Saturday, April 28, 2012

What We Are, What We Shall Be

1 John 3:1-7
Easter 4
April 29, 2012
William G. Carter

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

            Today’s sermon is in three parts. I am going to label them “before,” “after,” and “in between.” Or if you want to number them in sequence, part one, part three, and part two.

            We start with part one, the “Before.” In the history of First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, this passage of scripture first became noticed at a baptism. The year was 1985. It was sometime in the fall. I don’t know whose baptism it was, but I do know who the presiding minister was. It was the Rev. Lynn Lampman, recently called to be the assistant pastor of the church. For the very first time in anybody’s remembrance, she took the baby that she had just baptized, his head still dripping wet, and she walked right down into the congregation, declaring the words, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1)

It was a daring thing to say. For one thing, at that point in local church history, there was a bit of confusion about whether or not little children should be baptized. The Presbyterian Church as a whole had experienced some confusion. In some corners, it was strongly felt that you had to know certain things in order to become a Christian, that you had to do certain things to prove that you belonged. Maybe you had to say all the right words about what you believed, and it had to be pretty much in line with what the church believes. Or maybe you had to learn about the history of the church, the spiritual practices of the church, the Bible of the church, the vocabulary of the church – and then, if you passed the examination, you could be baptized as a believer.

But then in fall 1985, the new baptizing minister spoke the words that we learned as classmates at Princeton Theological Seminary. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” And it was clear to everybody, at least in that moment, that little baby was a child of God.

A lot of us are inclined to be this, anyway. Look into the bright eyes of a little baby. See the beauty. Admire the innocence. If that child is a sinner, it isn’t obvious to anybody. Not yet.

But John makes a careful distinction – we are not God’s children because of our birth. We are God’s children because of our adoption. There’s a difference. Everybody who is alive has been born; everybody who belongs to God has been adopted.

True enough, in both cases, it’s not something you choose. In a moment of adolescent anger, the thirteen-year-old yells at his parent, “Mom, I didn’t chose to be born.” True enough; but your birth is a gift, a gift from God. Life is respected, if only because you had no say in the matter. Every thought, every feeling, that last breath you took, those birds who sang to you – everything is a gift.

But the mere fact of our birth does not make us a Christian. It is God’s adoption, God’s decision to say, “You belong to me.” We do not ask for this, we do not seek it. It is announced by a great voice than our own: “you are mine.” Done deal. And one of the ways we can think of the sacrament of baptism is that it is God’s adoption ceremony.       

I watched the moment in the courthouse when Laura adopted Alex. She was a single woman, and he was a little boy with no other claim on his life. Laura took him in as an infant. She decided to take care of him, to raise him, to feed him, to love him. The day came when she could say to him, “You are mine.” There were papers to fill out, commitments to make official. The presiding judge said to Laura, “You realize that Alex will inherit whatever you leave for him, that you are bound together forever.” She said, “That is what I choose.”

With that, the judge signed the paper, pounded his gavel, and said, “You are now a family. Alex is your child.” Everybody applauded and pictures were taken.

It seems to me, this is what happens when we are baptized. It is the moment when God adopts a child, when God says, “You are mine forever, I choose you.” It’s not because we are beautiful or homely, it’s not because we are well-behaved or ornery, it’s not because we have reached a level of moral excellence or because God takes us on as a long-term project. It’s simply because we are loved. It’s because God wants us. There is nothing we have to do but show up.

And the preacher says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1). This is part one.

            That points us way ahead to part three, the “after.” John affirms that, right now, we are the children of God, adopted by God’s good grace. And leaning forward, he peers ahead, “Look what we are going to be!” He looks back at us and says, “I can’t quite see the whole thing, but we’re all going to see it. Can you see ahead up there, what we’re going to be? You and I are going to be like Jesus!”

            That’s the astonishing claim of this text. John says, “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” According to this writer, the working definition of a Christian is a child of God who is becoming like Jesus Christ. That’s the aim. That’s the intention. That’s the final result. Jesus comes, so that we can become like Jesus.

            I don’t know if you ever thought about the Christian life having a goal, but there it is. It’s to become like Christ. That is where every true Christian is headed. That’s what lies ahead of every child baptized in the holy name of God.

Think of every story about Jesus that anybody ever told you. Can you recall a story? Turn to the person next to you and share a story about Jesus that has always meant something to you . . . (I will wait).

What did Jesus do? What did Jesus say? He told stories about forgiveness, and forgave his own killers from the cross. He told stories about God’s rule in our life, and he was never anxious about anything. He fed those who were hungry for bread, and provided a feast for those who needed a purpose. He got indignant when the community excluded the lepers, then reached across the invisible divide to cure them. He was all about health care and healing.

Jesus spoke the truth about sin’s power to destroy, and he released people from that power. He had a complete connection with the Father whom John calls “Daddy, Abba.” He chased away demons and he lifted people out of the prison of hopelessness. He called people away from their greed and redirected them to their neighbors, particularly to those with the greatest needs.

Most of all, at the heart of it all, Jesus was the embodiment of love. Complete love. Sometimes when I watch some of those Christian preachers on TV, who love to mouth off about the issues of the day, I ask myself, “Where’s the love?” Not the bitterness, not the rejection, not divisiveness, not the arrogance, not the insistence on always being right – but the love. Where’s the love?” Because if we are going to be like Jesus, we will be on fire with love, complete and perfect love.

            As somebody says, “Jesus revealed to us what it means to be fully human, fully alive, fully empowered by God, fully conscious of the delusions of the Domination System . . . When humanity finally becomes what it is capable of becoming in God’s image, it will be like Jesus.” [1]

            In a twinkling of an eye, he will be revealed. At the end of time, all God’s children will be transformed like Christ. That’s where our faith journey is headed. That is the great destination for the faithful, the great “after” everything else.

Or in the structure of the sermon, that’s part three. Part one: we are the children of God. Part three: as Jesus Christ is finally revealed, we shall be like him. 

            So that brings us to the heart of the sermon, part two, the “in between.” If we are the children of God who shall be like Christ, what are we doing to move in that direction? How will the children of God grow up and become like Jesus?

            Maybe the place to start is with the story about Jesus that came to your mind a few minutes ago. There is something in it that you recollected. It bears some magnetic pull, some appealing invitation. I invite to spend a little time today reflecting on that. Perhaps there is a nugget of spiritual gold in that story.

            For instance, I recall Jesus pointing to the birds of the air and saying, “God provides for them.” He waves to the lilies and calls them “beautiful” just as they are. I want to believe in a God who provides for me in my needs, a Savior who thinks my warts are beautiful. There is compelling about that. I want to be like that – and it means I have to change the way I am, and move in his direction. I must trust as he trusts, love as he loves.

            That’s what our scripture lesson invites us to do. If we are the children of God who will become more like Christ, we have to move toward him, take on his habits, gain his mind, practice his speech. And it takes work and intentionality. We don’t automatically become more like Christ. We have to want that. We have to leave behind the habits that weigh us down. Swear off the opinions and judgments that make us snarl.

We can grow more Christ-like. John says, “If you have this hope, if you want this hope, you will purify yourself, just as he is pure.” You will stop yourself before you say the sarcastic word. You will push yourself to forgive even if you don’t feel like it. You will avoid the dark deed, the corrupt desire. When a conflict is settled, you will let it stay settled. And you will never lash back, because Jesus never lashed back. Revenge comes from the devil; mercy comes from God.

O children of God: give this some attention. God claims you in the baptismal water. God says, “You are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son.” That is what we are. And God holds before us a vision of Jesus Christ, and says, “When he is completely revealed, my children will look just like him.” That’s what lies ahead.

But it could be a long way off. And in the meantime, we become our habits.

This month, the Pope issued a reprimand of a group of American nuns. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, it was as if the Vatican “accused the nuns of worrying too much about the poor, and not enough about abortion and gay marriage.” Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known Benedictine nun from Erie, Pennsylvania, said she worried the nuns spent so much time that they would have no allies. But all of a sudden, the sisters have been flooded by local donations.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. You see generations of laypeople who know where the sisters are – in the streets, in the soup kitchens, anywhere where there’s pain. They’re with the dying, with the sick, and people know it.” Out in Erie, her order of 120 nuns runs a soup kitchen, a huge food pantry, an afterschool program, and one of the largest education programs for the unemployed in the state.

The Pope should know better than to mess with the nuns, says Kristof. “They were the first feminists, earning Ph.D’s or working as surgeons before it was fashionable for women to hold jobs. As managers of hospitals, schools, and complex bureaucracies, they were the first female C.E.O.’s . . . If you look at who has more closely emulated Jesus’ life, the Pope or your average nun, it’s the nun hands down.” [2]  
We are the beloved children of God. When Jesus is finally revealed, his children shall look just like him. In between, where all of us reside, as any nun will show you, we become our habits.

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

[1] Walter Wink, “Chips off the old block,” The Christian Century, April 6, 1994. P. 349.
[2] Nicholas Kristof, “We Are All Nuns,” New York Times, April 28, 2012.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Resurrection and Recycling

Luke 24:36-48
Easter 3 / Earth Day
April 22, 2012
William G. Carter

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

From the very first day, the church had to figure out the mystery of Easter. The disciples were sure that Jesus was dead. They watched him die from afar. They knew where his body had been buried. But then came the troubling reports that the tomb was open and his body was not there.

The women who went to embalm his body told about encountering some angels, but no Jesus. The church didn’t believe them. Simon Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself. Indeed it was open, but there were no angels for him. Later that day, two disciples walked a seven mile journey and were joined by a Bible-quoting stranger. It was Jesus. They didn’t recognize him until he broke the bread. As they reached out to embrace, he vanished.

And now this: he appears seven miles away, behind locked doors, to his beloved friends. He goes to that specific place, to those specific people, just as they are discussing these reports of resurrection. Jesus stands among them, right then, as if he knew exactly what they discussed and knew exactly where they were. One second he was out of sight, another minute he was right there.

The Easter Church has to figure this out. The Resurrection is a mystery. It’s a new way of life. The Lord is alive, but he is mostly out of sight. He knows what his church is talking about, and he comes and goes. And he keeps speaking. Luke says the Christ opens the scriptures, and opens the minds of his disciples to understand them. Easter means at least that much.

And today is Earth Day. Rooted in the big green “E” of the ecology movement, this is the day when people are invited to love the earth that is our home. Your church is working hard at this. The worship bulletin uses recycled paper. In the past two weeks, all the fluorescent lights in our building have been replaced with more efficient bulbs and ballasts. We have a task force working on practical ways that we can take better care of the earth, both as a church and as individuals. Today is the day when we affirm God’s goodness, as shown in the gift of the earth.

The question that I want to raise in the sermon is what the two events might have in common. Easter Day and Earth Day – what are the connections, if any? Is it as simple as saying what one of my friends said? When I mentioned what I was talking about, he broke into a sly smile and said, “Easter means Jesus was recycled.” Well, that sounds a little rough. Recycled means you send away the old stuff and re-create it as something new. That works with paper and plastic, but I’m not sure it works with people.

Last Saturday, my wife and I loaded up the back of the car with the carcasses of three dead computers, two old monitors, two boxes of electronic gadgets, keyboards, and cables, and a couple of retired cell phones. It was junk and it felt so good to haul that stuff to the recycler. We did not expect to get any of it back. It has lost its value. We dumped it off and said, “Take it away!” You don’t say any of that about a person you love. People do not get recycled.

Still, the more I reflected on the scripture text, a few connections came to mind. Let me try out a few ideas on all of you.

The first is this: it’s all about the body.

That first Easter night, his closest friends thought Jesus was a ghost. He entered the room without opening a door or crawling through the window. The disciples were spooked. You can imagine what some of them were thinking: “Maybe when he died, his soul split off from his body, and while his body decays, now his spirit is back to haunt us.”  

People report such experiences. In the Stuart Castle near Inverness, Scotland, there’s a room where they dare the tourists to spend the night. The legend is that a ghost by the name of Big Angus will come and haunt anybody who stays there. It’s the most expensive room in the castle and nobody has been known to stay there.

The Easter Church discovered pretty quickly that Jesus was no ghost. He had a body. He had skin and bones that took up space. “Take a good look at me,” he said. “Reach out and touch me.” And then he said something outrageous: “Do you have anything to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he ate it.

The point is stuff matters. There is a physicality to resurrection as there is a physicality to God’s creation. We are flesh and bone, just as Jesus is flesh and bone, just as the earth is mountain, valley, desert and ocean. One of the dangers of religion is reducing truth to a vaporous idea, to equating “spiritual” with something that you cannot touch, to disconnecting the verities of faith from the works of our hands.

Jesus had a body. The Easter story suggests he still has a body. He did not evaporate after death.  When we stand to speak the Apostles’ Creed, we say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” If there is no body, it is not resurrection! So physical stuff matters. Matter matters. And we know this.

Anne Lamott tells of how she learned to eat as a thirty-three-year-old woman. Threatened by anorexia and bulimia, terrified at what her eating disorders were doing to her body, she finally sought help. She was blessed to find a counselor who taught her that the most important thing was to feel her hunger and respond to it with care. “Find something delicious,” said the counselor, “and eat it slowly enough to enjoy it.” Anne tried that, and called it a small miracle. “It is wonderful to taste and love what slips down my throat, padding me, filling me up.” Eating was not “an idea.” It was a physical practice.

In the same way, taking care of the earth is not “a concept.” It’s something we do, as a physical and spiritual practice.

The second connection between resurrection and recycling is this: it’s all about repenting of real wounds. The Easter Christ comes in a body, and the body is wounded. He comes back fully alive and says, “Look at my hands. See the nail prints in my feet.”

A lot of us would expect Jesus to be “fixed up,” to be repaired and healed when he is raised up. But none of the Easter stories say that. Most of them report that Jesus stays wounded even when he is raised. Now, I know this is a really weird detail. It also strikes me as profound. Easter does not fix us. It calls us to move away from all the acts of destruction, and move toward the healing.

My friend Susan Andrews tells of preparing to preach on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, but it turned out that the celebration was eclipsed by the news of the Oklahama City bombing. It happened the same week. You may recall how a couple of tormented men blew up a federal building. They parked a Ryder truck full of explosives in a drop-off zone of a day care center. Hundreds of people were killed, many more wounded.

Susan agonized over what to say. How do you preach the saving of the earth when you have a couple of domestic terrorists blowing up a piece of it? The Bible text for the day was one of these stories of Jesus appearing to the disciples after his death, and showing his wounds. That’s it, she said. That’s how the hope of the earth and the tragedy of destructive hold together – in a wounded resurrection.

We can say all we want about saving the earth, and that’s a good thing. The earth is God’s good gift to us. It is our home. Everything we need for sustaining life is provided. Yet we pierce the air with mine shafts, foul the air, and pollute the water. We’ve known this for decades, have ignored the truth, fudged the statistics, and denied the destruction. That’s the wound. And we have to decide that we are not going to live by it.

A National Geographic photographer showed us the picture of a family in Nigeria. They fish for a living. As they sit and pose on a brilliant day, an oil refinery is on fire behind them. In front of them is a fishing stream with three dead fish and a blue oil streak in the water. You can tell it’s not going to be a good day for fishing.

Many people say that the best way to take care of the earth is stewardship. Stewardship is a good word, an important word. It’s a word about taking care of what you have received. It’s a word about responsibility, a word about generosity.

But when it comes to earth care, we need something more than stewardship. We need repentance. The Risen Christ says, “Let repentance and forgiveness be preached in all nations.” Repentance is turning around, changing our ways. To repent is to return to God, to forsake all the destructive urges and habits, and to enjoy once again what God provides for the whole human family.

That leads us to the third connection between resurrection and recycling. Not only is there a connection about physical stuff, not only are there real wounds inflicted out of destruction, but there is a new life, a new beginning, a deeper joy in the power of resurrection and in the practice of caring for God's planet.

Easter is the amazing news that God begins again. What was dead shall live once more. What was wounded shall be thoroughly alive. And the benefit is for all people, for all creatures, for all the interlocking systems of life on this planet. God wants to bring the whole planet alive, and if we can begin with some specific act, we participate in God’s redemption of the earth. And it’s good for us.

            I think that how we have to handle Earth Day and Easter. Not by wagging our fingers, not by chastising one another for what we are not doing, not by passing oppressive legislation, and neither by giving a blank check to those who pillage the planet, but by taking enjoyment in the places we treasure. By welcoming the birds who sing us awake. By getting our hands dirty as we make something beautiful.

Working too hard? Turn off the computer and get outside. A little thick around the middle? Go for a walk. Troubled by your kids? Get a flat of marigolds and put them in the ground. Are you agonizing about the high cost of living? Explore how you might cut back on your energy costs or how you might use less water. Concerned about the high cost of gasoline? Share your car or share a ride. These are little practices with great potential for life.

And that’s what God creates: life, abundant life. And that’s what brings Jesus back from the dead: God’s creative power for life. And that’s what we claim today – not damage, not destruction, not waste, but God’s amazing gift of life. Beautiful, interconnected, joyful, flourishing life.

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

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fooling Ourselves

1 John 1:1-2:2
Easter 2
April 15, 2012
William G. Carter

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. . . If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

            On a day of Easter hilarity, we have a text about fooling ourselves. We have heard the line many times to introduce our Prayer of Confession: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. These words from a preacher in the early church remind us that we are capable of deceiving ourselves.

            Sometimes we believe some things in order to ignore other things. Did you hear the one about the Irishman who walks into a pub? The barman asks him, "What are ye drinking?" He says, "Three pints o' Guinness, if ye please."

So the barman brings him three pints and the man begins to alternately sip one, then the other, then the third until they're gone. Then he orders three more pints. The barman says, "Now, I know ye may be worried about running out, but ye don't have to order three at a time. I can keep an eye on your drink, and when ye get low, I'll bring ye a fresh one."

"No, 'tis not that," says the man. Ye see, I have two brothers, one in France and one in the States. We made a vow to each other that every Friday night, wherever in the world we might be, we'd still drink a pint together. So, at this very moment, me brothers are havin' three pints too.  We're drinkin' together as a family."

The barman thought this was very touching.  Every Friday, as soon as he saw the man come into the pub, he started to draw three pints for him.

Then, one week the man came in and ordered only two pints.  He drank them down and ordered two more. The barman came up to him with a long face. "My friend, I'd just like to say I'm sorry that one of your brothers has died."

The man said, "No, 'tis not that. Me brothers are fine. I've gone on the wagon."

            I guess it’s possible to fool ourselves. Sometimes it occurs among men and women. My friend Rob on the West Coast sends along this joke.

            A husband is having dinner out with his wife. She keeps looking at this man at another table. Can’t keep her eyes off of him. The other man, of course, has noticed her. He keeps smiling, nodding, admiring her. Finally it becomes so noticeable that the husband speaks up, and asks, “What’s he got that I haven’t got?”

            She says, “Awareness.”

            Husband says, “What’s that?”

            My friend says his wife gave him that joke. He’s not sure what it means yet.

            Self-deception. Fooling ourselves. All of us are prone to this. It comes in DNA. And we identify it very early.

My little girl laughed out loud. She was really little, about four years old, and I took her to the movie theatre. The film that day was 101 Dalmatians, the live-action version with Glenn Close playing the part of arch villainess Cruella DeVil. Cruella is over the top as she tries to steal Dalmatians, but some farm animals fend her off. They trick her into falling in a vat of molasses, and then a horse kicks her into a pig pen where she is covered with muck.

Just then a British police officer catches up with her. He asks, “Miss DeVil”? She raises her head high and says, “Yes, what it is it?” Katie laughed out loud. It was a ridiculous scene, that proud and contemptuous woman, covered in muck and acting like she was in charge of the world.

“…we deceive ourselves.” Or we go about the foolish work of making ourselves look better than we are. That’s the very human inclination. All of us do this. Most of us don’t want to get caught.

Did you hear about the man who got to church one Sunday? His wife was there earlier, but he was distracted or something, and he got there late. I don’t know what he was doing, and his wife was getting pretty angry at him. He slips into the pew just as the worship leader up front is speaking the scripture verse to introduce the prayer of confession. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…”  

With that, he looks down somewhat confused, see the prayer, and blurts out, “Wait, I haven’t done any of these things!” His wife says in a voice loud enough to hear, “Trust me, George, wait ‘til you actually read the prayer.”

            There’s something about us that says, “I am OK. I have it all together. There’s nothing flawed about me. I can manage on my own.” And from there, who knows what might go wrong?

            One hundred years ago, the most extravagant ocean liner of its time bumped into an iceberg. The captain said, “It’s just a scratch.” Turns out that five lower chambers took on water. If it had only been four chambers, the Titanic could have made it to New York. But you know what happened. Over fifteen hundred passengers and crew died in the disaster.

            With all the anniversary hype this weekend, you’ve probably heard some of the tragic details. A nearby ship, the S.S. Californian, had stopped for the night, noticing the pack-ice and not wanting to endanger its journey. The crew warned the Titanic about the ice, but the warning went unheeded. Not only that, when the Titanic got in trouble, the crew sent signal flares into the air and it seems the crew of the Californian ignored them, even though the two ships were only a few miles apart.

            And there’s more. On the Sunday after the tragedy, a preacher stood in the pulpit of a little church in Switzerland to talk about the tragedy. His name was Karl Barth, and he would later become the best-known religious thinker of the twentieth century. He talked about the pretensions of building a boat that large, of constructing an ocean liner that had a swimming pool, and a restaurant with palm trees. That kind of opulence was unheard of in that day, and people in little towns regarded it as wasteful and arrogant.

            But there was something that troubled Karl Barth even more. He pointed out in his sermon that the captain of the Titanic was under enormous pressure by the ship’s owners to break the speed record for the shortest time from England to the United States. If it was the fastest ship, everybody would want to book passage on it. It didn’t seem to matter to the decision makers that the most direct route was not the safest route, that it was the route that seasoned sailors avoided. The Titanic sank, said Barth, because of “the self-interest of a few.”[1]

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  This is what an early church leader declared as a general truth about the human race. We don’t know what prompted him to say it.  Maybe he discovered the church treasurer had her hand in the money bag and lied about it. Or perhaps he met a preacher who did not believe a word of his own sermons.

I think he was talking about people outside of the church as much as he may have been speaking to people in the church. There is some primal need in every person to lie, to hide, to avoid exposure – and then to cover up what they have done or refused to do.

When we read in the newspaper about those who steal, or those who exert unjust power, or those who twist the truth, or those who go to elaborate lengths to hide cash in a shoebox or launder public money in personal accounts, we should never be surprised. I think it’s possible to take pity on such people, if only because we recognize them all too well. It’s just in our genetic make-up to reach for what is not ours and then to lie about it. Or we don’t reach for it and we still lie about it.

Did you hear about the ninety-two-year old priest who was venerated by everybody in town for his holiness? He was also a member of the Rotary Club. Every time the club met, he would be there, always on time, and always seated in his favorite spot in a corner of the room. When he stood to bless the meal, everybody listened.

One day the priest disappeared. It was as if he had vanished into thin air. The townsfolk searched all over and could find no trace of him. A month later, he resurfaced at the Rotary Club meeting, sitting in his usual corner. “Father,” everyone cried, “were have you been?”

“I just served a thirty-day sentence in prison,” he said.

            “In prison?” they cried. “Father, you couldn’t hurt a fly. What happened?”
            “It’s a long story,” said the priest, “but briefly, this is what happened. I bought myself a train ticket to go into the city. I was standing on the platform waiting for the train to arrive when this stunningly beautiful woman appears on the arm of a policeman. She was gorgeous. She looked at me, turned to the cop and said, ‘He did it. I’m certain he’s the one who did it.’ Well, to tell you the truth, I was so flattered I pleaded guilty.”[2]

            Now, talk about fooling yourself!

            Brennan Manning is a recovering alcoholic who loves Jesus. He says the best way to save our lives is through honesty, simple honesty. He means honesty about ourselves, and an even deeper honesty about God. Here’s how he says it:

The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this, I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness . . . My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.[3]

            So the word today is to simply get over ourselves. To laugh at ourselves. To knock it off and give up all pretending. To present ourselves to God, as we are, and not as we imagine ourselves to be. God has to deal with us as we are – and the sooner that we can be honest about who we are, the sooner God can get to the hard work of rescuing us in Christ.

            This is so difficult for religious people to do. We love to manufacture an image, as if the image of God is not enough. Why can’t we simply see who we are, and laugh? Our honesty is God’s opportunity. And the great thing about a sense of humor is that it sets you free – free to be who you are, free to become what God is redeeming you to be. A healthy sense of humor is the best defense against arrogance, pride, and superiority. If we can laugh about something, particularly something in ourselves, there’s a much better chance that we will never be so holy that God wants nothing to do with us. And so, in the name of Christ, we laugh. We laugh at ourselves, and we laugh even more at what God is doing in us.

o   After all, you have heard it said: Jews don’t recognize Jesus as Messiah. Protestants don’t recognize the Pope as the head of the church. And Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store.

o   A woman went to work at a lemon grove and the foreman thought she was much too qualified. The foreman said, “Do you even have any experience picking lemons?” She said, “Sure do. I’ve been divorced four times.”

o   Do you know how to keep a ditzy person at home? Build a circular driveway.

o   What did God say after creating man? “I can do better than this.”

o   Why can’t an engineer tell a joke timing.

o   Some advice for anybody who wants to get married: look for an archaeologist. The older you are, the more interested your spouse becomes.

o   Did you hear about the preacher who stepped into the pulpit, preached the sermon, and the congregation started clapping and yelling, “Once more! Once more!” So he preached the whole sermon again, and the congregation screamed even louder for him to preach it one more time. So he did. And they yelled for him to preach it again. He thanked them and asked why – and somebody yelled, “It’s getting better!”

            Don’t be fooled.

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

[1] Karl Barth, “On the Sinking of the Titanic.”
[2] Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988) 113-114.
[3] Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publisher, 1990) 25, 27.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

God On the Loose

Mark 16:1-8
Easter 2011
April 8, 2012
William G. Carter

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [the body of Jesus]. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The storyteller warned us this was coming. Just four weeks ago, Dennis Dewey was here. He is a Presbyterian minister who tells the whole story of the Gospel of Mark. Dennis knows the story by heart. With dramatic flair, he cast out the demons, fed the multitudes, and confronted the hypocrites. He portrayed Jesus as a strong man with a mission. And the most amazing thing is how the story ends.

Jesus dies alone on the cross. He is buried in a borrowed tomb. Three women decide rather impulsively to pay their respects. His death had come abruptly, and with the Passover holiday, there was no way to embalm the body. On the way, it occurs to them: who is going to move the stone? When they arrive, it has already been moved. And there is a stranger there, a man in white, seated and making some wild claim that Jesus was alive. “He’s ahead of you,” said the man in white, “gone ahead to Galilee, and you will see him there.”

Here’s how Dennis told the next line. He said, "So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and astonishment had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." With that, he ran out of the room. He didn’t come back. The crowd sat in bewildered silence. Finally I stood up over here and said, “Maybe that’s it.”

Now, we are here on Easter Sunday, so you know there had to be more. Mark ends his manuscript by saying, “The women said nothing,” but they must have eventually said something, because here you are. There must have been more to the story, more that was never written down. Easter according to the Gospel of Mark does not conclude with all the loose ends tied down.  

The man in white says, “You shall see him in Galilee,” but we never hear if those women ever saw him. He announced that Jesus went on ahead of them, but there is no record of him slowing down and letting them catch up. On Easter, all they have is an empty tomb and unfinished promise. The sheer shock of it provokes them to run, to run away fast. Raw emotion closes down their vocal cords. They run off somewhere, we don’t know where, terrified, speechless, amazed, and afraid. Welcome to Easter Sunday, according to the Gospel of Mark.

Now, the other Gospel writers were not happy with this ending. They continued the story and took it a good bit further. Matthew says Jesus met the women as they ran away and said, “How do you do?” Luke says they saw him, too, and hurried to tell the men folk – they thought it an idle tale until Jesus appeared in their hiding place and asked if they had anything to meet. John says Jesus kept appearing, first to Mary, then to the disciples, then Doubting Thomas, and then beside the sea. But Mark stops short of any of this. He concludes with the women shaken and silent, with all of us wondering what happens next.

The church that followed Mark was not happy with that ending. If you know about the footnotes in the text, there are at least two or three other endings tacked on to the Gospel of Mark. They sound like the other stories – and we can guess what they are: pious attempts to finish off a story that is unfinished. Easter is unfinished. Something happened inside the tomb of Jesus and it is still going on. That’s what Mark wants us to know about Easter. It is the same message that he has proclaimed from his opening words: God is on the loose.

This is his central affirmation of faith. God did not stay safely sequestered in heaven. On the very first day that Jesus appears, God rips open the sky and spills down on top of him. And then God hurls Jesus into the wild places, the very dominion where the evil spirits hide, and Jesus does battle with them from day one.

God refuses to stay hidden in a dusty temple. Jesus goes into a synagogue to teach and heal, but then goes into a lady’s house to cure what ails here, and then goes into the open country to purify an excluded leper that the temple would not touch. Do you know what that means? It means God makes house calls. God-in-Christ where people are bruised and wounded and have the greatest needs.

Jesus is God’s secret agent. He comes to heal and instruct. He goes into the homes of the holy people but he does not stay there. He eats at the tables of the wealthy who are impressed with his power, but immediately he goes to share bread and fish with those who have nothing. You can’t keep him nailed down. He is God on the move, God on the loose.  If anybody knows the story, they know he’s not going to stay dead. He’s not going to stay in a stone-cold grave. Jesus is not going to cash it in, play it safe, or keep it cool.

Just to score the point, at the moment where Jesus is breathing his last breath on the cross, the Gospel of Mark takes us to the deep center of the Jerusalem temple. There is a curtain there that keeps God from the world. Nobody could go inside that place unless they were chosen by lottery. Even then, they never got to see God. The curtain kept God from view. And when Jesus dies, the curtain is ripped apart from the other side. It’s torn in the same way that the sky was torn open at his baptism. God’s not going to stay out of our world, not going to stay confined in some holy place. The old days are over. Now God is on the loose.

Do you know what this means? It means if you like having your life under control, if you like having all your pencils sharpened at the same height, if you like living under the illusion that life is tidy and your children are well behaved, if you like knowing when everything is going is happen. If you like having everything turn out your way, you could very run in a collision course with your Creator. The Galilee ministry of Jesus was never tidy. He shouted down evil spirits, confronted calcified religious people, and reached out to cure the lepers by touching them. There was nothing polite about it. No, no, no – he knew that lives were at risk, and Jesus had every intention to intervene.

This is what happens when you have a Saving God – your God starts saving. And if you are in the way, if your schedule doesn’t have God written in the right appointment slot, well, God is going smash down the wall and get to where the people are in trouble, where the lives need to be saved.

Over and over again, Mark tells how Jesus healed people even if the religious calendar said it’s the Sabbath and healing looks like work. With callous disregard for the rules, especially if there was a person in pain who needed to be healed, Jesus simply did what Saving God has to do. He saved the people, one withered limb at a time, one headache at a time, one untimely illness after another.

And if Jesus the Savior has so much on his plate that he can’t get to you in time, don’t ever despair! He will come and raise you from the dead. “Talitha cumi,” he said to a stricken little girl that everybody thought he had lost. He raised her up, and said, “Get her something to eat.”

This is what Easter is all about. It’s about the ministry of Jesus Christ continuing, about the Word bringing people alive and increasing their well-being. The Crucifixion could not shut him down. Now he is back, stronger than ever, always ahead of us, and calling us to follow. This is a broken, twisted world and there’s plenty of work to do. The Gospel of Mark won’t let any of us sit too long on padded pews and sing self-important songs. There is a world to save, a neighborhood to redeem, and a whole slew of souls to take in for repairs.

So it’s no wonder the women are troubled. No wonder they are too shocked to speak. The tomb of Jesus is busted open from the inside. He is alive again and already at work. That’s a lot to comprehend. That’s almost too much to take in. They were afraid. They were amazed. They had no idea that the God who does so much in secret had that much power, that much authority, that much joy. They ran away afraid, too stunned to say anything to anybody.

But when they find their voices, I am going to listen. And I’m going to follow wherever they are headed. How about you? 

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

Thursday, April 5, 2012

His Example

John 13:1-17
Maundy Thursday
April 5, 2012
William G. Carter

I stopped to visit her at the nursing home. We had a pleasant conversation about God. It seemed like we really connected. I stood and asked if I might conclude our visit with prayer, and she thought that would be splendid. In the presence of a holy God, I offered up our heartfelt concerns, our hopes for good health and the Spirit’s continuing presence. And just when I said, “Amen,” she opened her sparkling eyes and made a request: “Reverend, before you go, could you trim my toenails?”

That was a first. Many matters fall under the category of pastoral care, but no one had ever asked me for a pastoral pedicure. It was not a complicated request. She did not need cuticle cream or a pumice stone. I had a hunch that perhaps she wanted to continue our conversation and was not ready to dismiss me. But then she pulled the nail clippers from a drawer and nodded toward her undressed toes.   

I sat down again, pulled up close, and confessed my inexperience. She confessed that she could not reach them, and that the nurse on her floor had no interest in the task. “Oh honey,” she had been told, “I have a lot of other things that I have to do.”

I suppose I had a lot of other things that I could have been doing, too. Places to go, people to see. The list in my head was growing, and trimming her toenails had never even appeared on my daily schedule. It was a simple task, and, from the looks of it, long overdue.
Except for the steady “click click,” the deed was done in silence. Final blessings were exchanged, and I was on my way.

            I’ve My calling requires me to do a lot of things. Some of these tasks are topics that I studied in a seminary. Others are matters that I’ve picked up along the way. At the top of the list is an item that simply says: “Interpreting the Faith.” What does it mean to be a Christian? Not merely “what does it mean to believe?” But what does it mean to “be”? To be a Christian? To inhabit the word “Christian”?

            If somebody maintains a prioritized list, they may discover items considered “beneath us.” Do you know that phrase, “beneath us”?  Items that appear unworthy of our importance.

In my first parish, I lived in the house next to the church. The day that I moved in, I was told by Charlie the custodian that I was never to mow my own lawn. “It’s beneath you,” he said. “The pastor is not supposed to mow the lawn.” One summer, Charlie took a few days to go to the Jersey shore. The lawn was shaggy, so I gassed up the mower and took it for a spin. Charlie returned, saw what I did, and threatened to quit. “I told you it’s not your job. You’re the minister. You are too important.”
I know a lot of people who believe that. I know clergy who believe that. Just deal with the spiritual matters. Lofty matters. Theological matters. Those matters up in the clouds. Don’t ever get your hands dirty doing menial tasks. Have a chain of command for you to bark down orders. There are people who believe that, who live that way. But Jesus Christ was never one of them.

On the very evening when he knew that he was returning to heaven, on the night when he knew that all the authority of God was laid upon his shoulders, he got down on his knees, filled a basin full of water, and began to wash their dirty feet.

  • He came to James, began to rinse and wash. James wasn’t so sure that the Lord should be on his knees.
  • He came to Bartholomew, began to soak and scrub. Bartholomew felt kind of awkward having the Lord so close.
  • He came to Simon Peter, who pushed back: “What are you doing!” Peter, so full of bluster, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus shoved him down and said, “If I don’t wash you, you will never have a piece of me.”
  • He came to Judas Iscariot, splashed some water on him and began to polish. Jesus said, “All of you are clean for the time being . . . well, maybe not.”

This was the Holy Work of Christ – to soak, to scrub, to cleanse. It is the work that he still does, in power of his Spirit. He can make us clean, if we want to be clean. Do you ever find yourself in need of a good cleansing? That’s what he does. Sometimes without even waiting to be asked!

Simon still says, “What are you doing?” while Judas chooses to keep wearing his guilt like a dirty robe.

The greater point, of course, is that nothing is beneath Jesus. The whole story of our faith is that he comes down from heaven, right down here, and he serves the world. He scours the filthy. He gets down on his knees and gets to work for the benefit of other people. This is the shape of true holiness.

As Jesus prepares to be raised up to heaven, he leaves us this example. Do you love him? Do you wish to follow him? Would you be his disciple? Then give up all pretension and get to work. The way of Christ is the servant way.

So, as we approach the Table tonight, we must pass by this basin. The invitation is to remember how Jesus comes to serve. Touch the water and remember how he washes us. Lift your eyes toward the cross and remember how he takes our sin away. Pause and pray for the courage to do the daily tasks that are set before each of us, and pray that nothing would ever be beneath you. The way of Christ is the way of service. It is the only way through which the world is saved.

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