Sunday, January 30, 2011

Choosing a Favorite Beatitude

Matthew 5:1-12
Ordinary 4
January 30, 2011
William G. Carter

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven..."

I have been living with these words for a long time. I grew up in a church that believed third graders should memorize important passages from the Bible. This was one of those passages. That was forty-three years ago. These nine blessings of Jesus have haunted me in all that time. Our Sunday School teacher insisted that we memorize them, along with the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and 100th Psalm.

The Lord’s Prayer came easily since my parents taught it to me, and we prayed it on our knees every night. The 23rd Psalm is beautiful, moving from the Shepherd’s green pastures to God’s banquet hall. You might not recall the 100th Psalm until you hear the opening line: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!” Those words continue to shape my life.

But the Beatitudes are different. Nine different “blesseds.” Jesus identifies God’s values by naming those people God blesses. They are not the rich or the powerful. They are not the successful or the strong. And they can be difficult to understand.

Our third grade Sunday School teacher knew this, I think. When somebody complained, “These are hard,” I remember her saying, “Pick one, and make it your favorite.” That’s still a pretty good exercise, and I’m not sure which one I would choose.

How about this one? Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. It sounds like a positive statement: we receive what we give. If we show mercy, we get it back. If we cut others a break, they will show mercy to us. It has a reciprocal nature, much like the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to us.”

That makes a certain kind of sense, as long as it works. And you know it doesn’t always work. A bit later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” We are to love them whether or not they love us in return. Perhaps in the long run, we show mercy in order to receive God’s mercy. We can hope for that kind of logical sequence: be kind and discover that God is kind.

Except that Jesus will say God is kind to everybody, regardless of how they are: “God sends the sun on the evil and the good,” he says, “and the refreshing rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Well, that’s not how I would rule the world. I would be merciful only to those who were merciful to me, and ignore those who ignore me. But not God; I am certainly not as generous as God.

So this beatitude raises a few questions. There is more mercy in God than there is in any of us.

Another beatitude is confusing to me: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. That sounds like a quick promise. Given all the funerals that I’ve done lately, it would be a blessing if everybody who mourns would be comforted. We do our part to comfort: we send cards, make phone calls, deliver casseroles, sit and listen.

But the first part of it sticks my throat: “Blessed are those who mourn…” That’s hard to swallow. Sometimes I have said to people, “You grieve because you loved,” and I believe it. If you love somebody a lot, you are going to miss them when they are gone. I can’t imagine ever losing the people who are dearest to me, but some day I will. It happens. It happens to all of us. And we cannot yet see the blessing.

So if it’s OK with you, in terms of favorites, I would rather put this beatitude on the shelf, forget about it, and maybe someday it will come true. That brings me to another one. I like it, for it’s a promise:

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Meek means docile, submissive, spiritless, and tame. In an aggressive age, meek means “weak.”

When I think of “meek,” I think of the 1962 New York Mets. Anybody remember them? They won 40 games, lost 120. It was one of the worst record in modern baseball. The ’62 Mets were a brand new team, created from the cast-offs from other teams. Their first baseman was Marvelous Marv Throneberry. He had a hole in his glove, but he could hit. One day, he hit a long triple in a game against the Cubs, but the umpire called him out for not touching second base. The manager Casey Stengel climbed out of the dugout to dispute the call, and the ump said, “Don’t bother arguing Casey, he missed first base too.”

The 1962 Mets were pathetic. Talk about meek! But in 1969, they won the World Series, which is to say they inherited the earth!

We love a good rag-to-riches story. The ’62 Mets became the ’69 Mets. Cinderella sweeps the ashes and marries the prince. We like these stories. The kid grows up in a small town and makes it big in the city. Jesus is born in the barn and becomes the Savior of the world.

The only problem is that the beatitude never says that the meek ever change. They don’t grow stronger. They don’t increase their self-confidence. They don’t become more aggressive. If anything, the meek stay meek. The aggressive ones can finish one another off, leaving the meek behind to inherit the earth. Perhaps that is what this means.

I don’t know. It’s a strange beatitude. Let’s leave it alone. How about this one:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

This is another promise, and I can believe it. It is logical. It allows no distractions. It pushes us to get clear about what we most desire. It was the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who famously said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” It is to decide on one thing. I take that to refer to God: if all we want is God, we will see God. If all we care about is God, our eyes will be opened to God. For Jesus will say a couple of chapters later, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and then everything else will be added.” It’s that single-minded pursuit that opens us to the Almighty.

The problem, of course, is that I’m not single-minded about anything. I reach in the refrigerator for ketchup and pull out barbecue sauce, too. I would love to see God, and trust that some day I will, but I have compromised allegiances and a very scattered heart. If I could only be pure in heart, I would make this my favorite beatitude.

But I’m not, so this can’t be. So let’s try another:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Certainly this is a favorite beatitude. It is one of the most immediately remembered. We celebrate the peacemakers. We affirm those people who have an irenic spirit, those who sort through conflicted points of view and establish common ground.

But peacemaking is not a latent value of the world. We are so accustomed to violence that we are tempted to think it is a real solution. The rulers of the world claim to make peace when they are usually looking to start a war. Some will even lie to create a battle. They tell us that the way to make peace is to blast away all our enemies . . . never mind if they make a few more enemies along the way.

What’s going on in Egypt? The president faces an uprising, so he shuts down the internet in his country and turns off the cell phone towers. He doesn’t want his people to talk to one another, and he seems to think that’s going to make for peace. Meanwhile Cairo is on fire and people are screaming to “get rid of Pharoah!”

In a world like this, how can anybody make peace? We are such a warlike species. “Blessed are the peacemakers” – that’s a beatitude we know, but rarely actually see. It reminds me of a similar one:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

This is the promise of Jesus. Many of these beatitudes offer promises. They begin in the present tense and end up in the future. If you hunger for righteousness, your appetite will be filled. If you thirst for justice, you will see it.

It’s as if Jesus is standing, not on a mountain, but at the end of time. He knows that everything that belongs to God will turn out well. God will accomplish his purposes on earth as in heaven. The hungry will be fed, the naked will be clothed, the broken shall be healed. This is God’s plan. It will happen.

I like this beatitude. It pushes me to live for God and God’s ways. It encourages us to organize, to work together for justice, and to do what we can to make the world ready for God’s Kingdom. It is one of my favorites, although not the favorite. For this beatitude needs to be matched with another one, which offers a warning:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This beatitude is in the category of “no good deed goes unpunished.” Church history is full of stories of people who do the right thing and suffer for it. Whether saints or sinners, they pursue the righteous path – and pay dearly.

Maybe you saw the piece in Wednesday’s New York Times. It was called “Tussling Over Jesus.” A nun in a Phoenix hospital was excommunicated by her bishop. It seems she approved the termination of a risky pregnancy to save the life of a 27-year-old mother of four. The mother would have certainly died if the nun would not have approved the procedure. The bishop threw her out of the church. When the Catholic hospital did not fire her, the bishop cut all ties with the hospital, effectively excommunicating the hospital.

The writer says, “What keeps nagging at me is this: the one who emulates the life of Jesus, the one who shows compassion, is not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us . . . along comes the bishop to excommunicate the Christ-like figure in our story. If Jesus were around today, he might sue the bishop for defamation.”

Was it a risky ethical situation? Of course. But what is the Christ-like thing to do? That’s the question we must embrace, even if means that we get treated as Jesus was treated.

That’s a troubling beatitude. It is probably not our favorite, unless we are looking for trouble. And it sets up the one that follows it, which is even more severe:

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Now this is the only beatitude that says “blessed are you.” Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you. Blessed are you. Rejoice and be glad!

Is Jesus serious? Blessed are you when people beat up on you?!? Is he giving us some kind of autobiographical glimpse? Is there really a blessing in being hated?

When my friend Terry served on the Abington Heights school board years ago, he offered his expertise to improve our local schools. The high school was split in two halves, a mile apart. He thought that was terribly inefficient, and said so. The hate mail started pouring in. One guy repeatedly drove his pickup past Terry’s driveway and glared at his kids. Somebody else screamed at him at a public meeting. They called him names for trying to improve the schools.

And when he considered taking another job out of state, he first gave up his chair on the school board. He wondered out loud if he was going to miss it. His very wise wife said, “Are you kidding? How about, on the first and third Wednesdays of the month, I take a hammer and hit you on the head so you remember what it felt like?”

Public service makes you a target, not only if you do something bad, but if you do something good. Especially if you do something for the sake of God’s kingdom in a world that resists God’s love. It happened to Jesus. It can happen to us. I am guessing this is not our favorite beatitude, even if it rings true.

Well, that’s the list, mostly. Only one remains. In all the other beatitudes, we are warned or we are encouraged. We are affirmed in the middle of our limitations, and blessed in our greatest vulnerability. It seems to me, then, that the greatest of the beatitudes is the one that begins with our deepest weakness. It is the first one, and it unlocks all the others. It says:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

What is “poor in spirit”? It is to have nothing. To be empty. It is to reach that humble point where we rely on God for everything. The peacemaker needs God. The mourner is missing God. Those hungering for justice are really hungering for God. Those who are kicked around for doing the right thing can be blessed only by God, because everything else is taken away.

This is the starting point for the spiritual life. It is the cradle of Christian wisdom. What we need most of all is God. And when we know that, we are spiritually poor – and we are blessed. God can do very little with those who don’t need him. But those who come with their hands open to receive, with stone hearts cracked open so that the light to get in, God will give them the kingdom. In the words of poet T.S. Eliot, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” (“East Coker”)

What we need most, we do not have, until God gives us himself. And in the mystery of grace, the dominion of heaven establishes a colony in our hearts. It’s stated pretty well by writer Frederick Buechner:

If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think all of us are homesick for it. (The Clown in the Belfry, p. 152)

This is the blessing of the first and greatest beatitude: we come before God, ready to be filled. We pray for God to finish what we cannot. We announce how we depend on God for all things. We see how little we have within ourselves.

And then the moment comes when we discover that everything we need has been given to us as a gift.

Blessing, blessing.


(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Cleaning Up a Dirty Word

On Cleaning Up a Dirty Word
John 1:29-42
Ordinary 3
January 16, 2011
William G. Carter

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.

It is a dirty word. Foul. Distasteful. Ugly. In mixed company, it makes us uncomfortable. Polite people do not bring it up in conversation. When released into the air, it will affect the atmosphere. It will ruin appetites. It will turn stomachs. The word always provokes a reaction. It is that kind of word.

I am talking about a dirty word. It has been smudged, soiled, and dragged through the dirt. Some would even say it smells. People who know the word and its history prefer to tone it down. They seek a softer synonym. Others would not be so gentle. They would reach in the tool chest, find an Exacto knife, and remove it from every place where it appears in print.

All the same, it’s the word that we will talk about today. Like it or not, it is the church’s word. No one else could have dreamed it up, but we did. It’s all ours. This word belongs to the church.

Many of our words have been defiled. Years ago, vandals broke into the vault where the church keeps all of its important words. Good words were vandalized. One of those words was "charisma." It was one of our words. “Charisma” was once a holy word. It meant “a gift of grace.” But vandals broke in and stole our word. They stole it. Now it means “a photogenic smile” or “the ability to look good on television.” They use that word to sell toothpaste or to get votes for people from Washington to Wasilla. “Charisma.” That used to be one of our words. We were robbed.

And that’s not our word for today. Some might say today’s word was defiled, but more likely it has been left on the shelf. In some closets, it is covered with dust two inches thick. It’s no wonder that the word was put out for a garage sale where it was sold for 65 cents. It was word and we gave it away.

I’m sure you know what word I’m talking about. The word is evangelism. Evangelism.

It’s not a word we use very much. Instead we talk about “church growth,” about increasing the number of bodies that fill this room, and the number of names that go on a list. In some churches, church growth is a strategy. There are people who study these things, and then they sell the plan to unsuspecting church people, and claim it is evangelism. But it isn’t evangelism.

There was a think-tank in California that said, “If you want to grow your church, find out who you are, and then look for people just like you.” Forget what the apostle Paul said about being all things to all people. Just be you (after you figure out who you are), and then sell it. Buy up some billboards, print up brochures, do a growth campaign – that’s evangelism.

Except, of course, that isn’t evangelism. It’s marketing.

What is evangelism? Many aren’t sure they want to know. As one of my friends once said, it is, for many people, “a nose-wrinkling word, a term they hold in approximately the same regard as the phrase ‘professional wrestling.’ Both are considered to be activities that draw large, uncritical crowds, involve a measure of sham, work on irrational emotions, and could end up hurting somebody.”

That’s how a lot of people regard the word. They think of some celebrity show-stopper in a rented arena, packing in busloads of folks who already agree with the speaker, hustling them by the overpriced booths of books and CD, all under the guise of making a sales pitch for God. The more forceful, the better.

Some of us grew up with some of this – by the 1850’s, worship services were rearranged. After centuries of having the sermon in the middle of the service followed by communion, in some churches, the sermon was moved to the end. Of all the various kinds of sermons that it could be, it became only one kind of sermon – an intense, emotional appeal demanding a decision. Week after week, that was it. No ongoing Christian formation, no exploration of the many kinds of scripture, no encouragement for prayer or acts of mercy. Everything was reduced to a sales pitch. That’s what a lot of people came to believe about evangelism – and that’s probably why, in some corners, the word grew covered with dust.

It reminds me of a comic strip that I once clipped out. It was an old “Peanuts” strip, and Sally and Linus were walking home from school. “I would have made a good evangelist,” said Sally. “You know that kid who sits behind me at school? I convinced him that my religion is better than his religion.” Linus says, “How did you do that?”

She replies, “I hit him with my lunch box.” For a lot of people, that’s evangelism: winning frightened souls through intimidation. But listen, according to our text, that’s not evangelism.

Our story does have an Official Evangelist. It’s John the Baptist. In the Fourth Gospel, he is a public relations expert on Jesus. He provides advance publicity for the Lord. He writes the press releases. He interprets Jesus’ significance to the public. One day he points and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Two of the people who are hanging around John actually turn and look. He’s been telling them about Jesus second-hand. They decide to take a closer look at the real thing.

Now, one of the curious things about our text is that John didn’t even “know” Jesus. Twice he says, “I did not know him.” That’s strange, isn’t it? When push comes to shove, John says, “Listen, I am just the preacher. I do a lot of talking, in the hope that the Lamb of God will actually come. I can’t make him come. He has to show up on his own. I can tell you he is, even if I don’t actually know him.”

Please realize this is the Gospel of John. It has a different angle of view, even upon all the John the Baptist stories that we hear every December as we’re getting ready for Christmas. John the Gospel-Writer does not say that John the Baptist has any special wisdom. He does have a Word to speak, and he does have a promise that he will recognize the Messiah at the right time. And when he finally does recognize the Messiah, what grand message does John say? He says, “Look, here he is!”

Is that it? That’s it. There is nothing manipulative about it. Nothing forceful, nothing overstated, nothing obnoxious, nothing pushy. Here’s the sum of the evangelist’s Word. He says, “Look!”

In a Christian sense, evangelism is always an invitation. It’s an invitation to look, an invitation to investigate, an invitation to explore and see if it’s all true. It’s an invitation. Ever notice that if you force somebody to come to church, it doesn’t always take?

In fact, sometimes people will stop by, and decide very quickly that this Church Stuff is not their cup of tea. Well, how can they know yet? Speaking of the casual critics of his day, G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” You have to give a look – a long look – and not merely a passing glance.

Well, another interesting thing about today’s story is that Jesus himself is an evangelist. If evangelism is an invitation, Jesus makes an invitation of his own. John said, “Look!” Jesus says, “Come and see!” Look – and – see. That really is the heart of it. John points to Jesus, and Jesus says, “Come; come and see.” And it doesn’t happen right away.

No, the story has a bump or two in it. John points to Jesus and says, “Look!” So two of his followers go and have a look. And Jesus turns around and says, “What are you looking for?” They don’t know. They are just looking. The two of them fumble around to find an answer, “Teacher, where are you staying?” And that’s when he says, “Come and see.”

And then the Fourth Gospel says something that is a little bit clumsy. So “they came and saw where he was staying and they remained with him that day.” Now, that doesn’t sound clumsy to you because it’s been translated. A team of translators smoothed that out when they put that into English, but here’s how the conversation really goes in Greek:

John: “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
Jesus: “What are you looking for?”
The disciples: “Uh, rabbi, uh, where are you abiding?”
Jesus: “Come and see!”

“They came and saw where he was abiding, and they abided with him that day.”

To “abide” is to stay, to remain, to dwell with. The sense here is to spend a complete day with Jesus – when there is other work to be done, other commitments to keep, but you stay with Jesus.

This is an important word for the Gospel of John. It is a deeply spiritual word. It signals a living relationship. Again Jesus will speak of “abiding” – “abide in me, and I in you” – “as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, you will bear fruit if you abide in me” – “If you abide in me, and I in you, ask whatever you will” – “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.”

And here: “They came and saw where he was abiding, and they abided with him that day.”

Evangelism is an invitation to stay with Jesus. To remain with him. To keep with him every day, as you move through the day. It is not a forced relationship. Nor is it a fake relationship. It is not a one-time decision, but a continuing connection. Very little of this is restricted to a church building. But I have noticed that the people who stay with Jesus are always going to be about that invitation, about staying with him, and about inviting others to “come and see.”

“Come and see” – I know a place where people love Jesus, a place where that love changes them. “Come and see” – I know a place where people invite you to be the person God created you to be. If I might speak for myself, that’s far more appealing than saying, “Join my organization,” or “Join my club.”

What do we want? What do we really want? I want to know that I can stay with Jesus. I want him to take away the sins of the world – and to take away my sins. I want to know that he loves me, that he has good work for me to do. I don’t want to be the notch on somebody else’s belt, or the target of somebody’s marketing campaign. I don’t want to be a number or a statistic. I want to be a child of God in the presence of the Lamb who is our Shepherd.

This is the heart of our invitation. I can make it only if I know it. If I know it, you can be sure I will make it. Jesus Christ is the Life of the World. This is the heart of our “eu-angelion,” literally our “good word,” our evangelism, our invitation. Come and see.

It’s the invitation to a journey. We don’t understand it all at once. But as somebody has said, "There are little moments when vast things happen." We can't yet see the whole picture. We don't see the implications. We don't completely know what is going on. But we do know we are in the presence of the Life of the World.

Here, in the first chapter of John, Jesus picks up four disciples. As they stay with him, they start saying the most amazing things about him. They call him Rabbi. They name him as Messiah (the Anointed One). He is the One about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. He is the Son of God, the King of Israel. These are the highest affirmations of faith in the entire Gospel of John. Where do these people get such depth of understanding? We don't know. All we know is that they stay with Jesus. Along the way the truth about him begins to get clearer.

Come and see.

As Native Americans once said to the Christian settlers: “Is your church built upon sacred ground? Then we will come.”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Filled to the Brim

Filled to the Brim
Matthew 3:13-17
January 9, 2011
Baptism of the Lord
William G. Carter

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It’s a brief little story, but don’t think for a minute that it’s not important.

It is the story of a baptism. Every baptism is important. Through the splashing of water and a promise from the Lord, baptism is the moment when God claims a human life. It’s when God says “You belong to me.”
Each one of us has to live in the world, but baptism declares we are citizens of heaven. Anybody who is baptized is not free to pretend that God does not matter. From the moment the water is wet on our brow, we listen for the Voice, we receive the blessing, we discover the new relationships which are chosen for us.

This is a baptism story. It is important.

And it’s a John the Baptist story. That means it is significant. John appeared in the right moment in time. He began to preach with urgency. “Get ready,” he said. “Repent, for God’s Kingdom is right here!” The casual observer would see only the sandstone and scorpions of the desert. But John the Baptist saw God’s possibilities. God would come to rule right then, right there, in the bleakest of times and circumstances. “Get ready,” John said. “Straighten out the highway so God can come to you.”

This is a John the Baptist story. It is significant.

And this is a Jesus story, which is what really catches our attention. Jesus comes to be baptized by John, and John says, “That’s backwards!” John was ready for God, so ready that he was prepared to trade the water of the Jordan for the fire of heaven. He would have his doubts later, but somehow right then, he knew that Jesus is the One. Certainly the signs were there: the heavens opened to him, the Spirit came down on him, the Voice spoke all about him: “This is my Son.”

And in the thick of it all, Jesus speaks his first recorded words in the Gospel of Matthew: “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Those are the first words that Matthew reveals. It’s not a teaching – oh, Jesus will do plenty of teaching. It’s not a sermon – actually for his first sermon, Matthew says Jesus borrowed the sermon of John: “Repent, for God’s Kingdom is right here!” Jesus doesn’t begin by preaching or teaching. He makes an announcement: “Let it be so now, right now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

This is a Jesus story, and he speaks so curiously. For one thing, his words sound rather formal: “Let it be so now” and “It is proper for us.” It sounds so official, so stiff, when Jesus could simply say, “Get out of the way. Let this happen. Don’t block what must take place.” But even then, Jesus is not merely referring to his desire to be baptized. No, something more is afoot: Jesus wants John to join him in “fulfilling all righteousness.” So what in the world is he talking about?

Righteousness? That is one of the most important words in the entire Gospel of Matthew. I will bet good money that’s why Jesus says the word in his very first spoken sentence. “Righteousness” is a word that he will speak over and over again in his teaching.

Now what do you think “righteousness” is? It is a ten-cent word. If somebody is “righteous,” what does that look like? Maybe it means they show up in church whenever the door is open, or that they are always praying and giving away their money, or that they don’t drink, curse, or chew – or kiss the women who do. Somewhere along the way, we get the notion that “righteousness” is mostly about behavior. That it’s about doing the right thing. Wouldn’t it be great if everybody did the right thing? Wouldn’t it be even better if we knew what the right thing was? John the Baptist thought he knew: the right thing was for him and Jesus to switch roles, and Jesus could baptize him… To do the right thing!

But when Jesus speaks of righteousness, it often sounds more like a relationship. In a few chapters, Jesus will teach us, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” To put it more simply: live for God. Live completely for God. Let God’s values become your values. Let God’s character shape your character. God doesn’t worry, so don’t you worry. When God sends the rain, God doesn’t discriminate between the just and the unjust, so don’t discriminate in your generosity. God is swift in mercy and doesn’t keep score, so let go of all your grudges. Your love must be complete, just like the love of our heavenly parent.

This is “righteousness” for God’s children. It’s living completely for God, living for others as God lives for us. It is so much higher than merely following the official rules.

I told the group that was here yesterday about the day Roberta Spann knocked on my door. “Do you have a minute? Or longer?” she asked. She came in, sat with her purse and blurted it out: “I’m concerned about racism.” It was about the time of the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles. Her reading of world and local events troubled her deeply, and she declared, “I want to do something about it.” What she proposed was to knock on the door of the pastors of one of Scranton’s African-American churches, introduce herself, and see what she could do to bring our flock together with his. “Do you want me to come along?” I asked, and she said no. “I want to start the dialogue and simply need to know that you support it,” which I did.

Next thing I knew, we worked together in a soup kitchen, visited one another’s congregations in worship, and had one evening that I can only call a “hootenanny” when everybody was dancing in the aisles to Gospel music. Roberta didn’t have to start any of that. She could have played it safe, stayed up here on the mountain. Instead she went the extra mile – which is exactly how Jesus described God’s “higher righteousness.”

Righteousness is an important word. It has to do with living entirely for God and with God. Remember old Noah? The Bible says Noah was righteous, for he walked with God. Joseph did not divorce Mary which the Bible’s rules said he could do, because he was a righteous person. On the day of his baptism, Jesus says it is time to “fulfill all righteousness.”

But what about that word “fulfill”? It turns out that is also a favorite word of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is always talking about how things are “fulfilled.” At least seventeen times he uses that word! We have already heard in the Christmas story. Before Jesus is born, he is named by an angel. And Matthew adds, “This took place to fulfill what God said through the prophet.” Matthew just loves that word “fulfill.”

Matthew tells how Joseph and Mary hid the child in Egypt. King Herod was looking to destroy the baby, and after he died, after the coast was clear, Joseph brought the family home. And Matthew says, “This was to fulfill the old Bible verse about Israel in slavery, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.’”

Now, you could take that as a prediction. A lot of people do. They have this idea that Bible verses are part of some secret code, and God is just waiting to fulfill these hidden predictions. And it seems, the wilder the text, say for instance the Book of Revelation, and the crazier the predictions.

But that’s not how Matthew talks. His favorite word “fulfill” is not a spooky word. It is not a fortune-telling word, as if some strange mystic is going to predict a famine, flood, or the end of the world. No, the word is “fulfill.” Or to give you one of the nuances, to “fill full.” That is, to fill something up, to top it off so that it spills over. It is to make something astounding happen, something extraordinary, something generous.

Like in Matthew’s book, chapter eight. Jesus is visiting Simon Peter’s house, and discovers that Peter’s mother-in-law lies in bed with a fever. So he touches her hand – the fever immediately left her, and she got right up. Word spread immediately, and by nightfall, that little house was jammed with people who needed a healing. Some of them were sick, others had some mysterious demon that made them ill. Jesus cured every single one of them, says Matthew. Every single one of them. And then he adds, “Remember what Isaiah said? ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’ Jesus fulfilled this.” He filled up that verse, filled it up full, filled it up to the brim.

Just about every time Matthew says Jesus “fulfilled” something, there is a sense of generosity, a sense of overdoing it. That seems to be how the Gospel writer perceived God’s work in Jesus: it was so full, so abundant, so big and dramatic. Given the boredom and mediocrity of everyday life, we don’t expect much, we bide our time, we merely endure – and BAM! It’s Jesus!

So John the Baptism and Jesus have a brief conversation at the Jordan River. John says, “This is backwards; I want you to baptize me!” But Jesus declares, “No, you’ve got to do it. It’s time for righteousness, and we are going to fill it up full.”

It’s time to live in the grace of God’s presence. It’s time to love abundantly as God loves. It’s time to forgive and find alternatives to revenge and retaliation. It’s time to cancel violent anger, it’s time to stop demeaning people with words and lustful glances. It’s time to give generously to those who have nothing, it’s time to work for the welfare of those who hate you. This is the righteousness that fills us to the brim when we live with God, as we love as God loves.

I can’t think of better time. Especially today. The news comes from Tucson that a well-loved U.S. Representative was gunned down by a troubled soul. Some people have died, others were wounded, and we struggle to make sense of it. The news has been full of Tweets and Twitters, many people pointing fingers, accusing, others pointing back.

In the midst of the trauma, one of our most eloquent Christian leaders has pointed instead to Jesus. Her name is Diana Butler Bass, and last night she challenged the preachers and the church members to pursue his higher righteousness. Let me share what she has written:

At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming. Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons tomorrow will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans--how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.

Sunday January 9 is the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Jesus’ baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of cleansing. But there is a darker symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In 1862, Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, “All nations which come into existence… must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood.” Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?

American Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need today? Which baptism truly heals? Do we need the water of God, or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply obvious. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God’s love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks. If we don’t speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.


There is a higher righteousness, a better way to live. And it is to live as completely as we can with God. It is to pursue peace even when others hate us, for this is what God pursues with us. It is to stand up for new life, to offer forgiveness, to refuse to be dragged down by the baser tendencies of fear and cruelty that tangle around our ankles. It is to live the life of love – and to point to its Living Source.

This is the righteousness that Jesus comes to fill to the brim, and the righteousness that he offers to every single one of us. It is the invitation to live with God, even in a world that seems to be knocked off its foundations. It is the refusal to live as one more of the devil’s thugs.

Here is one more word, from the prophet and poet Madeline L'Engle. She said, "We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it." (Walking on Water)

We live for the light, and we let it shine brightly. When we do, the heavens open, the Spirit comes upon us, and the Big Voice says, “With you, I am well pleased.”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Little Lord Jesus

John 1:1-18
Christmas 2
January 2, 2011
William G. Carter

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

In most of the major art galleries of the world, you will find the Christmas story depicted in art. Every famous painter has taken a crack at the scene. Rembrandt paints the child bathed in light with his mother close by and the shepherds standing in the shadows. Peter Paul Rubens has the exotic magi appearing near people with rosy cheeks. Henry Ossawa Tanner shows the young mother Mary listening curiously to an angel that resembles a beam of light.

Whether these images appear on the familiar Christmas card or as a painted canvas in a great museum, the birth of Jesus has been celebrated in all of its glory and simplicity.

In the 1500’s, here is how many European painters approached the scene, particularly those from Italy and the Netherlands. They would depict the infant Jesus in the manger or in his mother’s arms. Around him stood the humble shepherds, the worshipful magi, perhaps the singing angels. Yet the child’s face was the face of an adult. Even if the baby Jesus was shown to be a few hours old, his face is mature, his countenance is wise, his eyes are focused, and his gaze is all-knowing.

Some would declare this to be a mixed message: the infant looks old. Ancient wisdom is revealed in a baby’s face. And we know what the artists are trying to do: they are trying as they might to portray the Incarnation. The eternal God comes to us as a human child. Power chooses vulnerability, weakness reveals wisdom. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” sings the Gospel of John, “and we have seen his glory.”

Christmas presents us with this great paradox. In every age, people try to understand it, even if they end up shaving it down. We sing “Away in a Manger,” with each verse addressed to the Lord Jesus. Theologically that is exactly right. The child born to Mary is already the Ruler of the Universe. Yet the paradox is that the Ruler is a newborn male Jewish child; he is the Little Lord Jesus. And when the song declares “no crying he makes,” we don’t believe it. That was the heresy of Apollinarianism, the idea that Jesus was not completely human like the rest of us, and we dismissed that in 381 A.D.

It is our human tendency to make God’s Mystery smaller as a way of comprehending it. Maybe you noticed the Gospel of John does not explain the Incarnation. He sings it and just lets it be.

That’s hard for everybody to do. Some people like to keep the baby Jesus small and cuddly, and never let him grow up. When Charles Dickens portrays the Ghost of Christmas Past, he gives us a Perpetual Child. Some would similarly like to freeze the Lord Jesus in time.

Maybe you saw the scene in the movie “Talladega Nights.” Ricky Bobby, the famous NASCAR driver, gathers with his family at a table piled high with fast food. His wife shouts, “Supper’s ready! Come on, y’all. I’ve been slaving over this for hours.” With that, Ricky Bobby bows his head and leads the family in prayer:

“Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers in the South call you, Ja-ee-sus, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always-delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to thank you for my family, my two beautiful, handsome sons Walker and Texas Ranger, and of course my red hot smoking wife Carly. Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father Chip, and we hope that you can use your Baby Jesus powers to heal him, Dear Tiny Infant Jesus.”

His wife interrupts the prayer to say, “Hey Sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him a baby. It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” But Ricky Bobby fires back, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

So he returns to his prayer: “Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, fat, balled-up fists . . .” His father-in-law can’t hold back and blurts back, “He was a man! He had a beard!”

But Ricky Bobby won’t give in: “Look, I like the baby version the best, you hear me?” He resumes his prayer, “Dear eight-pound-six-ounce Baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly – but still omnipotent. We’d just like to thank you for all the races I’ve won. And due to the binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention PowerAde at each grace, I just want to say that PowerAde is delicious. Thank you for your power and grace, dear Baby God. Amen.”

Now, what would the writer of the Gospel of John have to say about that prayer? Assuming John would not skip the movie, he might give one thumb up for trying to hold the paradox: that the Christmas Child is the Lord of all. The Little One already has the power to set planets in their courses and to heal all that is broken.

But John would also give that prayer one thumb down simply for getting stuck – Jesus did grow up. In the words of the children’s carol we will sing, “Day by day, like us He grew.” In the Mystery of God’s self-restraint, we did not see all the powers all at once. The child lived a completely human life, growing for some thirty years in near-obscurity, until some people began to see him for who he was – and who he is. It was only then that we could look backwards and realize what we had missed all along – that God comes completely among us, and we did not see it.

In the lyrics of John’s great poem, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born…of God.”

Faith provides a birth within us, a birth that grows into new life. As Martin Luther preached creatively in one of his Christmas sermons,

Christ takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth, and grants us his (birth), that in it we might become pure and holy, as it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ’s birth as much as if he had himself been born of Mary as was Christ… This is the only way in which Christ can be rightly known so that the conscience is satisfied and made to rejoice…This is what is meant by Isaiah 9:6, “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a son is given,” to us, to us, to us is born, and to us is given this child . . . See to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you.

That’s what the Gospel of John is inviting us to claim. When faith in Christ takes birth within us, it grows. Just like the Baby Jesus. Faith starts small, just as small as a mustard seed, but then it grows and grows until it takes over. As Christ is born within us, his love heals our crippled spirits. His peace swallows up our divisions. His justice grows until it overwhelms the unfairness of the world. His truth increases until all things are claimed by his grace. Which is to say: Jesus Christ is the Lord of all.

As the prophet foretold, “His authority shall grow continually,” and wherever he is, “there shall be endless peace” (Isaiah 9:7). That’s how we truly know where Christ has been born in us . . . and where he is received in the world. It is where people live under his authority and dwell in his peace. He is just that important.

One of the hot Christmas gadgets this year is a GPS system for churches to use. Perhaps you have one of those GPS systems for your car. It helps you travel from one place to the next, and you always know where you are. Well, this particular GPS system doesn’t go in your car. No, no, no – it comes ready to be installed in the Baby Jesus in a church’s outdoor crèche scene.

It seems that a lot of churches put a crèche scene on the front lawn, but the Baby Jesus does not stay in their manger. Who knows where he goes? Late at night some people might drop by to borrow him, or they take him for a drive in the country. But if you get one of these special Christmas GPS units, you can track down the Baby Jesus and put him back in the manger. No one will wonder if he wanders. There’s a security firm in New Jersey that makes these GPS units available free for churches.

I called one of my minister buddies. He has a downtown church. They put out a crèche scene every year, and Jesus keeps disappearing. I said, “Hey, you can contact these people in Jersey and get one of these GPS gadgets. That way, you can make sure that your Baby Jesus never gets snatched away.”

My friend laughed. He said, “My Jesus is the Lord of the Universe. He has a lot to do. Why should I expect him to stay in the manger?”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserve