Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Best Things Are Borrowed

Mark 11:1-11

Palm Sunday
April 1, 2012
William G. Carter

It was a number of years ago, but the memory is still crystal clear. Our tour bus stopped on the top of the Mount of Olives. The forty pilgrims in our group stepped off the bus. The plan was to walk down a road that has been there for three thousand years.

At our left was the largest Jewish cemetery in the road, established in the ancient belief the Messiah will appear on the Mount of Olives. At the bottom of the hill is the Garden of Gethsemane, guarded by the remains of olive trees that overheard the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. Straight ahead was Mount Zion, with the ancient walls of the city of Jerusalem. This is the route that Jesus took when he entered the city on Palm Sunday. To this day, it is still a moving sight!

Right by the bus were a couple of local men. They waited for the tourists like us. "Would you like to borrow a donkey to ride down the hill?" they asked. "Perhaps you would sit upon one and we can take your picture." These were not kind offers by generous new friends. This was the way those men make their living.

None of us took them up on the offer, particularly when we heard it was fifty bucks for the picture and a hundred and a half to "borrow" the donkey. These concessionaires would demand such fees because of the location. The Mount of Olives is the most famous place on earth to "borrow" a donkey. We turned down their invitation. It was enough to know we were on the same road with Jesus.

The people behind us, however, were pious church folk from California. They were shelling out cash right and left for the privilege of riding those donkeys down the hill. The scene was pretty comical. I think if these people really wanted to take their Bibles seriously, they should have insisted that no money should have changed hands.

The Bible insists the donkey was borrowed. Jesus sent two disciples ahead of him on his way to Jerusalem. When they got to the small village of Bethphage, he said, "Go to the village up there, and you will find the colt of a donkey. Untie it and bring it to me. And if anybody asks, 'Where are you going with my animal,' simply say the Lord needs it, and we will bring it right back."

This time through the familiar story, it's the act of borrowing that catches my attention. Anybody who has heard the story knows how exciting it is. Hundreds of people lined the road of the city. The Passover holiday was near and excitement ignited the air. Jesus intentionally chooses to join the festival parade in this way. He is the One that everybody awaits. He is the rightful ruler of God's people, not Caesar. He comes to redeem the people from the oppression of the empire.  And they sing, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!"

But he comes on a borrowed donkey. Now what kind of king is this?

All of us know the story. As somebody notes, Jesus was born in a borrowed place and laid in a borrowed manger. As he traveled, he had no place of his own to spend the night. He rode into the city on a borrowed donkey. He ate his final meal in a borrowed room. He was crucified on a borrowed cross, wearing a borrowed crown that jokers stuck upon his head. And when he died, somebody placed his body in a borrowed tomb.[1]

Jesus was a borrower. He did not grasp or grab what did not belong to him, but shared what was given to him freely. As the early church pondered the identity and character of Jesus, it declared, "Jesus did not count equality with God as something to be clutched." Our Lord did not hold onto heavenly glory and throw his weight around. He never forced himself upon anybody. So Jesus emptied himself. He gave himself completely away for the benefit of others.

Have you ever considered how remarkable this is? Jesus didn't own very much--just the tunic on his body and the sandals on his feet. After he was arrested and condemned, the soldiers tossed dice to see who would take his clothing.

He commanded the same of those who followed him. As he instructed them, "When you go out to proclaim the good news, take no money, no knapsack, no extra tunic, no extra shoes, not even a walking stick. Take only a word of peace, borrow the bed given to you, and proclaim that God's kingdom has come very close."[2] At its core, the Good News of God does not need a lot of props. What it needs is the kind of people who believe it simply as they can.

That is remarkable, especially in our culture so bent on consumption. Materialism infects a lot of otherwise Christian people. Some churches buy a lot of fancy equipment to razzle-dazzle the crowds. They crank up the volume to amplify what they say. They put on a good show because they are been seduced to think the Gospel depends on having a lot of toys. But today we remember how the Savior of the world is the One who borrows a donkey to ride downhill to his cross.

Who are the real blessed ones? Jesus says they are the people who don't have very much: the poor in spirit, those who mourn the loss of a loved one, those who are meek, those who are hungry for food and thirsty for righteousness. These are the blessed ones, says Jesus. Who are the blessed ones? Blessed are those who keep a light grip on all that they have, for they know that everything in life depends on the generosity of God. They are the people who have everything.

Once the guestmaster at a Benedictine monastery described why he kept no possessions other than the clothes on his back. He explained, "If your closet is empty, there is more room for God." Contrast that to the child who steps over piles of dirty laundry on the floor and says, "Mom, I have nothing to wear." Or the adult surrounded by shelves of books and DVDs who declares, "I'm bored and I have nothing to do."
There is a beauty to simplicity, to not owning much and needing very little. Those with this freedom will pay attention to the people around them. Little distracts them from the deep needs of the world. Nothing competes with their imagination or faithfulness.

From everything we know about him, Jesus was just like the peasants of his time, and he owned very little. What Jesus did possess was of infinite value. He possessed a deep knowledge of the scriptures. And that's how he knew the prophets expected the true ruler of God's people to be completely humble.

Jesus possessed a deep sensitivity to the world's deepest needs. He paid attention to the hurts of poor and rich alike, comprehending the forces that twist a good person out of shape, seeing how forgiveness can cancel every ongoing hurt and always healing the minds, bodies, and spirits of the people in his path.

Most of all, his greatest possession was a love for every single person. His love was never a hovering, needy love, but rather a willingness to give what he could for the well-being to those around him. In the words of the early church, Jesus emptied himself. He humbled himself.

And this is the kind of God that we glimpse in the man who borrows a donkey. As somebody puts it, Jesus "manifests a God whose very being is not acquisitive, but self-giving... [that] the ultimate power is the power to renounce power."[3]

Today we remember how Jesus gives himself to the world. On this festive day, he rides a borrowed donkey into the center of the city that will reject him. A person with few possessions, he empties himself of all that he has. It's all for the benefit of saving the world. And God keeps doing this saving work, setting us free from all selfishness and claiming us in the name of Jesus who owned very little, but who ultimately wishes to possess our hearts.

Let us pray: Great God, you come to us in simplicity. Set us free us from anything that would distract us from loving you with our whole heart, mind, and strength. Amen.

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

This sermon was broadcast on Day 1, the national radio pulpit ministry. For more information on how you can support this ministry, go to 

[1] Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Rob Elder for these observations.
[2] Mark 6:7-10, Matthew 10:5-15
[3] Raymond Brown, Death of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday and Sons, 1994) 27.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Only Through Prayer

Mark 9:14-29
Lent 5
March 25, 2012
William G. Carter

     When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 
     Jesus said to him, “If you are able! - All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 
     . . . When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”

Well, there he goes again. Jesus is giving a little kick to his twelve disciples, reminding them once again of their spiritual ineptness. In this section of Mark, he is something like a drill sergeant, instructing them on the way to the cross, and barking out rebukes when they get it wrong.

Here, Jesus has to deal with the ineptness of his followers when it comes to an exorcism. Back in chapter six, he gave them power to cast out the forces of evil that cripple human lives. He sent them out with the authority to do what he has been doing, to confront the array of destructive powers at work in the world. Jesus delegates his power to the twelve disciples. He empowers them to take on his work and to extend it.

That was chapter six. By chapter nine, they have lost their juice.

There’s a little boy with a serious disorder. He cannot speak. He cannot hear. He has seizures at unpredictable times and he is a threat to himself. His family has to guard him when he is close to the fire pit or near open water. They never know when he will suddenly start shaking, or foaming at the mouth, or stiffening up and falling over. It had to be a frightening thing.

Those of you who have known a child with epilepsy or similar neurological trouble can only imagine what that family was going through. They never knew when the malady would strike. They never knew what it would do. There was no way to ever rest, no way to ever leave the boy alone. They had to keep an eye on him at all times, always vigilant, always on edge, if only to keep him from further harm. The seizures would begin, horrible as they were. They had to ride them out, taking their own bruises if necessary. It was the only way to keep their son alive, and for him as for them, it wasn’t much of a life.

It’s no wonder the father brings the boy to Jesus. No wonder at all. If there’s any help, it’s going to come from the strange Galilean who exhibits the power to make people well. And since Jesus wasn’t right there, since he was up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, the father takes the boy to the remaining nine disciples. “Here he is. Can you do anything to help?” They try to help, but it does not work. That’s how the story begins. Or at least I thought that’s how the story begins.

Fact is, there’s this curious little detail at the outset. As Jesus and three disciples approach, there’s an argument going on. Some religious leaders, the Bible scribes, are squabbling with the other nine disciples. They are having a noisy disagreement. Jesus says, “What are you arguing about?” Did you notice? Nobody answered him. They never tell him about the argument.

That is when the boy’s father speaks up about his son. “I’ll tell you what is going on. I brought my son to you. You weren’t here, so I asked your disciples to help him. They couldn’t do it.”

OK, the Lord gets annoyed by this. Still, that does not explain the squabble. There’s a sick kid in need of life-giving help, and here are some religious people bickering about something – God knows what. Religious people are experts at bickering – but meanwhile, there’s this kid in need, and the religious people are bickering.

That’s a curious little detail, isn’t it?

And then, there’s the little interchange before the healing. The father brings his kid to Jesus, and says, “If you can do something, can you help us?” Jesus says, “IF?! Did you say, IF?! All kinds of things can be done for those who believe.” All right, believe what? Believe that something can actually be done, that God can actually do something, that God in Christ wants something to happen. It’s that kind of belief – an active belief, a compelling belief, an open and intentional belief: I believe that God is right here and can do something for this child!

In the power of that father’s belief, Jesus heals the son by hurling out the oppressive powers. And then, the disciples pull him into a house and say, “How did you do that? How come we couldn’t do that?”

He looks at them and goes, “Well? . . . ” And then, just to be sassy, he says, “Those kind of demons only come out through prayer.”

You know you have an interesting story when it can spin in all kind of directions. For me, that seems to be the point. There is the squabble between Jesus’ followers and the religious leaders. We never learn what they are bickering about it, and it’s really a distraction that keeps childish adults from the needs of a kid.

I’ve been saddened, for instance, to hear all the childish dithering by adults when an innocent black teenager was recently shot and killed in Florida. It’s completely wrong and any thinking human being knows this. But to listen to the distracting noise of the so-called experts – “he was wearing a hoodie, he didn’t respond to a stranger” – oh, give me a break. It helps me understand the frustration of Jesus in this story.

Then there is the ineptness of the disciples. Remember the Three Stooges? Jesus had twelve of them, or at least Mark thinks so. They can’t do anything right. Maybe they couldn’t get the exorcism done because they were holding their hands the wrong way, or they ran out of incense and holy water, or they didn’t have the words just right, or because they were listening to the flak from the religious scribes.

If you are going to confront evil, it’s not primarily a matter of mechanics or procedures. It is primarily a matter of prayer. It is a spiritual matter. Constant prayer is staying close to God. It opens us to God’s purposes. It beckons us to God’s work in the world. It puts the mission of God before every personal agenda. We pray “Thy will be done” – and then we do God’s will. We pray “deliver us from evil” – and then we confront the evil. Prayer is our primal weapon. Prayer is the tactical force of God’s kingdom. Prayer calls on God to come and make good on the promise that Jesus is saving the world. It is the business of the Spirit.

And then in our story, there is the father’s concern, the father’s initiative, the father’s incomplete faith that prompts him to say, “I believe; help my unbelief.” That memorable Bible verse speaks for all of us.

Certainly our faith is unfinished. If you have a sick kid, you are bound to be shaken. If your world is shaped by a loved one in distress, you have days if you wonder if it is ever going to get better. If you are afraid of what’s going to happen tomorrow, you might never get dressed to start handling the fears of today. We have plenty of unbelief, don’t we! We worry, we fret, we lose sleep. We hear stories of help from heaven and wonder if any of that help is going to come for us. We hear ancient stories like the one today and wonder what they have to do with us. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

Should we pull Jesus aside and get his attention, he will most likely say what he said to the twelve: “These kind only get driven out through prayer.” Through prayer. How much are you praying? How much are you chasing after God? How much are you hungering and thirsting to know God and to discover God’s greater purposes? How much are you grounding yourself in the life-giving, evil-confronting work of Jesus as it reveals the mission of God to the world? This is indeed a spiritual matter. It is a matter of prayer.

A week after burying her husband David, writer Kathleen Norris took her sister for chemotherapy. It was a numbing time in Kathleen’s life, and much of it was lived in a fog of gloom. “I had no idea how I would inhabit that devastating word, widow,” she writes. “As for prayer, I was not surprised that (a) mocking spirit was alive within me, or that when I most needed the consolation that prayer can bring, I was unable to pray.”[1] Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.

She says, “When I missed David most acutely, the pain washing over me in thunderous breaking waves, I would remind myself that I I could not wish for him back, because that would mean his having to endure more suffering. All of that was over for him, the gasping for breath, the pain of that accursed cracked shoulder. I did not know what to hope for, but I knew that I needed to pray again.”

David had been a part-time Episcopalian. Within his Book of Common Prayer, Kathleen found a prayer for herself, in a section of prayers for those who are sick:

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

            The words of prayer were themselves a help. She prayed the prayers, she prayed the Psalms, especially the realistic ones and the sad ones. Kathleen came across the writing of Gregory of Nyssa, one of the ancient Fathers of the church. He was writing about the Lord’s Prayer, and said, “Remember that the life in which we ought to be interested is ‘daily’ life (as in praying for daily bread). We can, each of us, only call the present time our own… Our Lord tells us to pray for today, and he prevents us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow.” Give us this day our daily bread, deliver us from evil.

            It wasn’t an easy prayer, she said, particularly when she felt tempted to give up on both today and tomorrow. “Yet even if this is a necessary stage of grief,” she writes, “there is also a time to emerge and attempt to find a place in the new and alien landscape. The prayer of my heart, offered when I was too worn out to pray, offered silently and beneath any conscious level, was for the strength to hazard this transition… The grieving person undergoes a kind of death, and on many days my grief has…made me feel as if I were barely living.” That was her temptation, she says.

And in such moments, she recalled the guidance of spiritual friends who said that temptation can be a sign of spiritual progress. God does not bring us this far to abandon us. God refuses to concede anything to darkness and destruction. It is the work of God to make all things new, to make all people new. And God’s grace is relentless.   

“Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.” This is where prayer begins. This is where evil is confronted, both beyond us and within us. Supported by one another, we trust in God. In power of the Gospel, in the authority of Jesus Christ, we believe that the dawn shall come again.

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

[1] Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (New York: Riverhead Books: 2008). These quotes are taken from pp. 248-251, 260.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

When the World Blurs Your Vision

Mark 6:14-29
Lent 4
March 18, 2012
William G. Carter

But when Herod heard of (the work of Jesus), he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

            My third grade Bible had a picture of this scene. I don’t think the Christian Education committee in my church looked at it very closely before they gave it to me. In those days, we had to memorize three psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Beatitudes because they would give us a Bible. Imagine my surprise, at nine years of age, to take it home and discover an old painted picture of John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

            Those were the days before cable TV and instantaneous violence, but we were never shielded from the gross and the grotesque. The evening news regularly reported deaths in Viet Nam, murders in the Bronx, and the occasional random atrocity. It was very clear as a nine year old that I lived in a dangerous world. Bad things happened. People hurt one another. My parents were very careful to guard me from hearing a lot of the specifics, but danger always lurked out in the shadows. And my Bible had a picture of John the Baptist’s head.

            All the characters in the scene were there. Herod Antipas, the regional king, looked shaken. The lady with the scary eyebrows was Herodias, his scheming wife. She sneered triumphantly. Her daughter, dressed in some kind of gauzy negligee, had a strange look on her face as if to ask, “Oh no, what did I do?” All around them were party guests, some of them men grabbing women, others looking shocked, with a few looking like they were ill from all the merry-making. It’s a really awful story – and there it was, in a collection of full-color Bible scenes, right between the sending of the disciples and the feeding of the five thousand.

            You have to wonder why Mark includes the story. He tells it as a bit of flashback. Back in chapter one, he says Jesus started preaching after John got arrested by Herod Antipas (1:14). Now, some five chapters later, he talks about the reason behind that arrest and its eventual outcome. He didn’t need to include this gruesome tale. Or maybe he did. We will have to decide.

            What’s curious is that Jesus doesn’t appear in the story at all. Mark’s Gospel is all about Jesus, the things he did, the words he spoke, the evil he confronted. Suddenly there is this lurid tale from the fortress high above the east shore of the Dead Sea. Like a lot of the outrageous tales that came out of castles, everybody heard it. The famed historian Josephus wrote his own account. Mark wants his own church to hear it, some thirty five years after the fact.

            By all accounts, Herod Antipas was a nasty man. The family name was Herod. His father was Herod the Great, the same monarch who got unhinged when the wise men came looking for the new king Jesus. Clearly the family had its issues. Let me see if I can quickly explain some of the family history.

·         Herod the Great was a practicing Jew. He married a woman named Doris. They had a son named Antipater. When the boy was three years old, Herod sent away Doris and the boy, and married another woman. Later on, Herod murdered that son. .
·         Herod the Great and his second wife had a son named Aristobulus. Before Herod the Great killed him, he had a daughter named Herodias. She’s the villainess of our story.
·         Then Herod the Great got rid of his second wife and married a third. She gave them a son called Philip, Herod Philip. Herod Philip married Herodias, the daughter of his half-brother, which would make her his niece. Together Philip and Herodias had a daughter named Salome, who was the dancer in our story.
·         After this, Herod the Great took a fourth wife, and she produced two sons: Archelaus and Antipas. Antipas is the Herod in our story.
·         Meanwhile Philip had moved to Rome, where he lived in luxury. Antipas went to visit him. He seduced his half-brother’s wife Herodias, and persuaded her to leave her husband and come back with him, where they could be happy forever ruling over part of Galilee from his desert fortresses.

            Are you following all of that? Herod Antipas married Herodias. She was the daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus, and therefore his niece. She was the wife of his half-brother Philip, and therefore his sister-in-law. I think it’s safe to say the family had some issues.

            While all of this was going on, there was this preacher in the desert, John the Baptist. He was a fierce Jew. We know him, of course, because of his big sermon that based on the 40th chapter of Isaiah. that sermon said, "The Messiah is coming. Get ready. Straighten the path of God!"

But apparently John had another sermon too. That sermon was based on Leviticus 18, verse 6. How do I know that? Because of what it says: “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: thus says the Lord.”

John the Baptist started aiming that sermon at the castle of Herod Antipas. And he was so loud and so direct, that Herod’s wife Herodias heard it too.

Now, I don’t know a lot about ancient politics, especially with despotic kings and queens, but I wonder why they would care about some crazy, wild-eyed preacher out among the sand dunes and the scorpions. Why bother with John the Baptist and his critique of your moral behavior? Who cares what the preachers say? These days you can run for president after you’ve dumped a couple of wives and nobody is going to say much about it. The kings and queens of the world usually live by their own rules, often improvising as they go along.

You know, that is the way of the world . . .

            But here’s the thing: even though he arrested John the Baptist, Herod Antipas found himself strangely drawn to John’s preaching. There was something about it, something that signaled John got his message from somewhere outside of the whirlwind of Herod’s family. For this, of course, Herodias hated John. She wanted him done. But Mark says Herod protected him. Herod was afraid of him. Herod had sent men to arrest John, to put him down in the lowest dungeon, but then, in the most curious of details, the king liked to listen to John’s blistering preaching.

            Just picture him, standing in the shadows of the stairwell, as his captive preacher thundered on. John would crank it up, and quote the book of Leviticus. “The Lord says you shall not do as they do in the pagan lands. You shall not defile yourself as other nations defile themselves. You shall be holy, as the Lord your God is holy. You shall keep my laws and ordinances.”

According to the story, Herod heard all this. He was a little confused, but he heard all of this. It was a different message than what all the suck-ups in his court kept telling him. It was a very different script than that of his father or his brothers. He had a beautiful wife that he stole fair and square from one of those brothers . . . but now, he hears another voice, a Holy Voice. It entices him, it confronts him. He can’t quite get that Voice out of his head.

In fact, next Saturday night, he has some of the regional leaders coming in for a party. He will impress them with his authority, with his opulence, with his impressive castle high above the sea. They will have a fine meal, hurl back some intoxicating drink. And then maybe, when everybody is feeling pretty loose, he can introduce them to the preacher locked up in his basement.

First, of course, there will be a bit of entertainment. Salome will come and dance. She’s so very good, so supple, so sensuous. She looks like her mother, only years younger. With that, he catches himself daydreaming. “I wonder what she would be like. I wonder if she would be as willing as her mother once was…”

OK, snap out of it. Especially you lecherous old courtiers.

The question that I asked before is the question that we have to ask: why does the Gospel of Mark tell this story? It’s not just because it’s a flashback. It’s not because Mark wants to kill a little time. No, it’s because he wants to remind us of what the world is like.

Jesus never appears in this story. I think that is significant. This is a story of a world without Jesus. As a result, this is what the world is like when it insulates itself from God, when it acts as if the powerful and the conniving can do whatever they want. This is what happens when people lunge after their own appetites and will do anything to satisfy the ravenous beast within them. This is what happens when people live by revenge, when those who are guilty would eliminate the nagging voice of truth. This is what happens when people swear by their own authority, when they are incapable of self-criticism. This is what happens when people refuse to live by forgiveness, when they insist their way is the only way.

Adultery. Incest. Lust. Fear. Revenge. Peer pressure. Destruction. This is a story of a world without Jesus. This is a story of a world that would kill Jesus. This is the story of a world that doesn’t know what to do with a Voice greater than its own.

            Listen, I don’t want to be too moralistic about this, even in Lent, but I think we know what kind of world this is. It is a world that says, “You can go it alone. You can do whatever you want. You can reach for whatever you want to reach for. You can forget about God, Jesus, and John the Baptist, and make it up as you go along.” And if too much of that world gets into our souls, we can find ourselves as empty and ravenous as Herod and Herodias.

            Am I telling you anything you do not know? No. Over the years, in this congregation, I’ve seen it all.

·         One man lost his marriage because he started chatting to a pretty young thing online. Next thing you know, he had to meet her.
·         Somebody else got married to the man of her dreams, only to discover he was blowing thousands of dollars on the slot machines of a glittering casino. He refused to change and told her to leave.
·         A working mother cleaned the closet of her husband’s home office, and I won’t tell you what kind of videos she found.
·         There are people who will rearrange their entire lives to hide an addiction.
·         There are others who create a crisis because they are so conditioned by life that they cannot live without a crisis; it’s the only way they feel alive.
·         There are people who can be so unforgiving that they must demand somebody’s head on a platter.
·         There are others who simply refuse to let anything ever be settled in peace.

            What every one of these stories has in common is that somebody has allowed the world to blur all vision. People can become a world unto themselves, insulated, afraid of the honesty, fearful of any Voice beyond themselves. This is a world without the searing truth of Jesus Christ.

            Yet it is also the world where Christ is risen, when Christ is on the move. Sad King Herod hears about the power of Jesus, and the work he is doing. And do you remember what he says? He says, “John must be raised from the dead.” The same Voice that John spoke is still speaking in Jesus Christ. He is saying you don’t have to live unto yourself, you don’t have get yourself stuck as a world unto yourself. You can live for God.

Not long ago, one of you said something very kind to me. I will never forget it. “Sometimes when you preach,” you said, “you lose your politeness.” I said “What? Oh, I’m terribly sorry…” 

“No,” you said, “that’s a good thing. Church is not a social club. Church is the community of faith where we tell the truth about ourselves – and the greater truth about God.”

            I think that’s really the heart of it. Christian faith invites us to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help us God. And when we do ‘fess up to the truth, we can decide to move outside our insulated little fortresses and do something holy in the world. Just like Jesus. Just like God.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Living Among the Tombs

Mark 5:1-20
Lent 3 
March 11, 2012
William G. Carter

And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

            I want to begin with a story, a true story from last November. As my older daughter will tell you, I like to visit her at college once a semester or so. It’s some time for the two of us to connect and catch up. Her university is about four and a half hours away, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. I will drive out there, meet her after classes will finished. We will make a Walmart run to fill up a cart with microwave popcorn, Ramen noodles, and shampoo. Then we go somewhere interesting for dinner. After that, I say, “Do you have your bathing suit?” She pulls it out her bag, and we go over to the Hampton Inn and jump in the hot tub. That’s what we did on my visit last fall.

            The hot tub was warm, we were chatty. As we got in, a young man with a beard got out. He turned away and walked over to the shallow end of the pool and jumped in. Katie and I were talking. When the hot tub got a little too warm, we got out and jumped in the swimming pool. The young man with the beard got out, walked back to the hot tub, jumped in, and turned his back to us. We looked at one another, shrugged, kept talking.

            The pool was refreshing, but we wanted to get back in the hot tub. As we did, the man with the beard immediately got out, went back to the far end of the swimming pool, jumped in and turned his back to us. It was getting a little strange, and both of us noticed it. I didn’t say anything. Katie was confessing to a fraternity party that she had survived, and I wasn’t going to interrupt.

            But the routine happened a few more times. We got out of the hot tub and jumped into the pool again, the bearded man got out of the pool and returned the hot tub, always turning away from us. It was odd. Soon we left to change into street clothes, and I took her back to her dorm room. That was that.

            Two weeks later, she called me. “Did you see the news today?” Well, sure. The big story was that the FBI had captured a crazy man who had fired an AK-47 at the White House. Katie said, “Did you see where they arrested him?” No, I had not.
            She said, “They arrested him at the Hampton Inn in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He had stayed there two weeks ago.” I quickly looked online. Sure enough, same guy. Same young, shaggy bearded guy who kept turning his back on us and avoiding the same pool water.

The officials said he had a history of mental illness and had arrest records for drugs, domestic violence, and attacking a police officer. Just 21, he had left his family in Idaho and told a girlfriend he was on a secret mission from God. He bought an automatic rifle, drove to Washington D.C. by way of western Pennsylvania, took his shots, and then abandoned the car and rifle which were both registered in his name. Then he returned to the same Hampton Inn to hide out.

            Say what you want about him. I say he was out of his right mind. Somehow he had crossed the dotted line from sanity to madness.

            He sounds a lot like the man that Jesus encountered in a graveyard in the fifth chapter of Mark.  In one of the most gruesome descriptions in the New Testament, Mark tells of a man who was crazy as hell.  Mark means that in the fullest possible sense – the man was crazy, and hell had gotten into him.

            They tried to put him in a straight-jacket, but he ripped out of that. If anybody got close enough to put him in shackles and chains, he broke out of them. In daylight, he screamed at anyone who approached him. After dark, frightened children heard him howling at the moon. They tried to keep him out of sight and earshot, but nobody ever knew when he would suddenly appear. And when nobody was around, he spent his time picking up stones and pounding his body. He was crazy as hell.

Mark says he lived among the tombs. His address was 666 Death and Destruction Boulevard.

            There’s no telling how he got that way. Some of the scholars draw attention to his name. To gain a handle on the man, Jesus asked, “What is your name?” He said, “My name is Roman Army. There are a lot of voices yelling in my head.” A legion of soldiers was 5,120 soldiers. Here is a man living on the east shore of the sea of Galilee. It was quite possible the stress of living in an occupied territory, with soldiers rampaging your home and pillaging your family, that might have been enough stress to drive him out of the house and to the tombs.

            It’s a reminder that we live in a world where terrible things happen. We can call God the King, but God’s kingdom is a disputed sovereignty.

I remember a movie that I saw as a young adult. It was called “The Fisher King,” and gave me nightmares for a week. Jeff Bridges plays a cynical talk radio host named Jack, kind of like Rush Limbaugh without a conscience. Robin Williams plays a literature professor named Parry. One night Jack is mouthing off on radio, and it sets off a deranged murdered who goes into a Manhattan restaurant with a gun and starts firing. In the aftermath, Jack gets fired from his job, declaring all the time that he was not responsible for inciting anybody to murder.

            A couple years later, he’s down and out. Some teenage thugs mistake him for a bum, douse him with gasoline, and try to set him on fire. Jack is saved by a mysterious man who chases away the attackers. It’s Parry, the literature professor, now homeless. He is also a widower. His wife was one of the victims shot and killed in the restaurant while Jack was on the radio, mouthing off that night. Now their stories intersect. Both of them are trapped by the tragedies that nobody deserves. It’s a movie about the bad things that happen and multiply.

            This is the kind of world we inhabit. It hasn’t changed since the Gospel of Mark. Irrational evil breaks out for no apparent reason. It can scare the life out of us. There are people like this demoniac, living among the tombs, bruising themselves when nobody is around. Either they are too fragile to fight off the physical attackers, or they are too vulnerable to defend themselves from the voices inside of their own heads.

            Am I telling you anything you do not know? Of course not. We know what kind of world this is. That’s why we put deadbolts on the doors. That’s why we pay tax money for national defense and local security. That’s why so many people are so damaged, and there is never enough help to go around.

            I was talking to my stepson Josh. He’s finishing up a master’s degree in social work. His interest is drug and alcohol counseling for returning vets. In his last semester, he spends a day at Marworth, three  days at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Wilkes Barre, and Fridays at Tobyhanna army depot. I said, “Tell me about drug and alcohol counseling.” He shakes his head and says, “It’s a growth industry.” We know what kind of world this is.

            And let me say this is the kind of world that Jesus comes into. That’s what Mark wants to tell us. Jesus comes into a world so tangled, so twisted, so tormented. It’s a world where people hide in graveyards and hurt themselves with stones. The people of the nearby village want that man to stay up there. Stay up out of sight. It’s still that way. Keep people like that where we can’t see them. Keep them in the asylum. Keep them in the prisons. Keep them on the streets. We don’t know what to do with them. Keep them away from us.

            Yet when the man sees Jesus, he moves toward him. “Don’t torment me,” says the tormented man. “I know who you are, Jesus, Son of the Most High God.”

“What’s your name?” says the healer. The man says, “My name is Roman Legion, because there are so many of us.” He is possessed yet he senses the power of the healer in front of him. Jesus looked at him and did not say the village crazy man. He saw beneath all the wreckage, and saw a child of God. Torment had seized the man’s soul, but Jesus came with the shalom of God. He ranted and yelled, but Jesus was full of peace. Looking intently, the healer said, “Come out of God’s child, you filthy mess.

The noises inside the maniac began begging to get their own way, “Don’t send us out of the country, we like it here. Send us over to that herd of dirty pigs.” Jesus nods in agreement, raises his hands, and says the words. There was a mighty scream, the beating of bat wings, the squeal of two thousand pigs, the mad rush to the sea, and then a dead calm. Peace. Shalom.

That is our Bible story. And there are four things that we need to say about it.

First, Jesus is all about this kind of work. He is a healer who delivers us from evil. Both before his death and after his resurrection, the God who comes in Jesus Christ is an exorcist. He takes on evil wherever he finds it, particularly the evil that damages the children of God. He sees it honestly for what it is. He confronts it. He chases it away. This is his work. Slow but steady, one person at a time.

Second, this work is costly work. A herd of two thousand swine may not have mattered much to a Jew, but it mattered greatly to their Gentile herders. Real health care is never cheap. It takes a lot to make us well. And it always costs something. Just ask the family with the alcoholic teenager; it’s not the kid who is sick, it’s often the whole family, the whole system, the whole addictive neighborhood that hooks us. It’s going to take a lot of effort to pull out the weeds and not let them grow back.

Third, healing is threatening to many, many people. They hope they never get ill like that man up in the tombs. But the thing that really unhinges them is when the ill person is made well. That’s threatening. Did you notice the response in our story? The villagers don’t want Jesus to stick around after the exorcism. They want him to go. They don’t want to deal with any more healings or any more exorcisms. They want the world to stay as scary as it is, because at least that’s predictable. The power of Jesus is too disruptive. His love is too fierce. He is going to change their world, and they do not want that.

Fourth, those who are healed will not stay silent. They have a story to tell and they will tell it. Jesus says something kind of funny to the man up among the tombs. After he is healed, the man wants to travel with Jesus, but the Lord says, “No, I don’t want you traveling with me.” Then he says to the man, “Go home and tell your friends what God has done for you.” Wait a second – go home and tell your friends? Tell your friends? Does this man have any friends? He’s been living up among the tombs. “Go home and tell your friends”?

Well, he must have had some friends. Or he must have made them pretty quickly. But he did not keep anything quiet. “I found somebody who could make me well. I found somebody who is not afraid of the noises in my head. I found somebody who helped me work through my issues. I found somebody who came into my dark night and stayed until the brand new day.”

            And when people come out to see what is going on, it is just like Mark’s description of Easter morning. They go among the graveyard. They see a man clothed with a new garment. He is seated and speaking is his right mind. This is the very picture of Resurrection Power. It restores and it alarms. The power that we see in Jesus Christ signals that nothing is going to stay the same ever again.

            There is a moment in that movie I mentioned, “The Fisher King.” I don’t know if you ever saw that movie, which is now many years old. A lot of painful things happen in Jack and Parry’s lives. But one day it dawns on Jack that, for all the guilt he carries, he will never be free until he helps Parry lift the pain that holds him down. But what to do?  Parry is hospitalized, nearly catatonic after being beaten by the same two thugs who had attacked Jack. All these stories intersect.

            But Jack is becoming a changed man. He’s cleaned up his life, gotten a job, told his girlfriend that it’s time for the two of them to settle down together. And in an insane moment of risk, he decides to do something for Parry. His friend has convinced himself that the Holy Grail, the cup of Jesus Christ from the Last Supper, is hidden in a small castle turret on the Upper East Side. So Jack climbs up the turret, breaks into an apartment, and get a small trophy on a bookshelf. It’s not the real thing, of course, but it’s enough to bring Parry out of his frozen state. And for the first time he says, “I miss my wife.” “I miss my wife.” He names the demon. Finally he has authority over it.

            Next day, a friend stops by the mental hospital to visit him. Parry is not in his bed. No, he’s out in the gathering room with Jack. They are leading all the patients in a song: “I like New York in June, how about you? I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?” And for the first time, it’s clear: they are free. Free from all their haunted dreams. Free from all the damage of the world.

Leading a song in the lounge of a mental ward, they were completely in their right minds. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Did you have something happen to you, something so healthy and good that you couldn’t keep quiet?

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

Saturday, March 3, 2012

At Risk of One's Life

Mark 8:31-38
Lent 2
March 4, 2012
William G. Carter

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
The theme for this season of Lent is “Deliver us from evil.” As you will remember, it is a line from the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray for God to protect us, to move us out of reach from all the forces in the world that threaten to do us in. There is evil in the world. People hurt one another. People hurt themselves.

What’s more, there are irrational powers that are poised against us. In the first century, the people of Jesus’ time were quick to call them demons. If you had a migraine, the neighbors said a demon attacked you. A crippled spine or a paralyzed limb was evidence of an oppressive spirit. If a person struggled with mental illness, the common diagnosis was that an evil presence invaded them. If a cloud of sadness descended and would not leave, or if manic energy overwhelmed you, everybody believed something had gotten into you.

This was the New Testament way of saying there is evil in the world. If God is ruling in power and might from heaven, it often seemed as if there was an opposition force invading from hell. The Jews were very careful to declare that there is one God, all loving and all powerful. They were very clear that God alone is God, and that God is just and good. At the same time, they had to make sense out of the daily reality that life gets twisted into destruction. How else can you make sense of the headlines, except to say there is some systemi

As we have heard from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus began a ministry of confronting evil. He delivered people from evil. On the very first day of his work, he went into a synagogue to teach the scriptures – and evil was waiting to take him on. It was seductive – a member of the congregation stood to question him, to disturb him, to attack him. And whatever it was that had gotten into the man said, “I know who you are! You are the Holy One of God.” Evil Personified could see Jesus very clearly. With that, the question is posed: “Jesus, have you come out to destroy us?” Jesus muzzles the nasty spirit and restores the man.

The confrontation began in a synagogue. It continues in a community. Right after Jesus leaves the synagogue, the whole town of Capernaum start bringing him all of their wounded, all of their afflicted, all of their damaged. And one at a time, he takes them by the hand, or he looks them in the eye, or he lifts them out of the dust. This is his work – to restore people from the ravages of evil. To release them from the oppressions that lay heavy upon their lives.  

His work begins in the synagogue. It continues in the community. It spreads through the surrounding region. And now, as we heard, even one of his own disciples now attacks him. It is the moment when Simon Peter can see Jesus for who he is. He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Strong Son of God. The whole book has been moving to this moment. Who do people say that I am? “You are the Christ, the Messiah of God.”

But no sooner does he say it, no sooner does he begin to explain it, when Simon Peter pulls him aside and starts yelling at him. He rebukes them – that is, he reprimands him and says, “You are talking nonsense. You are not going to die. The Messiah does not die. Jesus, stop talking this crazy talk!”

And Jesus glares at him and says, “Shut up, you Satan!”

That has always sounded harsh to me. He looks at the very first disciple that he selected in the Gospel of Mark and calls him a devil. He points the muzzling finger at the first person in his inner circle to get it right. Up to this point, the twelve disciples have been bumbling along. They are like third-rate actors who miss all the cues and mess up all their lines. Peter finally gets something right; and not just something, he gets the big thing right. He sees that Jesus, his powerful friend Jesus, is really the Messiah.

And Jesus thunders at him, “Stop, you Devil. Be quiet. Get in step behind me.” That’s harsh.

Last Saturday, when Buz Myers was here, he helped us understand some of this. He pointed out that, for hundreds of years, the Jewish hope was for a Messiah, for a Chosen One who would save the people. And the defining characteristic of a Messiah is that he would not die. He would never die.

This is what the Jews of that day believed, ever since they heard God’s promise to David, the greatest of their kings. The Messiah will come from the house of David. The house of David will be an everlasting house. It will not die. Even when the Babylonians invaded in 587 BC, and killed all of David’s royal descendants, they held firm that one day, sometime in the future, God would send a Messiah to make everything right. When the Messiah comes, the Messiah would not die!

Simon Peter says, “You are the Messiah, Jesus. You are the Chosen One.” And Jesus says, “I am going to die.” That’s when they begin their little shouting match. And that’s when Jesus looks at Simon Peter, and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”

It seems so harsh. Yet what is this, that stirs Jesus to say this? What is it, that makes him look right at a trusted friend and denounce his word as evil? It seems to be rooted in the very next word Jesus speaks, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” There is God’s way, and there is the human way. Simon Peter is merely being himself, while Jesus is pursuing the mind of God.

Now what do I mean by this? Simply this: there is no greater human need that self-preservation. I got into the car on Friday morning to drive a hundred miles, and somebody said to me, “Take care of yourself.” No problem. I am an expert at taking care of myself. I am a human being. I excel at taking care of me.

That does not mean I am very good at it. I eat too many potato chips. The doctor said, “Stay away from peanuts,” and I sneak a handful of peanuts when my wife is not looking. And if she catches me, I blame her for bringing peanuts into our house. I know how to take care of myself, even if I am not in tip-top shape.

I am really good at taking care of myself. When there are chores to do, and I don’t want to do them, suddenly my ears stop working when somebody calls me to the chores. When there are obligations to meet, and I would rather do something else, I skip the obligations and do whatever I want. When there is something challenging before me, something that I really need to do, I will take the shortcut, or I will look for the detour, or I will rehearse the apology so I can justify to anybody who will listen why I did what I did, or why I did not do what I did not want to do.

Oh, believe me, I really know how to take care of myself. Left to my own ways, to my most natural inclinations, I will do whatever I can to take care of myself. Because I live with the presumption that my life is all about me. These are “the human things” that Simon Peter sets his mind upon. This is what he expects of Jesus - - that Jesus will take care of himself. This is what every human being will do, when left to one’s most natural inclinations.

You hear it, I think, when people makes some money, find themselves with some spare time. What are you going to do? The answer is usually, “Whatever I want.” Going to get myself an easy life, do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it. That’s called “taking care of yourself.”

You hear it when the student graduates from school. Sleep to noon, nobody is going to tell me what to do or when to get up. It’s about me, and my needs, and my comforts, and taking care of me. Simon Peter says, “Jesus, you are the Messiah. Watch out for yourself. Be good to yourself. Take care of yourself. Live forever. Take a cruise to the islands.”

Jesus says, “Shut up, Satan. You are thinking about human inclinations, and not the will of God.” And this is the will of God: to confront every form of evil. The will of God is to make people well. To offer love to those who have no love. To share a meal with the person who has no food. To embrace the teenager that the world excludes. To untangle the woman who is twisted by fear. To lift up the man that the world puts down.

The will of God is to push us beyond every natural inclination for self-preservation, so that we can make a constructive difference in a tormented world. God has a mission to the world in sending Jesus the Messiah. He is coming to heal people who don’t realize how sick they are. He is coming to raise up from the dead those who have lost any joy in living. He is coming with surgical skill to remove the cancer of despair from people who are worried sick. He will do whatever it takes, and he is not the least bit inclined to “take care of himself” and play it safe. And if the world hands him a cross, well, that comes with the territory.

For Lent, I chew on this as I offer the prayer, “Deliver us from evil.” Jesus comes to deliver us. The first thing that he delivers us from is our own preoccupation with ourselves. He will not play it safe. He will not chase after his own comfort. He refuses to paddle around in a hot tub of cozy feelings. No, he is on a mission. His life has a purpose. God sends him as Messiah to take in the whole world for repairs.

And lest we think that the task is his alone, he turns to his own church and says, “Follow me. Get behind me and follow me. If you wish to save your neck, you will lose it. But if you would lose yourself for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, you will find yourself saved and delivered.”

This is the mystery of Lent. What do we give up for Lent? We give up ourselves. We stand contrary to our own natural desires, and we join with Christ to make this world a beautiful place, a healed habitation for God and all God’s creatures. We tell the truth in a culture of lies. We announce sin’s forgiveness. We celebrate God’s claim on us with bread and wine. We repair what we can. At all costs, we continue the work of Jesus.

And if somebody hands us a cross and says, “Carry this,” it comes with the territory. 

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