Sunday, June 24, 2012

Talking Back to the King

1 Kings 21
Ordinary 12
June 24, 2012
William G. Carter

It’s a story about the Big Guy taking advantage of the Little Guy. That is how the Bible speaks of injustice – it tells a story.

Once upon a time, Naboth had a family vineyard. For generations, the Naboth family grew grapes, stomped on them, and made wine. It was perfectly adequate wine from a modestly productive vineyard.

Then one day the king spotted the field and said, “I want that.” Naboth said, “You can’t have it.”

The king said, “But I’m the king.” Naboth said, “But the vineyard belongs to my family.” So the king went back inside the palace, sulked around for a while, and whimpered about how he couldn’t get what he wanted.

The king’s name was Ahab. The queen’s name was Jezebel. She quickly grew disgusted with her husband’s whimpering. “Look here,” she said. “You’re the king. Grow up! The king gets to do whatever he wants. If you want that vineyard, go take the vineyard.”

Ahab lifted his pillow and looked pitifully at her. She said, “Never mind. I will get that vineyard for you.” And we heard how she did it: a couple of thugs were employed to make false accusations. There were trumped up charges, the hurling of stones, and pretty soon, Ahab got his vineyard.

Did you know this story was in the Bible? I didn’t know it was here until I was well into my twenties. We never heard this story in Sunday School. It never got included in the Vacation Bible School curriculum of my youth. I dare say this might be the first time in one hundred years when somebody ever talked about this story in this pulpit. Don’t know for sure, but that’s a safe bet . . .

. . . Even though every one of us knows what this story is about: the Big Guy takes advantage of the Little Guy. The king and queen get their way at the expense of one of their subjects. We’ve all seen this, in a hundred different ways. The big box store with acres of discounted stuff drives out the family-run corner hardware store. The mass-market disco star outsells the neighborhood folk singer. The Empire uses the Death Star to destroy Princess Leia’s home planet.

Pick your simile – it could be Bain Capital or the National Health Plan. It could be Coach Sandusky or Father Ferrara – wherever the Big Guy destroys the Little Guy. That’s the story of Naboth’s vineyard.

And I am very curious that more American Christians don’t know that Bible story. Why do you suppose that is?

I think it’s because of the way the story continues. God sees the devious maneuvers of Queen Jezebel and her hapless husband. God looks down – or God looks around – and God refuses to let that injustice stand. With specific description, God speaks a Word to his appointed mouthpiece, the prophet Elijah, and God says, “This shall not stand. Ahab is toast. Jezebel shall be thrown to the dogs.” (I once had a nasty cat who we called Jezebel. Because she would not keep her claws in, we threatened to throw her to the dogs.)

This is what God says to the whimpering, greedy king and his nasty wife, the queen. God talks back to injustice, and stirs up Elijah to make the announcement.

Did you ever wonder why we have rarely heard this story in church? There are cultural reasons, historical reasons. A hundred years ago, the story would have been inconceivable in America. The church and the government were on the same page. This was mostly a Protestant country and the church was its chaplain. The Christianity of 1912 had no need of any prophets, or so most people thought.

A few of us were talking the other day, and one of the old-timers remembered how this congregation used to own a house across the street. An assistant minister lived there, as I recall. He was moving on and the elders said, “Let’s sell the house.” And then somebody else said, “Well, be sure that you don’t sell the house to a Catholic.” Can you imagine that people used to talk that way? Can some of you remember when they did talk that way?

Some years back, I took the confirmation class to Manhattan. We went down to a soup kitchen near Wall Street and served breakfast to the down-and-outers who dropped by. Our suburban kids got an eye-full An earful, too. From there, we wandered up a few blocks to the 9-11 site and posed for pictures. Then we took the subway to mid-town and took a look inside Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. It’s right near the Diamond District, across the street from the place where Donald Trump gets his haircut.

As we walked into that glorious sanctuary full of glistening wood, one of my friends who went as an advisor said, “Wow! Remember when the Presbyterians ruled the world?” Truth be told, we never did, but there was an age of grandeur. Glistening wood and grandeur. Nobody felt the need for a Presbyterian prophet talking back to the king when everything was going well.

Meanwhile, last year’s statistics were just released: our Presbyterian denomination had a net loss of 64,000 members last year. The majority of the people lost simply drifted away.[1] A good bit of them may have drifted because church and religion don’t help them feel quite so successful any more.

That’s my hunch. Faith and success don’t always go hand in hand. Just ask Robert Schuller about that’s working out for him these days. Anyone remember the Crystal Cathedral?

But oh, back in the 1950’s, we Presbyterians were on top of the world! Dwight D. Eisenhower was running for president. Word leaked out that he had never been baptized, and it became a minor campaign issue. So ten days after his inauguration, Ike went down the street to National Presbyterian Church and got himself baptized. And the Presbyterians rejoiced! The President was one of us. The churches were full. The Baby Boom created Sunday School buildings. Post-war optimism was high. The Protestant church and the American state were humming along in the same direction.

And then what happened? The Cold War with its spectre of nuclear war. The Viet Nam war and the attempt to stifle worldwide communism. The Civil Rights movement and its struggle for racial equality. And for the first time ever, in 1960, the United States elected a president who was Roman Catholic. Fifty years ago, halfway through our congregation’s history, there were changes going on, changes which the Presbyterians have never quite recovered from.

I don’t know if you ever thought about any of this, particularly if you are over fifty years old, but it’s a different world for the American church than it once was. When my father was a child, his country went to war against the Germans and the Japanese. For his generation, it was very clearly a battle between good and evil, Roosevelt versus Hitler, freedom versus totalitarian oppression. That conflict was clearly defined.

By contrast, when I was a little child, we sat in a school hallway and covered our heads in “duck and cover” drills, just in case a weapon of mass destruction that we invented would ever be used against us. I listened to confusing news reports from Southeast Asia and worried that the war would go on until I was old enough to be drafted. We saw a president shot. We saw his brother shot. We watched a Civil Rights hero gunned down in Memphis.

After that, President Johnson lied to us about Viet Nam. President Nixon lied to us about everything, and was paranoid enough to record himself doing it. This last week was the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal. We were reminded yet again of burglary, theft, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. Just like Jezebel and Ahab.

There are gaps between three generations in American culture. There is the gap between those who remember when the government appeared to act honorably and those who can’t ever remember such a thing. And there is the gap between those who remember being taught about an American dream even though they didn’t always see it and the younger adults today who can’t even imagine that there is an American dream.

That circles back to the story of Naboth and his vineyard, of God and Elijah against Ahab and Jezebel. In a corrupt world, it’s always the Big Guy plundering the Little Guy. That’s why God raises up the prophet, to declare the fundamental fairness of loving the neighbor as much as oneself. This is the biblical definition of justice – to love the neighbor, to look out for the weak, to act as the brother’s keeper and the sister’s guardian. When that does not happen, God speaks up. God talks back to Ahab and Jezebel, and indicates that the future will not be on their side.

One hundred years ago, our church did not have a Mission and Justice committee. We did not send anybody to Haiti. Perhaps we collected some money and passed it along, so that the good white Presbyterians could feel good about sharing some of their blessings with those less fortunate. Never had to get close enough to see their global neighbors, but they could pass along some of the left-overs, and pray that the few fervent missionaries would get the funds where they needed to go.

I’d like to suggest it’s a different world. Or maybe it’s not a different world. Maybe this is the same old corrupt world when people try to get ahead at the expense of their neighbors. Ever hear the new beatitudes of selfish people? “Blessed are the aggressive, for they shall be fulfilled.” “Blessed are the manipulative, for they shall get their way.”

Or is it, really, “Blessed are those who have too much food, for they shall suffer from obesity, hypertension, and worry, while the orphans of Port-au-Prince wither in the streets.”

Do you think God is happy with the injustice of this world? Does God sanction it when the rulers of the earth lord their power over others, or does the Lord Jesus Christ invite us to serve one another? In the words of the Psalm we sang, can the high and mighty hear how God laughs at their silly pretense? Justice means to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

Here’s the thing: a hundred years ago, American Protestants stuck to themselves. These concerns weren’t always on the radar. But I think now they are. We don’t have to be a church that pays no attention to the needy and says, “Live and let live.” We don’t have to hide up here on the hill while immigrants in the valley lack basic resources. We don’t have to pretend that everybody else lives as well as we do. Even if we don’t think we live so well, there are a lot of people within our reach who could not even dream of living as well as us.

The call of faith is to live as neighbors. To love one another as neighbors. To do the hard work of taking one another seriously. To serve, and never to plunder.

Though God is mostly invisible, God is watching to see what we do with our lives. God is watching to see if we can see one another.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Different Kind of Family

Mark 3:31-35
Ordinary 11
June 17, 2012
William G. Carter

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to Jesus and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Happy birthday, church! We will be offering that greeting many times this year. In coming weeks, we will welcome some alumni. A few will preach, a few will simply be here. After a spring season full of special events, we continue on to the big birthday party, scheduled for World Communion, October 7. Plan on a big party with one hundred candles on the cake!

So this summer, I thought I would devote some sermons to reflect on the ways things have changed. We are not the same people we were one hundred years ago. Oh, I know – some of you look the same. A few of you may even think the same. But this same old church is not the same.

Back in college philosophy class, the professor introduced us to Heroclitus. Ever hear of him? He lived in the city of Ephesus, some five hundred year before Jesus. Little is known about Heroclitus, outside of the wise sayings that his students passed along. You can summarize his wisdom in two ways.

First of all, there is a wisdom and an order to the universe. He gave it the name “Logos,” which we often translate as “word.” As in the first chapter of John, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” Six hundred years before those words appeared in the New Testament, the philosopher Heraclitus declared there is a Logos at the center of all things.

The second piece of wisdom is that everything changes. The one constant in the universe is change. It was Heroclitus who first announced, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” The river keeps moving along. As Heroclitus put it, “Everything flows, nothing stands still.” “Nothing endures but change.”

So that’s what I am thinking about. A hundred years later, this is not the same church, for this is not the same world.

Today we consider the family. The family. Take that as a snapshot of your household, or a glimpse of the church and its household.

Twenty-two years ago, when I was doing my homework and trying to decide if I wanted to come to this community, I spoke with my friend Bob London. Bob said, “I’ve never seen a church like the Clarks Summit church. In every pew, there is a Mom and a Dad and a couple of kids.” I asked if there were any divorces, and Bob replied, “A few but not very many. Everybody comes to church.”

To my astonishment, he was right. Did you see the picture on the front of the worship bulletin? See if you can find it. Mom and Dad, Buffy and Sissy, and Junior in his baseball cap, with Bowser the dog. OK, look up and down your pew – let’s see a show of hands. How many of you came to church today with an gathering like that?

While we are doing the survey, how many of you came today by yourself? How many of you have somebody in your roof who does not go to church on any regular basis? How many of you have children of any age who do not attend a church?  Twenty-two years ago, you may have been in the minority. The family connection to most American churches has changed. Church has become optional in a lot of families, and there is no sign that this is going to change any time soon.

In this congregation, there was a season when we resembled the picture on the bulletin cover. It ended around 1999. To be truthful, it probably ended some time before that. We used to go through the membership rolls and identify young adults who went off to college and never came back. They stayed on the official lists. Sometimes the parents made contributions on their behalf just to keep them on the list. They weren’t going anywhere, so we would keep them on the list here.

They would call from Philadelphia and Boston and ask if I would preside over their weddings. It would be a stretch to get them back for a little bit of premarital counseling, and if they could come, they often squeezed in some conversations with florists, caterers, and photographers. The minister was one more appointment to tick on the to-do list. And I would ask, “So where are you going to worship in Philadelphia or Boston?” They would smile, and the bride would say, “Oh Reverend, we wish there was a church like this one! We can’t find one.” I would ask where they had looked and they quickly changed the subject.

People don’t go to church like they once did. Have you noticed that? And if they do, they often don’t stay with it. In the statistics available to me, the percentage of church-goers in our zip code is about twenty-two percent. We can grumble about that, or wish to turn back the clock, but that is the reality.

Some of the change is because the family unit has changed. I grew up in a family where there were no alternatives on Sunday morning. Two parents and four children went to church. Nobody was allowed to skip. When I spend some time with my Dad this afternoon, I will remind him of how he croaked out the words to “Holy, Holy, Holy.” To keep us quiet, he would pull out a roll of wintergreen Lifesavers and pass it down the pew. The calmest child was selected to put the offering envelope in the plate. And we talked about the sermon over Sunday dinner.

Does any family do this anymore? I hope so, but I don’t know. The assumption was that the family would worship together. The family would train the children to pray. The family would teach the hymns by singing them. The family would put the church at the center of its life.

This still happens. I see it, and I applaud it. But it often happens differently. The times have changed.

Janet Fishburn taught Church History at Drew University Theological School. She did extensive research on the shape of American families, particularly as it related to church attendance and the Christian faith. One of the things she realized that the notion of a “family pew” was often a blip or an exception, not always the reality.

Up until the Second World War, many wives worked. It was the prosperity of the 1950’s and the twenty years following that allowed many Moms to stay home. The standard that the popular culture drew upon was the Victorian era, the 1890’s, when the wealthiest women stayed home and wore dresses with lace. Along came June Cleaver, Wilma Flintstone, and Edith Bunker, and the middle class got to do that for a while, too. But then prices went up and many women went back to work. Those who didn’t work were very fortunate.

The reality these days is that a lot of parents work, if they have the jobs. The mortgages are higher, the finances are tighter, and the family is generally under a lot more stress. In a town like this, where is the affordable housing? Are there any starter homes? Can a young family make ends meet on one income? I suppose it depends on the income.

When Sunday morning comes, and people are tired from working all week, it’s tempting to stay home and get some rest. I understand that. When it comes to paying attention to God, when it comes to putting God first in our lives, the world is usually pushes us in the opposite direction. That is the human condition, after all. We resist the love of God and the work that it sets before us. Sometimes it runs counter to the expectations of our own families.

That was the situation for Jesus. In the story we heard from the Gospel of Mark, he is busy proclaiming the power of God. He is hip-deep in doing God’s work – spending time with the sick, speaking hope to the hopeless, forgiving the unforgiveable. His family hears about it, and they are concerned. A little bit of love and compassion is fine, but he is going overboard.

What’s more, they hear that Jesus is taking on all kinds of ugliness. If somebody is talking out of their mind, Jesus talks back. If they are stuck in destructive behavior, he intervenes. If they are poisoned by illness, he reaches across the invisible divide, risks infection, and makes them well. Clearly he is pushing himself beyond all safety. And the word spreads that he is out of his mind, that he has slipped over the edge. Jesus is obsessive about doing God’s work. It makes his own family nervous. They come to take him away.

Reminds me of the old man who lived in the alley behind my first church. Walter was a member of that church, but he didn’t show up much. Christmas and Easter, maybe. That was it. His grandson moved in with him and he had mixed feelings about the kid. Apparently the grandson had gotten involved in his girlfriend’s church. Now he interrupted supper to offer a prayer. He spent his spare time reading his Bible and telling his grandfather what he read. He gave a lot of money to his church, and loved going to prayer meetings and Bible studies.

I was taking something out to the garage one night, when Grandfather Walter met me at the back fence. “I believe in religion, and all that,” he said, “but Michael is going off the deep end. Reverend, can you talk some sense into him?”

I smiled at Walter and said, “Absolutely not,” and went back inside.

Jesus’ own family tried to get him to stop. They wanted to restrain him from taking God so seriously. They stood outside the house and called to him. “Come on, Honey. Enough of that healing and teaching and making a difference in the world. It’s time to come back to your senses.”

The people in the crowd said, “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside. They are calling for you. They want you to cool it. They want you to tone it down. They want you to take a nominal, part-time, optional, soft-edged view of God.”

You heard what he said: “Who are my mother and brothers?” Then pointing to those gathered around him, he said, “Here they are! Right here, around me. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother.”

It was a shocking thing for him to say. It was shocking enough that the church remembered his words and kept them in a book. The Gospel is not about kinship. It’s about God. It’s about doing the work of God, and not merely giving it lip service. It is about committing yourself like Jesus to loving the unlovable, to forgiving the unforgiveable, to healing the impossible. It’s all about proclaiming the gracious rule of God over all of life.

That comes first, and blessed are those who live the love of God. You are the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Sometimes his brothers and sisters are actually related to one another. They show God’s love in the ways that they lay down their lives for the benefit of their relatives. Parents make sacrifices for their kids, and they are to be honored for this. Stop today and offer a word of thanks for every gift and grace.

And sometimes kids make sacrifices for their parents, too. They interrupt their schedules to spend time with the people they love. They dedicate themselves to be sure that Mom and Dad are always cared for. This is the shape of love in this world, that father and mother are honored and taken seriously, just as God commands.

And sometimes we discover the family of God is a lot bigger than we ever thought. We welcome a precious new child through baptism today, introducing him to the many aunts and uncles who pledge to tell him about Jesus and call forth his own abilities to love and serve our God.

And we send off some servants today, as well. Our youth and their advisors will repair homes in the Adirondacks, showing the love of God and not merely talking about it.

Perhaps this is what God had in mind for all of us, anyway. Not merely to stay entangled with our relatives, but to serve a much larger family than the one we were born into.  

Who are the brothers and sisters of Jesus? They are the ones who live the love of God. They are the ones that Jesus loves, the ones he loves to death. Your name is on his family tree.

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