Saturday, May 25, 2013

Who Do You Think You Are?

Psalm 8
Trinity Sunday
May 26, 2013
Willliam G. Carter

    O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
     You have set your glory above the heavens.
      Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
       to silence the enemy and the avenger.
    When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
       the moon and the stars that you have established;
    what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
    Yet you have made them a little lower than God,             and crowned them with glory and honor.
    You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
       you have put all things under their feet,
    all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
    the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
    O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

“I didn't need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”
― Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

The question comes early and stays quite late: who do you think you are?

A few summers ago, I heard the question. I was sitting in a room with about three thousand smart people. Most of them run Fortune 500 businesses, or preside over universities, or play in major symphony orchestras. They made room for me and said, “We will let you sit here.”

It was a lecture by Margaret Geller, an astronomer at Harvard. She was describing her life’s work of mapping the universe. Whenever she has the itch to look at the heavens, she phones up a governmental observatory in the mountains of Arizona, and they always take her call. Dr. Geller goes down there, peers through this enormous telescope, and adds the data to a map she is making of the universe.

She asked the crowd, “Would you like to see some of what I see?” Without waiting for an answer, she started clicking through some slides. We saw swirls of light in colors that I have never seen before. She mentioned distances that my little brain cannot calculate. Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, sat in the row ahead of me. As he looked at the images, he wiped away a tear, stroking his chin, too dumbstruck to compose a couplet.

A few thousand smart people – and I – sat humbled. It was impossible to comprehend the size and spaciousness of our galaxy. That’s when I heard the question in my soul: who do you think you are?

Most of the time, we have a ready answer. I am William, son of Glenn and Ann, husband of Jamie, father of Katie and Meg, step-father of Josh and Lauren. Here is my social security number, here are my GPS coordinates, here are the people I love and live among. Here are schools where I have studied, here are the products of my labor, here are the dreams in my soul. But who do you think you are?

I was telling my youngest kid about my first day in college. There was no internet to register for courses, so we stood in a three-hour line. The college freshmen started playing the game of “Who’s Who.” How big was your high school? Where else could you have gone to college? How many A.P. credits do you have? I finally asked somebody, “What are A.P. credits?” Everybody in line stopped talking and turned to look at me.

I mean, I didn’t think I grew up in the sticks, but it was just then I discovered I had a modest upbringing. I went to a high school that had two academic tracks – college and work. I was the first person in my family to go to college right out of high school. I was registering for courses in the only university that accepted me, one of about thirty-eight-percent of my high school class who had that opportunity. I was eighteen years old and thought I was hot stuff; but standing in that registration line of Long Island high-achievers, the question rose: who do you think you are? I was feeling pretty small.

The poet who composes Psalm 8 is lying on his back beneath a star-filled sky. He sees the Milky Way spilling across the black velvet expanse. Darkness is punctured by a billion points of light. The moon smiles kindly. The poet exhales awe – and suddenly feels very small. He says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established” . . . who do I think I am? Who do we think we are?

The answer is that we are human beings. We are not mules. We are not angels. We are made to be human beings. That’s our lot. The dictionary says the Latin origin of the word “human” comes from “humus,” from the soil. Just like the old story from Genesis: God scooped up some mud from the river bank, shaped it to resemble the divine image, and blew holy breath into the nostrils. The first human critter was called “Adam,” a Hebrew word that means “dirt creature.” That’s who we are. When we get too far from the soil, life gets out of whack.

There is a parenthesis around all of this. The poet puts the same line at the beginning and end of the psalm: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” God has a really big name – bigger than “Spirit,” bigger than “Jesus.” Even the name “Trinity” can only point to the God who is behind everything we see and cannot see. God says, “I am – I will be – That is my name.” God is Source and Destination of everything. Everything! If such immensity does not make us feel small, then we haven’t been paying attention.

Sometimes we recover a sense of God’s size when we go outdoors. Modern life gives us machines that promise to manage and reduce the universe, tempting us to presume that we humans are actually in control. But if you are outside and a storm blows in, the sheer force can stun you into submission. To quote the cover of this week’s Time magazine: “Sixteen minutes – That’s how much time you have to save your life. The story of the Oklahoma tornado.” Did you see the pictures of a whole town flattened? Anybody still want to hang onto the myth that human beings are in control of anything?

True wisdom begins when we perceive our complete dependence on God, when we live and breathe and stay flat-footed on the ground, thanks to a God who thought gravity is a good idea. When John Calvin, the great theologian, wrote his most famous book, he says, “Our wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.” The poet of Psalm 8 gave him that insight. You look at the grand glory of the heavens, trust there is a God behind it, and it pushes you to ask, “Who do you think you are?”

We know the limits of being human – we have only so many days and time is short. Our bodies can only do so much. We cannot protect ourselves from the force of tornados, only send in the ambulances and the bulldozers to handle the wreckage. Illness might strike at any time, weakness may reduce us. We can never know all that is going to happen today, much less tomorrow. And all the while, we are prone to the misfire of thinking too much about ourselves in a universe that does seem to care about us very much at all.

Anthony de Mello, in a tale from his recent book One Minute Wisdom, describes this paradox. "Before I was 20," he says, "I never worried about what other people thought of me. But after I was 20 I worried endlessly -- about all the impressions I made and how people were evaluating me. Only sometime after turning 50 did I realize that they hardly ever thought about me at all."[1] So often we presume ourselves to be at the center of everyone’s attention, and end up performing for an audience that isn’t there.

The astonishing thing is that God should ever take notice. The God who created quasars and moonbeams is the God who knit together our DNA and says to the baptized child, “You are mine, all mine.” The Holy One who tosses the comets across our sky and swirls the wind like cotton candy is the same God who weeps when the tornado flattens the elementary school after spinning out of control, the same God who calls on us to care for every broken soul. O Lord, our Sovereign, who are we that you are mindful of us? Who are we, that You, the Immortal One, should cares for mere mortals like us.

That is what gives dignity to each person. God regards us. We are not accidents. We are not mistakes. Certainly we have bad hair days, get lousy grades in algebra, and crash our cars into trees. Yet God regards us, setting us a “little lower” than heaven, giving us responsibility for one another and for all the critters. Not only that; God has such high regard for human beings that God became a human being. This is the greatest affirmation of our species.

Who do you think you are? Child of God, brother of Jesus, temple of Holy Spirit – that’s what we are. And perhaps our greatest similarity to our Maker is our imagination. As Frederick Buechner writes, “Imagining is perhaps as close as humans get to creating something out of nothing the way God is said to.” He goes on to say:

(Imagination) is a power that to one degree or another everybody has or can develop, like whistling. Like muscles, it can be strengthened through practice and exercise. Keep at it until you can actually hear your grandfather's voice, for instance, or feel the rush of hot air when you open the four hundred and fifty degree oven.

If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hot air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the sandbox. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father's arm. The old man staring into space in the nursing home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak but the words they do not speak. Feel what it's like to be who they are -- chirping like a bird because for the moment you are a bird, trying not to wobble as you move slowly into the future with all eyes upon you.

When Jesus said, 'All ye that labor and are heavy laden,' he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that. [2]

Who do you think you are? I am what my neighbors are. I am a child of God, brother of Jesus, temple of the Holy Spirit. And all of us are worthy of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the friendship of the Holy Spirit.

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

[1] One Minute Wisdom
[2] Whistling in the Dark

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mystery and Mess

Acts 2:1-21
The Day of Pentecost
May 19, 2013
William G. Carter

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “What does this mean?” 

Despite all the pious things we think the Bible should say, the New Testament says the church’s first Pentecost was a noisy mess. Hurricane-force winds inside the church’s little hiding place. Tongues of fire descending on everybody’s heads. Everybody talking, shouting, at once. What an absolutely chaotic mess!

Hundreds of people were in town for the Jewish harvest festival, and they certainly thought so. They heard all the racket and thought the church had gotten drunk. “No, not yet,” shouted Simon Peter over the din. “It’s only the 9:00 service.”

By Luke’s suggestive description, at least sixteen languages were being spoken at once. It was not quiet, prayerful, or serene. Oh no! A bunch of church people were so full of God that they were mouthing off in every known language about Jesus, the man that God had raised from the dead. It was enough to gather a crowd and fill them with curiosity. They wanted to know: what does this mean?

I think we have to deal with the obvious. When people get filled up with God, it could be a noisy, chaotic racket. Anybody who thinks that faith is meant to be a quiet, well-ordered Sunday morning should hold on for dear life if God actually shows up. Because the Bible warns us there is nothing very settled about the work of the Holy Spirit.

There was a Sunday years ago, about this time of year. A bird was hiding in the sanctuary. Maud Thomas hit a chord on the organ, and the bird decided to fly around for a while. Just over our heads, on the constant move, nobody could catch it. Nobody could ignore it. It was a lot more interesting than my sermon, flying full speed from one end of the room to another. A couple of people stood and sang as if it nothing else was going on, but then the little bird swooped down toward them like a Kamikaze bombardier. The wife shrieked, the husband broke into laughter. I don’t know if the bird ever got out of here. You’d better watch out for it. As somebody said, “Was that the Holy Spirit?”

For all I know, it might have been. The mystery of God, the messiness of joy. Pentecost is this unmanageable moment. The fullness of God’s power comes. It reminds us how little control we actually have over anything. I’ve noticed the people who say frequently that “God is in control of everything” often say that because they don’t want anything to be out of control. This is Pentecost. We should know better.

I talked with a volunteer trumpeter on Friday night. Her name is Natalie and she is an attorney. She plays in a community band near Syracuse. I asked what that was like, and she said, “They play too many marches. The music is too predictable.”

She looked at me and said, “Are still keeping up with your jazz?” I replied, “It comes and goes.” Her mother leaned over to interrupt and ask, “When you play jazz, how do you know what it is happening next?” I said, “You don’t. You can’t control it, you can only stay open to whatever might happen.”

Natalie the attorney said rather wistfully, “Improvising looks like so much fun.” I said, “That’s why the songs go on so long.”

Then her mother said, “I can understand why people like having everything written down.”

Most of us can. We like to prepare for life’s events. My sister, the Lockheed executive, had her two pregnancies planned out. She wanted to get pregnant right on schedule, and she did. She calculated each pregnancy’s effect on her body, and that’s precisely what happened. Then she figured the precise time when each infant would appear – and her first-born daughter came right on time. Laura has been on time for everything ever since.

My nephew Matthew, however, was born five weeks early. We almost lost him. He was baptized in the neo-natal intensive care unit. My very organized sister was shaken by this, as we all were. During some of those long, terrible nights, if you had told her that Matthew would one day become a tall, strapping dude who works for Mansfield University and will be getting married this summer, she wouldn’t have been too sure. None of us would.

What happened? Life happened. Life in all its unpredictable power. Life as it comes through an invisible God whom we know as Spirit, as Holy Spirit.

Here’s a spiritual exercise you can try on your own. Survey some of the big moments of your life, especially those moments that seemed so disruptive. Ask a few questions: did you cause those moments to happen? Or did they just come? Could it be that God comes from time to time to stir things up? God is the Creator, after all. God has infinite imagination and infinite power. There’s no telling what God can do. God can come into a settled life and create a disruptive mess. Or God can come into the messiness of our lives and make something new. This is the truth of Pentecost.

It’s true of all of us. You may have a job interruption, an unexpected crisis, an unscheduled child – it is hard to parse out perfectly where the Spirit of God is and what the Spirit is doing. But if you have a bit of holy experience, you may perceive God is somehow right in the thick of it all. And what we thought was a messy disruption may actually be God’s way of giving us new life.

The early church, fifty days after the glad news of Resurrection, was still hiding out behind locked doors. The Risen Jesus had appeared to them, told them to stay in Jerusalem and pray – but pray for what? Then all of a sudden, the windows blew open. The great Wind came. None of those fishermen could manage it, prohibit it, or lock it out. The power of God loosened their tongues, gave them Easter talk to share -- and here’s the most important part: the Spirit pushed them outside to talk among the pilgrims who had come to the city for a Jewish harvest festival. None of those people that they themselves were the new crop God was planting.

It is Pentecost. The real God of the Bible does not stay hidden in a book. The Book says God stays busy in the world, birthing people into faith, giving them the power to love their neighbors, filling them with the words that declare Jesus Christ is at the center of it all. When God comes like that, as Spirit, as holy Wind, people are brought alive in Christ – and the music goes on a lot longer than anybody would have thought.

Now, I know we are Presbyterians. We don’t want anything to happen unless it is written down in a worship bulletin. But the God who brings Jesus alive – the God who blows through the window as Breath and Wind – this is the God who refuses to let any of us play dead.

I’m a pastor. I had to learn this the hard way. Once upon a time, for instance, I had a checklist of what I expected to happen in a wedding procession. Line up the bridesmaids, the ushers come down the side aisle. Everything is choreographed precisely. Mothers of the brides had always told me that was what they wanted. So we would rehearse a long while the night before, tune it up, get everything just right. I would ask, “Would you like to practice the processional one more time?”

But then, the next day, the time of the wedding would come and the bride wouldn’t be here yet. An usher would get a flat tire. The lights would flicker and a thunder clap announced a big storm arrived at show time. Just when the music would start, the bridesmaids would forget everything we had rehearsed and the ring bearer would stick a finger up his nose.

Over the years, I have learned to go with the flow and trust the Holy Spirit. I’m having a much better time.

Some years back, Will Willimon, a cranky Methodist, gave a graduation speech at Princeton Theological Seminary. He warned the future ministers about the messiness of ministry.  Not only do churches welcome people whose lives are unfinished and in perpetual transition, we have a God who shows no hesitation in disrupting our lives. This is how we know that Easter continues. This is how we know that, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has come down among us. It is not in the maintenance of settled and hushed religion, but in the lively activity of God among God’s people.

Willimon said, “So you and I can give thanks that the locus of Christian thinking appears to be shifting from North America and Northern Europe where people write rules and obey them, to places like Africa and Latin America, where people still know how to dance.”[1]

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

[1] William Willimon, “The Messiness of Ministry,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin, October 1993.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Beyond the Next-to-Last Word

Revelation 22:10-22
Easter 7 (C)
William G. Carter

It’s been a while since I have read one, but I like to read a good mystery novel. Good mystery novels are a lot like other good books. They are filled with colorful characters, vivid scenes, snappy dialogue, and ingenious writing. But there's one thing you can always find in a mystery novel that you don't often find in most other books, and that is a good ending.

If you have ever read a mystery, you know what I mean. Within the first few chapters, something horrible always happens. Most of the time, it's a murder.  Someone discovers it. A detective is assigned to the case.  Some clues are discovered. The plot will twist and turn, revealing some new information. Nevertheless, when you get to the end, a mystery will reward you with a neat and tidy conclusion.

You wade through 287 pages in the book. Then you turn the last page, only to discover that the butler did it with a candlestick in the drawing room.

He was having an affair with Mrs. Englebert, who wanted access to her rich husband's life insurance policy. That's why her peculiar shade of lipstick was found on the butler's shoehorn, which, in turn, Had fallen out of his pocket while he was dusting the grand piano, which, in fact, had been discovered by the jealous Colonel Engelbert late last Wednesday, the very night of his unfortunate demise. While the colonel confronted his unfaithful wife in her drawing room, the butler crept out of her closet, tip-toed up to the Colonel, and bonked him on the head with the closest weapon at hand."

After reading through 287 pages, you finally discover "who done it.” That can be a very satisfying ending to a story. All the hidden actions are revealed. All the ugly motives are clear.   All the characters are seen for who they really are: the unfaithful spouse, the suspicious colonel, the impulsive butler. By the last page of a mystery novel, all the loose ends are tied together.       That's a good way to end a story, and it makes us feel better about ourselves.

It's worth wondering if that is how the Bible ends. A few minutes ago, we heard the last words of the last chapter of the last book in the Bible. We've just heard the ending of the Story.

Some of us remember how the Bible begins: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..." On the first day, "Let there be light!" And there was light. On the second day, "Let there be evening and morning!" And it was so. On the third day, "Let there be sky, and let there be sea!" On it went, one day after another, until God crowned all creation by making a couple of people. When God made those people, it was a grand and glorious day! The mountains were singing. The stegosauruses were tap dancing. The turtles were leaping with joy.  Great day!

But only a few pages into the story, the plot thickens. What began so beautifully starts to sound like that old mystery novel. There's an unfaithful spouse (Eve), who takes a bite out of a forbidden fruit. There's a suspicious Colonel (Adam), who wonders if that apple will satisfy him, too. There's even an impulsive Butler (Cain), who acts out his frustration by bonking someone over the head.

How can it be?   When the story began in Genesis, it was so beautiful. Birds were singing.  Flowers were blooming. The sky was ablaze with light. But look what happens! Within the very first few pages, a garden is full of thorns and thistles and snakes that bite. And the Almighty wants to know, "Who done it?"

That's how the Story begins, the great Story of Creation. Given such an opening, we might wonder about the conclusion. How does it end?

Now, some listen to today's ending and say, "We know how it will turn out." The story will end with judgment. When all is said and done, people will be exposed for what they are. There is evidence of that kind of clarity in this text. The writer says, "Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life, and may enter the city by the gates. But outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood."

In other words, everything shall be revealed. John sees a wall separating the clean and the dirty,
the good and the evil, the saints and the ugly beasts. On the one hand, there will be martyrs in white robes, God's own people, always willing to suffer for what's right, yet unwilling to give into the demands of unrighteousness. On the other hand, well, you come up with your own list...

The writer of Revelation affirms a final judgment. To be sure, the idea of judgment makes a lot of people nervous. Garrison Keillor says it makes him nervous. It reminds him of all the voices that once frightened him as a teenager, voices that haunt him still.  

Keillor tells of vacationing on the Greek island of Patmos, the very island where the book of Revelation was written:

"A quarter-mile down the road is the cave where John dreamed about the end of the world...and told about the Lake of Everlasting Fire that so absorbed my entire youth.  A few miles farther is a sandy beach where young German and Swedish and French women lie in the sun, which would have absorbed me even more then than it does now, which is, considerably.  We ride to the beach, and then back up the mountain on green Honda scooters. My mother never let me own one or ride on one, feeling that any motorized two-wheeled vehicle was a ticket to flaming death... When we cruise down the mountain at 15 miles per hour, I hear (my mother's) voice say, `Be careful, Gary!  Not so fast!' When we putt-putt up from the naked beach past John's cave, I hear his voice say, `Woe!  Woe!  Woe!'"[1]  

When Keillor thinks of "judgment," he hears voices.  Maybe you do, too. Whether it's the lingering voice of an over-protective parent or the voice of some cranky preacher, there always seems to be somebody who will remind us that our passing thoughts are lustful, that we do not deserve the gifts of God's good creation, that, if we're not careful, our end will be one of destruction.

A lot of people think that's what judgment is about: "Straighten up, or you're going to hell." Or as the bumper sticker puts it, "Turn or burn."

Is that all there is to the end of the Story? If it were simply a matter of judgment, of good versus evil, of right against wrong, we could simply turn in our time cards and wait for the Verdict. But in the final words of the Revelation, judgment is really about the Voice of the Judge, who is Jesus Christ. "I am coming soon," he says, "and my reward is with me. I will repay according to everyone's work."

For our part, the Story of creation is not over. Not yet. And truth be told, our own situations are far from clear. What looks like good may be tainted with evil. What looks like right may actually be wrong. Everyday life is anything but the last page of a mystery novel.  Hidden actions are not yet revealed. Most human motives are mixed, at best. There are more loose ends than any one person can tie together.

In the end, we wait for something greater than a final judgment. We wait for a Judge who can see better than we can. We watch for an Advocate who sees through the illusions of this age.       We wait for a Savior who will know what we cannot know.

When maybe that’s why, when you get to the last words of the last book of the Bible, the predominant message is not something like, "I can't wait for the sinners to be sent to hell," because, in and of ourselves, we're all sinners. All of us are incomplete without the mercy and forgiveness of God.

So the last words of the story are not gloom, despair, and agony on me. The last ink on the last page is not, "Bring on the judgment! Bring on the fire and brimstone!  Purge this evil world!" Oh, no. They move on to a simple prayer: "Come, Lord Jesus" It has been the church's prayer from the beginning. "Come, Lord Jesus" We pray for him to come because we don’t always see so clearly.

Probably my most unusual seminary classmate was a guy named Jim McCloskey. At 37 years old, God shook him awake one day and Jim decided to do something different with his life. He left his high-paying job on the Philadelphia Main Line and enrolled in Princeton Seminary. He was the only classmate we had who drove a Lincoln Continental.

When Jim came to seminary, he didn't think he wanted to be a pastor. He took all the regular classes in Greek, Hebrew, theology, church history. But the moment of clarity came when he took a weekend job as a student chaplain in Trenton State Prison. As he met the prisoners on the row, they all told him they were innocent. Everybody in prison says they are innocent. Yet as Jim listened to their life stories, he began to wonder if some of them actually were innocent. So when he graduated, he started his own detective agency.

Knowing him is better than reading a mystery novel. Jim McCloskey was the real thing, an honest-to-goodness gumshoe. Every day of his life, Jim is committed to only one thing, namely,   working for the release of those who are innocent.

One Sunday night, I turned on 60 Minutes, and there was Jim McCloskey. He had been in the coal mining town of Grundy, Virginia, working on a case. A man named Roger Coleman had been arrested there for killing a neighbor. People didn’t like Roger before the arrest, and when members of the jury were selected, some of them said to the press, “We expect to put Coleman on the electric chair.” They were still allowed to serve on the jury.

The evidence seemed circumstantial. Police reports suggested he wasn't the assailant. Nevertheless the jury convicted him and sent him to death row. He got Jim McCloskey to take the case, but they ran out of time. Coleman maintained his innocence to the end, and Jim did what he could to take him seriously. It was fourteen years after Coleman’s death that DNA tests determined that he had been lying all along, that indeed he was guilty.

Do you see why we need Jesus? Because he sees everything clearly. He comes in the clarity of judgment. He sees the truth about all of us. And he comes, not only with complete truth, but with generous grace. That is what everybody needs most of all. Everybody.

And that’s how the Bible concludes, you know. Not only with the prayer, "Come, Lord Jesus," but with the final blessing: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints." When all is said and done, the One who is coming is the One whom we already know. The One who provides for us each day shall be the One everybody shall see.

So we need never fear. Not if we love Jesus, not if we know him, not if we trust him. This is the Jesus who said of his own murderers, “Father, forgive them.” This is one who invites even the saints to “wash their robes in the Blood of the Lamb.” He is the One and only One who has the last word on all of human life.

And his last word goes like this: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.”

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

[1] Garrison Keillor, “Patmos,” in We Are Still Married, p. 239.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

No Churches in the New City

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
Easter 6
May 5, 2013
William G. Carter

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God . . . I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 

We continue on our Easter journey through the book of Revelation, and are drawing closer to the end. Our guide is the prophet John, who has a series of visions on the little, rocky island of Patmos. It is the Lord’s Day, the day of worship. If he had been worshiping with his congregation in the great city of Ephesus, they would be gathering to sing the hymns and offer the prayers, patterned after the Jewish synagogue of gathering, hearing God’s Words, responding, and departing in joy. John recalls all of this until heaven interrupts.

Visions come. John sees the great conflict between good and evil, not as a once-and-done battle, but as a cycle of maneuvers and responses. He does not avoid the painfulness of life as we know it, where famine happens somewhere in the world, where brutality all too frequently breaks out. But he sees also the splendor of God’s throne in the center of all things. The door to heaven has opened, the truth is fully known, and there is One seated upon the throne.

As we move toward the end of the book, we begin to see the destination of where all life is heading, at least the life that remains with God. God triumphs over evil, even if we cannot see totally how God sifts everything out.

Then John looks, and he sees a city fall out of the sky. It is the New Jerusalem. It’s not the Old Jerusalem. It resembles it, but it is infinitely new, polished and gleaming. It is far more glorious than any city on earth. No garbage blowing down the street, no dark alleys, no homeless poor looking for hope. John goes to great lengths to describe this city full of precious jewels, some so precious that the words don’t translate well from Greek into English.

The prophet strains to describe what he sees in his vision. It is an extraordinary vision. As John sees this, takes it all in, as he sees the shining city coming down from heaven, the New Jerusalem, he discovers there is no temple in the heart of the city. How curious! For Jerusalem was always defined by its temple. Surely John would know that, particularly given how much of the Jewish scripture he quotes as he describes his visions. Revelation is full of lines from the Psalms and the prophets, all woven into a fresh tapestry of praise. The praises of God spoken through the centuries are revisited and claimed, the same praises that Israel sang in its temple. But there is no temple to generate the music, no temple to employ the priesthood, no temple to officiate over sacrifices that might bring people closer to God. There is no temple as the meeting place of God and humanity. No temple at all.

This may seem a curious omission. It will take imaginative energy for some of us church folk to chew on this and digest it. Ever since our birth, and a good time before it, churches have their structures. Congregations have their buildings. The buildings require care and attention. They become the means by which people gather, whether in simplicity as in this Calvinistic meeting house or in high cathedrals filled with art, incense, and precious metals.

“We must have a temple,” isn’t that right? That has long been the mantra for the Presbyterian establishment. As our forebears proliferated across the continent, moving slowly as Presbyterians usually do, they established a temple of sorts in every town they could. Some of these temples are quite impressive. Think of some of the great congregations you have known. They have enormous buildings. I love every time I go to 55th and 5th in New York, and wander into Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, right across the street from Donald Trump’s tower. I love the smell and feel of the wooden pews, or the high lofty pulpit which stands ten steps above reproach. It all reeks of permanence and presence. Songs from the saints have circled toward the ceiling like incense.

But there will be no such structure in the New Jerusalem. No temple at all. May I say that is a bit strange, particularly in situations that a lot of churches are in? The congregation has dwindled to a precious few, but at least they have their building. They will hang on as long as they can as long as they have that patch of real estate. Go up and down Main Avenue in Scranton, there are lots and lots of temples, in some neighborhoods one on every corner. Each temple grounds them, situates them, declares they are somewhere, and the mission field is right there, all around them. But we can also guess what it takes to keep those structures going. It’s an enormous amount of work, and then there are the utility bills.

It used to be that Presbyterian churches had a separate group of trustees. They governed alongside the elders. If the elders focused on heaven and its riches, the trustees tended to earth and its liabilities: patching the roof, replacing the boiler, re-striping the parking lot. Over the years, as elders and trustees consolidated in many congregations, the church building and its needs have continued to demand attention and resources.

I recall the day that I first saw this building. The walls needed a coat of paint, the sanctuary floor had harvest gold carpeting nearly thirty years old. We had a building and grounds committee back then. It was one guy, and he had stopped coming to church, because every time he came, somebody hit him with some complaints. We had a sexton, a wonderful man, except that he couldn’t see well enough to drive a car and his cardiologist had told to stay off ladders. And we had a junk room back in the corner where Room 210 is now located. It was filled chest-high with old curriculum, broken lampshades, filmstrips that we had stopped using (anybody remember filmstrips?). When the day came when the dumpster was brought in to clear out the junk room, one of the people responsible for Christian Education was caught climbing into the dumpster to pull things out.

I’m talking about a temple. A temple takes a lot of effort, requires a lot of money. One of our neighboring congregations, smaller than this one, is spending five hundred thousand dollars on its building and another five hundred thousand dollars on its pipe organ. They tell me it is going to be really, really impressive. Maybe that will help to bring people in. Who can say?

But there is no temple in God’s future. Isn’t that an unusual declaration? The Building and Grounds committee would say, “Hallelujah! We don’t have to have any more meetings!” The funding people would say, “Hooray! We don’t have to raise any more money for the temple.”

So what is John saying to us? What is he pointing to? Those of you who are racing ahead in your minds know exactly what he can see. There will be no more temple because a temple is the meeting ground between people and God, and God’s presence is mediated to the people. The temple is where people congregate, where they gather together to worship and learn, where they embody Christian faith as a communal faith. Yet when all is said and done, when God comes close to God’s own people, there will be no need for a temple. God in Christ is that temple.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus said as much. In the Gospel of John, he points to himself and says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Christian people hear him say “three days,” and they know he is speaking about the temple of his body. But when he said it, he had just gone into the Old Jerusalem temple, turned over the tables of the money-changers and swept out the merchants. All the religious enterprises and rummage sales are not the reasons we come to church any way. We come to church to encounter the Living God. Church is what points us to God. Temple is what points us to God. And if it does not point us to God, it is taking up valuable real estate.

John sees a day when there is no temple. He does not say that to declare the temple is unimportant; oh no, we would not know about God without it! But he does see the day coming when God and people will be in complete peace and harmony with one another. And it will come, not because the people have worked at it, but because God will step over everything that separates his people from himself.

Now perhaps there are some people who are so ready for this day to come that they have stopped coming to church, especially when the weather is nice. “I don’t need to worship God indoors; I can worship God by the trout stream or on the fourteenth fairway or in the park.” Fair enough; and churches can spend far too much time inside when there is a beautiful world to enjoy and a hurting world to serve.

But John points us beyond all this, when there is no intermediary between heaven and earth. In God’s future, there is no Bible for God’s will is completely revealed; the Bible we have points us to that future. In God’s future, there are no more mission projects, because all of God’s work will be accomplished. There will be no more church structures, whether buildings or organizations or budgets or worship bulletins, for they won’t be necessary any more. They will be revealed for what they always were: provisional demonstrations of God’s Kingdom, signs of what will really truly come.

Imagine a church-less temple or a temple-less church. In the meantime, there are some experiments here and there. Our national Presbyterian family is trying to ignite a 1001 new worshiping communities, communities of people who gather around Jesus Christ as it once was, before it was structure, building, and big business. They bring people together to worship and learn in the invisible presence of God. One of my favorites is a small creative community in Pittsburgh. It began in a tattoo parlor, where people who are heavily pierced come to hear about the One who was pierced on the cross for them.

I don’t know how I fit in, with my button-down shirt and suit jacket, in the midst of all that ink. But they believe God is real, right there with them in the grit of daily life. And after the worship songs die down, they welcome everybody to a taco bar in the back of the room.

Imagine a congregation that is not bound by walls, a group of Christian people who gather for Someone greater than bricks and mortar. For them, the cornerstone is not 1912, but Jesus Christ, alive again since 33 A.D. We live in the promise that we will see him face-to-face, just as we come around his table this day. God will be completely with us, and we will be completely with God. And every faithful act we do here and now is a rehearsal of what is to come.

Some time back, our church had a deacon named Mark. He was a faithful man, going every couple of weeks to visit an older woman named Elsie. She had outlived her family, so Mark became her family. She could not get out of her home, so Mark took her whatever she needed. She could not get out to church, so Mark took church to her.

One day he phoned and said, “It’s time for Elsie to have communion. Her health has been a little shaky, and I think we need to go.” We put a date on the calendar. The day came, we met in the parking lot and drove over to the facility where she now lived. When we arrived, however, we were met at the door by someone who told us Elsie had just died. It was completely unexpected. I’m standing there at a loss for words, the tray of bread and grape juice in my hands. I was in shock. About all I could stammer out in my awkwardness was, “But we have come to give her communion.”

Mark turned with a smile and said, “Bill, it’s OK. Right now she is tasting the Real Thing.”

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.