Saturday, December 27, 2014

Between Consolation and a Sword

Luke 2:22-40
Christmas 1
December 28, 2014
William G. Carter

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

There are nearly fifty Christmas carols in our new hymnal. There’s no way we can get all of them in this year, even if we started singing them at Halloween. Some of favorite carols have gotten longer – Joy to the World has an extra verse, which has been around for year, but just restored to our hymnal. Others have been “fleshed out,” so to speak, as in “What Child Is This,” which has a lot more words in it than we had expected.

There is something about the birth of our Savior that generates fresh words and music. More carols are written each year. One of my favorites was written in New Zealand, where Christmas comes at summer time. The first two lines go, “Carol our Christmas, an upside-down Christmas / the snow is not falling and the trees are not bare.”[1] What do you expect? They sing this in New Zealand.

That one didn’t make it into a North American hymnal, even though there is something upside-down about the main event. The invisible Creator becomes a creature with baby feet. The One who is eternal chooses to be bound by human time. The Savior chooses to come as a vulnerable child, and his very vulnerability is the means by which we are saved. It’s upside-down.

Luke knows this. On Mary’s lips, he places a Christmas carol about the mighty coming off their thrones and the lowly being lifted up. It is a theme of his Gospel to declare the first become last and the last become first. The sinner is forgiven, the righteous are exposed in their hypocrisy. This is a way to declare God’s saving work, which begins decisively in the birth of the Christ child. The nameless shepherds are sought out by angelic messengers, while famous Caesar Augustus and Quinirius are ignored.

All the way through the Christmas story are songs. Zechariah sings, Mary sings, the angels sing – everybody is singing. The best theology is sung. And the final Christmas carol is put into the air by an old man in the temple. His name is Simeon. Luke likes him a lot, calling him “righteous and devout.”

But the greatest affirmation is when Luke says, “The Holy Spirit rested on him.” Luke is always pointing to the Holy Spirit, pointing to the moments when the presence and power of God come upon a person. Jesus will be full of the Spirit, says Luke. So something of what would fill the Christ is touching down on old Simeon. That’s how he knows the Child, long before the Child will grow up to do his work.

The Spirit prompts his song:

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

The Spirit also prompts Simeon to speak the truth to Mary:

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—
and a sword will pierce your own soul too. 

Christmas has an upside-down message: salvation comes in the child Jesus, and it shall come at a great cost. There is the consolation of seeing the One who is God’s gift to all the people, both Gentiles and Israel. But the piercing of the soul, the exposure of the resistance that lies within us – that suggests a lot of hard work that we must do. God’s Word comes to us as a sword, says the scriptures, separating true from false, cutting through old and new. And yet it comes with surgical precision to do the necessary work on our souls.

I spent some time chewing on this during Advent, pondering in my heart what Simeon must have seen. Here’s a bit of my own free verse, as if Simeon continues the conversation with God:

Spirit, your vision of peace pierces me.
You show me truth in this swaddled Babe.
No reason to see any more.
Any Lord who saves us through a baby
Is a God of upside-down imagination
uneasy with the world as it is.
I have seen enough
Let me go.

While I yet have breath
Let me speak truth to his Mother
So she remembers what will come.
The Child will come to a brutal end
For this is a broken dominion
That cares not for the weak and vulnerable.
Those who live by the sword
Bequeath weapons to their children.
It is hard for an old world
To give up old tricks.
I am sick of it.
Let me go.

For my days remaining
Let me be perpetually offended
By cruelty,
For hatred is not the way of heaven
Nor can it be the health of earth.
The Child swaddled in blue is sufficient for us.
Here I plainly see
Innocence before it suffers,
Vulnerability stronger than death.
Let me depart now
With a glimpse of Isaiah's peace
Seared into my heart,
Ever trusting this is the little Child
Who shall lead them.
I believe it.
Let me go.

Time is short. Before I depart
Let me speak to all peoples
Of a holy justice
Greater than what we see each day.
God’s final work is not punishment
For what we rightly deserve.
The upside-down God forges mercy
out of a twisted crown of thorns.
All God owns shall be restored.
My falling shall be Christ’s rising.

At my end, all shall be well.
I have seen what you have prepared.
So let me go.

In the nine remaining days of Christmas, may you be pierced by God’s Word and consoled by God’s grace. And may God reveal to all of us what Simeon has so clearly seen.

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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Have Yourself an Enormous Little Christmas

Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2014
William G. Carter

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Among all the songs of the season, this year one song has returned over and over. It’s not a particular favorite of mine, especially when the clock radio on my wife’s side of the bed presents it before dawn. But I have heard it a number of times in December. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

It is one of the few secular Christmas songs that wasn’t written by a Jew. Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas,” Johnny Marks composed “Rudolph.” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was written by Hugh Martin, and introduced in a 1944 movie by Judy Garland. She sings it to a sad little girl who doesn’t want to move from Saint Louis to New York.

A lot of people like that song, although it’s never been one of my favorites. Martin wrote down the melody and worked with it for a few days, before crinkling up the manuscript and tossing it in the wastebasket. Another songwriter said, “Try it again, it has potential,” so Martin pulled it out of the trash, straightened it out, and kept working at it. Judy Garland thought it was too dreary at first and requested a rewrite. And it became a hit, sung by no less that Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Garth Brooks, James Taylor, and the rock band Twisted Sister.[1]

But I have never really cared much for the song. Not just because the lyrics are sentimental, or that the harmony is rather dull. My difficulty is the word “little.” For a night like this, that song isn’t big enough.

I know we gather tonight in honor of the “little Lord Jesus.” But his birth is announced in the context of emperors and kings. Luke the storyteller wants us to know that Caesar Augustus is merely a pawn in God’s plan to have the Messiah born in King David’s hometown. Quirinius was only a glorified tax administrator, compared to child who would be King of Kings.

And that choir of angels, singing to the shepherds? It was a battalion of heaven’s warriors, a “host” of awesome angels, not a handful of friendly cherubs. The birth of Jesus was an enormous cosmic event. It was big.

Yet it was little, too. He was a human child, just like the rest of us. There were no trumpets to announce him. The church that now marks the spot would not be built for another 325 years. The halo over his head would be painted about 400 years later. It is hard for us, for whom Christmas is a big commercial racket run by an Eastern syndicate, to even imagine how small the scene actually was.

That was the sign it was true, said the angel to the poor shepherds. The Savior, the Messiah, the Lord is to be found where the animals are sheltered and fed. He is wrapped in bands of cloth, just like every other peasant child. God has come, the child looks like the rest of us.

Christmas is this paradox of great and small held together, “the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.” Glory to the newborn, “the newborn King.” Do you hear it? “Christ the Savior … is born.”

This paradox offers a model for authentic faith. To hear some people talk about “spirituality,” it’s this large, foggy cloud that doesn’t really have anything to do with poverty, farm animals, or diapers. At the same time, for those who fuss only about the rituals, the rules, and the annual routines can’t see how enormous the whole thing is. God is found among the peasants. That is explosive news. Heaven is concerned with earth. Daily life matters eternally. Everything large and small fits together, and all of it is available to God.

One of my teachers said, “The truth of the Incarnation is that God concerned with everything.” There is no aspect of our lives which is detached from holiness, for the Christ has come into the middle of it all. In the words of the ancient church, “In him, all things hold together.”[2]

It is exactly as the baby Jesus would grow up to say. Think of it this way: God’s rule over our lives is like the smallest of mustard seeds. It’s so small you can hardly see it, but it grows so large that it takes over everything else.[3] That’s the promise of Christmas, not that it is merely a day on the calendar but an event that changes the world. Something as small as a child’s birth grows to be as great as God’s claim over an entire planet.

Have Yourself An Enormous Little Christmas. That’s how I want to sing it. What happens tonight can affect the rest of our lives. It can bless the entire world, as long as we decide that it is just that big. It can be, you know. It can start here and it can grow.  

That’s how Howard Thurman saw it. He was a civil rights leader and a Christian mystic, and he loved Christmas. Here’s what he says about “The Work of Christmas” -

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.[4]

Jesus Christ is born. God is found among us. Have yourself an enormous little Christmas!

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

[2] Colossians 1:17
[3] Mark 4:30-32
[4] Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Meditating with Mary

Luke 1:26-38
Advent 4
December 21, 2014
William G. Carter

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”   
 Then the angel departed from her.

I love this story. But I wonder how much more there is to it. The storyteller doesn’t go into much detail.  We get the summary without much more information. We learn who, what, where, how, and why. Who: a maiden named Mary. What: a male child who will be named Jesus. Where: Nazareth, a village on the edge of the hill country in Galilee. How: by the Holy Spirit. Why: to rule over us like his ancestor David, and to do so forever.

That’s the summary, and it goes as planned. Mary is realistically curious, but she does not push back. The angel Gabriel gives her the most remarkable news. She only asks, “How?” She receives a holy answer, not a biological one. Then she agrees to it all, saying, “Let it be with me, according to your word.” Her level of trust is amazing.

At the beginning of a book filled with people who come to faith, Luke describes her as the very first one. She will also stick around to the end. When Luke names those who gather in prayer and praise after the resurrection, he mentions “Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14).

Today we hear how it all began. We have the short version. Long before the miracle of the birth, there is the miracle of the mother who trusts the word of an angel. That’s the miracle I want to know more about. How does Mary come to trust? That’s the miracle that I ponder.

Can you remember when you first learned to trust? I spent some time yesterday with the man who taught me to ride a bike. He didn’t simply point to the two-wheeler and say, “Get on it.” There was a three-wheeler long before it. And when I wanted a bigger bike, he pointed to the lawn mower and said, “Earn the money.” When I got pretty close to the financial goal, he announced, “I can see you’re serious about it.” So we got in the paneled station wagon and traveled to a shop where there was a genuine imitation of a Schwinn for us to take home.

Back in our own garage, he took out socket wrenches, installed a couple of training wheels, held the bicycle upright, and said, “Let’s give it a try.” Those were the days before helmets, you understand. He got me started, then he ran alongside. If I wobbled, he helped me catch my balance. If I tipped, he was there to catch me. And we kept at it until I was strong enough to do it myself. That’s how I learned to trust.

So we take the leap: how is it that somebody comes to trust in God?

Mary is promised a child. The little boy will be a small miracle and a major commitment. If children come into your life, you know it’s a lot more than rescheduling your yoga lessons and scaling back on your tennis games. The child rearranges your life. And Mary says, “Yes, let it be.” 

She had a good man, a man named Joseph. It wasn’t clear he would keep her after hearing the news. The announcement would be difficult and awkward, especially since the marriage had not yet taken place. She could tell him, “It’s from the Holy Spirit,” but would he raise an eyebrow? Or slip away in embarrassment? Could Mary trust God even with the ambiguity of what might happen when Joseph got the news?

Luke doesn't say. He doesn't fuss with the details. What he says is what she did. She said yes to God.

I am going to guess she practiced trust like some people practice the trumpet. It’s not something you merely think about, it’s something you do. She kept at it. The trumpeter plays the scales, exercises both lips and lungs, tries out some notes when nobody is around. We get better at the things we practice, and trust is like that. If we develop a habit of saying yes to God in the small things, when the really big matter comes, we are prepared to say yes for that too.

Picture the young Jewish woman in the small village. Every Sabbath, she goes to the synagogue. She sits with the other women, and stays out of sight as was the custom. She sings the psalms, listens to the promises of God, joins in the prayers, and goes home to light the candles. Every week she does this. It shapes who she is.

Within the home, she learns the commandments of God: love the neighbor, gives alms to the needy, do justice, walk humbly. When she sees the beggar on the street, she reaches in her pocket to find a coin, and offers it with her blessing. It is a small thing, but it shapes her character. She sees the value of living like this.

So it isn’t entirely out of the blue that the angel comes with an enormous assignment. It’s mostly out of the blue, but not entirely, for Mary already knows how to trust. She has kept the commandments. She has lived as God instructed. When Gabriel says, “You shall carry a child, and bear God's Savior into the world,” she knows the announcement comes from God, the baby comes from God, and if this wild, unimaginable assignment is ever going to work, it’s because it carried, in no small part, on the shoulders of God.

So Mary says, “Let it happen.” That’s her way of saying yes. That’s her way of trusting what she cannot yet see. She offers a simple yes, in spite of all the coming complications. And do you know why? Because her “yes” is her decision to go along with what God is already doing in the world. It’s the same sort of “yes” we are invited to speak each day. 

Let me say it straight: God wants to rescue the world. Not abandon the world, but to rescue it. That is heaven's mission. We can ignore this, or we can obstruct this, or we can say yes because we want to be part of that. It's just that simple and just that important. Each day God rolls up the Divine Sleeves, and begins again on repairing the world. It’s long and tedious work, made worse by so many people running amuck. But that’s what this is all about – the mission of God aimed toward the earth.

The Jewish mystics had a phrase they used: “tikkun olam.” It is a wonderful phrase. It means “taking the world in for repairs.” When we say “yes” to God, it affirms our trust that this is what God intends to do: to fix all that is broken, to restore what has been twisted out of shape.

If we trust there is such a God, we can trust that God wishes to heal all that is ill, that God ceases all that destroys, and promises to mend all that has been torn apart. The same God who keeps sending babies into the world will send Mary’s child to all of us. That Little One will grow up to teach us that every child is to be regarded as our neighbor. He will show us how every child of God is to be given respect and encouragement. And he will run alongside all who trust him until they keep from wobbling, ever ready to also catch them if they fall.

This is the kind of God we have. We know it because we light the candles, sing the psalms, listen to the holy promises, and care for those in need. In the thick of it all, we learn what God really wants to do: to rescue the world, one skinned knee or one bruised heart at a time.

We can be part of this, just as Mary was part of it. All she did was to say yes. Yes to God, Yes to all God wishes to get done. Yes to the Holy Child who comes among us. Yes to him as he leads us on God’s way. So we have the one word that unlocks the human heart, the one word that enrolls us in the work of heaven on earth. It is the single word where trust begins and faith takes root.

Keep that word close at hand. Speak it when you sense you can be an emissary of heaven and a force for good and let it be a life-changing word for you. Don’t be afraid. The word is “yes.”

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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Who Are You?

John 1:6-8, 19-28
Advent 3
December 14, 2014
William G. Carter

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”  This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

A good number of us know what it’s like to survive an interview. There is the standard job interview, where a position is posted, you apply, and they call you in to talk. A professional with her hair pulled back motions you to an awkward chair. “Thanks for coming in,” she says. “We want to find out more about you.” For the next thirty-five minutes, however, you are sitting on the edge of the seat, doing your best to look confident. If you’re in charge of your senses, you try not to say something stupid or immature. When you stand to leave, perhaps you have no idea yet of how it really went. Even if it goes well, an interview can be an unsettling experience.

Tonight when our church staff gathers for our Christmas dinner, I may ask them what they remember about their own job interviews. As I recall, we asked one of them to play a hymn that the search committee could sing, another one to direct us in singing a piece of music, and another one to lead us in a prayer. No pressure there. Imagine praying and hoping for a passing grade.

Maybe you have had the experience of being interviewed by the media. It’s no less unsettling. My first interview was for a newspaper in Allentown. The reporter wasn’t very prepared. He asked questions that I couldn’t answer, and they printed the wrong answers anyway. In my young mind, I had hoped it would become a feature story for People magazine. Sadly the paper misspelled “Presbyterian,” and most of the facts wrong. I was deeply embarrassed to see what they actually put in print. 

Today we hear an Advent interview with John the Baptist. He is down by the River Jordan, not far from the Dead Sea. Everybody knows about John. The Gospel writer doesn’t say much about him, because he assumed everybody already knew. He gets plenty of ink in all four of the Gospels, because John’s appearance ignited the imagination of the whole nation.

He dressed in the garments of memory, in a robe made from camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. That’s just how the prophet Elijah had dressed, about nine hundred years before (2 Kings 1:8). Everybody remembered that. And when John spoke, he sounded like a prophet. There was fire in his voice and God was in the present tense. So the religious officials sent a team of investigators to find out more about him. Their questions echo like firecrackers within the canyon walls: Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? What do you have to say about yourself?

The interrogation is relentless. One question after another is hurled at John, and it’s not clear why. Maybe the Religious Officials are trying to intimidate him; as far as they are concerned, the Temple is the center of their universe and this strange character is pulling people out to the dry sands of the desert. Or maybe they want to discover the secret of his charisma; what is the strange magnetic power that makes him so compelling? Or perhaps they secretly hope to trip him up and relish in his fall from glory. That still happens.

Maybe you saw the headline just the other day: “True Secrets of Beloved Public Figures.” I couldn’t look away. I looked both directions in the checkout line to make sure nobody saw me, and then I read the article. John Lennon sang about love and peace, but treated women with cruelty. Clint Eastwood writes love songs and believes movies are too violent. John Wayne hated to ride a horse. And then, the big shocker: Doctor Seuss didn’t like children. The greatest children’s author in our lifetime didn’t want any children in his house.

I don’t know how much of that is true, but I know there is a strange attraction for discovering details about public figures. What kind of secrets are they hiding? Did she have a facelift? Did he have a girlfriend on the side? There is a hunger that feeds upon itself, and people want to know things that really are nobody’s business to know. How else do we explain “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”? A married man confessed to me that, even though he knows it’s a show about nothing, he can’t stop watching it. When his wife walks into the room, he flips the channel to ESPN, and she says, “No, go back, I wanted to see that too.”

Who are you? What do you say about yourself? That’s what inquiring minds want to know. Could there be some dirt beneath your fingernails?

I recall a conversation with Dave Brubeck, the great pianist. He told me about the cover of one of his first recordings. The record company posed him at the piano in a nightclub with a gorgeous brunette hanging over the keyboard. Brubeck has a big toothy grin. I asked, “What did your wife think about that?” “She didn’t like it one bit,” he said, “but the record sold a lot of copies.” The truth is Dave was a real family guy. It was his saxophonist who was always running around.

So the interrogators go to John the Baptist: Who are you? What do you say for yourself? And he says, “I’m not the one.” Are you Elijah? “I am not.” Are you the prophet? “No!” 

Who are you? “I am not the Messiah, merely the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

But if you’re not Elijah, not the prophet, not the Messiah, why are you doing what you are doing? And he says, “The One who is coming after me is so great that I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Imagine the look on their faces, the question in their hearts: Who is he talking about? Where is he? And then John says the most haunting thing of all: “Among you stands One whom you do not know.” He is present. He is greater. And you do not know him.

This is a preview of coming attractions. In fact, it’s one of the recurring themes of the Gospel: the Messiah has come, and it is Jesus, and you do not know him. The One we are looking for is here, and we do not see him.

Throughout the Gospel, this will happen over and over again: Jesus, who can turn water into wine, but does it when nobody is looking. He tells Nicodemus about the birthing power of God and the Pharisee says, “How can this be?” He reveals living water to the Samaritan woman and she replies, “Where is your bucket?” He heals a man paralyzed for thirty-eight years and the authorities say, “Who did this to you?” Over and over, Jesus reveals the grace and truth of God and most people miss it.

The Gospel writer says this is the way it is: “He was in the world, and world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:10-11). Please don’t read that as a judgment on first-century people who happened to be in the same time and place as Jesus when he was walking around. It’s really a description of everyone who has ever been alive. The power that gives the Life of Eternity to all things is right here, right here among us – and we don’t see it, we don’t know it, we don’t trust it. That’s the human predicament.

It could be that we are simply looking in the wrong direction. That’s what John the Baptist says. They went out to question him as if he is a trouble-maker, or an outsider, or a celebrity. They want to know who he is, and who he thinks he is, and what he believes he is doing --- but John’s response is essentially this: it’s not about me. I am not the One. I’m not very important at all. What a remarkable re-direction! They went to interrogate, and it is they who are exposed.

To look around our time and our place, there are a lot of people who are focused on themselves. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman told the National Press Club, "In a world where everyone has a cell phone with a camera, everyone's a paparazzi. In a world where everyone has a blog, everyone's a reporter. Now everyone else is a public figure, leaving digital footprints everywhere." We live in a Selfie culture, among people not particularly interested in looking beyond themselves.

Or there is our national life. One young adult wrote publicly about her dismay at recent high profile deaths of black Americans and this week’s Senate report on torture. She’s pretty upset. She wrote, “It is has become increasingly clear to me, particularly over the past few months, that the American Way has become synonymous with the most horrifically perverse and self-seeking behavior imaginable. We justify the most heinous acts as necessary... I’m sorry, but torture, racism, rape, abuse, greed, and lying do not constitute the Kingdom of God.”

OK, that’s a lot to work through. But the Gospel of John is not surprised by any of this. We live in a world that is turned in upon itself. We live in a world that is suffocating on its own self-absorption. We live in a world that justifies whatever it wants to justify. As one old crotchety Presbyterian teacher once said, “Sin is nothing more, and nothing less, than being inclined in our own direction.”

John the Baptist gets it right. He says, “It’s not about me.” The One who is coming is so great that we can’t even untie the thong of his sandals.

He’s speaking of Jesus. He is speaking of the One who doesn’t need to come and impress us. He is already among us and we don’t yet see him. Jesus Christ will give us the freedom to go about our affairs. We can act as if we are a world unto ourselves - - and he will simply wait us out. And when we are lying on the rocks, shipwrecked, he will be there too, asking ever so gently, “How’s that working out for you? Anybody want to try it another way? If so, then follow me.”

I think I know why the Pharisees sent the priests and the others to interrogate John. It’s a pretty good hunch, and I think you know it too. They sent him in a vague attempt to stop him. John was doing the work of God, and they didn’t want too much of God in the world, thank you. They were content with mere religion, with rules, routines, and rituals, and nobody getting too excited. They wanted business as usual. Even if they knew it wasn’t perfect, it was good enough for them.

And John breaks through it all and says, “God is coming, and we’ve gotten pretty lazy. God’s Savior is already among us. We’re too busy posing for pictures of ourselves and we don’t see him. The fire of God’s Spirit is coming and it is going to burn away everything that doesn’t belong to God.”

They said, “Who are you, John? What do you think you’re doing?”

John said, “I am the voice crying out in the wilderness. That’s who I am. And I am testifying to the Truth that comes in Jesus of Nazareth. His truth can set you free. It will push you out of all insulated self-righteousness. It will prompt you to sing with joy. It can transform you from the inside out. His truth can turn the world upside down. But it’s going to cost you something. It’s going to cost you everything.”

Do I really want that? 

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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Stay Awake

Mark 13:24-37
November 30, 2014
Advent 1
William G. Carter

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

It is always risky to title a sermon, especially if you title the sermon “Stay Awake.” It reminds me of a man in town who grew up in this church, but he never attends. I think he joined as a member when he was fourteen, at which point his mother stopped badgering him about coming. Sometime around age 55, he told me why he still never shows up in church: “I can’t stay awake, and it’s embarrassing when I start to snore.” When I suggested he could have a couple of cups of coffee before he got here, he thought for a minute and said, “No, that wouldn’t do any good.”

Stay awake. That is the admonition of Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times in this passage. It’s a word that all of us understand, especially if there is any time in the past few days when we have eaten a big fat meal.

Why is it so hard to stay awake?

Say you’re behind the wheel on a late night drive. There is no moon in the sky, a gloomy rain is falling, and the trip is taking a good bit longer than it should. You tap your fingers on the steering wheel and lean forward to peer into the dark. You are anxious to see familiar lights. Then you blink and swerve, which jars awake one of the passengers. “Everything OK?” You don’t want to confess it’s hard to stay awake.

Picture the student in the dormitory. It’s Sunday night and she is leaning over three books. Time is short. The paper is due at 9:00 a.m. sharp. The professor was clear about that, and threatens to lower the grade of anybody who gets it in late. She yawns and looks at the clock. One o’clock, and there’s still music blaring from down the hall. But she has to get it done. There’s that can of Red Bull that the cute guy dropped off. Maybe that will help her stay awake.

It’s his turn to spend the night in the hospice room. He squirms in the chair, readjusts his pillow, but it’s hard to get comfortable. Two feet away is the mother who gave him birth. He listens to her breathe one more. Now she’s laboring more than an hour ago. She struggles. At first he shrugged off sleep, not wanting to miss the last possible moment to say, “I love you” one more time. Now he believes a short nap would do him so good. But he fears shutting his eyes and losing her.

Stay awake. We have our stories, you and I. Last night I took a decongestant and tossed two or three hours into the dark. I may be talking in my sleep right now, which means all of you could be in serious trouble. And here I am, repeating the words of Jesus: stay awake.

He will repeat them himself. Less than one chapter later in the story, he will have eaten the Passover meal with his friends. It is the closest thing Israel had to a Thanksgiving banquet: a multi-course meal with at least four glasses of wine. Jesus breaks the bread, pours the cup, then gives them some words. They sing the Passover psalms and walk down the hill to Gethsemane. He takes with him Peter, James, and John, and says – not once, not twice, but three times – “Stay awake while I pray.”

It is the most difficult night of his life. He wrestles in his prayers about the toughest decision he will ever make: is it the will of the Father that I go to the cross? And as he sweats this out, his closest friends keep falling asleep. Stay awake. When Jesus says it, it sounds like more than loneliness or lack of support. If they fall asleep, they will miss the moment.

Ah, we know something about that, too. In a few minutes Kevin and Holly will present their little boy Dean for baptism. Sometime after today, they are going to blink and their son will skip five years. They will look at one another and say, “Where did the time go? Did we nod off?” Meanwhile, their fathers Chris and Tim will look at one another, shake their heads with a smile, and say, “Yes.”

To quote the great movie philosopher Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

So why does Jesus want them to stay awake? To be alert? We have to take the passage in its larger context. Jesus and his  twelve disciples have just come out of the Jerusalem Temple, when one of them says, “Golly, aren’t these the biggest building you ever have seen?” Well, of course they were. For a group of up-country fishermen who lived in one story hovels, the Temple was enormous. Not just as a building, but the whole institution.

Scholars say the Temple was more than the center of the people’s religious faith. It was the center of commerce and the important trade businesses, much like a cathedral in Ye Olde England. The Temple kept track of your ancestry. The Temple dictated your moral life. The Temple gave stability to your life and answered questions you never dared to ask. But Jesus says, “You see this Temple? The whole thing’s coming down.”

That turned out to be a prediction for the people who read the Gospel of Mark in 70 A.D. Mark also declares this was the judgment of God: the Temple is corrupt, it has to come down. In its place is the Kingdom of God that Jesus has been speaking about for most of this Gospel. In place of priest and sacrifice, there will be a direct relationship with God. In place of professional ritual and hierarchy of social status, all people have direct access to God. Through the death of Jesus, which rips open the Temple curtain that separates the holiness of God from the filthiness of the world, there is no buffer to keep God away from you or anybody else.

Stay awake, says Jesus. Watch for this. Keep your eyes peeled for God to come and dismantle every human system that separates God’s healing power from the needs of the world. Jesus has come as the bearer of God’s new Kingdom. And as he faces his own cross, he will pay the one and only ransom payment to take back the world from the powers of evil and give it back to God. Watch for this, he says. It will come as a great disruption to all business-as-usual.

But if you stay awake, you will see God claiming the world and healing what only God can heal.

So I was reflecting on this just the other day. And I wondered, “Is there a Presbyterian Church in Ferguson, Missouri?” Turns out, there is. First Presbyterian Church of Ferguson has 133 members. They do a lot of the things that we do: Christian Education classes, Women’s Association, and choir practice. They have a Boy Scout troop, and next weekend they will decorate the sanctuary for Advent. But there’s more, of course. The church is a few minutes away from where Michael Brown was shot and killed back in August.

Well, what else is interesting about that modest sizedchurch? They hand out food in a pantry to the hungry. They host a community prayer breakfast, recently featuring a speaker from Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta. And they open their facility to any church group in the country that wants to come for an Urban Mission Work Camp. In a week when people across the country are divided over a grand jury decision in Ferguson, the Christians in that church declare there is another way to live. Violence has no place in God’s Kingdom. Stay awake to see it, to live it.

Advent is when we are reminded of a whole new world, a Kingdom of truth, a Dominion of justice, where people are called to step outside of their judgments and fears, and to live as neighbors. It is a Kingdom of mutual respect, where the anthem is “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of violence. It is a national addiction, and like any addiction, it is killing a lot of innocent people on the sidelines. Putting more guns in people’s hands is no kind of answer. Smashing up the neighborhood stores is not an answer either. Call me Christian, but I would rather baptize a baby, and raise him to love his neighbors, and call him to live as peacefully as Jesus.

Isn’t that what we are staying awake to see? We stay awake to see the world as God intends it to be, as God comes to mend it. In that sense, we stay awake, not with caffeine but with clarity. We pray for hearts and minds that see clearly what it means to be gathered by the Son of Man, and not merely to be scattered to the four winds of what everybody else is doing.

I couldn’t believe it. Some television reporter had the courage to post an interview with a Black Friday shopper. That dear lady cut short her Thanksgiving meal to stand in line at the Mammon Emporium, waiting all night to get a discounted TV and a lot of other stuff she was putting on the credit card. At dawn, they stick a camera in her car window while she’s trying to drive out of the mall parking lot, and they ask, “How do you feel on Black Friday?” Her car is stuffed full of stuff and they ask, “How do you feel?” She said, “I’m kind of numb.” Then she started to cry. She said, “I hope I bought something to make somebody happy. I don’t know.”

The very next news story: two women got into a fist-fight over a Barbie doll in a California Walmart. Oh, really? Is that what life is all about? Or have a lot of people fallen asleep? Come, Lord Jesus!

Advent is a call to wake up. To wake up and see what is real. To wake up and see that the coming of Jesus Christ is to restore dignity to each person, to heal what is broken in each of us, to declare what is fair for all of us, and to wean us from all the lies of a world that merely wants to use us up and wear us out.

So we gather, and we pray, and we care for those most vulnerable, and we declare, “Lord Jesus, we are yours.” We belong to you. Not to a tangled, selfish, unfair world, for we belong to you. Not to a culture addicted to violence, for we belong to you. We don’t belong to the weariness of all-night shopping, but to the God who announces Christmas is so much more than all of the hustle and hustling.

Stay awake, little flock. Love, the Lord, is on the way.

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

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Everything Will Be Clear

Matthew 25:31-46
Christ the King
November 23, 2014
William G. Carter

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

This is how everything will end. It is a scene of the second coming. This is obvious in the first phrase: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory.” That is code language for the end of time, for the day of the Lord, for the final judgment. Biblically speaking, it points to the same event. Various Bible writers all share different glimpses of the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It will be the end. The Second Advent.

It is an appropriate picture on a day we proclaim the kingship of Christ, when we sing of the dominion of Jesus. His final coming will be an event of great rejoicing, particularly for those who have been waiting for it and for those who have been put down by the cruelty of the world. Everything will be made right. That is the sovereign true truth of God's kingdom.

To listen to many Christians speak of the second coming of Christ is to hear great excitement. Some are so excited that, in their anticipation they hunt around for a lot of predictions and string them together so they can know with clarity when he will come. They don't really know the time or place, but they make it sound as if do. Even Jesus says he does not know the time or the place when the second coming will occur, but some people down in Texas will announce to you what Jesus himself doesn't even know. Take this as a sign of their excitement.

To read this final decision in the 25th chapter of Matthew is to learn of a great surprise. And here is that surprise: Jesus has been among us all along. Isaiah promised this when he announced the Christmas Child. “He shall be called Emmanuel,” that is, God with us.[1] And the grown-up Jesus announces it in his great commission as he says, “I will be with you always, even till the end.”[2]

In today’s vision of the end, Jesus reveals where he is hiding. He is in the poor. He is in the prisoner. He is in the hungry. He is in the stranger. It is a great surprise, even among those who wait for him to come. According to the text, everybody does not see Christ the King when he is already among them.

Maybe that sounds strange to you. But it is the universal truth, according to Jesus. Nobody sees the King. John the Baptist didn’t see the king. According to Matthew, John was in prison and sent a question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” In spite of his fiery sermons, he had his doubts. Jesus replied, “The blind get their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news given them. Go and tell John this.”[3] We don’t know if John understood.

And John isn’t the only one. Jesus goes on to say, “This generation is like children in the marketplace, playing a game, and calling out, ‘We played the flute for you and you did not dance. We wailed and you did not mourn.” The people who wanted a Messiah were not expecting Jesus, who ministered to those in pain.

What were they looking for? What was John waiting for? Someone grand and glorious? Someone mighty and triumphant? The Christ they get will go to the cross, immediately after speaking of the sheep and the goats.  It takes a miracle to understand the mystery that the apostle Paul once described this way: “Though the Lord Jesus was rich, he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”[4]

It is easy to miss. According to the parable, everybody misses Jesus for he hides among the poor, the outcast, the people with the greatest needs. And anybody who focuses on the glamour and excitement of the Second Coming will probably miss the First Coming. Remember the first coming? Jesus was born a peasant, lived in a small village for thirty years, and spent the remaining years of his life healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and telling the Gospel truth to the mighty and the self-satisfied. The one chance he had to ride a strong white horse, he selected a humble donkey.

And it’s easy to miss him because of our own tangled spirits. Ever notice how easy it is to dodge the humanitarian question? See the man without a job, judge him as lazy, and never invite him to eat at your table. See the young woman pushing kids in a cart through the dollar store and comment on how dirty are their faces, when you could approach them and ask their names. It really comes down to this: do you care for others in tangible way or are you avoiding them?

As we discovered this autumn, Matthew is addressing a lazy church. He shares the words of Jesus to people who say the right things, yet they bear no evidence that they believe them. In Matthew’s congregation, it's a hundred times easier to talk about forgiveness than to forgive. It's a thousand times easier to cheer on generosity without ever reaching deeper into your own pocket. Yes, you are the chosen ones of God in a self-destructive society, yet you yourselves persist in the world’s selfish ways.

So Jesus says, again and again, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord Lord’ will get into God's kingdom.” How can he say this? Because it is God's kingdom and God sees perfectly what is on the human heart. He wants us to change, and this last story in Christ’s ministry is our warning.

Here is how everything will end. The king will come and sit on the throne. Then he will separate the sheep from the goats. All will be sorted on the basis of one question: Did you care for those in greatest need? This is how world will end, not with a whimper or a bang, but with the king and a question.

The king will not care where we live; what he sees is whether we have extended ourselves to those in need. He will not take notice of how much money we have saved, but see he sees perfectly if we have used our money to alleviate human suffering. The king is indifferent to whatever political party we affiliate, but he is crystal-clear in seeing whether we have made a difference for those who are in pain. He doesn’t care if we call yourselves “liberal” or “conservative;” what he looks for is whether we have ever actually put ourselves out for people who need help. There is no escaping his question.

This is the king, Christ the King, who tells us that he dwells among the hungry and the thirsty and the stranger. He cuts through every excuse and slices through every sidestep. He already knows whether the content of what we do is matching the content of what we say we believe. In case we forgot the question, here it is again: did you care for those in greatest need?

It is a question that is always current. Did you see the recent survey on generosity in America? We live in a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing exponentially. The survey reveals that the ultra-rich are giving less of their income to charity than they ever have, and those who are poorest are contributing a far greater percentage of what they have. The principle seems to be the closer we live to those in need, the more we extend ourselves to them. But if we remove ourselves in protective comfort, we leave the most vulnerable brothers and sisters to fend for themselves. And Jesus the King is watching.

Do we care? Does our faith find expression in specific works of compassion? It’s going to take much more than throwing money at those in need. It’s going to take some time. Caring means to learn somebody’s name, to listen to their stories, to discern the truest need, and to care in the most appropriate way. We don’t want to enable but to empower. We can give those in need the dignity that comes with being children of the king. That takes a lot of work. It is easier to play it safe and do as little as possible.

I remember a painful moment when I was a theology student, working part-time in a church in Plainfield, New Jersey. Right before I was to assist with a worship service, a stranger appeared at my door. It was the door of the closet that we called the Intern’s Office. This man was in bad shape, hadn’t slept, had nothing to eat. He gave me the whole story. But I was in a hurry to put on my robe and get into the church service, so I reached into my wallet, gave him a ten dollar bill, and went off to worship Jesus.

After the benediction I told my boss what I had done. He looked annoyed. Far more savvy in the ways of city streets, he asked me three questions. First, “Why did you give him cash, which he could use for anything?” That never occurred to me. Second, “Did you feel manipulated that he showed up precisely when you had little time to help?” Well, yes, I did. Then came the devastating third question: “What was his name?” I never asked his name; I gave him the money to get rid of him.

“Don’t worry,” my wise old pastor said. “I’ll tell you his name. His name was Jesus and he will give you a second chance.” He was right about that.

Contrast that to the story someone told in an adult class on Wednesday night. In retirement, a woman is assisting elderly people who have concerns about health insurance. They are fearful about their future, worried about their needs. And our friend sits down to listen to their fears and to help them discover the resources that they need. She said, “It is one of the most satisfying things I have ever done with my life.” She cares.

Jesus says all of us will face the same final exam. Remember the final exams you have taken? Well, this one will consist of one question: did you care for those in need?  That single question reshapes every moment of our lives as a test. If Christ is with us always, if he is hiding among those in greatest need, how will we serve him today? And what will we do tomorrow?

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

[1] Isaiah 9:14
[2] Matthew 28:16-20
[3] Matthew 11:2-6
[4] 2 Corinthians 8:9