, and he brought it forward in time.

That’s the move that is so important. I think it is a deeply spiritual move: to mine the most powerful memories of our traditions and to bring them forward, to this time, to this place, to these new people.

In the psalm for today, we heard the words, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” That’s a crazy invitation. If you ever want to upset church people, teach them a new song! They will whine and complain and moan and groan. Some will stand with their arms crossed defiantly. They are – (shall we say?) – mortified!

But it was the Bible scholar who once told me, “If we listen to the singing, we discover that the new song is constituted by the same old words. The old words are recovered and reclaimed (Walter Brueggemann)." The new song is not merely a return to a kinder, gentler age. Neither is a trip down Nostalgia Avenue. No, it is a radical discovery that the songs our mothers taught us to sing have awesome power and movement for a new day. The new song given by God is always a song that began in the past, yet is brought forward to this time, this place, and these circumstances.

This is what jazz musicians do: they take old songs and bring them forward into something new. This is what people of faith do: they claim their ancient praises of God and declare them with fresh imagination and energy. To refuse this is to die a withering death. To engage it is to find ourselves filled with life. A God who is the Creator is always leading us into something new. So we don’t have to be afraid. When we look toward the future, we don’t have to be afraid.

In one of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories, he tells of the night that Roger Hedlund and his wife Cindy returned home unexpectedly. Thinking they would be gone for a few days, their two creative teenage daughters had decided to host a big party. Still unseen, the parents stood there in shock: teenagers were passing around cigarettes, loud music was threatening to kill the chickens, some generous soul had poured a beer into the dog’s water dish. Cindy thought they should step out of the shadows, and come down hard. Roger shook his head and said, “No, I’m getting tired of being a dad.”

He convinced her that they should go, neither of them sure it was the right thing. Then they discovered their car had become stuck in the mud, so Roger trudged back, interrupted the party, and asked if a few of the guys could give them a push. Their daughters were flustered, embarrassed, even shocked – until it dawned on them that maybe Mom and Pop had gotten stuck because they were parking.

Later that night, after arriving at their destination, Roger settled down to sleep with the following thought: “I’m getting tired of being a dad. Love my girls, but I’ve been a parent long enough, I did what I could. I can’t go on being in charge much longer. These kids, this world, are going to continue long after I’m gone, and I should get used to that and even enjoy it. I can’t run them. I can only love them and this good life. Thank you, God, for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.” With that, he rolled over and went to sleep. (from "A Trip to Grand Rapids," in Leaving Home)

The future belongs to God; for God is the first, and God is the last. We don’t have to be afraid. Whatever God is doing will turn out well. Whatever God isn’t doing will not matter. So we don’t have to be afraid. We can march, dance, pray, and sing right into the eternal light.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved