Saturday, November 30, 2013

Study War? No More!

Isaiah 2:1-5
Advent 1
December 1, 2013

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

These are the words of a grand dream for all of God’s children. It is the dream for peace, a dream rooted in God’s love for every single person. It is an extraordinary dream: all people invited to live by God’s instruction, weapons turned into farm tools, nations refusing to go to war with other nations, and refusing to teach war and violence to their children.

This is Isaiah’s Advent dream. It lingers because it can be our dream too. Imagine a world where people get along, a world where there are no more enemies. Imagine a world where people care for one another and look out for those who are weak. Imagine a world as God sees it: a world without borders, a world without divisions, a world where nobody is forgotten.

Today we hear from some voices who have woken up and had the same dream. Their voices will instruct us to walk in the light of the Lord.

Mary Lou Williams

Hi! I am Mary Lou Williams, an African-American jazz musician who passed away in 1981. As a kid in Pittsburgh, I played for vaudeville shows. At age 15, I played for Duke Ellington. He was only the first of many, many notable musicians that I worked with during my career: Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. You name them, I probably knew them. I was one of the few women who had a career in jazz. Apparently I could play and compose as well as any of the men.

But I want to tell you about some other important work that I did. God grabbed my shoulders in 1956, and I had a deep religious conversion. Joining the Roman Catholic Church, I stopped playing music for a couple of years. There were Christian people like Dorothy Day who helped me see that we have work to do every day, in caring for sisters and brothers and need.

I started the “Bel Canto Foundation” in 1957. The work was simple: help musicians that got into trouble. Some fell into the gutter. Others needed help to beat their addictions. Some were homeless. Others were going hungry. It was my calling to help them out. We started thrift shops in Harlem and gave the money to those in need. If they needed food, I cooked hot meals and made sure they were fed. That’s where peace begins: with helping the people around us who have troubles.

In time, when I returned to performing, I believed that I was praying when I played the piano. It was another way that I could do God’s work. I wrote a jazz mass for the Pope, called “The Mass for Peace,” and the Pope didn’t know what to do with it! I also took an interest in the welfare of children, and played jazz on Sesame Street and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.

We have such little time here on earth. We are here to bless God, who made us all, and to take care of one another. That’s why we are here.

Peacemaking is the work of all people. There is no age limit. When God gives you the vision, you do what you can to strive toward it. Anybody can do this. Meet Trevor Ferrell.

Trevor Ferrell

Did you ever turn on the evening news and see something that upset you? My name is Trevor Ferrell, and that’s what happened to me.

One night when I was eleven years old, the TV news ran a story about the homeless people in nearby Philadelphia. They said it was a “code blue night,” a night so cold that people had to be taken to shelters to keep from freezing. I nagged my dad to take me to see a man who needed a blanket. He gave in, drove me in from our suburban house in Gladwyne, and I gave one man a blanket. I had no idea there were hundreds, thousands, of homeless people.

I couldn’t imagine it. I kept pushing my parents, saying, “We have to do something.” Pretty soon, our family was preparing hot meals and sandwiches for a hundred homeless people each night and delivering them to Philadelphia.

The idea caught on. In less than two years, “Trevor’s Campaign” became a million-dollar nonprofit outreach to the homeless with hundreds of volunteers. I was so involved that I was never in school, and failed sixth and eighth grades. But this was what I had to do.

I couldn’t get the picture out of my mind. This is one of the richest countries in the world, and it is wrong that anybody has to sleep on the streets. Peacemaking starts with giving people a hand up, with helping people claim the God-given dignity of their lives. We have to turn away from our selfishness, living more simply so others can simply live.

These days, I’m still out there. I am 42, married with two daughters. I run a thrift shop on Lancaster Avenue, and it’s full of day-to-day essentials. If somebody graduates from a homeless shelter, they come and see me. Free of charge, I give them what they need to start their lives over.

Peacemaking begins in God’s call to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. It can be a concern for those who are homes. Or it can grow from more dramatic circumstances. Hear from a man who knew what the Gospel required of him.

Oscar Romero

Hello, my name is Archbishop Oscar Romero.  I was born in 1917 in El Salvador, one of 8 children.  From an early age, I had a strong interest in the church and could often be found there, even though the church was persecuted at the time and many people were being killed.

My father thought I should become a carpenter, but I felt a call to the religious life. After seminary, I was ordained as a priest. I served quietly for many years and supported apostolic groups, Alcoholic Anonymous, and the building of a cathedral in San Miguel. I was appreciated for my work, and became rector of the seminary in San Salvador in 1966. As the editor of the diocesan newspaper, I was considered traditional and conservative.

When I became Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, many of the priests grumbled because of my conservative views and connection to the government. But God began to open my eyes. In March of that year, a progressive Jesuit priest and personal friend, Rutilio Grande, was assassinated.  He was an advocate for the poor and oppressed in my country, and his death woke me up to the brutalities of my own government. I had not wanted to see them; now I could not ignore them.

I became more progressive in my thinking, supporting every effort for people to be treated with equality. I even wrote to President Jimmy Carter expressing concern about the US aid to the military forces in El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War.  My concern was ignored by the United States. 

My work brought international attention and I met with Pope John Paul II to discuss the problems in my country. As I spoke up, priests continued to be persecuted and executed, simply because they stood up for their church members who were trampled by our government’s abuses.  On March 24, 1980 I was celebrating mass in a small chapel in a hospital when an unknown assassin shot me, too. I was lifting the cup to say, “The blood of Christ” when the gunshot rang out. Even at my funeral, army gunners opened fire on the 10,000 mourners who came to see me laid to rest. 

The road to peace is never an easy one.  Recognizing the needs of others before your own may put you in harm’s way. We may have to lay down our lives so that others may have a better life.

What will it take to walk in the light of the Lord? The prophet Isaiah does not spell it out. The walk will depend on when and where we live. The instruction on Mount Zion has not changed: to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our Lord (Micah 6:8). Each of us must seek and discover what this means, not just for us, but for all people. Finally, meet two friends of our congregation who are doing, loving, and walking . . .

Rick and Kitty Ufford-Chase

R: My name is Rick Ufford-Chase. I am the son of a Presbyterian minister.

K: My name is Kitty Ufford-Chase. I am a life-long Quaker, and together Rick and I are co-directors of the Stony Point Center, a Presbyterian conference center about 30 miles north of Manhattan. Many of you have been there.

R: I went to Princeton Seminary, thinking that God wanted me to be a pastor like my father. But after one semester, that life plan didn’t seem to fit. I dropped out of seminary and went as a volunteer mission worker to Nicaragua. Beginning with that trip, God started changing my life.

K: Rick experienced first-hand what I had come to know through my peace tradition as a Quaker. There is great power to change the world by standing up for justice, working for equality, and grounding our work in prayer and a commitment to non-violence.

R: I helped to start an ecumenical mission called “Border Links,” working with the poor on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. That was my work, and our work, for about twenty years. We worked to help American church people see the deep injustices that affect our society, and to find constructive ways to work for change.

 K: Along the way, Rick became an elder at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Then in 2004, he was elected as the youngest-ever moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). A seminary drop-out became the church’s top leader!

R: As I traveled the country during my two years as moderator, I discovered that many Presbyterians, especially young adults, are deeply concerned about that our country is perpetually involved in the business of war. God calls all the nations of the world to live in peace, to work for human dignity. But too many people wink at that notion and say it’s unrealistic.

K: Rick and I disagree with that point of view. We know the Gospel calls us to a life together in peace. So after some time to listen for God’s will, we accepted the call to move across the country to Stony Point, New York. Our vision is that the center can be a model for diverse people working and living together in peace. We have re-conceived the conference center as an interfaith community that provides a Presbyterian welcome to faith groups of all kinds.

R: The work of peace is long and demanding. But every day we meet people who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And when our nation wakes up and discovers that God calls all people to work together for the common good, we want Stony Point’s fingerprints to be all over that vision.

We see the vision. Then we walk toward it. That is God’s invitation to all of us. Peace is God’s vision. Peacemaking is our work. We must do the heavy lifting, and never settle for something less than what God wants for all people: to discover that we are neighbors, to work for the well-being of all, to learn alternatives to violence, to walk in the light of the Lord.

Today's sermon is a communal effort, as peacemaking is. Thanks to Judy and Charlie, who helped compose it and served as readers; and to Linda, Tyler, and Jack, who served as readers.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

King of Losers

Luke 23:33-43
Christ the King Sunday
November 24, 2013
William G. Carter

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him... One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today is a difficult day to hold together. We celebrate the sign above Jesus’ head (“This is the King…”) and we note his location (on the cross). The King of the Jews is condemned as a Jewish prophet. The Ruler over all wears a crown of thorns. The Sovereign who is enthroned on the praises of heaven is subject to the insults and jeers of earth. The One who rules over heaven and earth is lifted a few feet off the earth to survey his dominion with wounds in his hands and feet.

We try to hold all of this together. At very least, it is a curiosity.

Our hymns sing of this unusual sight. “Lift High the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adore his sacred name.” “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus . .  here on earth both priest and victim.” It is an odd affirmation: the central figure of our faith is crucified and exalted.”

And if that weren’t difficult enough, today the church gives a story from the cross. Jesus is put between two criminals, one on his right, one on his left. They have committed significant enough crimes as to be condemned to death. None of these three men will get out of this Friday alive. So they began to talk among themselves.

One of them takes a cue from the crowd and mocks Jesus. The other one says, “Are you clueless? Don’t you notice where we are?”

The first one says, “Why can’t he who raised the dead do something to help us out? He has the power. He should help us out.” The other one says, “Have you no shame? We are getting what we deserve, but he has done nothing wrong.” It is a strange conversation and I am surprised that somebody wrote it down. Why would the church want to hang on to these words for centuries?

Then the second criminal calls the man in the middle by name: “Jesus.” That doesn’t happen much in the Gospel of Luke. Only the very sick or those possessed by evil call Jesus by name; others call him “Master” or “Lord.” He says “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.” Jesus says directly, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Of course, they are not in the Garden of Eden, but subject to pain, wretchedness, and cruelty. What kind of king gives access to a thief who is dying beside him?

It is a curious conversation, none other like it in all the Gospels. In a season when we have heard a lot from the Gospel of Luke, we have one final story where the Gospel writer pushes the grace of God as far as it can go. A condemned criminal, judged and executed, is remembered – and presumably received – by Christ. He cannot save himself; and Jesus, who refuses to save himself, offers him access into paradise. It is a free gift for a man who is losing everything, given by a Savor who is giving himself away.

A lot of people find this confusing. Can you blame them? They want a religion that makes sense. They want a step-by-step plan for improving their lives. They want guidance for helping their children to turn out well. They want assurance that they are doing it right, that they are approved by a higher power. They want the promise that they will be forgiven for the little things that they do, and they promise in return to avoid the really big mistakes that could ruin their lives and the lives of others.

And then we get a story of a man on a cross, talking to another man on a cross, and offering him free paradise. How does this happen? Well, take note of three things.

First, the criminal defends Jesus and tells the greater truth that Luke has insisted upon since page one: Jesus has done nothing wrong; ergo, he has done everything right. He has done the will of God.

Second, whether the criminal knows it or not, he himself is on the side of God’s kingdom. Back in the desert, Jesus was tempted to save himself, to think of himself first, to turn stones into bread, to impress the crowds and win them over with self-serving miracles. Jesus seems to chase away the devil, but then Luke says, “The devil departed until an opportune time” (4:13).

Listen, here is the opportune time: when everybody turns against you, when people laugh at you, when the officials condemn you, where religious leaders spit on you, when another condemned man says in the tempter’s voice, “If you are the Messiah of God, save yourself . . .” And the second criminal interrupts, “Wait, don’t you fear God? He is getting worse than he deserves.”

But third, and listen to this: Jesus refuses to save himself. He has come to save the world. And how does he save the world? By dying. In the words of the first Christ followers, “Through him, God was pleased to reconciled to himself all things . . . by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). Jesus prays for the Father to forgive the foolishness of the human race, and the prayer is granted. Jesus is urged by his peers to save himself, but he refuses.

This is the mystery of the Gospel. Jesus rescues us by dying. He dies and he invites us to die with him. That is the only way we will ever live with him . . . by dying to ourselves and dying to him. He said as much on the way to the cross. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)  Only in the kingdom of God do we get ahead by losing, by losing ourselves and dying with Christ. The king in the kingdom is Jesus, regarded by almost everybody in Jerusalem as the king of losers.

So how does this play in the suburbs? Probably about the same as it played in the time of Jesus. Where we live, there are some criminals who get caught. They get condemned, sentenced, and sent away. Back patio wisdom is that they get what they deserve.  Nobody wants them forgiven, turned loose, or let off the hook. Please notice if you will that the second criminal is paying for his crimes. Nobody lets him off the cross after his little chat with Jesus, because nobody is letting Jesus off the cross either, least of all Jesus himself.

So many people seem to believe that life is about building, and increasing, and multiplying, and having everything turn out well. They dream that life starts down here, moves increasingly higher, and gets better and better. Isn’t that what everybody would like? But then something happens.

She sat in a wheelchair and told me about her circles of friends. “We played croquet at the club, ate cucumber sandwiches, and had our share of mimosas,” she said. “Every month we went shopping in New York, sometimes hiring a driver. Then I had a stroke at 42 and the pretty women disappeared. They dropped me. At first, a couple of them sent me flowers with the note, ‘Wishing for a full recovery.’ The full recovery didn’t happen and all those so-called friends disappeared. They didn’t like the reminder that they were mere mortals.”

There are hundreds of variations on that story. The medical emergency, the crumbled marriage, the sudden termination, the kids in trouble, the horrible phone call, the unexpected betrayal, the rotten business partner – at any moment, we may reminded that all of us are mere mortals. The pretty women and the golden men will evaporate quicker than you can say “The Great Gatsby.” If honest, we confess how much we have lost.

But the mystery of the Gospel is that this can be the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of holy wisdom.

Look at Jesus. When God sends Jesus on the mission to our world, he does not show up like a super hero or a rock star. He doesn’t have flowing blond hair or rippled muscles or perfect teeth. No, he grows up as a small town carpenter, gets splinters in his hands, and stays home until he is thirty. Jesus blends in, until it is time to teach, to heal, to feed, to confront, to be condemned, and as far as the powerful were concerned, to be removed. And when he is revealed, all the Gospels say, there is revelation on the cross.

I remember when I was a kid. My favorite baseball team was the New York Mets. In 1962, their very first year, they were the worst team in baseball – won 40 games out of 160. They were horrible, worst record of any modern major league team ever. Why did I like them, probably for the same reason I didn’t like the slick and successful Yankees: I could understand losers. I was a clumsy kid, last to get chosen for a team in gym class, never ran very fast. When I threw a baseball, it didn’t go where I wanted it to go. I loved the New York Mets.

And then we went to church, and my teachers had us memorize a Bible passage called “The Beatitudes.” The very first one says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3). Can you believe it? The kingdom belongs to them. Really? For the people who have lost their hope, lost their energy, lost their way. The kingdom is for them? What kind of kingdom is that? My teacher said, “That is God’s kingdom.”

Every one of Christ’s beatitudes is addressed to the world’s losers: the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the kind-hearted, the simple, the downtrodden. What kind of kingdom is this? It is God’s kingdom.

Throughout the centuries, outsiders have looked upon the people of the church and considered them losers. A lot of people are looking upon us that way now. Nothing new about that! The apostle Paul looked at the congregation in the Greek city of Corinth, some fifty or sixty souls we think.

He writes to them and says, “Consider who you are. Look at your membership roster. You’re not much to look at. There isn’t much to commend you. Not much in terms of worldly stature or wealth or celebrity significance. Corinthian church, if we were to size up those who are the winners of the world, you’re not even on the list.”

But that seems to be the plan, he says. “God chose those who are foolish to shame the wise. God chose those who are weak to shame the strong. God chose all the nobodies to bring honest judgment to the somebodies. If anybody boasts, let them boast about God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

It is so hard for so many people to understand this, especially if they are concerned about power and riches, and increase and popularity, stature and good looks, and all the world’s markers of success. They don’t know what to do with Jesus, the real Jesus, the Jesus who refuses to save himself so that he can save those who die with him. Until people receive this truth in their hearts, it will confuse and confound them.

Sometimes it is people in the church who don’t understand.  They are doing just fine. Go to church to worship the king. Dress up and look good. But when trouble comes their way, they drop out or stop going. Wait, don’t do that: the king and the kingdom are precisely for you, when you’re in trouble, when you risk losing everything. We will recognize him if we were paying attention. Gathered on a hill, he speaks to the broken ones, to the poor in spirit. Crucified on a hill, he still gathers those who need him more than anything else. This is the truth of Christ the King.

So we return to the conversation between thieves on their crosses. Two of them are there, one on either side of Jesus. As far as we know, one of them is bitter to the end, the other open to the possibility that the man in the middle has the authority over every death sentence. “Remember me, Lord,” he says. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

   Remember me because I am not going anywhere right now.
   Remember me because I need you more than anything or anybody else.
   Remember me because I am a criminal, and the society wants me out of sight.        
   Remember me because everybody else is going to forget my name.
   Remember me when you come into your kingdom.

His prayer is answered by Jesus Christ, the King of Losers, the King of All.

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

Saturday, November 16, 2013

What Friends Will Do For One Another

John 15:12-17
National Organ Donor Sabbath
November 17, 2013

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

I am reluctant to tell you about Jim Oakes. Not because of what he did, but because I do not wish to cheapen it. Jim Oakes was a hero.

A tall, strapping veteran of the armed forces, and still a young man, Jim landed a job with a natural gas company in northwestern Pennsylvania. He learned the business quickly, rose through the ranks, and was promoted into management. Jim was a quick thinker, a decisive man. Everybody liked him at the office. His wife and two little kids adored him.

The story goes, Jim’s company had some labor disputes, and the line workers went on strike. He and the other managers weren’t union members. When there were some difficulties in the gas lines in Buffalo, Jim’s boss sent him and another worker up to handle service calls. It was a definite change of pace for both of them. They rode around in a big orange truck and took emergency calls on the radio.

A call came in one day. There was a leak downtown somewhere, and the company needed to get it plugged. Jim and his buddy drove over there, and the buddy went down into the manhole cover. “I think I see the problem,” he yelled. Jim said, “Great!”

Just then, Jim saw his co-worker collapse. Without any regard for his own safety, he plunged into the hole to rescue him. He put him over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry, and began to climb the ladder back up to the street with the other man on his back. Just a few steps from the top, he too was overcome by the gas, and the two of them fell back down, passed out, and died. I believe he was twenty-eight years old, married with two little kids at home.

But that was Jim Oakes. He was my Uncle Jim, my mother’s brother in law.

The story has always had a profound effect on me. Here was somebody I knew, my uncle, who was willing to risk his life to rescue another. Although the story did not turn out as anybody would have hoped, it was clear to me that Jim Oakes was a hero. He did not count the cost. He did not calculate the risk. Jim plunged in.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The first time I ever heard Jesus say that, I already had a family story to make it real. It wasn’t a hypothetical virtue, it was something that somebody really did. Somebody I knew. My cousins lost their dad that day, my aunt lost her husband. But our family gained a hero.

This is what friends will do for one another: they lay down their lives for one another.

Jesus is preparing to depart his disciples when he says this. It is an extraordinary passage, for Jesus suggests that as he departs, there is a shift from power to equality. No longer is he the “Master” (capital “M”) with servants (small “s”). Now the Lord of life declares we are his friends, and that he is our friend. There is mutuality. Everybody stands on the same level ground. Nobody is better than anybody else. All are loved equally.

If you remember the plot of the Gospel of John, this relationship is possible because Jesus steps down from heaven. The mission of God is to send Jesus into the world. The One through whom all things were made takes his place among those he has made. He lays down his divine life out of self-giving love, to the end that all people might be full of his life. This move from “on high” to “side by side” is the essence of friendship. You stand side by side with your friends.

More than that, you will lay down your life for them. It doesn’t matter if you know them really well, or if you don’t. It doesn’t matter if they can appreciate the sacrifice or gain all the benefits, you give them your life as a gift. This is what Jesus Christ for us: he gives his life. But then he extends the self-giving love as a model for all his friends. “Lay down your life,” he says. He doesn’t spell out how to do it. He simply makes the invitation.

Is this something I can do? Something that you can do? I wonder if we will recognize the moment, or have the courage to go through with it.

And I think about this on a day when we join other congregations across the land in observing National Organ Donor Sabbath. Are you registered as an organ donor? A lot of people will affirm that it is can be a gift of life to donate the organs of our bodies when we no longer need them and others need what we can provide.

A recent Gallup poll says 85 percent of Americans believe persons should donate their organs upon their death. However, the report is that as few as 32 percent of potential donors actually follow through. It’s a generous act of stewardship, to share what we can with those who need it, to share no longer need – but will we have the courage to do this for the people that Christ calls “friends”?

A few years ago, I came across Peggy and Jim on Facebook, two friends from high school who married and live near Pittsburgh. I knew they were strong people of faith, Presbyterians, in fact. So I sent a note: what’s new?  

It seems a young couple were coming to their church, Jessica and Aaron. They met at a medical clinic in Pittsburgh, where 33-year-old Aaron was a dialysis patient with a failing kidney and Jessica was his nurse. Aaron was there three nights a week, receiving dialysis. Jessica kept looking on him. Over time it grew into something romantic, and Jessica started taking him to her church where Peggy and Jim were also members.

Peggy is soft-spoken but pretty insistent. She started pushing Jessica to have Aaron join her on a church mission trip to Nicaragua. “We’d really like him to come with us,” she said. Jessica said, “I don’t know; Aaron needs a kidney from a living donor if he’s going to make it at all.”

Peggy said, “What do you have to do to become a living donor?” Have matching blood types, Jessica said. “I’m O-negative,” Peggy blurted out. So was Aaron.

She took a blood test. She mentioned it to her husband, who prayed with her about it. There were additional tests, all positive. Both the signs on earth and heaven seemed to confirm that Peggy was a perfect match. She had never had a major operation in her life, but she felt this was a direct invitation from God. So she underwent the procedure at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Aaron got one of her two healthy kidneys.

Seven months later, she and husband Jim danced at Aaron and Jessica’s wedding. Everybody is doing fine.

Silly me: I asked, “What’s new?” and discovered my old friend is a hero. She laid down her life for a friend.

We must not be afraid to do this. Jesus did it for us, and he is the author of life, the giver of life, the source and destination of life. He holds us secure, now and in the future. And he shows us what the spiritual life really is: a life of self-giving. This is a life of stewardship in the most comprehensive sense.

SPECIAL NOTE: You have the power to save lives. Consider registering online to be an organ donor. It's easy: go to

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

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Disposable Husbands?

Luke 20:27-38
November 10, 2013
William G. Carter

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Whose wife will she be?  Multiple marriages and the life to come: whose wife will she be?

There once was a woman who outlived seven husbands. She was strong, apparently they were faint of heart. She outlasted every one of them, and at the end, which one was hers?

It’s an odd little scenario, proposed by Jewish religious leaders. They hurl it at Jesus, trying to make him stumble so they can pounce. They draw on an old law from Moses, tucked away in a dark corner of the Old Testament. Moses taught, “If a married man dies but had no son, his brother shall marry the widow and get her pregnant so the family name shall continue” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).

It was called “Levirate marriage” and we don’t know how many times the rule was invoked. The brother was obligated to do this duty, regardless of how appealing his sister-in-law was, and she was required to go through with it, regardless of how she felt about the brother-in-law who became her husband.

And it wasn’t simply a redneck wedding. There was an element of justice here. Widows had no rights in ancient Jewish society. Somebody needed to protect and provide for them. Not only that; if there were male children, they could inherit the family property someday. The line could continue . . . although it continued in a most unusual way.

Now, the brother didn’t have to do this. He could refuse. If he did, the widow could go to the village elders to complain. If the brother still refused, the widow would spit in his general direction, take one of his shoes, and he would forever be known as “The Man Without a Shoe” (Deuteronomy 25:7-10).

So they go to Jesus, assuming there is no resurrection, no life to come, and these unromantic fundamentalists say, “There once was a widow who wore out seven brothers. Whose wife is she going to be in heaven?” Some have said that’s like asking, “Whose farm animal will she be?” As for me, I wonder about those seven disposable husbands.

It is an odd scenario, to say the least. It comes from the Sadducees, a sect of leaders in the Jerusalem Temple. They were wealthy and supported by the rich, as opposed to the Pharisees who had broad support from the common people. The Sadducees would have been very concerned about the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. They were also united in declaring there is no such thing as a resurrection. You only get one time around the block. This is it. When it’s over, it’s over.

After entering Jerusalem in humility, this is their test for Jesus: in your so-called life to come, whose wife will she be?

I don’t know about you, but I am inclined to dismiss that as a silly question. Like the high school science teacher who asked on a test, “Name three things on the earth that do not exist on the moon.” One student wrote, “Bagels, minivans, and the Dallas Cowboys.” The teacher had to mark him correct.

Whose wife will she be in the afterlife? We could dismiss that as a small question, just as Jesus does. Heaven is so much grander, so much greater than anything we can imagine. But then, I recall a couple of vignettes.

Sixteen years ago, when I was going through a divorce, I was talking to a young woman at a wedding reception. We were admiring the bride and the groom and enjoying the party. Somebody at the table asked how I was surviving the divorce. I began to talk, and this woman grew very quiet. So quiet, in fact, that I asked if I was making her uncomfortable. "No," she said, "it's just that I'm a Mormon."

I wasn't sure how that fit. So I asked her. She said, "Well, for us Mormons, marriage is forever." There was an embarrassed silence at the table. Finally I decided to break it; "Listen," I said, "whenever two people get married, they always hope it will last forever." The young woman said, "We Mormons believe that marriage does last forever, regardless of how it works out during your earthly life. If you marry somebody on earth, you are bound to them in eternity. You can't ever break it off."

All of us turned and looked at her. Somebody said, "How do you know you're not marrying the wrong person?" And she said, "I guess you need to be very careful."

It took me a while to shake that off. She and her ilk didn’t believe that marriages come to an end. I happen to believe that they do. The marital promise is conditioned by the words "til death do us part."

Remember what we say at a wedding? Our marriage service declares that "husband and wife belong to one another, and, with affection and tenderness, freely give themselves to one another."  This, of course, is the hope and aim of Christian marriage. Marriage is a covenant partnership that gets people through the dark. Those who have been married know that marriage is a school for forgiveness; every day can offer a practice exam. At its best, marriage gives a soul mate who nurtures your faith, calls forth your gifts, and challenges you to grow into full maturity. Marriage is a gift from God, and like every other gift from God, it is to be cherished and enjoyed.
But every marriage ends, just as every life ends. Some marriages end with death. Other marriages end with another kind of death. Either way, all of us know about death. The big question is whether there will be a resurrection.

The Sadducees believed, “Nope. This is all you get. One trip around the track and you are done. This is it.”

A few days before his death, Jesus disagrees with them. His disagreement is rooted in the nature of God. God is eternal. God is the giver of life. Wherever God is, there is life. Jesus looked at the Sadducees and said, “As long as you’re throwing around the words of Moses, take a moment to remember how God came to Moses in the burning bush. The Eternal One said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,’ each of whom had died long ago, and each of whom are now alive with God. God is the God of the living.’”

Wherever God is, there is life. Not death, but life. "In this age," said Jesus, "people marry, are given in marriage, and die." In this age people suffer, and starve, and shiver through the night. In this age some are deprived of dignity, or perish from loneliness. In this age, people have to make answers for their questions out of the materials at hand.

"But in that age," Jesus goes on to say, and he points ahead to a future age not governed by the captivities of the present. For God is the God of the living, God is at work in the world, and God will ultimately redeem and renew this beloved creation. God will gather everybody who belongs to him and fill them with life. Before a group of Sadducees talks callously about a hypothetical woman with multiple husbands, perhaps they could reflect on what God is doing through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It's better news than any other news in the world.

The second vignette comes from a few days after my Aunt Mary died. We loved her so much. She was a grade school teacher. She loved bookstores and whales and little children. She made great apple pie and stayed up late with construction paper and scissors. Her first husband, my Uncle Bill, died of a heart attack in his forties while deer hunting. She was alone for years, and then she met Chuck, who became Uncle Chuck when she married again. He had been widowed when his first wife died of cancer. When he and my aunt met, both of them became very happy very quickly.

Now Aunt Mary had died. Leukemia. For Uncle Chuck, another wife lost to cancer. She lay in a coffin in the same funeral home, in the very same room where his first wife had been. Small town.

Between the viewing hours and the funeral, Chuck and I went downstairs for a Coke. We were both alone with our thoughts. I didn't have much to say. Suddenly Uncle Chuck spoke in the void. "Bill, I loved your aunt. She brought a lot of joy into my life. I always thought I would go first. But now that is she's gone, do you think she's with her first husband up in heaven?"

I learned a long time ago that it's good practice to keep your mouth shut in the basement of a funeral home. It was not a moment for idle speculation. We were both heavy with grief. Chuck asked again, “Do you think she’s with her first husband?”

And all I could blurt out is, “Chuck, she’s with God. Now she is with everybody who belongs to God.” I looked at him through scorched eyes to see him nodding his head with a slow smile. Wherever God is, there is life.

We stood there silent for another minute, and hugged. Then we went upstairs. It was time to celebrate Easter.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Shorty Zack

Luke 19:1-10
November 3, 2013
William G. Carter

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy [joyful] to welcome him. 

A couple of tax collectors met me at the door last Sunday. They declared the New Testament is a little hard on tax collectors. Maybe so; but then, there is the happy story of Zacchaeus. That wee little man was a tax collector, too. In fact, he ran the regional office in Jericho as the “chief tax collector.” And by the end of the story, he turns out pretty well. Now he even gets his own song.

It’s getting late in the Gospel of Luke Pretty soon, Jesus will go over the Mount of Olives and down the hill on a donkey. Zacchaeus is the last person that Jesus meets on the way to Jerusalem.

In many ways, he is the one that Jesus has been waiting to meet. Zacchaeus is a Jew who has become an outsider. He is a “child of Abraham” who has wandered off to make his fortune collaborating with the Romans.
He wants to see Jesus, and will climb a tree in order to get a good view of the Savior. He will risk being pinned up there if somebody spots him. Jesus is the one who spots him, and chooses to protect when he is vulnerable to the crowd.

As we heard throughout the fall, Jesus reaches out with God’s intrusive grace. He pushes himself on the tax collector’s hospitality, never giving the short man any wiggle room to escape him. And when the crowd sees how Jesus goes to him, they grumble and complain. Luke keeps reminding us that this is a common response to grace: people murmur and grumble whenever sinners and wrongdoers are given a break. Zacchaeus is the kind of forgiven sinner that Luke loves to tell us about. He’s the first one who actually has a name. And he welcomes Jesus. He wants to see him and he welcomes him to his table.

I could take the time, as many preachers do, and say a few words about Middle Eastern hospitality. While the crowd murmurs about Jesus going to the house of a public scoundrel, the greater scandal would be for Zacchaeus or anybody else to turn away a guest. Should you have a guest in your home, you treat the guest with a generous welcome.

It’s that way in many cultures. When I and some others were welcomed years ago into the home of villagers in Haiti, they fed us at their table while they ate somewhere else. They put before us a roasted goat that cost them many weeks’ wages. They showed us to their beds while they slept out of sight. This is how they treated guests who they had never met but were glad to receive. It was the same with Zacchaeus, except he had a lot of money. Jesus ate very well that night.

But here is the detail of this famous story that I had never noticed: Zacchaeus received him with joy. He welcomed Jesus with joy. Luke insists on this. It was as if Zacchaeus was waiting for the opportunity to cut loose of his burdens, that he wanted nothing more than for Jesus to come and set him free. And when the moment happens, when Jesus says, “Come down and take me in,” Zacchaeus does this joyfully.

When was the last time that joy set you free?

I have told some of you about a moment that I had this summer. In late August, I made my way over to a retreat center in Rhinebeck, New York, not far from the Hudson River. It was a three-day event to sing with Bobby McFerrin, the Grammy-award winning singer. There were 150 of us, pushed out of our comfort zones, circled up to sing improvised songs. And the first night, after an hour of singing spontaneously, my joy thermometer was so high that it took me hours to get down to sleep. I felt so . . . joyful.

I wrote these inadequate words in my journal:

            The songs swell and rise;
            A hundred-fifty tongues are loosed, three hundred feet are moving.
            Every heart strangely moved, a few budged.
            Smiles radiate the room, while the Spirit inhabits the tones and rhythms.

Or I can tell you about my friend Jeff. He’s retired, comfortable, with every reason to play it safe. But there was an inner restlessness to his retirement. So he brushed up his home repair skills and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. “It is so much fun to get out of my own safety net,” he says, “and do something for somebody else.” In this case, it was a young family with great needs. Yesterday Jeff was there when they handed over the keys to the family for their brand-new house. And there were tears, tears of joy.

Listen, I can tell you there is joy in the universe – around us, above us, beneath us, among us. So many of us have tasted it. Joy goes to Zacchaeus’ house; joy is what fills Zacchaeus in welcoming Jesus; joy is what frees Zacchaeus from the kind of person he used to be.

The aggressive grace of God in Jesus Christ is what changes Zacchaeus. Jesus looks up into that tree and says, “Get down here, Zacchaeus! I am going to abide in your house.” Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes him – and nothing is ever again the same for him. That’s what happens in this story. Everything else is commentary.

The scholars point out that when Zacchaeus finally speaks, it is in the present tense: “Look, Lord, I hereby give half of my possessions to the poor.” Our pew Bible translation is misleading. He’s not promising to get around to doing it – he does it. Right then and there. “Here it is, Lord. I give it away right now.” The joy of Christ dwelling in his home changes him. He will not stay selfish. He will not ignore his neighbors in need. He cuts loose half of his income right then, and there’s no mention that he asked for a receipt.

Oh no, he was changed by joy through grace, changed through God’s intrusive grace.

So this is what is on my mind of this great day of give-and-take. Christ invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, and Shorty Zack takes him in with joy. Christ gives himself to us in bread and cup, and we can take him in and enjoy his presence at our Table. The common currency is joy, the joy that he makes possible, the joy that frees whoever acts upon it.

Did you notice what Zacchaeus does? He gives away half of what he owns to the poor. He doesn’t give it to Jesus – he gives it to the poor because of Jesus. It seems he really wanted to do this, in some way he needed to do this. He doesn’t need all that stuff. He can travel lightly, without the burden of his many possessions. It’s not his stuff that will make him happy; it’s knowing that he, a short little guy in a tree, is worthy of the love of God. He too is a child of Abraham; Jesus says so.

The other thing he does is a supreme act of financial righteousness. Tax collectors in the first century were encouraged by the Romans to add whatever they wanted to the tax bills. That’s how they got to be so rich – by skimming off the top and essentially robbing their neighbors. Zacchaeus announced he will no longer do this. He will not exploit the people around him. And if he discovers that he has, he declares to restore it fourfold.

How can he do this? Because he has moved beyond the need for restitution to unbridled joy. It’s about something more than making it right; it’s doing the joyful thing, it’s about joining Jesus in the joyful work of restoring broken lives and filling impoverished hearts.

“Today salvation comes to you,” says Jesus. Not tomorrow, not next Thursday, not some day far off in the future – but today. God’s great saving power is given to the world as a gift, but it only seems to works in those who respond to it. Zacchaeus’ generosity is the beginning of his salvation – but it is also aimed at the poor and those who have been cheated. Grace creates more grace. Joy exists for the sake of even more joy.

So when we talk about money, let’s talk about joy. Where is the greater joy – in buying more stuff for ourselves, some of it we don’t even need, or extending God’s generous grace by teaching the Good News og s great joy that shall be for all the people?

When we talk about the church, let’s talk about joy. Are we just a building here on the corner, hidden away from the rest of the world and tuned in upon ourselves, or are we a people convened by Jesus to share his joy with the people we know and the neighbors we haven’t yet met?   

When we talk about giving and making commitments to God, let’s talk about joy. Do we give out of unexamined habit, to perpetuate institutions, and maintain ties to the past? Or is there some way that we join together in doing God’s greater work, bearing light to darkness, proclaiming release to the captives, pointing beyond all despair to the great secret of God’s joy.

“Today salvation comes to you,” says Jesus. That’s his way of saying, “Today God comes to you.” God is here, already here, ready to be welcomed with deep joy. Have you ever wanted that more than anything else?

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