Saturday, March 30, 2013

The One Who Knows Us

John 10:11-18
March 31, 2013
Easter Sunday
William G. Carter

Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
            Today I offer a different kind of Easter sermon. We have heard about the miracle of resurrection. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. She runs to report to the disciples, and two of them run back to check it out for themselves. They see the stone is rolled away. Inside, the linen wrapping is folded up. They return dazzled by the mystery, one of them believing, the other one scratching his head.

            Mary Magdalene stays behind. She weeps from shock. Looking inside once again, she sees two angels. She doesn’t seem to care that they are angels, and murmurs, “They took away my Jesus, and I don’t know where they took him.” Then she turned, saw the gardener standing there. Like the angels, he wants to know why she is crying. She says, “Sir, if you took him away, tell me, and I will take him back.”

            He calls her by name: “Mary!” With that, her dark world is flooded with light. That’s what I want to talk about briefly today. Not merely the report of a long-ago miracle, but that moment of knowledge when we know Jesus is alive. He was dead, past tense; now he is alive, present tense. That is the truth of Easter: Jesus was dead, now is alive. Easter was not something that happened long ago. It is here, it is now.

            If you listen in the communion prayer, we sneak it in. How do we state the mystery of faith? “Christ has died, Christ is risen…” The risen Christ is the eternal Christ. He stands outside of time, but he steps into time – our time, others’ time – he is now longer bound to the past. Welcome to a present-tense Easter.

            This is how I suggest we think about Easter – as something here and now. Jesus Christ is alive.

            Paul, the great apostle, had his eyes opened. There he was, maybe two or three years after the death of Jesus. His name was still Saul. He was a pious Jew, trying to snuff out that new sect of Jesus-followers. As he stomped along to the city of Damascus, breathing threats against the Christians, hunting them down, a bright light knocked him off his high horse. Then the great Voice spoke, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” That was the moment everything changed. He knew who it was, because he was known. He was called by name.

            According to the account, Christ in his resurrection glory is not an obvious presence. He slips in an out of crowds, he comes and goes. His own people do not recognize him – until the disguise, or the face becomes familiar again, or especially when the Stranger shows that he knows us.

            Some sixty years after the resurrection, somebody named John wrote what he could in a book. He had no tips on how to recognize Jesus as he comes and goes. If there are any clues, they are in Easter stories. Mary sees him when her name is called. Others see him when he suddenly comes to commission them to forgive in the power of his Spirit. Even Thomas, Doubting Thomas, the one who says, “I’m not going to believe unless I put my finger in the nail holes,” is stunned awake when Jesus appears in a locked room and says, “Here are my hands; you want to do that thing?” He was listening offstage the whole time. When he chooses to appear, he makes it clear that he knows you.  

            The church that gathered around John, the Gospel writer, was not particularly spooked by this. The book was written around 90 AD. They had sixty years to get used to the absence of Jesus, which really wasn’t an absence. Christ is usually out of sight. But how do they know he is alive? They hear his voice.

            I selected the Good Shepherd text from chapter 10 to go along the Mary Magdalene story from chapter 20. In chapter 10, John has collected a few short speeches about sheep and the Good Shepherd. A lot of the early Christians were Jews; they remembered Bible passages about shepherds. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He takes me to the green pastures and the still waters.” They knew those words from the 23rd Psalm.

            They also knew the words from the prophet Ezekiel. God says, “I will search for my sheep and seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places where they have scattered. I will gather the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed all of them with justice.” Oh, that was one of God’s great promises from Ezekiel, chapter 34. God would be the shepherd.

            Do you know how the church of St. John knew that Jesus had been raised from the dead? Because that was their experience. God provided for them. God cared for them. God took a stand for those who were weakest and most vulnerable. The God who was real for them in Jesus Christ was indeed the one who was their shepherd.

            I’ve been interested in the noisy racket coming out of Rome this week. Pope Francis, still somewhat new on the job, stopped by a detention center on Maundy Thursday. The papal custom has been to wash the feet of twelve people just as Jesus washed the feet of his twelve disciples. But the “twelve people” have usually been twelve men, twelve priests – and this Pope washed the feet of twelve prisoners. Not only that, two of them were women, and one of the women is a Muslim.

            Well, maybe you heard the racket – “What’s the world coming to? How dare the pope, who sets his own rules, decide to wash the feet of people like that? What’s the world coming to? Do he think this God’s Kingdom or something?” You would think the Christians would read their own Bible – the Good Shepherd is the one who gathers and restores, who gives strength to those who need it, and who ignores the ones who don’t need him. This is Biblical justice.

And for what it’s worth, do you think the lives of those twelve prisoners is ever going to be the same again, after the global leader of the Roman church got down on his knees, washed their feet, kissed their feet, and blessed them? I’m going to guess that Easter came early for those twelve.

What impresses me about the words of John, chapter ten, is that Jesus speaks in the present tense. “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep. I do this because I choose to do this. I know my own, and they know me.” It’s all in the present tense. When the words were set to parchment, it was 90 AD, yet he spoke to those Christians, probably living around the Asian city of Ephesus – he spoke to them as if he was right there with them. Because he was – and he is.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life, and he takes it up again. Death and resurrection. This is his power: the power of self-giving love, shown in the cross; the power of resurrection, where the life of eternity brings him back and fills us up. This is the Father’s love, he says, shown to us, told to us. And this is the Really Big Clue that Easter is real. It’s real where love is stronger than whatever threatens to scatter and destroy.

At 10:00 today, we dedicate the first stained glass window in this building that has a face on it. It’s the Good Shepherd window by our corner door, given in memory of a shepherd named Jack who served God as a pastor, husband, and friend. When we were talking with Baut Studios, the stained glass studio in Swoyersville, a number of details got worked into the window. You will see a rainbow trout jumping; that’s in honor of Jack, who loved to fish. The streams of light from the sky come down, prompting us to look toward heaven. The sheep are not particularly bright; that’s how sheep are, you know. The eyes of Jesus follow you around the area; that’s intentional, too, without being spooky. It is a wonderful design which we will enjoy for years to come.

But here is the one suggestion that I made: the hands and feet of the Good Shepherd have nail prints on them. The Good Shepherd is the Risen Lord. He is completely alive, and he comes in the total love of God. It’s a glimpse in colored glass that he is with us, and we are his. When we hear his voice, we love others as he loves all of us. And Easter keeps going on.

One of our church members is not with us today. She is one of the volunteers people from this congregation who serve monthly meals at the St. Francis soup kitchen in Scranton. This has become an important way for people in our church to show Christ’s love to those who have great need for that love. Well, anyway, she got wind that the leaders at the soup kitchen were planning to shut down today. Most of their core of volunteers wanted to spend Easter with their families, and in their churches.

On one level, sure, it’s Easter. Big day for families and churches. But the more she thought about it, the more it didn’t sit right with her. She has come to know the people who eat at that shelter, to love those people. Finally she said, “Forgive me for skipping out of worship, but I think I need to serve them Easter dinner. Otherwise a lot of them will find a locked door with nothing to eat. This year, I’m going to celebrate Easter by feeding some of the people Jesus loves.”

What do you think?

I think I can hear the Risen Lord. He says, “I know my own and my own know me.”

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Until the Kingdom of God Comes

Luke 22:7-23, 28-30
Maundy Thursday
William G. Carter

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ 

            We know this story. We hear the heart of it at least once a month, every time we break the bread and pour the cup. Tonight we hear it in its expanded context. It was a Passover banquet. That means the matzoh was baked, the lamb was roasted. Bottles of wine are uncorked and friends have circled around. Passover is celebrated with serious joy.

Around a family table, the celebrants recline in freedom. They sing the psalms of God’s saving power and recount the story of how God brought them out of slavery. This is a night of serious joy. The carpenter pulls on a clean tunic. The fishermen scrub their fingernails a second time.

But why is this Passover different from all other Passovers? Jesus seems to have made secret arrangements for the meal, probably because his life is at risk. His friends do not know this will be their last meal with him. All they know is that this will be a Passover feast. They remember Moses standing up to Pharoah, and God sending Ten Plagues to soften Pharoah’s will. They recall how the angel of death “passed over” the homes where lamb’s blood was smeared over the door. Regardless of whatever precautions they took, they had no idea that the first-born Son of God would be struck down by the angel of death in a matter of hours.

Just then Jesus makes it plain. “I wanted to have this meal with you before I suffer.” Or to translate more accurately, “I really, really, really wanted to do this.” I need to do this, I deeply desire to do this - with all of you – before I suffer. This is the moment when the Twelve friends realize that something deep is going on. Both his intensity and his sense of a deadline (“before I suffer”) reveal that meal’s importance.

But then Jesus said something unusual, something to which I never paid much attention, something he says twice. “I won’t eat the meal until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. I won’t drink the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.” It is the Last Supper before he suffers, but then he will eat it again “in the Kingdom of God.”

He has spoken of the Kingdom many times. Forty-two times, to be exact, just in the Gospel of Luke. God’s Kingdom is an invisible dominion. The Kingdom is not in some other place, said Jesus; it is already among us. We don’t see it – but it has begun. Children belong to the Kingdom, and people who become like trusting children will enter it. Kingdom is the banquet where poor, crippled, blind, and lame are honored guests. Kingdom is where prodigals are forgiven and Samaritans are our neighbors. Kingdom is where God presides over all things and human willfulness is set aside. This is how Jesus speaks of the will of God working itself out, both in our lives and beyond our lifetimes. God rules like a Sovereign. The Kingdom starts small, like a seed, and grows until it takes over everything.

Tonight Jesus adds that the Kingdom comes after he suffers.

A lot of Christian people have had a lot to say about the sacramental Supper that we share tonight. They have written books, outlined doctrine, even divided churches over their views of this Supper. What strikes me tonight is that this is a Kingdom Meal, right here in the midst of our own human suffering. Jesus has gone through his suffering – his body was broken and discarded, his blood spilled.

We recount the story tonight and tomorrow. It resonates with our own awareness of how broken the world is. We remember yet again how cruel people can be to one another, how otherwise good people will cash in their friendships, to say nothing of how addicted we are to violence. It is disturbing but it is not defining. Bad things happen on this dark night, but God’s goodness is still here, and it continues to advance.

This begins, after all, as a Passover meal. The Jews know Passover. Passover is the feast of freedom. Passover means that nobody enslaves anybody else. Passover means that nobody puts down, oppresses, or takes advantage of anybody else. Passover means Pharoah can’t force you to make bricks, or force you to make more bricks without any straw. Oh no! God hears human suffering, and brings us out of that bondage. Even though Pharoah still has his brick factories, even though his taskmasters still afflict and demean, Passover says there is another way.

It can be hard to see. It is difficult to claim. Ask the man who works in the storeroom at the Big Box Megamart. Once he had his own business, was his own boss, but then the economy unraveled. After weeks of looking for a job, he landed in the Big Box storeroom. Now he punches somebody else’s clock. He goes in when they tell him to go in. He would like to join us for church on Sunday, but he has to work when they tell him to work. Otherwise the groceries don’t get bought, the bills don’t get paid. Talk about Passover, talk about freedom; it can sound like a distant dream . . . except it is real. We can flourish even in the midst of the affliction because it does not own us.

Jesus breaks the bread, the Bread of Affliction. He breaks it just as his body will be broken. He says, “I give this to you,” because there is something more to life than suffering.

He pours out the cup among his fellow Jews, and declares, “New covenant!” Jewish Passover will become the model for all human relationships. No more brutality. No more oppression. Jesus says his suffering will create a new fellowship between people and their God. After his suffering is finished and past, he will eat and drink with his friends again.

These sound like Easter hints before Good Friday. I take them as that and a whole lot more. We gather for the Lord’s Supper, not the Last Supper. Tonight we hear of Christ’s suffering and take stock of our own. But we affirm that He is here, in the midst of us, because his suffering is past and the Kingdom has come near quietly. 

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

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Boasting of the Cross

Galatians 6:11-18
Lent 6 / Palm Sunday
March 24, 2011
William G. Carter

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.  May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

            All the triumphant music today does not mask the truth of Holy Week. Jesus enters the holy city of Jerusalem and he comes to die. He rides down the hill in humble majesty, but he is not the King that Jerusalem wants.

            It is difficult to hold this together. We hear today’s hosannas, we anticipate the hallelujahs of next Sunday. But sometimes we forget that, in between, Somebody dies. Jesus rides a donkey into the city. The crowds cheer. They cut down leafy branches and wave them in victory. They put their cloaks on the ground, kind of a poor persons’ red carpet into the city. Jesus arrives from the Mount of Olives, the very place where the Messiah was to appear. It’s a big moment. A huge moment!

But he knows what he is going to face. Halfway down the hill, he pauses for a good view of the city, and he weeps. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You are the city that kills the prophets.” Then he rides into the city just like a prophet. He goes into the temple and drives out the flea marketeers – just like a prophet. In full sight of the Roman soldiers, he takes on the religious establishment – just like a prophet. Luke says Jesus dies like a prophet. He is innocent (23:47), he is full of God, and therefore he is condemned. He is the prophet, he is the king, and nobody wants him.

I suppose if all we had was Palm Sunday and Easter, we might miss what happens on Friday. Like that church in southern Pennsylvania. The minister is new this year. He stopped in yesterday and discovered that the people in charge of flowers have already decorated the sanctuary with hundreds of Easter flowers, including a large floral cross. They were so pleased with themselves. The minister said, “What are you doing?” “Well, the flowers are so pretty, we thought it would be nice to have them for two Sundays in a row. And it gets people in a good mood for Easter.”

Sure does. Nobody has to die. Nobody has to be betrayed, arrested, dragged to a trial, condemned, humiliated, and hammered to a cross. The flowers are too pretty for all of that.

How strange, then, to hear Paul say, “I never want to boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

            You could accuse him of being a grump. Call him Eeyore. That’s what they did in Corinth. They thought he was a downer, that he took the glad tidings of Easter and turned into a sad story of the cross. They said, “Paul, are you still preaching about the crucifixion of Jesus? That’s the same sermon that you preached last week. You’re supposed to be an apostle, Paul. Get another sermon!” And he said, “That’s the only sermon I have, the only sermon I preach. I preach Christ crucified, even if that’s a stumbling block to the Jews and silliness to the Greeks.” I guess they will never put him on the flower committee where my friend is the new minister. Paul would show up with cans of black spray paint and deface the tulips.

            Or when he heard what was happening in Philippi. It really disturbed him. Paul loved that little church, started it with his own hands. And he hears that some are squabbling with one another, and it tears him up. Some rival preachers have also come in, and they are preaching nonsense and it boils his blood. Just when he might explode, he takes a breath, and says, “Remember Jesus. Have the mind of Jesus. He was One with God, but he didn’t clutch that, hold onto that. No, he emptied himself and made himself a servant of all. He gave himself completely away … even to the cross. Remember that, and be like Jesus.”

            The cross is important to Paul. He never mentions Palm Sunday, and doesn’t spend a lot of time speculating about Easter. It’s not that he doesn’t think Jesus alive; No, he believes Jesus is alive, risen from the dead. There is no doubt in Paul about that. But what tantalizes his theological imagination is the cross. Christ, the king and Lord of all, is crucified.

            As he writes to his churches in Galatia, in central Turkey, he says, “The only thing I have to boast about is Jesus on a cross.” That’s quite an affirmation, because Jesus went to the cross, not Paul. This was the supreme act of Christ’s faith, says Paul. He gave himself on the cross to free us from the evil machinery of the world (1:4). He took all the curses of our human imperfection to the cross (3:13). All our arrogance and pride was crucified when Jesus was crucified (2:17-19). If we think God will love us if only we do all the right things and follow all the ancient rules, we are scamming ourselves and headed down a dead end.
            Oh no, it is all so much better than that. We boast of the cross because Jesus does on the cross what we cannot do. He sets us free from an endless trap of religious obligation. He liberates from the human obsession to prove ourselves. “All that stuff was killed off with Christ,” says Paul. “Jesus set us free to live in freedom with God (5:1).” There is nothing for anybody to boast about – except to boast of what Christ has done for all of us.

            Ever know anybody who boasts? We had a classmate in high school who could boast better than anybody. He went out for track, made the team, and told us how fast he could run, how high he could jump. He went out for football, made the starting backfield, told us how good he was, how many points he scored. He did very well in his school work, constantly at the top of the academic gene pool, telling the rest of us about his scholastic average. In fact, he decided that going to a regular college wasn’t good enough for him. He was going to West Point. He was nominated by the congressman and appointed to the military academy. Of course, he told us all about it.

            Do you know why he boasted? Because he was superior. He believed he was better than everybody else. If you were to ask him, he wouldn’t call it boasting; he would call it “telling the truth.” He really though he was better than everybody else.

            Three weeks after he left for West Point, he was knocking on my door. His countenance was pale. He had a grimace chiseled on his face. “Couldn’t cut it,” he murmured. “It wasn’t for me.” I had never seen him like that – he had actually failed at something. He was a mortal like the rest of us. He had come to me as a trusted friend to confess his failure. I was starting to feel some compassion for the guy.

            Then he said, “So you’re going to the university at Binghamton this fall?” Yes. And he said, “Well, if they can take somebody like you, I’m sure they will take me. I mean, the bar isn’t set very high.”

            Why did he boast? Because he thought he was superior. He really believed it.

            Do you remember who crucified Jesus? People who thought they were superior. Jewish religious leaders: they followed God’s Law precisely, more perfectly than everybody else. They believed that they were doing the right thing when they condemned him.  And who else? Roman officials: they were part of the strongest, fiercest, most efficient empire that the world had ever known. A standard crucifixion was all in a Friday’s work. Religious leaders and career soldiers, professionals so sure of their own competence and power that they could boast. And their signature achievement? They killed the Son of God. So much for competence and doing the right thing…

            Here’s the thing, says Paul. “When I look to the cross of Jesus, all my boasting is crucified and gone. All my expertise is killed off. I have nothing left to stand on, nothing really to brag about. There is nothing superior about me at all. It’s as if my whole world of achievements and classifications and status symbols has been killed off.” The righteous religious leaders who condemned Jesus were not righteous enough. The competent Roman politicians weren’t competent enough. If we were in the same position on the same day, any one of us would have done the same things that they did.

            Here’s the thing: neither Jew nor Roman Gentile could boast of being superior. Neither religious rule-keeper nor pagan expert is better than the other. All those categories of “success” and “failure” don’t matter before the cross. All those descriptions of “superior” or “inferior” don’t count any more. It doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female – in Jesus Christ, there is a new creation. The adjectives that we use to describe ourselves and other people do not matter.

All that matters is the Risen Christ took all of those distinctions to the cross and did away with them. The God who saves us from “this present age” doesn’t see any of us as superior to any other. All God sees is a multitude of children who need to be rescued. Some of them need to be rescued from thinking they are better than anybody else. Others need to be rescued from a lifetime of being treated as dirt.

“This is what I boast about,” says Paul: God’s saving love. It’s right there on the cross of Jesus. No need to impress anybody, because, frankly none of God’s children are any better than any other of God’s children. God believes we are capable of peace and worthy of mercy. That is the good news of the cross.

To the Galatians, the apostle gives his last word – which is our blessing at the start of Holy Week. “Brothers and sisters,” he says – you know he means all of us brothers and sisters. We belong to God, so we are brothers and sisters of one another. Then he gives his blessing: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” The last word is grace. At the end of everything else, there is grace. Divine favor – that’s grace.

And it isn’t our grace. It is the grace of Jesus, the Living One, who died to set us free. We didn’t have to do anything to earn it; he did all the heavy work for us. That’s why it is grace.

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

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Slave to Christ, Free in the Spirit

Galatians 4:1-5:1
March 10, 2013
Lent 4
William G. Carter

C.S. Lewis wrote a fable about heaven and hell. He called it The Great Divorce, and it’s a story about the huge separation between both patches of real estate. The poor souls in hell ride a bus on a day that is perpetually dreary. It’s a flying bus and climbs into the sky, increasing in size as it moves upward. Hell is a small place, it seems, full of small, insubstantial people who snarl at each other. And as they move toward heaven, everything gets bigger, thicker, and brighter. These small Hell-dwellers are exposed as shadowy beings who complain that the green grass of heaven is too hard for their feet.

Nevertheless, they are free to visit, perhaps in the hidden hope that something might happen to give more substance to their lives. They can go to heaven whenever they want. They can stay there if they choose to do so. But aye, there’s the problem.

One of the visitors is described as an ugly old dwarf. He snarls, but never speaks. And he comes dragging a battered old actor on a chain. The actor is old school, a melodramatic man who speaks the King’s English in self-important tones. Maybe he has been in a number of Shakespearean dramas. He certainly talks that way whenever the dwarf pulls his chain.

A woman approaches them. She shines so brightly that somebody mistakes her for Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is radiant and serene, simply aglow with the peace of heaven. She greets the twosome. The dwarf tugs the chain, and the tragic actor returns the greeting, albeit grimly. Her name is Sarah, and on earth, she was married to the man who has become the dwarf. She died before he did, and now he has come from Hell to see her – hopefully to make her miserable, just as he is.

Each time, she speaks with grace and shines all the brighter. The dwarf snarls, pulls the chain, and the tired old actor responds with self-pity. He tries to make her feel guilty that he is miserable and she is not. She reminds him that misery and self-pity are choices that we make. 

She invites him to give up that old actor, to send him away, to enjoy the beauty of heaven. He almost gives in, but then pulls the chain and the old actor howls for him. Sarah says, “Please give up this nonsense.” Once again, he yanks the chain, the actor bellows, “And now, you need me no more?” Each time the small man pulls the chain, he gets even smaller. The actor moans, “Woe is me!” as the small man nearly shrinks away.

I have always been taken by that scene. It’s a picture of someone in captivity. He can drop the chain anytime he chooses. But it might as well be shackled to his wrist. He is a captive to his own natural whims. He is a slave to his long-established customs. It is not necessary – but being half of a human who nurses his own anguish is more familiar than being free and full of light. It’s a picture that I would lay down beside the fourth chapter of Galatians.

Paul wants to talk about freedom. That is the overwhelming theme of this letter: freedom! Jesus Christ comes in freedom, and he comes to set us free. In this sprawling chapter four, he hurls Christian freedom in the backdrop of human slavery. Twelve times in this chapter, the word “slave” shows up as a noun or a verb. Twelve times, he reminds the Christians of Galatia about the human experience of slavery.

Now, I realize there is some distance between our experience and his. Slavery was a current reality in the Roman Empire. Slaves were bought and sold, mostly among the wealthy, as a way of buying laborers to do the things that the wealthy did not want to do. In the American empire, slavery was abolished in 1863. Or so our history teachers told us.

Truth is, there is plenty of slavery in our own world. There is human trafficking going on all the time. Runaway teens fall into it at truck stops or drop-in shelters. Somebody owns them, uses them, profits from them. And that’s only a small slice of what happens in our nation. Around the world, human slavery is alive and well. You can read all about it, if your stomach lets you.

And there are other kinds of slavery, too. C. S. Lewis tells that story of that small man imprisoned by his own resentment. We know those people. They are captives to anger, prisoners of bitterness, slaves to the very emotions that they keep stoked.

Others are slaves to their work. It bolts them to their desks. Or they take it wherever they go. Wherever they work, they are consumed. They are afraid of letting it rest. Or it feeds them with adrenaline and they are fearful of not getting the emotional rush.

Still others are slaves to their technology. Have you noticed that? Maybe it’s that thumb-exerciser that some many people have, that I have. I checked the household cell phone bill. One of the denizens in our home made forty-five hundred text messages last month. Four thousand five hundred. No talking with the tongue, just the thumbs. This is the addiction.

Or there are other forms of enslavement, other addictions. I saw it yesterday afternoon about 3:00. It took me almost an hour to drive home from visiting someone in Geisinger-CMC. All the way down Mulberry Street, I saw college students with green shirts, red eyes, and fuzzy tongues. It looked like they began preparing for St. Patty’s Day about two days ago. One of them gave me a descriptive gesture, weaved a bit, and yelled, “Who do you think you are, driving down the middle of our street?” I smiled in return, and prayed that when he goes back to religion class on Monday, Professor Pinches might have him write a paper on the fourth chapter of Galatians.

Human animals fall into some kind of slavery or another. Something or someone is always yanking at our chains. The season of Lent is a good time to survey our own slavery. What are the bad habits that shackle us? That prevent us from joy and grace? And where are the injustices where somebody holds unnecessary power over somebody else? Where are people exploited by the forces of destructiveness? These are important questions for the apostle Paul. Christ comes to make us free. Whatever that means, wherever it matters most, Jesus is our liberation.

It is important to keep in mind that Paul is writing this letter to two entirely different groups of people at the same time. In his energy of his fury, he seems to shift quickly from addressing one group and then another. We have heard him speak of some “antagonistic missionaries.” Those were the Super Jews who insisted that the Gentile men in Galatia had circumcised, that they had to become Jews before they could become Christians. Paul says to them, “Knock it off!”  The Jewish Law was for the Jewish people. If you remember from last week, it was our “babysitter,” our custodian, until Christian faith could come to direct our lives. Rather than follow a checklist of virtues, we are led by God’s Spirit to follow Jesus Christ. All are forgiven in cross of Jesus. All can live free from the sin that killed our Savior. That is his word to the Jews.

But he pivots and turns to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles. “You aren’t slaves to the Jewish Law,” he says, “but you are slaves to something else.” What is it? In chapter one, he says we are slaves to “the present evil age.” That is, to the whole system of abuse, destruction, anger, fury, and selfishness that gets manufactured and rebuilt in every generation.

Here in chapter four, he says it another way, “We were slaves to the elemental spirits of the world.” The elemental spirits – at their most primitive he means earth, water, fire, and air – the four primary elements of the created world.

In other words, we are creatures made from the same stuff of our planet. Earth is same stuff as skin and bones, water courses through our bodies, fire burns in our hearts and minds, and we live as long as there is air in our lungs. That’s all we are – a delicate system of chemicals. That’s all we can ever be – unless the Breath of Christ becomes our breath, unless the mind of Christ possesses our minds, unless the fire of grace consumes us and sets us free from merely existing as God’s temporary chemistry experiments.

There is a dignity to claim as God’s own children. We are adopted as God’s own offspring, thanks to the self-giving love of God’s own Son. We are not abandoned to ourselves and our whims, a theme that Paul will unpack in chapter five. Oh no, God puts Holy Breath right into our lungs, the Holy Spirit. And when we exhale our prayers and say, “Abba! Daddy! Father God,” it is the echo of saving grace that seals our inheritance.

Just take a moment and catch yourself breathing. Listen to the wind entering your lungs. Watch your chest rise and fall with each breath. Picture in your imagination that this is the Breath of God, entering you freely, giving you life to be sure; but also giving your freedom. You are Somebody’s child, regardless of whether if you are ninety-three years old, forty-two, or seven. Your life matters because it is God-in-Christ who enters to possess you, to make you his own. We are bound to Christ, we are free in Christ, all at the same time.

What does this look like? Well, that’s what chapter five will be about, when we get to it next week.

But to prime the pump, let me tell you a quick story. Up at Boston University, there is a school of theology. The day came when the development office announced that the oldest living graduate would return for homecoming. Not only that, he was invited to speak for a mandatory worship service in the chapel. The students groaned. They were young and hip, and this old guy was going to be rolled in to preach to them.

Well, he walked with a cane, and didn’t need to be rolled in. But he was old. Really old. When Noah landed the ark, this guy was already eight hundred years old. On the appointed day, he appeared. He hobbled in. They were waiting for him, and had to wait a little longer. He was in no hurry. The wrinkles in his face were like deep canyons. His steps were slow and measured. He was taking his time, and needed to.

Finally he stood in the pulpit, cleared his throat. Paused, looked at the crowd. Cleared his throat again, adjusted the microphone, gazed out at the students through his cataracts and said, “I would like to thank my alma mater for setting me free without setting me adrift.” Then he sat down.

That’s what Jesus does for us, in the power of his Holy Spirit. Sets us free, never sets us adrift.

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

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Something More Than Rules

Galatians 3 (3:23-39)
March 3, 2013
Lent 3
William G. Carter

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Poor Stephen Colbert! The late night comic was in a dither on Thursday night. As he reviewed the day’s news on his nightly Colbert Report, he noted, “The world is now in uncharted territory. As of 8:00 p.m., Central Vatican Time, we are officially Pope-Less.”

It is an awkward time for the Roman Catholic church, of which Colbert is a member. Pope Benedict has retired at age eighty-five. For whatever reason, he has decided to hang up the robe and put the big hat back on the shelf. He’s an old man leaving an impossible job. Let him kick back and catch his breath! But it is an awkward time for the Roman Church. As one Catholic friend wondered out loud, “Who’s going to tell us what to do?”

Faith would be so much easier if we could reduce it to a central authority, whether a person or a checklist, and let the authority tell us what to do and what to believe. A lot of people see the Bible as that kind of authority: as the Protestants began to say in the mid-1500’s, “We don’t need a Pope, for we have the Bible. The Bible is our rule of faith and practice.” Maybe you were taught to say those words.

But the more we read the Bible, the slipperier it becomes. There are more stories than rules in Bible, and only a handful of the stories come with punch lines. So you have to chew on them for a while to get to the caramel center. Once upon a time, God told Abraham, a man as old and childless as the former Pope, that he was going to be the father of a great multitude, and Abraham believed the Lord. So what is that story telling us to do? On the face of it, nothing. It’s a story about Abraham.

A lot of people look to the Bible for direction, but not only are there a lot of stories in the Bible, there are also a lot of poems. Poems may make a statement, like “God is king” or “Sing a New Song,” but they resist reduction. A poem refuses to be boiled down to a principle. Do you recall today’s Psalm? The poet says, “I thirst for God, the living God.” He thirsts; notice that never does he declare that God is a glass of milk; that would be silly.

And then, as I am sure you noticed, the rules that the Bible teaches can be of varying weight and importance. Here’s a big one: “Love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18) – that is heavy! How about this: “Don’t eat the lizard or a crocodile” (Lev. 11:30). Thanks, Moses; but we have no intention of doing so. It is a lightweight commandment. It is never intended to be as important as loving the neighbor, and the thoughtful person knows this.

Now I am not saying that the commandments, the rules, the precepts and the statutes are not necessary. Oh no! Even if we don’t know the reason, every rule comes for a reason. “Thou shalt not eat pork” – that’s a Bible rule that I find easy to keep, having been forced-fed ham on many childhood occasions. When Moses gives that rule, it was understood that pigs are unclean and disgusting, and people that eat them are not holy. That was the reason for the rule.

In my first church, at the very first wedding where I presided, there were no rules. I met with the bride and groom to hear about the bride’s plans and to offer twenty minutes of pre-marital counseling to a couple that had lived together for fifteen years. There were no other rules. And on the day of the wedding, the groom showed up forty-five minutes late, so intoxicated he could hardly stand. As I stood by helplessly, his bride screamed at him and whacked him with her bouquet.

Meanwhile the ushers were so busy handing bottles of Miller Lite in the narthex that they forget to distribute the worship bulletins to the congregation. As the bridesmaids convened to march down the aisle to “Here Comes the Bride,” all the groomsmen put on dark sunglasses and hummed along loudly and out of tune. (I wish I was making all of this up!) Needless to say, the next time the church elders met, we nailed together a policy about what would never again happen at a Presbyterian wedding . . . because some people need to have the rules!

As the apostle Paul writes to the congregations that he began in central Turkey, we overhear him talking about the rules – the Bible rules. He knows the commandments. Paul was trained as a Pharisee, so he was trained to memorize all six-hundred-thirteen Old Testament commandments. And he knows that, generally speaking, the Jewish commandments were first given to help the human race flourish. “Don’t murder. Don’t tell lies in law court. Don’t cheat on your spouse. Stop wanting what other people have. And for God’s sake, take one day out of seven to rest and to welcome God’s replenishment.” Do these things and you will live abundantly.

But after he started those small churches, and after he moved on, some Antagonistic Missionaries stepped in. They made oppressive demands. They insisted that those Turks, those Galatians, most of them Gentiles, had to become Jews before they could become Christians. They said, “You people who have no covenant have to be brought into the Jewish covenant before you can profess faith in Jesus.”

Now, some of you are looking at me rather serenely, because the implications of what I just said have not yet sunken in. Specifically if I might speak to those of you who are Galatian men: “If you wish to profess that Jesus is your Lord and Savior, we will usher you into another room. A rabbi will meet you with a sharp instrument. He will ask you to loosen your tunic and then perform a small surgery on you. This will make you Jewish.” This is what the Antagonistic Missionaries were saying. Before a non-Jewish man can affirm Christ as Lord, he has to be circumcised as a Jew. Apparently a lot of Galatian men were falling for it, because the authorities told them, “A rule is a rule.”

So the apostle Paul writes in chapter three, “You stupid Galatians! You idiots! Who has cast a spell on you? A sucker is born every minute! Who has conned you into doing something with your flesh?”

Then he reminds them of his sermons: “I preached Christ crucified to you. He was crucified by the same evil age that has enslaved us all. He was crucified by people who insisted they were doing the right thing, and I was one of them! And try as I did to live by all God’s commandments, I was never good enough. God may have spoke the Torah, but I’ve never been able to keep it. None of us are good enough; only Jesus was that good. And let me tell you what the Jewish Law says about him: “Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree!”

“So here are two things that I am thinking,” says Paul. “According to the commandment, Jesus because cursed because he hangs on a cross. He takes all the curses of our lives, all our imperfections, all our anger and evil, all our inadequacies and ineffectiveness – he takes it all to the cross. When he dies, he takes it all away. And when the Father raises him from the dead, he raises us from all that deadness and gives us a new life. That’s the first thing.”

“And the second thing,” says Paul, “is as old as old Abraham. God made promises to Father Abraham, and Abraham trusted the promises. The Torah says, ‘God reckoned this as righteousness.’ Trust is the same thing as faith. Trust and faith are all we need. Trust and faith are the gifts that rectify our lives before God.[1] God says, ‘Your old life was crucified with Jesus, your new life is raised with Christ.’ Just trust this as the truth!”

But Paul, what about the rules? What about the commandments, the statutes, and the precepts? Doesn’t the Torah say, “Thou shalt be circumcised”?

Paul says, “Listen. I love the Bible. The Bible speaks a living word from a living God to a living people, and we are alive in Christ. All the old laws of Scripture – it was like having a babysitter.” (That’s his word: pedagaigos – instructor, custodian, guardian of children; I like “babysitter.”)

Paul says, “The rules of Scripture guarded us, but they never could save us. We are saved by Jesus, who welcomes all of us as children of God through our trust that this Gospel is true. And the news really is for all of us – it doesn’t matter if you are Jew or not a Jew. It doesn’t matter if you are enslaved to something or if you are not. It does not matter if you are a man or a woman, especially since circumcision is now a non-issue. All that matters is that you belong to God. Faith is your ticket, and Christ’s faith is sufficient for you. Mercy is your gate pass. Forgiveness is your free entitlement. Grace is the final expression of God’s justice.”

I wonder sometimes what it was like to open this letter and read it to the church. I bet some people were confused, because they wanted a Bible, or a Pope, or somebody in charge to tell them what to do. They wanted to get right with God; tell us what to do!

Paul says, “We tried that. It didn’t always work so well. The rules kept a lot of people in line, but they also created people who stopped thinking. The rules guarded us from a lot of evil, but we still did a good bit of evil anyway. We had holy commandments yet we killed the Son of God. Worst of all, we discovered you can put together a checklist of all the things to do, and all the things not to do, and then you really don’t need God. You don’t need a living, forgiving God – because you have a list, and your list can become far more important than God.”

I think he’s right. Not just because he is the apostle Paul. Not just because his rant to the Galatians helps to qualify all those Old Testament laws that strike us as odd, quaint, and distant.

I think he is right because we need something more than rules to direct our lives. We need a relationship. We need more than anything else to feel that God loves us so much that God adopts us into the family, that God welcomes every single one of us with the words, “The past is finished and gone; behold the new!”

More than mere rules, we need a relationship. We have that relationship already, and next Sunday we will hear about it in Galatians, chapter four.

© William G. Carter

[1] Thanks to Richard Hayes, who believes “rectify” is a better contemporary verb than “justify” (New Interpreters Bible).