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.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Quintessential Politician

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Christ the King Sunday
November 20, 2011

William G. Carter

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

          When I was ordained as a preacher, my father suggested I should never discuss politics in the pulpit. I have often remembered that, as elections roll around and national events unfold. It’s tempting for a preacher to speak out for one side or another, especially if convictions are strongly held and lives are at stake.

          And then there’s the complication that the Bible talks about politics on nearly every page. Remember how the story of Israel unfolded this fall. Pharoah was the emperor of Egypt. He reneged on his forefather’s contract with Joseph and enslaved the tribes of Israel. But God is the Sovereign Ruler, even over Pharoah. God called Moses to lead what a rebellion that disrupted the Egyptian labor force. It was called “Occupy the Promised Land … by Getting Out of Egypt.” In the words of William Sloan Coffin Jr,, “If Moses had believed in separating religion and politics, the Israelites would still be slaves and making more pyramids for free.”

          Critical moments in scripture are political moments. Jesus himself was crucified at the command of a Roman governor, after being arrested by some movers and shakers among his own people. The apostle Paul regularly fell afoul of the law, most notably the Roman governor of his day. Paul was accused of being “a pestilent fellow, an agitator of all the Jews throughout the world” (Acts 24:5). How did Paul counter these charges? He gave a rousing defense that reached the ears of King Agrippa.

          In the Bible, there are politics on just about every page. Two books in scripture are titled First Kings and Second Kings. A number of psalms were written to celebrate the coronation of royalty.

By the time you get to the last few pages of the Bible, there is the strong affirmation that Jesus is the King of Kings. Every political leader will answer to him, even those who believe they are an end in themselves.

          If only because the issue comes up so often, we need to talk of politics. What makes for good politics? Or for a good politician? If the rulers of this world must answer to the King of Kings, they have a sacred obligation to govern the people well. And if they don’t, God considers them expendable.

          This is the governing issue of our text. Ezekiel is a priest. He is held captive in a foreign land. Stolen away from Jerusalem, Ezekiel saw the Temple of God obliterated by the Babylonian army. All of the candles were extinguished and the sacred rituals were interrupted. The priests were removed from their posts, many like him by force. They were valuable to the Babylonian Empire because they had money, authority, and lots of connections. If the government controls the priests, it may be able to control the people who revere them.

          What a government cannot control, however, is the voice of God. God comes to Ezekiel to speak in a series of visions. One vision is the one we have heard in this text selected for Christ the King Sunday. God looks ahead to the day when the people are governed through generosity and care.

Now, that’s quite a statement. The Jewish people had their hopes demolished by a foreign army. The central meeting place between them and God had been torn down. There was plenty of blame flying around – some said it was the intimidating power of Babylon, others accused the Jewish political leaders of being weak and corrupt. What everybody could agree on was what they saw: the once-flourishing nation of Israel was in serious decline.

This is the point at which God speaks. Chapter 34 is a political vision, and what it declares is that God will establish a new ruler to watch over his people. This new ruler will be like a Shepherd. He will watch out for all of the people – not only his supporters, not only his friends, not only his cronies – but all the people. He will be broadly concerned for the widest possible public good, rather than remain narrowly focused on any one slice of the population. And the Lord reveals who this Good Shepherd will be.

          Listen again to the promises of our text:

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

          Now, lest our eyes glaze over as if this is one more generalized Bible promise, the model that God establishes for the heavenly throne is a model for every earthly seat of power. Just a few verses before our text, God indicts the politicians of Israel. Looking them straight on, God says, “You have been feeding yourselves without feeding others.” That’s the perennial issue, isn’t it? Misusing power for your own benefit. Skimming what belongs to everybody simply because you are currently charged with their oversight.

          The indictment God offers goes on from there:

·        You have not strengthened the weak (that is, no plan for empowerment)
·        You have not healed the sick or bound up the injured (call it a health care plan)
·        You have not brought back the strayed nor sought the lost (they have not retained their wandering young people)
·        “All you have done,” thunders the Lord, “is rule with harshness and force.”

All of this suggests why God is so concerned with good politics: because God has made every single human being and God wants each of these children to flourish. If God has a political agenda, it is eliminate the “have nots.” How is this going to happen? By including the “have nots” among the “haves.” Some people might call this “socialism.” The Bible calls it the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom is where everybody is valued. The Kingdom is wherever everybody is regarded equally.  It seems the people at the top of Ezekiel’s food chain kept getting confused about this. They had no regard for those trampled under the rulers’ feet. No concern for the well-being of all the people. In no small part, that was precisely why the nation was in so much trouble: call it a systematic neglect.

When the Penn State scandal broke a couple of weeks ago, a friend was paying careful attention to the news reports. She had been a student there in the late 1980’s, and she listened with interest as one of the high ranking officials declared that his office had done everything possible to protect innocent youth.

She shook her head and thought, “That’s not the same man that I remember.” She had worked part-time as a waitress while she was a student. He and his family went to the restaurant every week. None of the wait staff wanted to take their table. They were rude, demanding, and regularly obnoxious. “They treated the staff like dirt,” she said, “and wanted to get special treatment because of who they were.” Not surprisingly, they never left any tips.

It’s a small thing, she said, particularly given the damage that the Grand Jury recently reported. And she wasn’t surprised when that high ranking official was fired for his role in the scandal. She noted, “Character is what you do when you think no one is watching. Ignore the ‘little ones’ who bring food to your table, and it may reveal how you are disregarding the other ‘little ones’ around you.”

What Ezekiel receives from God is a vision for how people are to be taken seriously, particularly those who are weak or injured, lost or strayed. The one who governs well is the one who shepherds all the people. She or he will be fair to all, and this fairness means that those who are most vulnerable or have the greatest need are regarded with the same dignity as any child of God.

This is the same vision that Jesus offers for the end of time. “The Son of Man will come and separate the sheep from the goats,” he says. People shall be sorted on the basis of one matter: how did they respond to human need? Did they do anything for the benefit of those who were hungry, thirsty, naked, or sick? Did they visit the prisoner or welcome the outsider? Or did they pass those people by? The way that people respond will reveal whether or not God’s grace is at work within them.

We have every reason to expect that our leaders should be good people, that they should be generous and truthful. Public service is a noble calling when it really is public service. We can quibble about strategy and policy, and many of us do. But the real test is how well a society cares for those of greatest need.

If the only value honored by a people is prosperity, life can descend into a contest to see who can gain the most stuff. Greed will consume everybody who is infected by it, leaving the poor to become expendable. That’s not what God wants.

A society like ours is called up to remember a basic truth: that we march only as fast as the slowest person in line.  To be the keepers of our brothers and sisters means, among other things, that we must slow down enough for others to walk with us. That’s not easy, especially if we are accustomed to nice things.

Last week, I found myself at a church supper in southern Appalachia. Some friends were with me, and they were eying the meal that was being prepared. The ham was overcooked, the vegetables were wilted, the macaroni has melted down to lose all shape. It was nothing like the church suppers that I normally enjoy! My friends murmured criticism, quiet sarcasm, really, and pledged to stop for a real meal on the way home. They began to giggle and laugh as a way of coping with a bad plate of food.

Then Anna came with her tray to sit with us. She was a young girl, maybe ten or eleven years old. She put down her tray, went to get a glass of milk. Our host whispered, “This is probably the only meal she is getting today.” My friends changed their tune in a hurry. We watched with admiration as she prayed a prayer of thanks and ate every bite. One of my friends said, “Anna, what do like most about school?” She talked about writing a poem about her cat. “I like to do that,” she said. Then she scurried off to do her homework before her mom got off work to pick her up.

How dare anybody think that they are better than others! Every single person is valuable. Every single one.

The quintessential politician is the Good Shepherd, the kind of shepherd who watches out for every lamb. None of us can do that perfectly, but all of us can do that together. We need the kind of public leaders who keep our conscience awake, the kind of leaders who pay attention to the well-being of everybody, and not merely play to the agenda of those put money in their pockets. This is a noble calling, and nobody does it perfectly. Yet the vision of scripture is clear. God says, “I will save my flock, and they will not be ravaged. I will set up my shepherd to make sure all are fed.”

Jesus comes as that kind of shepherd, a shepherd with concern for every single lamb. He offers the model for how our leaders are called by God to govern. Even so, there is no one who is so fair to everybody, no one else who has such love. That is why we call Jesus our King. 

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Never Since . . .

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
November 6, 2011

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. (34:10)

All good things must come to an end . . . including the story of Moses. That’s what we have here in Deuteronomy 34. This is the end of a book, the conclusion of a great soul. It offers up the how and when of Moses’ death, and then give an appraisal of his importance. This is his obituary, his final listing in the Jewish scriptures. It is not the last time Israel would summarize what he did

            “Never since has there arisen a prophet like Moses…” Never since.

            The book of Deuteronomy is written hundreds of years after the life and death of this man. The writers of this book are looking back to assess their own history. They realize Moses has been founding father to them, a man of critical importance. If it hadn’t been for Moses, they wouldn’t have ended up where they are. They would still be slaves under Pharoah’s thumb. God would have had to use different people for more modified success. Never since.

            Never since has there been a family like the Gibbons family. The Gibbons family moved to this little railroad town and decided they needed a church. They had ties to the missionary work of the Gospel. They wanted a church that spoke to them and for them, a church that would make a difference in the world. They couldn’t find such a church, so they started one. This one. Never since has there been a family like the Gibbons family, in starting First Presbyterian Church. They hoped, of course, there would be a Second Presbyterian Church, a Third Presbyterian Church, and so on. But they were the ones who got it started.

            Never since has there been a mother like Lois. I don’t think any of you knew her, but I did. She waited in her hospital bed for her 85th birthday. When it arrived last Wednesday, she decided she had enough and she fell into the arms of her Savior. She was the mother of five children. Arguably I was the sixth one, based on the number of times that I ate at her table. Her oldest son Mark was my good buddy.

“Ma” (as I called her) was always telling me to stay for supper. When we laid her to rest yesterday morning, her five children testified to her goodness and hospitality. “My mother’s life was a life of service,” said one of her grown kids. “She put everybody else in front of her.” They acknowledged her as their caretaker. Now, in silence, they hear her commissioning them to be caretakers of one another, and caretakers of the world. Listen to how their testimony began: “Never since . . .”

We have our long parade of saints whom we honor and remember. We think of those people today who have gone before us. Our lives are now different because of who they were. Perhaps they gave us birth. Or they entered our lives at a critical moment, said what needed to be said, did what needed to be done. We cannot pretend that they were not here before us, blazing the trail and clearing the path. Can you think of a name? Can you remember a name?

Never since have I had a teacher like Mabel Bensley. She asked me to stay after class while the rest of the kids were released to the playground. “Billy,” she said, “I wanted to talk to you when the other children weren’t around. Sometimes it seems like you are a little bored when the rest of us are working through a lesson. I wanted to give you something to extra to work on, something that I think you might enjoy.” It was a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Up until then, I thought teachers were supposed to teach you what you already knew, wipe your nose, and make sure your shoes were tied. It never occurred to me that a teacher could challenge you to grow.

And the day I was ordained as a minister, she sent me a little note. It said, “I knew this day would come, because I had praying for it to happen for years. Mrs. B.” My professors at Princeton never wrote a note like that, but she did. She pushed me, challenged me, believed in me. Never since have I had a teacher like Mrs. B.

Never since has there been a pastor like Edgar Frank. I was raised before his voice, and I don’t remember ever fidgeting. My parents remember, but I don’t. When Rev. Frank preached, everybody leaned forward, mostly because his voice was as soft as golden silence. You could hear a pin drop because he talked so quietly. That was his way of securing your attention. We had to lean forward as an act of faith, trusting that he was going to say something essential, offering up some word we could not live without.

But his work was never locked up after Sunday. In his quiet way he taught me that all of life is aimed in two directions. We respond to God who made us, who loves us. That is the first and greatest direction. Everything we do is because God comes first. And second, we relate to one another. That’s what he taught me. You make yourself available to others. You listen to them, you take them seriously. Every birthday, he used the new technology of the telephone. He whispered, “I just wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday. May God grant you another good year.” That was it. That’s all he said. Of course, I don’t think he had a lot else on his plate, just spent the entire day making birthday calls. But I’ll tell you: never since have I known a man who spoke the voice of love to one person after another after another. Never since.  

So what are they going to say about you? What kind of impact will you make? Maybe it’s obvious. Or maybe it is something that you do not even know you are radiating. It could be your calming influence or your peaceful spirit. Or it could be the way you steer the ship through choppy waters. Maybe it’s the way you walk into the room and take charge. Or perhaps it is the way that you encourage somebody to be better than everybody thinks they are. Maybe you are the one who teaches that it is possible to forgive. Or perhaps it’s the quiet center of your life that affects everyone within reach.

What will they say of you when you are gone?

One morning in 1888, a Norwegian businessman reached for his morning newspaper. Flipping idly through the pages, he received the shock of his life: he saw his own obituary! It was a terrible mistake, of course. His brother had recently died, and a careless reporter had mixed the two of them up. He had gone to the newspaper's files and pulled the biographical information on the wrong man.

Well, here’s the thing. As the man read his own obituary, he didn’t like what he saw. Oh, the details were accurate enough. He was an inventor, world-renowned, and had gained one of the largest fortunes in world. Yet the newspaper called him “The Merchant of Death.” The headline read, “The Merchant of Death is Dead.”

His name was Alfred Nobel. While working as a chemist, he had accidentally discovered a way to convert the explosive nitroglycerin into a powdered form. He called the product “dynamite” and it made him richer than his wildest dreams. But his obituary said, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

He decided to change the purpose of his life. Rather than sue the newspaper, Nobel began giving his money away. He made provision in his will for the famous Nobel Prizes, rewarding each year those who had made the greatest contributions to humanity. Eight years later, when Alfred Nobel passed away from a stroke, he accomplished what no other person in human history has managed to do: he had rewritten his own obituary.

God’s blessing is always hidden in the second chance. Sometimes that is when life begins. Remember Moses? Say whatever you want, but he was a murderer. He killed an Egyptian who was beating up on one of his fellow Hebrews, and hid the man’s body in the sand. Pharoah got word of this and Moses began to run. If that was all there was to the story, we would not be here this morning. But God got through to Moses, found him, spoke to him, and gave him the work of freeing a huge tribe of oppressed slaves. For a good long while, Moses was God’s point man to a disorganized gaggle of people who weren’t always sure they wanted to be free.

But now, looking back, from the vantage point of many years, they realized how significant he was.

When All Saints Day rolls by each year, it is a reminder that every life matters. Every single person has the possibility of positively affecting somebody else. The power of God is worked out in the kind of lives that we live, in the hands we hold, in the words we speak, in the truths we defend.

Never since, I tell you… You and I can talk about these people who have affected us. They taught by example. They showed us the good Word of God in flesh. The power of remembering people is not merely to remind us of their legacies, but to remember the legacies that we will leave behind. When it comes to the memories of other people, we take responsibility for the memories that we are making.

“Never since has there been a prophet like Moses…” There are plenty more prophets, lots and lots of them. There are always plenty of prophets among the people of God. These people speak face to face with the Lord our God, even if they do not readily see that face. Yet they keep chasing after the face of God until God finally blesses them. And they do this so they can extend that blessing to everybody who can receive it.  

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved