Saturday, December 24, 2011

Receiving the Gift

Luke 2:8-14
Christmas Eve 2011
William G. Carter

For all the truth of Christmas, at least one lie has crept in. It lingers at the heart of the holiday. It infects people of good will. It sneaks into our greetings of one another, especially children. And the lie is this: “You get the gift only if you are good.” Where in the world did that come from?

Some would pin it down to 1934, in a new song composed by John Coots and Haven Gillespie, and sung on a radio show by Eddie Cantor. The song declared, “He knows when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” Everybody knows that’s a lie. He doesn’t know. Only God knows, and God’s view of Christmas never depends on whether we are bad or good.

Where does this come from? Apparently there was a European legend in the 1700’s. If you were on the “naughty list,” you would be visited by Krampus, a demon with horns and hooves. According to legend, Krampus would wake the bad children and whip them. “So go back to sleep, little ones,” said Mama. “Not a peep until dawn.”

The sentiment lingers. We ask the children, “Have you been a good girl, a good boy?” It’s a painful thing to say to them, especially at a time of year when so many adults are so poorly behaved. So much going on, and patience is in short supply. And we put our kids in front of the television, the advertising is relentless and they discover wants and desires they previously did not have. It’s already a tough time for the children: four new viruses circulating the school, way too much chocolate available, far too many things to do, with all of the seasonal overload. 

Then we say, “If you are good you will get something good for Christmas. Johnnie, stop hitting your sister.” We say this as if we know the standard for goodness, as if gift-giving depends on behavior, as if goodness will always be rewarded. It’s a lie. It has nothing to do with Christmas, with the real Christmas.

The truth of Christmas is that the Gift comes whether or not you are good. In fact, it may be precisely because we are not good that the Gift comes anyway. Did you ever hear that verse from the New Testament? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).” God doesn’t wait until we are good before being good to us. That is the Gospel.

This is the Gift announced to the shepherds. The angels declare, “God is giving a gift to the world. It is a Baby who will save you.” The angels did not wait until the shepherds scrub up or speak and talk in religious ways. There was no attempt to coerce them into the prevailing self-righteous society. The Gift was for them as they were.

The truth of Christmas is that the Baby comes even if there is no ledger book of how well behaved anybody is. God gives the Gift, not because they are good – but because they are loved. The One who gives them the gift loves them. That’s why it is a gift.

So much of the gift giving around Christmas really is about something else. Sometimes it is merely business. The merchant hands out the calendars so that every time we look at the calendar, we remember the merchant. It is not really a gift, it is advertising.

Sometimes gifts are given in endless obligation. Consider the exchange of hostess gifts. We invited her, she came with a gift. She invited us, so we have to get something for her. Just make sure it’s not the same thing. Or maybe not; I am thinking about creating the Universal Gift for Hostesses, or UGH. You lay out twenty bucks to acquire the thing, give it, she gives it back, and you give it to her next time, and so on endlessly.

And then there is the drama surrounding the annual extended family gift exchange. You draw names, put together a list, and e-mail it out. I don’t know him very well, but I must get him something. He wore a camouflage cap to Thanksgiving dinner, so maybe I will buy him a gift card at the sporting goods store. On Christmas, he will open his gift card. This is a lot easier than getting to know that stranger.

But how beautiful it is, how rare it is, when you can offer a gift to somebody because you love them. Not because you have to, but because you want to. Not because they are good or kind, but because somehow God’s goodness is working itself out in you. And so, you give the gift.

I have a friend who lost a lot of precious items in September’s flood. I felt the burden to help replace some of what he lost. For three months, I schemed. Starting small, the project grew. Each time one arrived in the mail, ready to be wrapped, my heart was full of glee. My heart gets full of a lot of things, but glee is pretty rare. My wife said, “You are really enjoying this, aren’t you?” Well, of course I was. I love my friend and I could imagine his delight. It was a thrill.

Last evening at the home of church musicians, I was presented with a gift. It’s a tacky picture of the Last Supper. If you move it just right, Jesus appears and his eyes follow you around the room. I laugh at kitsch like this, and with gratitude to Alan and Susan, I feel loved.

Isn’t that what we want our gifts to do? To express love, to create more love. It doesn’t have to cost a lot. But it’s the thought, the consideration, the precise selection. That can be a lot of work, but we do it willingly for the people we love.

            God does this willingly for you and for me. We don’t know enough about the shepherds to know if they were good or greasy. But Christmas was given to them out of love. Or there’s King Herod; certainly he wasn’t very good at all. He seemed to know that the Gift was so amazing it would take over everything, including his throne. So he tried to dismiss the gift, and it didn’t work. Even the world still says this, “We don’t this Baby Jesus, and we sure don’t want him when he grows up.” So the world pushed him out – yet he came back a few days later. He may often stay hidden, but he will not be dismissed.

The Gift of God in Jesus Christ comes regardless of how we behave. It is there in the Appalachian carol. “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I.” I am ornery enough that I want to fix the grammar of that verse and sidestep the sentiment. Yet Christmas comes to me, even though I am that ornery. It comes for you too.

Thank God for that. Thank God that the holy generosity of heaven is greater than the meanness of earth. Thank God that frustrated parents and confused children are still loved no matter how hard the holidays are to navigate. Thank God that even though people have the capacity to make great messes out of their lives, nobody ruins Christmas, the real Christmas. Because it is bigger and holier and greater than anything we could ever manufacture.

This is the gift: God loves the world so much that God comes into the world. God keeps coming toward us even if we push him away. God comes to us in Jesus, to embrace us in grace until the day comes when we become grateful.

The Gift is yours for the receiving. From the view of God the Giver, not a single one of us is despised or left out. Be still long enough to hear the news: you are loved eternally. That truth puts you in the presence of angels.  

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Local Miracles

Luke 1:26-38
Advent 4
December 18, 2011
William G. Carter

Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.


      If an angel appears and announces you are pregnant, what are your options? You can question the announcement, but there is no assurance that you will receive a satisfying answer. You can say, “You’ve got the wrong person,” but it sounds as if God’s mind is already made up.

You are free to disagree and declare, “No thanks, I don’t want any part of this.” But the angel knows the pregnancy is already a done deal. The decision has been made. All you can do is come to terms with what has already been decided.

The first announcement of Christmas is given to a young girl in the northern hills. She has never been pregnant before. She has no first-hand knowledge of what this will demand of her. There is no evidence that she wanted a baby, or that she had any plans other than to marry Joseph someday.

The angel says God has a mission to the world and that her womb is central to the plan. Mary is going to have a baby. It will happen without Joseph’s assistance. God has decided to make it so. The Holy Occupation Plan begins with Mary, and just now she is notified. She’s going to have a baby because God has decided it. Doesn’t sound like she has a lot of options.

 It is hard for us to sand away the varnish of traditional piety. If we can, what we discover is a story of how God gets his way. At least, that’s what strikes me this time through the Annunciation story. Everything the angel says is in the character of an announcement. Gabriel is God’s press agent. “Here is what God is going to do,” he says. “This is who the child shall become.” When she stammers out the question, “How can this be,” Gabriel declares, “This is the kind of God we have, with whom nothing is impossible.” That is, if God wants something to happen, it is going to happen.

Many of the poets and hymn writers have construed this text as a conversation with some give and take. But the angel Gabriel does not knock on the door and wait to be permitted inside; he goes right in. When he talks with Mary, Gabriel gives no wiggle room. The announcement is made and the angel does not ask how she feels about it. No, the statement is brief: you will conceive in your womb and bear a son. God says so. And by the way, don’t bother to send Mary one of those pink and blue books that list possible names for the child; God has already named the boy before he is born.

The annunciation is a story of how God gets his way. God wants to send Jesus into the world. God doesn’t ask permission, because it is God’s world. Mary is made in God’s image. How can she resist the announcement? How could she ever say no?

We pray on a regular basis for God's will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” From the sounds of today’s text, the will of God is inevitable. That seems to be the lesson. Christmas is something God wants to do in the world. It begins in a small town, in the little town of Nazareth. That’s up north, off the beaten path. It was not a place where the important people lived or passed through. God chooses to work off the map, so to speak.

The word is given to young Mary. Assuming she was a child of her times, we know something about her life. She was not educated. A young Jewish girl had no career options. She had no public voice in a men-only culture. If she went to the synagogue to keep Sabbath, she sat in the hidden balcony with the other females, offering her prayers out of sight. Her whole life was off the map, until God shines the spotlight upon her for a dozen or so Bible verses. Her obscurity seems to be an important factor in God’s selection. Her world would never notice her – except that God sends the angel to declare, “Hello, favored one. The Lord is with you.” Nobody told God to do that; even in Mary’s obscurity, she was already noticed by the angels.

I think of this every year when we wade this far into December. A lot of people who celebrate Christmas know very little about Christmas. It is possible to observe a completely secular Christmas – celebrate fat meals that are not available to the hungry, sing songs about reindeer and cold winter nights, push the piles of mammon in a wobbly cart around Walmart, and generally wear ourselves out. Holy Day is downgraded to mere holiday. We can grumble about the godlessness of all this, even if it’s the same godlessness that has infected our bloodstreams.

What we are missing is that God’s work is inevitable. Christ comes to the world whether anybody wants him or not. Mary will have her baby even though, as far as we know, she never actually asked for a baby. Gabriel sings of the significance of a Child who comes to rule forever, even in a world that is not particularly asking Jesus to rule over it. Still he comes – the Christ Child comes. He comes whether we are ready or not.

Now, I know. It is awkward to talk this way. Some people talk as if God has had everything planned out. If they have any faith, it’s boiled down to a kind of fatalism. Like the old Scot Presbyterian who fell down the steps, brushed himself off, and said, “Glad that is over with.”

It is a great comfort to think God has a plan for every situation and every moment. Then, when something happens, you can lean back and say, “It must have been God’s will.” Hurricanes, for instance. Or severe illness. Some people acquiesce and say, “Those things must be God’s will.”

It bothers me to have some things described as “acts of God,” when they simply look like acts of destruction. I remember a man who could only make sense of 9-11 if he declared, “It was an act of God.” Privately I thought he should leave God out of it and go talk to a grief counselor. There were people hijacking those planes who wanted to kill and destroy; the God and Father of Jesus Christ was not behind their plan.

Whatever else we can say, whether well-intentioned or casual, we have to leave some room in our thinking for people who trip over their own feet, or for people so tormented by life that they hijack planes, or even for the irrational power of storms and cancer cells. This is a busy and complicated world.

And yet, this is the same world where the angel Gabriel comes to announce there will be a baby boy. His birth will not be a random occurrence. His life will not be a haphazard mistake. There will not be a destructive urge within his heart. Jesus comes to rule without overpowering. He comes to make a constructive difference in a world that largely ignores him, among people who don’t often notice him.

And even if the powers and complications of this world should swell up to squelch him, he comes back with wounded hands to keep ruling and repairing, doing whatever it takes to win over one person at a time, providing quietly for those who need him most. This is why God sends Jesus into a world like this.

The first heart to win over will be that of his mother. It will not be enough for her to simply say, “Let it be.” God may be doing the hard work of reconciliation, but Mary will have the bloody work of labor. Will she have a choice in that? Not really.

But she does have a choice in how she will receive him. She can regard him as the unwanted child who disrupted her life. Or I suppose she could consider him as another extraordinary angel who should be protected from the world and all its pain. She does neither. She regards him as a gift from God, a gift to her and a gift to the world. And in complete obedience, she wants God’s will to be done on earth, her patch of earth, just as it is in heaven.

In a Bible study one time, somebody pointed out what Mary says to the angel – she does not say, “Let this be to me, according to your word.” If she says “to” that signifies passivity. As if to say, “I have no choice. I have no power in the matter.”

She also does not say, “Let this be for me, according to your word.” That would highlight the benefit of the baby, or at least the benefit of who he will become. That would be like saying, “OK, I will going through the pregnancy if I can get something out of it.”

Rather Mary says, “Let it be with me, according to your word.” With is a participatory word. It declares that Mary is going to take part in the pregnancy. She will be more than a mere vessel for the Christ child to come into the world. She chooses to be a partner in the process. God’s initiative in sending the baby will join with her willingness to welcome him. This birth is going to happen with her agreement, with her support, and with her trust. “Let it be,” she says.

With this in mind, let me suggest something for you to think about. In a deep spiritual sense, all of us are pregnant. God has planted within each of us a small seed of the Gospel. God wants to do something for the world through each one of us. God wants to birth the Good News, to birth an entire New Creation in Christ.

Yet it can only happen if God does this work with us. Saving the world is God’s good work. God has the whole thing planned out. For our part, it will be enough to say yes. To say, “Let it be -- with us -- according to your word.” 

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, December 10, 2011

God’s Action Plan

Luke 1:46-55
Advent 3
December 11, 2011
William G. Carter

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
       Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
  for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
  He has shown strength with his arm;
       he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
  according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

    This is the song of somebody who has been lifted up. She was low to the ground and there she was met with Holy Favor. She was diminished by insignificance until God did great things for her. That truth is the center of gravity for this song. “I was down and then God blessed me.” “My soul magnifies the Lord, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

     Tradition places these words on the lips of a young peasant girl. She is having a conversation with an old woman, a relative of hers. The old woman is named Elizabeth and she is six months into a surprising pregnancy. The young woman is Mary and her surprising pregnancy has just been announced.

     Elizabeth reminds us of ancient Sarah, the mother of Israel, who was decreed to be barren and now long past the days of child bearing. Her impending birth reminds us of the kind of God that we have. Barrenness is not a deal breaker with God. God is so creative that God can birth just about anywhere, regardless of human circumstances.

     And those are also the circumstances for young Mary. She has not been with a man, yet new life begins within her. God announces this news through a messenger angel, hinting at the importance of Mary’s child and who he will become. Her child Jesus will be a royal child. His very real human birth will originate from the mysterious power of God. This is going to happen, ready of not. It will occur as an unexpected gift.

     So Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord!” Her words have resounded so frequently through the ages that the church has lost track of how many times these lyrics have been set to music. Mary sings to the Lord – but mostly she sings of the Lord. After the opening phrase, God becomes the subject of every line. Mary’s experience of blessing opens her heart to the greatness of the One who is doing the blessing. And she sings three truths: God is merciful and strong, God readjusts the power structures of this world, and God has a helpful memory.

     God is merciful and strong. I suppose we can say anything we want about God, but Mary sings of what she knows. Mary is discovered by the Lord; in her insignificance, she is now called “blessed.” God has not cast her off, but considered her, counted her, taken her seriously – and this is how she knows God’s mercy.

     Yet in the next breath, she calls God “the Mighty One” and declares great things have been done for her. The angel had revealed who her child will become. The child in Elizabeth’s womb does a little dance when Mary walks into the room. The awesome power of God is shown in the creation of a child.

     When Mary sings, she holds together both attributes: God’s mercy and God’s strength. She will not separate them, as so many of us do. She does not say, for instance, that God’s love is shrunken down until it fits cozily in our hearts. Nor does she point to the tornado and announce it as the wild forces of God.

     No, she declares that God comes with compassion, with tenderness, with grace and affirmation. If we look beneath the hard surface, we can find a kindness latent in everything that God does. There is a good will at work in the world, a hidden benevolence to reclaim and improve a beloved world.

     Want to know what God comes with power and strength? It may not be in the tornado, but rather in the volunteers who come to help in the middle of the storm, supporting the afflicted, delivering blankets and fresh water, rebuilding the waterlogged lives. God’s deepest authority is revealed in the widest possible kindness.

     For Mary, mercy and strength are announced in her imminent child. The baby’s impact appears first in his innocence, then in his weakness, and ultimately in the hearts of those who revere him. Not everybody will understand this – they will look for God in the big, booming Voice, or in the magnificent miracle, or the thundering commandment. But that’s not where God can usually be found.

     People go looking for God in something spectacular and other-worldly, in something that lifts them off this planet – when the truth of Christmas is that God comes down onto this planet and hides here among a young peasant girl and her family. The holy power of God infuses the every-day. It is holy strength through every-day mercy. God is merciful and strong.

     And if that’s true, it means that God readjusts the power structures of this world. If the power of God is shown best in the mercy of God, then the power of the Gospel is shown in the mercy that people show to one another. God commands us to be our brothers’ keepers, our sisters’ guardians. We are taught to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. The only thing we hear, however, is that part about loving ourselves, and the whole thing goes haywire.

     Did they hear what Mary sings? She sings how “God has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.” That is, there are a lot self-important people who think they are better than everybody else, and they sit around imagining how to get the advantage over the people around them. We see this all the time, don’t we?

     There are people who scheme about getting bigger Christmas gifts for cheaper prices and push their fellow shoppers out of the way. There are those who connive to climb higher than those around them, and they don’t care who they step on as they scramble to get ahead. There are those who get fat by grabbing more food than they can eat, and the Thanksgiving leftovers that they finally just threw away would have provided five meals for a hungry family.

     But Mary sings about the kind of God that we have. “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” she says, “and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

     It reminds me of that line from David Letterman, the day after the soldiers found Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole in Iraq. He said, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen! One minute you’re the president of a country; the next, you’re being checked for fleas on Fox News.” Does anybody doubt the justice of that? There comes a point when being a good neighbor for one another becomes more important than stomping on the weak and plundering those who are already poor. God’s power is shown in God’s compassion. The power of God’s Gospel is shown in the compassion of God’s people.

     This is the revolution that Mary’s Son will come to ignite. It is a revolution of love, a revolution of fairness. The hungry are filled. The hoarders are dismissed. The love that God has for every single one of his children means that every single one of God’s children has a place at his Table. If we are talking about democracy, that means everybody gets an equal voice (even the people in the Dunmore cemetery). Even on the Animal Farm, some critters are not more equal than the others. Each one is loved with the same infinite love that God has for you -- or her -- or him.

     If we take God seriously, it means that human power is going to reshuffle once in a while. If this brings more people to the Table, it is a blessed benevolence. If it increases compassion, it is a sign that God remembers us.

     That’s the third thing Mary sings, you know: God keeps remembering us, and God’s memory is helpful. The promises that God once made are kept fresh and vital. If we draw on the strength and mercy of our Savior, we discover how God keeps answering his own promises. We learn all over again where God is staying busy.

     There is a story making the rounds these days about Julio Diaz. Have you heard it? Julio is a 31-year-old social worker. He commutes an hour each day on the subway to the Bronx, and he likes to get off one stop early so he can eat at his favorite diner.

     One night last month, Julio stepped off the Number 6 train and onto an empty platform. A teenage boy approached him, pulled a knife, and said, “Give me your wallet.” Diaz gave him his wallet and said, “Here you go.”

     As the kid turned away, Diaz spoke up, “Wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to rob people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” The robber looked at his victim, as if to say, “What gives?” He said, “Why are you doing this?”

     Julio said, “If you’re willing to rish your freedom for a few bucks, I guess you really need the money. All I wanted to do was get dinner, and if you want to join me, you’re more than welcome.” He thought the kid just needed some help.

     So he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth. The manager said, “Hey Julio!” The dishwashers looked out and waved. The waiters smiled and nodded. The kid said, “You know everybody. Do you own the place?”

     Julio said, “I just come in here a lot.” The kid said, “But you’re even nice to the dishwashers.”

     Diaz said, “Well, yeah. Haven’t you been taught to be nice to everybody?” “Sure,” said the teen, “but I didn’t think anybody actually did it.”

     Julio took a sip of coffee and said, “So what do you want out of life?” The teen didn’t answer, just made a sad face.

     Then the bill arrived, and Julio said, “Look, you’re going to have to pay for this bill because you have all my money. I can’t pay for dinner. If you give my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.” The teen didn’t even think about it, just handed back the wallet. Diaz paid the bill … and then gave the kid a twenty dollar bill.

     The kid said, “What’s this for?” Julio said, “I’d like to exchange it for your knife.” The teen handed it over. Then they stepped outside and went their different ways.

     When Diaz got home that evening, he told his mother what happened. She said, “If someone asked you for the time, you would give them your watch.”

     Maybe so. He said, “I figure, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as that in this complicated world.”[1]

     Listen: when Mary’s Child is born, his cradle song will begin a quiet revolution. His mother sings of great power expressed in mercy. She knows that this power of mercy will knock the high and mighty off their thrones and lift up those of low degree. And she remembers that this is how God keeps remembering all of us – that God keeps calling us to treat one another right, so that nobody demands other people’s money nor lets the neighbors go without a hot meal.

     It is a quiet revolution. It’s going to turn this tired world upside down. Selfishness will be subverted, to the glory of God.

(c) William G. Carter

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Anybody in a Hurry?

2 Peter 3:8-15(a)
Advent 2
December 4, 2011

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.


It’s the first Sunday in December. I hope you know what that means. It means everybody is in a hurry.

This is the time of year when more people are on the road. They drive faster. They tailgate closer. They generally express less patience and offer more gestures. Everybody is in a hurry.

I don’t know what I was thinking. Yesterday, about fifteen minutes before noon, I stopped to mail five packages at the little post office at the bottom of my hill. There were ten people ahead of me, and the first one was taking her sweet old time.

She tried to strike up a conversation with the worker behind the counter, while others in line just rolled their eyes. “How’s your little boy?” she asked and the man ahead of me groaned. She had a form to complete, and rather than take it to the side counter, she stood at the head of the line and read each question out loud. Then she asked the clerk what answers she should write down. Did I mention there were ten people ahead of me? Soon there were another six behind me.

She stepped outside, we breathed a sigh of relief. Two minutes later she came back in and everybody groaned. She stepped right to the front of the line as if she owned the postal service. The guy ahead of me said, “Lady, we don’t have time for this.” She spun around and said, “But I’m in a hurry.” Everybody is in a hurry.

The lines were long at one restaurant, so we went to another and had to wait. I stopped by a new bookstore to check it out and noticed clumps of shoppers, every eye glazed over, all of them rushing through the store. It’s enough to make you shop online. Besides the packages will get here faster, especially if we are in a hurry.

Maybe it’s me, but I was astonished to see how early the Holiday Shopping Season began. Personally I thought Valentine’s Day was a little bit premature, but merchants assured us this was going to be a big year. So the overnight lines started forming outside Best Buy sometime around the Fourth of July. All those shoppers wanted to be in the front of the line. They were in a hurry.

Everybody is in a hurry. Have you noticed that? Everybody . . . except God.

We have a brief letter near the back pages of the New Testament. It’s called the Second Letter of Peter and purports to be from the apostle. Can’t say if that is true. The so-called author misspells his own signature. And there’s evidence the church has been around a lot longer than Simon Peter would have been. The apostle Paul is long dead; he’s been gone long enough that the church had begun to collect his letters and critique them. That had to take twenty, thirty, maybe fifty years for a non-internet church to chase them down.

Then there’s some evidence that the church was infected with heresy. Actually it wouldn’t take very long for that to happen. It happens all the time around here. Except that it sounds like the false prophets had become institutionalized. Second Peter fires his cannon at them for four long paragraphs. And he condemns them fiercely. “They malign the way of truth,” he says (2:2). “In their greed they exploit you with deceptive words.” Sounds like some of those TV preachers we have seen over the years.  “God threw the rebellious angels into hell,” he says, “so just think what he’s going to do with those people.” (2:3-4).

Second Peter is pretty upset. He describes what the false teachers are doing. “They speak bombastic nonsense. They entice people with the desires of the flesh. They promise freedom even though they are slaves to corruption.” (2:18-20). Makes me wonder what kind of sermons they were putting into the air!  

And the point is: all this was going on and God wasn’t doing anything about it. God was in no hurry to come and fix the world, much less purify his own church. Of all the accusations anybody could put against God, the greatest accusation is that God never seems to be in a hurry.

You can pray and pray and pray, and wonder if anybody is listening. The deafening silence can almost be enough to make you give up praying.

You can work and work and work to make a difference in the places where you live, and wonder if God will ever get around to validating your work.

You can take a stand and speak the truth, in an effort to improve your neighbors’ situation. I think of the county official who spoke to an Adult Ed class here two weeks ago. He’s a good man, an astute public servant, who has tried to work honestly. And he told us he couldn’t believe how much money actually talked in the politics of our region. He knew it, but he had no idea. It’s enough to make you think, “Why bother?”

I did a little research on a phrase that appears in the Psalms. About twenty times, somebody in the Psalms will ask, “How long, O Lord?” Apparently that’s an important way to pray. You raise your hands and say, “Is this going to go on forever?” The God of the church is the God of Israel, and we have a God who rarely seems to come when we want. So we watch and we wait and we pray, “How long, O Lord?”

Now, to be fair, I continued the research. There are even more occasions in the scriptures when God raises the hands and says, “How long, O people?” How long will you ignore me? How long will you forget me? How long will you complain? How long will you do the stupid things that I tell you not to do? Everybody may seem to be in rush, but humanity and God are often waiting one another out.

So Second Peter clears his throat and offers a pastoral word. On the one hand, down here we are waiting for the Day of the Lord. All the prophets told us to wait for the Lord. That’s the Great Day when God will make everything right. It will come at the end of human time. God will re-balance the world and establish the great shalom. The hungry will be fed, the corrupt will be toppled. Those who grieve will have their tears wiped away. Those who hope will be satisfied. The prophets make those promises, and we’ve heard them. We sing them.

And when we heard Jesus say, “I will come again,” we know that will be the Day of the Lord. In his ministry among us, he showed us the priorities of God: feeding, teaching, healing, forgiving, restoring. Jesus will come and all shall finally be well. So we wait for his return. We wait as constructively as we can.

But God is waiting too. And this is the genius of Second Peter’s word. He says, “You may think God is being slow, taking his sweet old time, grinding it out step by step. But I tell you that God is not slow. God is patient. God is so very patient.

Certainly, he says, when the Day of the Lord shall come, heaven and earth shall be blasted away. All things shall be dissolved in fire. But God is so very patient, that before God lets that happen, God wants every single one of his children to come to their senses, to stop all of the destructive nonsense that they do, and come home.

I thought of that last night as I considered the Advent sky. The sunsets this time of year are evocative. They stop me in my tracks, and cause me to wonder as I wander. What exactly does God want from me? From us?

"Think of what kind of persons you ought to be," says Second Peter. I think that means to build a life that is never ashamed of God. It means to sweep away the cobwebs from our souls. To pursue a life of peace. To regard God’s great patience as our opportunity. This Advent, every one of us has a real chance for a new beginning. It’s more than some temporary change for the holidays, like slipping back into a size four dress or 34-waist pair. It would be a real change of some permanence. The continuing invitation of the Gospel is to leave the past behind, to break free from bad habits, and to live the new life offered in Christ.

There comes a point when we need to get on with the kind of life that God sets before us: a life that is generous, and loving, and merciful, willing to forgive, full of patience ourselves, and ready to drop all burdens at the foot of the cross. God wants more than last-minute recruits for heaven. God wants servants who are well marinated in grace.

“Think of what kind of persons you ought to be,” says Second Peter. When you leave this place, show the love and joy of Jesus Christ. Just like Jesus, feed the hungry and embrace the outcast. Bind up the wounded and dance with the saints. Advance the mission of the Gospel and, always, no matter what, take care of the little ones.

I need to tell you all of this because there’s no telling how much time we have left. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Strong to the End


1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Advent 1
November 27, 2011

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

             Today Advent begins with a blessing. The apostle Paul sends a letter to a congregation in Greece. They had written him with lots of questions. There were concerns within their fellowship, questions about Christian doctrine, and issues about practical matters. They were called to live as Christian people in a world that did not care anything about Christ. How were they going to make their way?

            Paul begins with a blessing: “Hail, church, full of grace!” God’s grace is overflowing out of you. God’s grace gives you speech, knowledge, and testimony. You do not lack anything. God gives you everything you need. So live out this grace while you wait it out for Christ to be revealed. Hang in there as you count your blessings. That’s my rough paraphrase of his word to the Corinthian church. It’s a pretty good word for most of the people that I know.

Years ago, we had a regional minister named Jim Mays. He loved to preach on this scripture text. Jim would offer to preach in a little congregation in the country. They would complain they didn’t have enough money to pay him and he would say, “That’s OK, the rest of the people in the presbytery pay my salary.”

He would arrive with his pulpit gown over his arm. The self-appointed church leader would meet him and say, “Our building is not in very good shape.” Jim would answer, “You don’t need a building in order to be a church. A church is a community of people.”

Sometimes they would say, “We don’t have an organist,” to which he would respond, “You can be a church without an organist. I see hymnals there. What would you like to sing?”

            Then Jim would quote the text and say, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You are no lacking . . . and they would look at him quizzically, as if to say, “Really?”

            Then Jim would give them the Gospel: God in Jesus Christ has forgiven any inadequacy. God has declared you capable, and given you the word of the Gospel. All the gifts you need to be a Christian people are already given among you. So live by the great mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again.

            That’s a pretty good sermon. You are adequate, not because of your own ability, but because of the generosity of God. It reminds me of a great definition of grace. It was spoken in a promotional movie years ago called “The Presbyterians,” although the film could have been called “The Christians” or “The Corinthian Church.” This was the definition of grace: “God requires from us only what God working through can achieve.”

            Let me say it again: “God requires from us only what God working through us can achieve.”

            The human dilemma is that we doubt this. We think we have to earn God’s love by putting good deeds on our to-do list. Or that we have to steer clear of all those behaviors that could seem sinful but we aren’t willing or able to do that yet. Or that we simply don’t have enough to make ourselves adequate.

            We see it in the mad rush for Black Friday shopping. Perhaps we hear field reports of a special bargain here or there that somebody was able to score. But this whole business of standing in line for five hours before the opening of Toys-R-Us strikes me as sad and pathetic. Or so I thought.

            Then I read the observations of Diana Butler Bass, one of our more astute observers of faith and unbelief. She noticed the people who tend to stand in line for the discount store sales are not the wealthy, but the working class. These are the folks who go to church every week, express a high level of belief in God, and more likely to give a higher percentage of their money to those in need. Diana would know this; she is a historian who have discovered that the poorer the American, the more likely they are to be faithful and generous.

            By contract, those who weren’t in the sales lines on Black Friday are typically less religious, less generous, and more likely to find meaning in getting a lot of stuff. As the New York Times recently reported, the wealthy spend most of their holiday cash as upscale stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, where there aren’t a lot of come-on sales.

            “So what’s going on?” asked Diana. She caught a glimpse on a Black Friday interview. The TV reporter asked two women in line, “What are you going to buy?”

The (first) woman, clearly not a well-off person, responded: “Shoes.” He said, “Shoes? You’re not supposed to be buying shoes!” She said, “But I need shoes.” He pressed the issue, “Are you buying anything else?” “No,” she replied. “I just need new shoes.” Her companion was buying jeans. The reporter didn’t know what to say. How many people on Black Friday are like these two women?[1]

            Diana says this is a matter of morality. Not merely about the riots over getting a cheap flat-screen TV, but the fact that many, many people can’t afford to buy nice things for their families without waiting in long lines on Thanksgiving night. She notes, “We have become a coarser and less neighborly America, a culture where too far too many - including those who will spend their Christmas wad at high-end stores rather than Black Friday sales - are not working for the common good…”

The dividing line is between those who don’t have enough and those who have more than they will ever enjoy, and both groups are driven to want more. In such a situation, who can hear the apostle Paul declare, “You are not lacking in anything as you wait for the revealing of Jesus Christ”?

            This is not a new situation. The ancient city of Corinth was opulent and expensive. The wealthy went to Corinth for medical care. The sailors stopped there as a pleasure destination and other entertainments. Yet there was a division between people, and it crept into the little church that Paul had started there.

Just a few years after he had moved on to Ephesus, Paul hears reports that the wealthy people in the congregation bring fine wine to communion while the poor don’t have a drop. The affluent folks in the Corinthian church have plenty of fresh bread for the sacrament which they do not share with those who show up without so much as a crumb. Some end up drunk while others go hungry. “That’s not communion!” he thundered. “What is communion, but a sharing in one another, a participation in Christ!” (1 Corinthians 11:17-22)

            When the world with its divisions creeps into the church, the church ceases to be the church! For the center of the church is the Good News that all of us are made adequate by the grace of Jesus Christ. Sin is forgiven, division is overcome. We have been given what we need: a love for one another and a shared hope in God. The Spirit of God empowers some to preach this message, others to testify to this message, others to administer it, others to embody it, to the end that all might live it out. By rooting ourselves completely in the news that God gives us all gifts in Christ, we shall “stay strong to the end.”

            There is a good word for us here as we begin this Advent. Bigger is not better; it’s just bigger. More is not a blessing; it can be a burden. We don’t need to buy the lie of our over-charged culture. We all know what it says: that we are inadequate unless we have more, do more, grab more, build more, worry more, hover more, and fear more. That’s a lie.

It is perfectly OK to be adequate. To be forgiven. To be accepted. To be loved. To be visited by God. I don’t know who said it first, but the adage certainly applies: this Advent, don’t just do something; stand there. Stand there, still and non-anxious. Stand there, cherished by Christ and hopeful that you will see him. Be at peace, in the knowledge that “God requires from us only what God working through can achieve.”

You may have heard about Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic in the 1960’s who helped us understand the importance of rooting our lives in God and not worrying about much else. The story goes he walked into a drugstore one day to get some toothpaste, and a clerk asked him which brand of toothpaste he preferred. Merton smiled and said, “I don’t care.”

Well, he said, the clerk almost dropped dead. He expected the customer to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest, each with its own special ingredient. Merton did not give a rip. All he wanted was some toothpaste. He didn’t need to give his allegiance to a particular brand. His allegiance was already given to God.[2]

            This is our Advent challenge – to care first for God. To want nothing more than to see Jesus Christ. He is revealed in the grace that declares the hearts of human beings are more important than the stuff in their cabinets. Jesus is the One who came to us, who will finally come at the end, and who comes secretly each day. So we pray for the ability to see him, and for the ability to trust that his grace is all we need.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.


 [2] As told by Kathleen Norris, “Apocalypse Now,” The Christian Century, November, 15, 2005, p.19.