Saturday, June 15, 2013

Song for a Sabbath Day

Psalm 92
June 16, 2013
Sabbatical Beginning
William G. Carter

A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath Day.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; 
to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, 
to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. 
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. 

How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! 
The dullard cannot know, the stupid cannot understand this: 
though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish,
they are doomed to destruction forever,  but you, O Lord, are on high forever. 
For your enemies, O Lord, for your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered. 

But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil. 
My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants. 

The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. 
They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. 
In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap, 
showing that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

    Yesterday at the breakfast table, it was suggested that I stand to announce, “I have begun the sabbatical early. There is no sermon today.” Oh, that would be too easy. And I’m still on the clock until the benediction.

    So what do I wish to say before then? I want to say a lot of things. You should know that; I have been here a long time.  

     I will say thank you. Thank you for coming to worship. I never take that for granted. Week after week, many of you are here. You know that the Christian life is sustained by ritual and routine. We do the same things week after week, and that makes a difference. The person who blows in here, expects a quick one-time fix, car still running, is going to be disappointed. Not because we are not witnessing to the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are. But it takes a while for the good news of God to sink in. It takes repeated exposure to the announcement that God so loves each one of us so much that God wishes to salvage the world. This will not sink in unless we hear the words over and over. And I thank all of you who keep coming back to hear it. Never let laziness nor neglect creep in.

    I want to say thank you for the Session and the Deacons, those marvelous people who serve this church by their leadership. Some of them flip good pancakes, some of them watch over our mission work. They share the leadership work with me, and just because I slip away for a brief sabbatical, the work is well-grounded and widely shared. Our church is in good shape because of their concern to make the Gospel real. Nothing is going to fall apart, because everything is held in God’s hands. Everything! No worries, if we leave it all in God’s hands.

    I want to say thank you, in particular, to the church staff. They work so hard that they will not even notice I’m missing. I thank the Worship/Music/Arts committee for setting up the entire next year’s worship services; they know what my sermon titles will be on next January 19 and March 23. We like to plan ahead together. And the Adult Education planning team is set to go for the fall; I return to teach one of the three weekly classes that begin in September; my class will be a Bible study. The first sessions are scheduled and you are required to come.

    I want to say thank you to the Rev. Roger Griffith. My good friend comes out of his busy retirement to replace me for the next three months. You will hear him pray at the end of the service, you may hear him play his bass guitar if you encourage him as you encourage me, and by the end of the summer, I know he will be your good friend. No worries; Roger that!

    I want to thank my family. They are going to see far too much of me this summer, so be sure to pray for them.

    And I want to thank whoever composed the Psalm that we heard this morning, Psalm 92. We don’t have a clue who that is. But an editor has left chocolate fingerprints at the top of the age. After the Psalm was composed, the editor added a few words in Hebrew as a matter of description. This is “a Song for the Sabbath Day.” No other Psalm gets that description. No other Psalm is pinned to a particular day of the week, much less the Sabbath.

    You can hum the first stanza of the Psalm. It sounds of singing, music, and melody. The Sabbath is not intended to be silent. No, it’s a time for joyful noise, for declaring the saving grace of God by day and night. We declare with our lips and strum our stringed instruments. It’s all there in the first stanza: to say thanks, to sing praises. Sabbath is music that gladdens our hearts and sets us free to sing.

    The second stanza reminds us that our singing is contested. God makes us a musical world, but some folks don’t seem to pick up the tune. Mostly they are of two types. The poet calls one group “The Evildoers.” They sprout up like weeds and seem for a time to get their own wicked way. The Evildoers announce with their deeds that they have no need for God. Oh no, they are a world unto themselves. They stomp along and think that whatever they do will last forever. The Eternal God looks at them and groans.

    Then there’s the other group that cannot sing.  The Psalmist simply calls them “stupid.” The Hebrew word is translated “dullard” or “dolt.” These are the people who just don’t get it. This has nothing to do with their intelligence; it’s something far worse. God puts a rainbow in front of them, and they look down at their watches. God. God gives them a world of intricate design, and they think it’s flat. God creates whales that leap, sparrows that sing, seas that split in two, and they yawn. The Hebrew Bible smirks at such people and calls them fools.

    Because, you see, our lives are about God. God gives us breath, first to receive, then to exhale in praise. God surrounds us with wonders, glorious gifts of sense and sound, some of them with saving power. Yet it’s possible to ignore all of this. The Evildoers go their own way, indifferent to God’s holy purposes. And the Stupid Dolts – well, maybe I shouldn’t dismiss them so quickly. Ten years ago on my honeymoon, my wife and I went to the Canadian Rockies. It was too much beauty to take in. By the fifth day or so, I remember distinctly saying, “Ho hum, another 10,000 foot high mountain. No big deal.” Any sense of wonder was shut down; that was my sin.

    So Psalm 92 is our Song for the Sabbath Day. Sabbath is the time we take to shrug off our neglect, to open our hearts to God’s holy extravagance. It’s the time we take to move ourselves out of the supposed center of the universe and to let God rule gently and firmly, especially over those situations that we cannot control.

    That points us to the last stanza of the psalm. I love the three verbs: flourish, grow, planted. The well-balanced life is compared to three trees.

  • The righteous flourish like a palm tree. Ever see the lushness of a tropical palm? They are so full of life they have to be trimmed so they can flourish even more.
  • The righteous grow like the cedars of Lebanon. These cedars were the legendary trees of antiquity. They grew tall and straight, were reported to have medicinal powers, and were cut for the great temple of Solomon.
  • Then there is the tree laden with fruit, described as still productive in its old age. Old age in the time of this Psalm, by the way, was somewhere after fifty. If you were fifty, you were old – but you could still be productive, still green, still full of sap, and still pointing to the Lord, the source of all life.
    So this Psalm pushes us to ask ourselves what it will take to flourish, to grow, to stay planted and to remain productive. These are the Sabbath tasks, the Sabbatical tasks. The poet of Psalm 92 believes that Sabbath rest  makes room for us to flourish and be fruitful.

     Now you’re not going to hear that from the Evildoers or the Dullards, especially in our culture.  We live in driven times, with 24-7 accessibility and demand. How many times have you heard it? I called you on your cell phone, why didn’t you answer?

    Or the retired person will say, “I am busier now than when I was working.” Well, what is that about? If it is about flourishing, growing, staying planted and productive -- good for you. That is the blessing of God!

    But should we fall into the obsessions and addictions of our culture, we need the word that God speaks in the Ten Commandments: “Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy . . . Remember you were slaves in Egypt, and God brought you out of there.” That is why we rest from labor – to show that we belong to God, and not to our labor. It is proof of our freedom from slavery.

    This is especially important if we enjoy our work. Some of us have that blessing; I love the work that I do, and I love the people that I work around. Most days, I can’t wait to get to it. Most nights, I have a hard time shutting down. It’s a blessing to love your work. But God invites us to take Sabbath, so that we can realign our loves. We take the time to love God more than our work.

    The truth of the matter is, as good as our work can be, it can wear us out. I remember the week, some fifteen months ago. It was a good week, it was a long week, it was the week that I first considered taking this sabbatical. In the middle of the week, I was called upon to do the funeral for a three-year-old boy who fell out of a high-rise window in Scranton. The family’s church did not have a pastor, so I was called. The father of the child was serving a prison term, and would be accompanied by well-armed guards.

    He arrived late, due to highway construction. When he hobbled down the church aisle in leg-irons, he waved to his family and friends with a big smile. Then it hit him where he was, and what we were doing, and he fell apart. It was a tough day, for him, for everybody. I had the privilege of leading them through it, and then I went home to stare at the walls for a while. But I didn’t have long, because the next day was Maundy Thursday and I needed to write that sermon and a few others after it. The really hard work was doing it with a smile. Sometimes hard work just goes with the territory.

    All of us know this. Everybody has demands in the work that they do. To stay focused, to keep going, to still believe there is a sun in the sky, we need to keep the Sabbath. The Sabbath is time, time that is full of spaciousness. As John Calvin once wrote, Sabbath is time to rest from our work so that God can work in us. Or in the words of Psalm 92, “To stay green and full of sap.”

    Isn’t that what we want? To get through life alive! For our souls to be free to sing! To know deep in our bones that God is the Rock upon which we stand! To keep doing the work God gives us to do with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love!

    You see, God is concerned for our well-being. God gave us these lives and wants us to flourish. That’s why Sabbath was not given as an obligation, but as a gift. It is commanded of us because we forget how good God is, but it is always a gift --- a gift of time for us to rest from what consumes us, to receive the Spirit that God wants us to have.

    As I take some Sabbath time this summer, I invite you to do the same. What is it that is going to keep you green and full of sap? Or in the words of the Lilly Endowment that provides funding for this particular sabbatical, “What is it that makes your soul sing?” Aye, there is a worthy question. And I hope it nips your heels for the next three months until you are overflowing with the joy of God.

    May this day be for you such a time of blessed Sabbath that you wish to repeat it over and over. And may God make you to flourish, body and soul, in the time while we are apart. I love you and I will see you in September.

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

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-11
Ordination of Officers / Commissioning of Mission Workers
June 9, 2013
William G. Carter 

One Sunday, I heard the creation of a new word. We were singing a hymn, and the person next to me was not worried about the words on the page. The print said, “Chosen of the Lord, and precious,” but I am sure he sang, “Chosent.” It was a brand-new word. I think it is a pretty good word – “chosent.”

As far as Jesus is concerned, those who are chosen are sent. They are one and the same. They are not selected by him in order to withdraw from the world. They are picked in order to be deployed. Chosen and sent – or “chosent.”

In the Gospel of Luke, we hear two passages of Jesus sending his followers. First, it is the twelve in his immediate circle – Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot, and the other ten in between. He confers on them his holy authority and sends them out to confront the forces that damage human life. He said, “Proclaim God’s authority over life – and heal whoever you meet.” And off they go. They have pretty good success, and learn a good bit along the way.

Then, once again, he expands the circle, and adds seventy more people. The Lord groups them in pairs and gives them the same commission: “Heal the sick that you find, and declare God’s Authority has come into your midst.”

They came back and said, “Lord, your name has a lot of power!” He smiles and says, “I saw Satan fall out of heaven. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven!” This is the blessing on those who go when he sends them. They are “chosent.”

These ancient stories reveal a deep truth. The God we meet in Jesus Christ is a missionary God. God takes flesh in Jesus because he has a mission to the world. Jesus is sent from heaven to earth. Then Jesus sends those who follow him to continue the mission. It is the same mission: to proclaim God’s Holy Authority and to heal.

To heal what? It is never specified; whatever is ill, or twisted, or broken, or dirty, or infected – that is what God wishes to heal. And this restorative work, this saving work, is never separated from God’s Authority. That is the meaning of the word “kingdom,” which refers to the places where God is the rightful ruler.

On a day when we commission people in our midst to serve as servant-leaders, we affirm the nature of God’s mission, in the name of a God who sends. We are chosen by God in order to be sent to the places where God needs us to serve.

I don’t know about you, but this was impressed on me at an early age. My family went to a church that was always sending people into the mission field. One young couple came back with slides from the Amazon River and spoke about an encounter with piranhas. That made quite an impression on our potluck dinner.

Then I went off to seminary. On the opening day, the dean told us how an entire graduating class in the early 1950's went into the mission field. The president at the time was John Mackay, a former missionary, and he had a great influence on the students. As the academic products of the selfish 1980's, we shrugged it off.

Then we stood in line for the cafeteria and passed by a plaque remembering some graduates of Princeton who were killed in response to their witness. One was shot in India, another thrown off a ship. One was murdered for printing the truth about slavery in St. Louis, another was beaten to death as he marched for civil rights in Selma. It gave us pause, and made us wonder what we would face when we took Jesus seriously.

These seemed like amplified situations, rare and remarkable, and nothing that the normal Christian might ever face. But then I heard Jesus declare after his resurrection, "You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth." That's not a command, but a declaration. If you testify to Jesus, if you believe he is alive rather than dead, if you understand what he continues to do in the world, if you follow him, pursue him, and obey him, then you will be his witnesses. And there's no telling where it will take you.

Around this congregation, we have seen people who hear Christ’s voice, go where they sense he is sending them, and come back changed. I could keep you here all day with the stories, but I would rather send you out to the places where God wants you to be. We have sent people to short-term mission trips, and they come back with stories, not only about the work that they accomplished, but the ways they have been changed.

Or someone will get involved, sometimes after years of watching from the sidelines. Something wakes up within them. Faith goes deeper and love extends wider. The time they spend healing the world is time well spent that also heals some part of them.

I have seen grumpy old men break into laughter when they play kickball with children. I have seen self-absorbed teenagers crack open with compassion when they encounter with people with real needs. I have seen well-settled people come alive with fresh energy when it dawns on them that life is changing, and they cannot stay settled where they were. It is not a stretch to declare that God is probably behind a lot of these disruptions.

Here’s the point: if they had played it safe, if they had shrugged off the invitation in order to honor their own comfort, if they had never gotten out of the easy chair or the cushioned pew, they might have missed the joy of Jesus.

The Bible is full of stories about people on the move. The same God described in that thick, old book is the same God who pushes us, or pulls us, or prompts us, or entices us to make our lives a pilgrimage. We are called closer to the heart of God. We can’t get there if we stay stuck in the same old places.

Maybe that’s why Jesus gives the same directions to the twelve and to the seventy. He says, “Travel lightly. Don’t pack a lot of stuff; the stuff can become a distraction. Don’t slow down to shake the hands of everybody on the way. Don’t worry about taking money; the Gospel’s essential work can be done without a lot of money.”

All he gives us is a word of peace, God’s peace. It’s the peace of the Christmas angels, singing to the shepherds about the great glory of God, and made real in the great gifts of mercy and respect. Whoever you meet is a Child of God, forgiven in Christ, respected by God’s Spirit. That peace is enough to change the room, and it’s the peace that makes people well.

“If you meet people who don’t want this,” said Jesus, “wipe off your feet and keep moving. Don’t waste your time on antagonistic voices or warlike hostilities. No, I send you to declare that God makes peace with the world.”

Once again, we can’t know this unless we get off the couch. In our time, that’s becoming harder and harder for a lot of people to do. A well-meaning person said to me, “When I go home at night, I stay home. My home is my cocoon.” I thought about that, then I asked, “Do you ever think God would like you to get out of your cocoon and become a butterfly?”First, of course, you’ve got to leave the cocoon.

It’s hard to do that, when you have a remote for eight hundred channels, a Home Shopping Network full of stuff you don’t need, a thousand baseball games to watch that you yourself will never play, to say nothing of hundreds of Food Channel recipes that you yourself will never cook. We live in a culture intoxicated with entertainment. Entertainment is a way to smooth over and forget that there are grown-up brothers and sisters who hate each other, or children who go to bed bruised and hungry, or promising students who are put down for how they look or where they live. Christ sends his people into the surrounding towns and says, “Heal the broken people, and proclaim there is a Loving God whose holy ways are peace and well-being for all.” This is our mission, because this is God’s mission, and God gives it to all of us.

We set aside people as church elders to direct us where we need to go. We deploy church deacons to make Christ’s ministry a humane ministry. All of us are part of what God is doing to salvage the world. We are chosen and sent – chosent – to make a difference.

A woman was telling me about something she likes to do. “I volunteer to read stories to children who don’t know where both of their parents are. I do this every Tuesday, and I never cancel out. I want them to know they are loved.”

A man told me yesterday about his work with those recovering from addictions to drugs and alcohol. “Some of them are charged too much money to stay in a halfway house,” he said, “and I want them to be treated fairly as God rebuilds their lives.”

Today we bid God’s peace on three people traveling to Haiti, as they go to show compassion. We send a couple of our own to work all summer with the kids at Camp Lackawanna. Some are going to North Carolina to investigate how our congregation may worship more deeply. Others will work with the children and families of our community to teach God’s love through our Vacation Bible School.

Take note: none of this work is hypothetical. None of it is imaginary. All of it is specific, among real people with real names and real needs.   

So we are sent – chosent – to announce in word and deed that that God's dominion is right there, within our midst, not because of our good looks, not because of our expertise, but because the One who gathers us in grace is the One who always sends us out in love.

To this God, be all glory and honor, sovereignty and service, mystery and ministry, now and forever.

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

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Just Say the Word

Luke 7:1-10
June 2, 2013
Ordinary 9
William G. Carter

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ 

And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

BC:      We have an occasional custom of asking a graduating senior to help with the sermon on this day. I had one in mind. I asked and she consented, so I would like to invite her forward at this time. And then, we sat down together to read the scripture text.

MC:     I wasn’t impressed. Who picks these passages, anyway?

BC:      Most of the time, it’s a committee …

MC:     Of course, it’s a committee. A camel is a horse designed by a committee.

BC:      Well, the texts are picked by an ecumenical committee.

MC:     Does that make it better?

BC:      To tell you the truth, neither of us thought much of the text. It’s the story of a rich Roman citizen who wants Jesus to do something for him.

MC:     It sounds like he wants to get his way because he is rich. A lot of rich people are used to getting their way.

BC:      And this guy is a centurion.

MC:     That’s a soldier, right?

BC:      It is the commander of a battalion of soldiers. A hundred soldiers are commanded by a centurion. He had great responsibility and significant authority. He was paid a lot better than the average soldier.

MC:     But it’s surprising to hear people say, “He is a nice guy.” Not the usual picture we have of a Roman centurion!

BC:      And it’s equally surprising that the people who say so are Jewish leaders. Israel maintained a racial boundary between themselves and the Romans. As the Jewish Mishnah said, “The dwelling places of Gentiles in Israel are unclean.”[1]

MC:     Still, these Jewish leaders were willing to go on behalf of that Roman centurion. There is something about him that they respected: he had concern for a slave, and he was highly regarded by the whole Jewish town of Capernaum.

BC:      And don’t overlook: not only was he rich, he was generous.

MC:     Did you see the article? J.K. Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter books, is no longer a billionaire. She gave away too much money to charity last year, mostly to charities for single mothers and their families. In fact, she gave $160 million dollars to charity. Now she is merely a millionaire.

BC:      I looked up the story in Forbes magazine after you told me about this. She said, “You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently.”[2] I think there should be a special place in heaven for people who are so generous.

MC:     Well, maybe this Roman centurion thought there should be a special place for him. He was very generous. The local Jewish leaders said he financed the building of their synagogue.

BC:      I have been to that synagogue. They have excavated the foundation stones in Capernaum . . .

MC:     Are we going to hear another Pastor Travel Story?

BC:      Oh no, no travel stories until September. J  But I did learn that Capernaum, way up north, had a track record for diverse people getting along. The town was along the trade route, along the ancient route from Babylon to Egypt. It would not have been unheard of for a Roman soldier to show kindness to Jewish townspeople.

MC:     This soldier was pretty remarkable. He was seriously concerned for one of his slaves. He valued him and didn’t want the servant to die. So he called on Jesus for health care. He’s a really good guy. The Jewish leaders that he sends to Jesus say as much. “He is worthy of having you do this for him,” they say. “He loves our people. He built our synagogue for us.”

BC:      As Luke tells this story, he puts it just right. The local people say about the Centurion, “he is worthy.” But he communicates to Jesus, he says, “I’m not worthy.”

MC:     Is he faking it? Is this false modesty?

BC:      We can’t say, and he’s not around to ask. And it does blow the stereotype of a Roman soldier out of the water. Those guys had a reputation for being brutes.

MC:     Well, he knows that he is not in charge of everything. He has authority over a hundred soldiers, but he cannot command an illness to flee his servant. So he hands over the matter to Jesus, and says, “Just speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”

BC:      Just speak the word . . . There are a lot of situations where we want him to speak the word. Every person who gets written down on our prayer cards is a person who needs a word of healing.

MC:     Every person who gets put down or pushed aside is a person who needs a word from Jesus.

BC:      The girl with the screaming headache, the woman with the spot on the Cat scan, the man with the confused mind, the parents still waiting for their kid to come home – at some time or another, all of us need a word from Jesus. Just speak the word, and we shall be healed.

MC:     There is so much in our lives that is out of control. We try not to let it show, but we hunger for somebody to be in control, for somebody to take charge, for somebody with authority to make us well.

BC:      So this tame little story that we originally didn’t like is really a much bigger story about prayer.

MC:     How so?

BC:      Prayer is the practice of handing over control. We ask the God that we meet in Jesus to speak the healing word, to do what we cannot do. We call on him from a distance, even relying on our friends if necessary to relay the message.

MC:     What strikes me is that both Jesus and the centurion “phone it in”. The centurion sends Jewish leaders to notify Jesus of the need. When he hears Jesus is coming to his house, he sends more friends to say, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself.” There is no evidence that he ever actually meets Jesus face-to-face.

BC:      Likewise, Jesus does not need to be in the man’s house to perform the healing. He doesn’t need to be physically present. He doesn’t need to take the slave by the hand and say, “Be well!”

MC:     The centurion seems to know this. Maybe that’s why he calls Jesus “Lord.” “Lord” means “master.” What’s the Greek word, O scholar father?

BC:      The word is “kurios”. It signifies “the one in charge.” It points to the One who has authority, the One who can make the decisions.

MC:     A Roman soldier is going to know about giving orders. This soldier orders the Jewish leaders to go see Jesus. Then he orders some friends to say, “Don’t trouble yourself.”

BC:      Sounds like he can’t make up his mind.

MC:     Actually I think he sounds humble. Appropriately humble. He wants Jesus to be Jesus: to be the Lord who has authority and power to heal.

BC:      So there is the message for all of us: to hand over to the Lord what we can’t handle, to trust that he will do what needs to be done.

MC:     Even if we are as powerful as a Centurion, we trust God’s power is greater than our own.

BC:      Even if we are as weak as his favorite servant, we can be healed by a Lord that we may never see.

MC:     Just say the word, Lord. Just say the word and we shall be healed.

BC:      Today, this is the Word of the Lord for us.

MC:     Thanks be to God.

With thanks to Meg Carter, who wrote and delivered this sermon with me
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.