Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Verse on the Cake

Romans 12:2
August 26, 2012
William G. Carter

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

            In one of his stories, Garrison Keillor took us back to Confirmation Sunday. Thirteen young Lutherans were being confirmed in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Pastor Ingqvist lined them up in the front of the sanctuary and asked questions that had baffled theologians for years. They passed the exam, took communion, and went home to eat chuck roast and drink their first real cup of coffee.

            Over at the Tolleruds, they had a confirmation party for young Lois. She sat at the head of the table, a lanky girl, four inches taller than last year. A quiet girl, prone to blushing, she is having a few doubts about God. Big Confirmation service that morning, but now she wasn’t sure.

Just the other night, she sat down on the couch and turned on the TV. It was some kind of violent show. She didn’t know what it was. Men were punching one another and shooting machine guns. Irrational fear came over her. This could happen here, she thought. She prayed, “Oh God,” but all she heard was the echo in her head. It was as if the world was under the control of dark powers and prayer wasn’t going to do any good. Lois had felt her faith slipping away.

Meanwhile the family was getting ready to cut the confirmation cake. It had a scripture verse inscribed on the top in blue frosting, the very verse that we heard a few minutes ago:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect.

It was a really big cake. That’s a really big verse. Here it is once again:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect.

            Over the years, a lot of Christian people have memorized that verse from the letter to the Romans. It makes a very important point. There is a difference between this world and God’s Kingdom. There is a distinction to be made between the values of the world around us and the values of the Gospel. They are not the same. They do not automatically overlap. The show on television with its fearful violence is not the world that God created. It is the world that turned away from God from the very beginning.

            The apostle Paul reminds us of this truth in the very first paragraphs of this letter. God created this world in love and generosity, yet the very people who were made in God’s image forget to say thanks. God gave us everything, yet we turn away and live as a world unto ourselves. This is the diagnosis of the letter to the Romans.

When people do what comes naturally, generations of selfishness and violence have shaped their behavior. At the end of chapter one, Paul gives a long list of grim human habits: wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, pride, rebellion, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness. This is the stuff let loose in the world. We see it every day:

I don't like the way she looked at me. I am suspicious of her. I don’t like the way he is driving his car. I’m going to show him what I think of him. I think I could make a little more money if I did not report everything I’m supposed to do. I wonder what her kiss would be like. I’m getting a little bored. I can’t stand his success and how everything comes to easily to him. I’m going to fix that.

The “I’s” have it. Paul says, “Don’t be conformed to that stuff. Don’t let anger and resentment shape you. Be different. Stand out. Let the Gospel change you.” Become like Jesus Christ. That’s what this Roman letter is all about; it’s not merely about the diagnosis but the cure. Jesus is not wicked. Jesus is not greedy. Jesus will not slander. Jesus will not damage somebody’s body nor murder their soul. Don’t be like the world at its worst. Be like Jesus Christ.

In case we wonder what that means, we have the rest of Roman letter. Paul gives a much longer list here in chapter 12:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

. . . and the list goes on a ways after that. The hinge upon which all this turns is the verse on the Lake Wobegon confirmation cake: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed . . .”

            So I have been thinking about these things. I’ve been reflecting on the verse on that cake. Because it occurs to me that, these days, it’s harder to live as a Christian in America than it was one hundred years ago. All through this summer, I’ve been reflecting on the many changes that have occurred since this congregation began in 1912. As this sermon series winds up, we take a minute to name some of the changes:

  • The family unit has diversified.
  • The outside world has gotten both smaller and bigger.
  • Consumer urges trump relationships.
  • The culture has lost its theological vocabulary.
  • The church’s voice has been increasingly sidelined.
  • Churches are redefining an understanding of professional leadership.
  • Society is breaking into more divisive factions.
  • And we no longer have much of an attention span . . . (Squirrel!)
            This is a map of where we live. This is the context of our mission field. We have to swim in these waters or else we will sink. There is no desert island where we can retreat beneath the coconut tree. There is no secret rapture to snatch us away. We are called to embody the love of Christ in this place, in this neighborhood, at this time in human history.  

            What it all suggests to me is the Christian congregation has to become an alternative community. In a world where people are beaten up and bruised, we must be a community of profound respect and deep hospitality, all in the name of Jesus. In a culture that worships the mighty and shames the fallen hero, we open our arms to forgive and welcome all whom Jesus loves. In a society that loses its way, we announce that Jesus is the Way, the Only Way; his mercy, his peace, his call to love God and neighbor is the road we travel.

            As we approach our second century, I hope we can be the kind of congregation where strangers stumble upon us and say, “I didn’t know there was a group of people actually like this.” The evidence is in our freedom. We can be free from the ongoing damages of an angry world. Free from the fractures of incivility. Free from the self-absorption of modern life. Free to be neighbors, sisters and brothers, and friends. Most of all, free to be Christ-followers. Intentional, committed Christ-followers.

            The Christian life does not happen without change. “Do not be conformed – but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Our invitation is to come before God to have our minds changed. And Paul does say our minds. The Greek word for “mind” includes the combined abilities of perceiving, understanding, feeling, judging, and recognizing goodness (Strong’s Concordance). A renewed mind is full of insight, not merely crammed with disconnected information. A renewed mind integrates all our multiple intelligences. A renewed mind seeks after God. A renewed mind directs muscles and bones to serve the global neighborhood.

Needless to say, a renewed mind is renewed. It is not stale, stuck, or stodgy. It is alive, constantly growing, and open to wherever God is leading.

            And I have to say, God is leading our congregation into the future. For well over a year, our Christian Education leaders have reviewed their own program. It wasn’t working. Classes were small. Attrition was high. Teachers were discouraged. There was not ample time to have an adequate class. Frankly, a lively church like this was dragging along a limping education program. Something different needed to be done.

            And why not? Sunday Schools have not been around forever. Historically the Sunday school did not actually happen on Sundays in most places in America until the 1930’s.[1] Here, our Sunday School really began to grow in 1951, during the Baby Boom, under the leadership of a young man named Jim Spann. That was 61 years ago, and a lot of those Baby Boomers are entering retirement. Things change. It’s a different world.

            But our commitment to Christian growth has not changed. So in a few weeks, we are moving virtually all of our education classes to Wednesday nights. We are going to begin with a simple meal for anybody who tells us they are coming to eat. Every week, it will be good for us to eat together, and everybody is welcome. Then we have full one-hour classes for disciples of every age. For those who want to sing, they can stick around after that to sing, or to ring bells, or to continue the fellowship and the friendship in other ways. The classes will be all about following Jesus; that’s our curriculum.

It’s going to be exciting. A dozen or so confirmation kids will meet here every Wednesday with the rest of us. At the end of the year, I think we should give them a big cake inscribed with a Bible verse. For children’s classes, we are going to a rotation model. That simply means it is going to feel like Vacation Bible School every week. There will be an adult class on faith and life, with current topics and Bible studies. I will be working directly each week with a new class open to younger adults called TAGS – Talking About God Stuff.

All of this is being planned by committed volunteers while we search for a full-time church educator. We have people working hard to make this happen – because they know the Christian faith is a growing faith. It’s a learning faith. It’s a faith that keeps working on us until we become more like Jesus.

Isn’t that why we are here? Of course it is: to have more people becoming more like Christ. This is the ongoing Christian journey. It is God’s way of transformation. That, as they say, reminds me of a song – the very next song which we will sing together:

Faith begins by letting go, giving up what had seemed sure,
Taking risks and pressing on, though the feels less secure;
Pilgrimage both right and odd, trusting all our life to God.

Faith endures by holding on, keeping memory’s roots alive
So that hope may bear its fruit; promise-fed, our souls will thrive,
Not through merit we possess but by God’s great faithfulness.

Faith matures by reaching out, stretching minds, enlarging hearts,
Sharing struggles, living prayer, binding up our broken parts;
Till we find the commonplace ripe with witness to God’s grace.[2]

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

[2] “Faith Begins By Letting Go,” Carl Daw. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Squirrel!? No, That's God

Genesis 28:10-17 / Psalm 42
Weekend in the Woods @ Camp Lackawanna
August 19, 2012
William G. Carter

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

“Squirrel!”  Anybody who saw the movie “Up” knows what that means. A pack of angry cartoon dogs are bearing down on an old cartoon man and a young cartoon boy. As the dogs prepare to pounce, they are distracted. In one voice, they cry out: Squirrel! And off they run in another direction.

We laughed in the movie theater when we saw the scene. We laugh because we understand. It’s not a description of dogs in the wild. People in America are more distractible now than ever before. If we are talking about the changes of the past 100 years of our church’s life, this is a big one.

Our attention span is shorter. Much shorter. Presbyterians used to sit still for forty minute sermons without any sermons. Not so any more. I’m often pushing the limits at eighteen minutes and 2200 words. And should a rodent run through the screened-in porch today, I might as well start over. Somebody yell “Squirrel!”

            The slightest thing can break our concentration. We’ve been trained that way. Reasonable discourses are reduced to sound bytes. Human stories are downsized to television sit-coms, interrupted every six minutes by three commercials. The availability of interruptions is constant. When was the last time you sat still for two hours doing only one thing? It virtually does not happen, not like it did a hundred years ago.

            These days we have the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder. It replaces hyperactivity and neediness with the psychological inability to concentrate on much of anything. A lot of us are so inflicted. It’s the world we live in – and the world that now lives in us.

            Andy and Donna Kepler recently returned from a weeklong seminar in western New York. The topic was something like “Human Identity in a Digital World.” Scientists report that the internet is affecting our brains and the ways we function. Neurons fire differently because we have a dozen windows open on our computers. And our gadgets tempt us to tweet and log-in all the time. There are churches out there who have decided to swim along, and the people in the pews tweet their prayer concerns while the preacher is working.

            Of course, not everybody is swimming along. One of our elders asked me to stop text-messaging when we are in meetings. Apparently my distractions are distracting her. She’s got a point. And all of this could not have been imagined a hundred years ago.

            What has happened to us? It seems that all of life has accelerated. Everything runs faster. We cram more activity in our days, brag about our busyness, then groan about how tired we are. In the midst of this reckless abandon, we process an enormous amount of information every day.

            Imagine a time when you had to walk to school or walk to work. Think back to when the only news you received came from the morning newspaper, the evening broadcast, and the neighbor at the back fence. Now we are swamped with information on Russian punk bands, drone attacks in northern Pakistan, and the latest pictures of Lindsay Lohan going shopping. There is an earthquake in Indonesia, wildfires in Spokane, and political cartoons on Facebook. We may be more connected to the wider world, but we are more distracted from everything by everything.

And in the middle of our distractions, we can no longer discern where God is in the middle of our lives. Where is God lurking? Where is God nudging us, or speaking to us? We can be so distracted that we no longer ask.

That ancient story of Jacob can be a help. Jacob is the family crook. He is on the run, having stolen his father’s blessing from his twin brother. Esau, a hard-working and hairy he-man, was understandably upset when he discovered his fair-haired brother had taken what we legally his. Jacob had split for the hills. He had a good start, but he knew Esau would be chasing him down.

One night, Jacob found himself in the boonies. It must have been pretty close to here. There was no cell phone coverage, no television reception, and the G.P.S. system was not working so well. He was so exhausted that he fell asleep, and put his head on big rock for a pillow. And then he had a dream: there was a ladder to heaven. Angels were coming down it. Angels were going up on it. Constant circular motion between heaven and earth.   

Then to his shock and surprise, he saw God. God was not hiding behind a cloud up high. God was right there, speaking the same promises that he had given to Jacob’s father, and to his grandfather. God was present in the dark night, completely inhabiting his dream. Jacob could outrun his brother, but he could not outrun God. God knew him by name. God promised to protect him. God declared for him a safe return to home. God’s promise and presence were there all the time, but Jacob had been too busy to know it, too preoccupied with his own maneuvers, too consumed with his own affairs.

God stands at the center of all the noise and distraction of our lives. Like Jacob, we never outrun our God. But we often declare we are too busy to pray. Or too busy to read scripture. Or too much on the move to revisit the quiet center where God still speaks. Even if we do sit still, even if some preacher lays a spiritual guilt trip on us, we may settle down for a few minutes and then, “Squirrel!” And off we go.

One of the skills for becoming a spiritual person is the skill of paying attention. Learning to let go of the distractions. Focusing on the things that matter most. Listening for the Voice of love.

It might be enough to get outside more. To sit in the woods. Do you ever do that? The early Christians spoke of God’s two books – the book of Scripture and the book of nature. We learn about God from each of these two books. Sit on a rock and watch the world happen around you. Sink into nature’s rhythm and take a long, loving look at what’s real. It’s a good idea, and we have the opportunity to do that in a place like this.

I’ve been trying myself to go for a daily walk. Sometimes I convince myself that I’m too busy. But the days when I walk, I notice more life in the crack of pavement than the speeding tourist ever sees. God’s creative power is all around us. Hidden in the fierceness of nature, there is a deep and profound Love. It’s almost as if God is calling out to us from behind the tree, or singing to us from the babbling river, or inviting us to dance as the wind whistles through the trees.

Pay attention to these things, and we begin to listen for God. Like the Psalmist, we long for God more than anything else. All of our deepest desires are really a hunger for God. When we dart from one website to another, what we really want is for God to come and fill us. Our thirst may be misdirected, but what we want most of all is to drink deeply from the stream of mercy. We were created with a God-shaped hole. Every one of us. We will fill this vacancy with anything we can find – but only God can satisfy us. We find God by seeking God.

There is so much more than be said about this spiritual practice of paying attention. But too many words can be a distraction. I hope you take some time to be still, to sojourn by the river or walk among the trees. And I offer you a poem from Saint Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian hermit who lived alone in a log cabin for twenty-five years.

When you pray, be like the mountain
  in stillness, in silence;
  thoughts rooted in eternity.
  Do nothing; just sit, just be;
  and you will harvest the fruit of your prayer.

When you pray, be like the flower
  reaching up to the sun;
  straight stemmed like a column.
Be open, ready to accept all things without fear
  and you will not lack light on your way.

When you pray, be like the ocean
  with stillness in its depths
  the waves ebbing and flowing
Have calm in your heart, and evil thoughts will flee of their own accord.

When you pray, remember the breath
  that made us living beings,
  from God it comes; to God it returns.
Blend the Word and prayer with the flow of life
and nothing will come between you and the Giver of Life.

When you pray, be like the bird,
  endlessly singing before the Creator
  its song rising like incense.
Pray like the turtle dove and you will never lose heart.[1]

May I suggest that we conclude with a time of silence?

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

[1] Quoted by Esther De Waal in Lost in Wonder: Rediscovering the Spiritual Art of Attentiveness (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 53.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Matthew 13:47-50 (25:35-46)
August 12, 2012
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

             That’s the kind of parable Jesus would teach, after hanging around with a group of fishermen. He draws upon their daily work, as they cast large nets into the Sea of Galilee. “God’s kingdom is like a wide fishing net that catches every kind of fish.”

            Experience says this is true. Look around this room: there are all kinds of people here. All kinds of people. Do you know how rare that is?

Last Thursday night, I celebrated my wife’s birthday by taking her to Philadelphia for a preseason football game. Two of our daughters went with us. It was a great night for football. I have to tell you, the Steelers second-string looks almost as good as the Eagles’ starting line-up. At seventy dollars a seat, I’m glad the players looked pretty good. Troy Polamalu even had his hair pulled back in a pony tail.

The night would have been perfect, had it not been for the fan two rows behind us. She couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She was nasty. When the opposing team played well, she cursed them. When her own team played poorly, she used profanity. When the referee made a call she did not like, she started singing, “Three blind mice.” She was impassioned, insulting. She was not interested in athletic competition. She wanted annihilation. When I got the courage to turn around and look at her, I saw a short grizzled woman with an angry face. For three hours straight, whatever occurred on the field, she told the entire stadium what she thought about it.

That’s the situation we are in, you know. The over-amplification of the individual. The megaphone on every opinion. The assumption that my way is the only way, that I’m entitled to obliterate you because I’m right and you are wrong, just because I say so.

This is an odd ideafor Presbyterians, I suppose. We come from a reasonable tradition. Our whole government is based on the principle that the pursuit of the truth is a community activity. We seek God together. And should we differ, we pray, we discuss, we stay in communion, and we put it to a provisional vote so we can move forward. That’s the Presbyterian way: we respect every voice, and we listen for God in the majority of voices.

But even among our national flock, I’ve noticed recent breakdowns. Sometimes there are strident voices bullying those who do not agree. Winning becomes more important than being together. On the last night of this year’s General Assembly meeting, I watched online as commissioners nitpicked at one another 11:30 at night. I shut down the computer, went to bed, and later heard that people badgered one another until a quarter of two in the morning, all in the name of Jesus.

This loss of civility is a dramatic change over a hundred years ago. Presbyterians, like everybody else, can be a feisty bunch. Our Scottish forebears settled their early disputes with swords and blue war paint. But at least they eventually build a civilized approach to church life with dignity and mutual respect. These days, there is much more division in our society and precious little respect.

I would commend to you a book called The Big Sort by news reporter Bill Bishop. He has studied voting patterns, community demographics, and spending habits, and concludes that Americans are clustered against one another in alarming ways. These days we are told there are Red States and Blue States. People tend to migrate to communities that “feel right,” where the people surrounding them are mostly in agreement. Gone are the days when the three major television networks provide a central narrative for the nation. The conservatives tune in to Fox News and the liberals watch MSNBC. There is hardly any middle ground, and most people listen only to what they want to hear.

Have you noticed this? As Bishop writes, sometime in the 1960’s,

The old systems of order – around land, family, class, tradition, and religious denomination – gave way. They were replaced over the next thirty years with a new order based on individual choice. Today we seek our own kind in like-minded churches, like-minded neighborhood, and like-minded sources of news and entertainment. (These) like-minded, homogenous groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong. As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in . . . and the politicians exploit this.[1]

I realized that a few months ago when I heard my friend Matt Cartwright was running for Congress. He’s an attorney in Scranton. I know him from years ago in the Rotary Club. I wanted to find out more about his positions on the issues. So I looked up his website and found out more. Then I discovered that I can’t vote for him – Congressional District 17 has been wildly redrawn. The politicians have gerrymandered the district to ensure that they will win the next election.

In such a divided, parceled-out society, where do we learn how to live together? How can we have a true, deep experience of community? How do we work out our differences? How do we pursue the greatest common good?

A hundred years ago, that may have been an issue, but Americans still had a shared dream, that if they worked hard, and worked together, they could advance in each successive generation. As I have often noted, the new American dream seems to be to make enough money that you don’t have to deal with your neighbors, and can arrest them for trespassing if they walk across your lawn.

I am haunted about this change in our society, this rampant division and its segregation. I believe it is a mission field for the church. If Christian people believe that every person is a child of God, that every human being is endowed with God-given dignity, then the Christian congregation must be a place where people respect one another. Where they don’t bludgeon one another with intractable opinions. Where differences are honored – and a higher righteousness is pursued.

And it begins with the clear call of Scripture to be our brothers’ keepers, to be our sisters’ caretakers. We have to find ways to get along even when we disagree, because the world outside our door is not getting along at all. The first sign of God’s kingdom is a Christ-centered community where people care about one another. It is the challenge that we must keep working out.

            I recall the stories about Paul Lehmann, a scholar who taught Christian ethics in the last generation. He taught at Princeton Seminary, and some lesser schools like Harvard and Union. He was a personal friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and he took on the fear-mongering of Senator Joseph McCarty. He was a great man.

            Professor Lehmann used to teach his students that the best way to deal with your opponents is to listen carefully to what they say, and then restate their position in such an unbiased way that they can say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I believe.” In other words, you respect them. You earn the opportunity for them to respect you. Then you work together to discern what you have in common, and where you agree to disagree. The purpose was not to win the argument, but to build a relationship.

            Do you have any friendships with people who disagree with you? Unlike the general cultural consensus of a hundred years ago, post-modern American life wants to segment and divide. And the Christian faith calls us to live together, to work together, to seek the public good – and let God sort out the complexities of who we are and what we are not.

            I think I have a number of friends with whom I disagree on this or that. A friend named Beth recently said, “Life is complex. People are complex. We are not an issue or a side in an issue, we are stories, shaped in a multitude of ways. We are shifting sand. We are growing and changing always. Let's not put each other in categories.”

That’s why the parable of Jesus is so striking. “The kingdom of heaven is like a wide net that catches all kinds of fish.” All of them are in the net together. It is only at the last moment when they are sorted. Before that moment, all divisions are premature. They have to co-exist. Yet the moment finally comes when the good fish are sorted from the bad fish.

Jesus is not commenting on the quality of the tilapia in the Sea of Galilee, which grow to pretty much the same size. He was a carpenter, after all, not a fisherman. But he was assessing the final catch, much like he does all throughout the Gospel of Matthew. God is preparing for the final sorting-out, he says.

Remember his big story on the final separation? “When the Son of Man shall come, he shall divide those on his right from those on his left, the sheep from the goats.” And how will he divide them? On the basis of how they treated their neighbors. Did they welcome the stranger? Feed the hungry? Clothe the ragged? Visit the sick and the prisoner? Did they show basic human compassion and sympathy? Or did they walk by, in neglect and self preoccupation?

The Bible points to a final sorting-out that God shall accomplish. The good shall be separated from the bad, the righteous from the evil. The life we have here and now is a long rehearsal for that final restructuring. Either we receive the people that God puts into our lives or we don’t. Either we love our neighbors and work for their benefit, the same way God loves us, or we don’t. Jesus sets the example and then watches to see what we do with the time we have.

And lest we think this is easy, we hear him make the sad observation that, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). It really does matter how we treat one another, how we welcome those who are both similar and different to us. When Christian people do this, they are a sign of God’s will for the whole human family.

Maybe that’s why a Catholic church got serious about welcoming strangers. They call themselves the “Our Lady of Lourdes Community.” I don’t know where they are, but I want to join up with people like them. Here is what they print as their words of welcome:

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you! [2]

            Do you know the most powerful word in the human language? It’s the word “welcome.” Welcome. Welcome to the kingdom of God. Welcome to the community where you want to belong, and where they want to take you in. Welcome to the arms of Jesus Christ, your friend.

[1] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2009) 39.
[2] Anonymous source, now making the rounds on the internet.

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

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Are Pastors Necessary?

Ephesians 4:1-17
August 5, 2012
William G. Carter

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift...
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

My friend Blair Moffett grew up in the Rushville Presbyterian Church, about forty miles northwest of here. His father served as the pastor in that rural community. His family lived in the manse, which was a home provided by the congregation for its minister. The town was small. Everybody knew everybody else. They kept their doors unlocked. Seventy years ago, when Blair was a little boy, it was an idyllic community. On Sunday mornings, the farmers went to worship after all the chores were done. He sat with his family in the pew reserved for the preacher’s family, and they listened to his father, a graduate of Princeton Seminary, deliver the sermon.

That was a long time ago. The Rushville Presbyterian Church is still there, right along Route 706. These days they do not have an ordained minister as their pastor. The last regular preacher was a full-time truck driver. He had no seminary degree; in fact, he had no college degree. His education came from listening to cassette tapes and podcasts from Bible teachers as he drove his routes each week. He departed rather abruptly this year, and the church scrambled to find somebody to preach.

This is largely a function of economics. The Rushville church has sixteen members, nineteen of whom show up every Sunday (I love small town statistics!). The 2010 budget was about $24,000, about half of it coming from a handful of members with leases for natural gas. Even with such generosity, the congregation cannot come close to the minimum salary requirements of the presbytery. So ruling elders fill in – with sixteen members, most of them have everybody has had a turn. Often a neighboring elder comes over the hills to preach. The presbytery offered a couple of preaching classes about ten years ago, and that is all the training he has.

What do they need a pastor for, anyway?

In the hundred years of our church’s history, that is one of the questions that focuses how church life has changed. This congregation began in a lady’s living room, as a small group of the faithful gathered to pray. As the fellowship expanded, the day came when they decided to get a pastor. The first worship services were held in the Nickelette Theater on State Street, where the offices of Citizens Savings are located. Seminary students drove up from Princeton to preach each week.

And then, even before the building site was established, the congregation called its first pastor. The Rev. J. Hawley Rendell began on December 9, 1912. He was one of those Princeton Seminary students. The congregation liked him, he was freshly graduated, and he served here for three years – and was paid a thousand dollars a year. Oh, the good old days!

But what did a pastor do, a hundred years ago? Certainly he prepared a sermon. If he went to Princeton Seminary, he was told to spend an hour in preparation for every minute in the pulpit. Back then, you couldn’t steal your sermons from the internet, from No, the preacher wrote every word – probably in long hand. And he – since all the preachers were “he’s” – probably spoke for thirty minutes every week. That’s how long the average Presbyterian sermon was in 1912. Sermons are important, central to our tradition. They were worthy of the preparation.

What else did the pastor do? He made house calls, often going door to door. There were no church programs back then, few organized study groups, and no Sunday School. So the preacher would put on coat and tie, walk around the neighborhood, knock on the door, and inquire into the spiritual health of those inside.

What else did he do? He moderated the session meetings, maybe as frequently as once a week. There were church committees back then. The session functioned as a committee of the whole. So it was often one meeting per week. There were a handful of elders on the session, all men. They often inquired into the spiritual health of the people in the church – and in the neighborhood. Don Keen will tell you how the session once threw his grandmother out of this church. They discovered she was a troublemaker, so they gave her the boot. Apparently the discipline straightened her out, and she rejoined sometime later. The pastor probably has something to do with both discipline and restoration.

What else did the first pastor do? We really don’t know. Certainly he conducted some funerals, a few weddings, and presided over baptisms and the Lord’s Supper. But most of all, he had a ministry of presence. That means he spent some time hanging around the town, God’s local representative. His life was a symbol that God was present in the community. If a church has a pastor, it was a sign that God was in town.

As for those churches like the Rushville Presbyterian Church, there are more of them every year. Once upon a time, when salaries were small, health care costs were negligible, and the cost of living was modest, a country church could afford a pastor. When I moved here, there were about forty-five full-time ministers in our presbytery of sixty-five churches. Now there are twenty-two pastors in fifty-seven churches. Let that statistic sink in for a second. I may be part of a dying profession. That’s a big change from a hundred years ago.

Another big change is with the expectations of those pastors that we do have. There are many things laid upon their shoulders, most of them inconceivable one hundred years ago. This past week, a summer week, I spent eight hours in meetings, five hours conversing with people who have challenges in their lives, three hours teaching the Bible, nine hours in study and preparation, ten hours in office administration, and all kinds of little things that I did not document, like sermon preparation. Want to guess how many church e-mails I fielded? About 170. There were at least thirty-five phone calls. In truth, it was a quiet week, although I will always apologize to you that I never get everything done.

Technology is not always a help. As with most of you, computers simplify my work and complicate my work, both at the same time. My laptop computer gives me the nagging sense that I am always working, and my smart phone keeps me constantly tethered.

And when you live somewhere as long as I have lived here, the roots go deep, the branches extend, and all kinds of birds build nests. What that means in a practical sense is that if I go to the store to get ice cream for my wife, there are a few of you that I will avoid in the frozen food aisle. I don’t mean to be rude, but I will answer to a higher authority than you if I return with a half-gallon of chocolate soup.

There are all kinds of peculiarities that come with being a pastor. I don’t need to bore you with my list. My kids can probably give you a list. Certainly there are a lot of pastors who work a lot harder than me; I know that, because I hear them whining about it; the pastoral ministry tends to attract people who are lousy at self-care. And I know there are some lazy pastors out there, too, and I have heard them bragging about it.

I tell you it is a crazy profession. You tell me that only crazy people go into it. I recall the book editor who was reading through a collection of sermons to prepare it for publication. The preacher used the word “pastor” as a verb, as in “I pastored a church.” The problem, said the editor, is that the spell checker on the computer did not like that word as a verb. It suggested alternatives. Instead of “pastoring” a church, it suggested “posturing,” “pestering,” and “pasturing.” I reserve comment.

So I return where I began: to the Rushville Presbyterian Church, with its sixteen members, nineteen of them showing up, and no regular pastor. They have figured out how to have worship without an ordained minister. But what are they missing?

There is no pastor to posture, and declare, “I am better than you,” or “I am holier than you.” God save us from such arrogance! There is no pastor to pester the people into righteous living, to provoke them to good works and annoy them into the Kingdom. God save us from that, too. Most significantly, there is no regular outsider who is also resident insider who points to the green pastures - - and the still waters of God.

Of all the reasons why I am here, that’s number one. To remind you of God. The Rev. J. Hawley Rendell had the luxury of a simple job description and a consensus of expectations on what he was supposed to do. That was a long time ago. But his central calling is the same as with any pastor: to usher people into the presence of God.

From his jail cell, the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians of Ephesus. They were a minority group in an enormous city. The prevailing community ignored them, went about its business as if they did not exist. But Paul understood that life has a governing center: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is the parent of all. And this God is generous to every one of us – Paul reminded them of what they already knew, and what they readily forgot.

This is what the pastor does – sometimes posturing, sometimes pestering, sometimes pasturing. The grace of God in Jesus Christ stands at the center of our lives. As we grow up in faith, in the full maturity of faith, this is where we return over and over again. We come to this Table, reminded of the Christ who stretched his arms out in sacrificial love for you and for me. We come to be reminded how he blows his very Soul into our lungs, ever sustaining us by his Spirit.

We forget these truths, and the pastor is planted right in the center of it all to remind us that God actually likes us, that God takes delight in us, that God covets our companionship and listens for our prayers to learn from our lips who and what are on our hearts.

If these things are not important, then pastors are not necessary. But among Christians, most of us believe they are absolutely essential. All of us are called to grow up, to mature in Christ and become more like him. We need the encouragement and support of one another every day. Sometimes we nudge one another to forgive, to leave the hurts and grudges behind, to drop our heavy burdens. Other times we lift our prayers as incense, called to trust that God will do something beautiful with all our broken pieces.

That’s why we are here – to ground ourselves in the grace of God. To let God be God, and to let ourselves be God’s beloved teenagers, stretching and growing, ever becoming as loving as Jesus. It will take a while, as all good things do. Along the way, we can – all of us – be pastors to one another.

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