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

Saturday, November 8, 2014

If Only We Were Ready

Matthew 25:1-13
November 9, 2014
William G. Carter

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 

Well, what were they thinking? They did not prepare and they were out of luck.

It’s a common human problem.  Yesterday morning, I poured myself a cup of coffee, opened the refrigerator, and discovered we were out of milk. Oh right, I was going to pick up some…

Or I remember the billboard in the southwestern desert: LAST GAS STOP FOR 100 MILES. We have a quarter tank left. Think we can make it? I wonder if we can speed our way through and get to the other side?

Years ago on a backpacking trip in the high peaks of the Adirondacks. We were descending Gothics Mountain. There is a slanted cliff of sheer granite. You go down by hanging on to a cable. Halfway down, we overheard a father shout to his young son, “Not now, Jimmy. Why didn’t you think of that before we left base camp?” I’m not sure what he was referring too, although I have a few ideas.

Planning ahead – some people can do it ease. They project what they are going to need and calculate what will be required. Others find that difficult.

Of all the curious details that have come to light about Eric Frein, the accused shooter who hid in the woods for forty-eight days, we have now heard the inventory of the supplies he stashed for his hideout. He had a laptop computer and a solar power device for keeping it charged. There was a shortwave radio, toilet paper, two shaving kits, a stack of DVDs, a pile of food, silverware, soy sauce, dental supplies, laundry detergent – and a copy of the New Testament. Obviously he planned ahead.

So we don’t need to speculate a long time about the meaning of Matthew’s parable. There were ten bridesmaids, he reports. Five were wise and five were foolish. The wise ones planned ahead. They kept some oil just in case. It wasn’t enough for them to live by simple faith. They hedged their bets and packed some supplies. They wanted to be ready, even if it took a while for the bridegroom to lead the wedding procession to the house.

By contrast, the five foolish ones weren’t expecting the wedding to start late. Apparently they have never been to any of the weddings that I’ve attended. There’s always a delay. Even the 50-year-old bachelor who finally got hitched a few years ago. He insisted his wedding would start on time; his bride pointed out she had been chasing him for ten years.

Delays are part of life. Every day something goes slower than we think it should. Friday morning, I drove down my hill, expecting the road construction was done in Chinchilla. Silly me. If we order a Christmas gift and pay for expedited shipping, that simply means it might arrive on time. Maybe. Perhaps.

In the ancient world, news traveled by foot or horseback. Even the fastest traveler in a hurry was subject to slippery roads and bad weather. I think of the Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome that he had never met: “I have hoped for years to see you, on my way to Spain” (Romans 15:23-24). We don’t ever know if he ever got actually there, since he was subject to delays.

And when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica, he knew they were starting to wonder about the Really Big Delay that every Christian wonders about: the Christ who came to earth promised to come back. Where is he? When is he going to arrive? In Thessalonica, it is 51 AD. The church cemetery is starting to fill up. Jesus said he was coming, but he is twenty years late. What should we do? And our first lesson addresses this. “The Lord will descend and we will all go up to meet him.” (4:13-18). “Encourage one another,” says Paul. Chill out.

But now it’s thirty years after that, as Matthew writes his Gospel about Jesus. It is fifty years after the resurrection. Jesus preached of the dominion of God, coming in power among us. And where is he? So Matthew addressed this as he retells three parables that Jesus told. In each parable, the main character is delayed.[1] He is hung up somewhere. He isn’t here yet. He’s taking a while.

In the middle of the three parables, the one for today, the bridegroom is so late that all ten bridesmaids have fallen asleep. Both the wise and the foolish have nodded off. The Lord said a few verses before, “Stay awake,” but how long were they supposed to stay awake?

When my daughters were little and we went for a drive at night, I’d say, “Stay awake, you’re getting too big for me to carry you into the house.” It never worked, especially with the older one. She would roll off Slumber Cliff and become dead weight. And I couldn’t blame her for that. It was late.

The wise and the foolish both fall asleep. There’s no judgment for that. No, the trouble comes when half of them were not ready to greet the bridegroom. As Ken Bailey says, in a Palestinian village, the weddings take place in the long, hot summer. When young, unmarried women move around after dark, it is unthinkable that they would not have an oil lamp lit and carried in front of their faces.[2] It is a matter of personal safety as well as a sign of character. A reputable young woman does not lurk around in the dark.

So the moment comes. It’s late at night. The bridegroom suddenly appears at the door. There’s a shout of joy. All ten bridesmaids wake from their sleep. They reach for their lamps, and half of them have run out of oil. What are they going to do? The wise ones say, “We don’t have enough oil for you and us.” It was like lifeboats on the Titanic: they only had enough for half the passengers!

So the fools go scrambling out, trying to buy some lamp oil after midnight, getting locked out of the party because they hadn’t prepared … for the delay.

A lot of people think that’s not fair. If the wise ones are so wise, couldn’t they share a little bit? I mean, how much oil do you need to go from the house to the party? In a Palestinian village, it’s not going to be far. Not only that, what’s the deal with the bridegroom? He knows who they are, yet he says, “I don’t know you.” Isn’t he supposed to be kind and gracious and in a good mood for his wedding night?

Well, sorry, this is the Gospel of Matthew. And Matthew often says to a lazy church, “Tough tarts!” The five foolish maidens say, “Lord, lord, open to us!” And in an exact quote from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, lord’ will get into the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven (7:21).”

So what do we have here? We have a warning. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Rejoice, rejoice, believers and let your lights appear. The warning is for those who have already been included, but through their own actions – or lack of actions – will be shut out.

Is it their own stupidity? Perhaps, although Matthew is not talking about intelligence when he regards five of them as “fools.” Biblically speaking, there are a lot of smart people who act as fools. They are short-sighted, living only for today and not for tomorrow. They refuse to see the disconnection between their actions and the consequences. They avoid the hard work of staying faithful in their hearts and nimble on their feet. And when the decisive moment comes, they miss it. They run out of the time they have been borrowing.

Matthew wants the church to be ready for the long haul, to be faithful across the coming generations. What would that mean? I suppose I could tell you, “Put this church in your will,” and that would be good advice. But I should also say, “Pray that the church doesn’t get lazy after you leave us two million dollars.” You see, that’s the deeper issue: checking out before you’re done. Matthew calls it “running out of oil.”

So how do we keep the lamps lit? A good start is simply to ask that question. A lot of people never ask. They simply show up and expect the lights to be on, because they’ve always been on. Maybe they are just dropping by when they feel like it, without any investment or commitment, merely coming to consume – before moving on like locusts to eat another crop.

But the life in Christ is so much more than that. It’s keeping the lamps lit. It’s expecting the same Jesus who is now hidden among us, the One who says “I am with you to the end,” will suddenly appear, will suddenly show himself from time to time, will suddenly come with great clarity to confirm what we have been trusting to be true all along.

·         It really does matter that we come together to sing praises to God.
·         It matters deeply to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
·         It matters that we take care of an earth entrusted to us.
·         It matters that we pray for our needs, and that we turn those prayers into deeds.
·         It matters that we protect the weak and love each child.
·         It matters that all of us do our part to keep this slice of Christian community strong –
·         looking in on one another, offering a listening ear and a hot casserole.
·         It matters that we offer a strong shoulder to lift up those that life has trampled down.
·         It matters that we tell the truth to one another in love, and that we offer each other the same second chances that God gives us through Jesus Christ.

Beloved of God, let those lights appear. Keep at it. This is the will of our Father in heaven. Pack a big lunch because we are in this for the long haul. And should Christ suddenly come, share that lunch with somebody who hasn’t had something to eat. Do these things, and you will never run out of oil.

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

[1] Matthew 24:45-51, 25:1-13, 25:14-30
[2] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009) 272.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

I Want to Be One Too

1 John 3:1-3
All Saints Day
November 2, 2014
William G. Carter

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

This is a pleasant little text, often used around here at baptisms. We hold up the beautiful child, brow still wet, and announce, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” I don’t know how many times I have heard those words spoken when they were followed by the collective sound of the word, “Ahh…” As in, “Ahh, isn’t she cute.” Or “Ahh, doesn’t he have his grandfather’s forehead?”

The text is so pleasant that we don’t even notice what comes before. An early church leader named John has just finished wagging his finger. Right before this pleasant text is a warning about sin. Apparently the cute little children of God are prone to corruption. The first letter of John is constantly warning about this:

  • If anyone says, “I have no sin,” they are deceiving themselves (1:8).
  • If anyone says, “I have come to love the Lord,” but does not keep God’s commandments is a liar (2:4).
  • Do not love the things of the world, for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father, but the world. And the world and its desire are passing away (2:15-17).
  • We know we have passed from death to love because we love one another.  Whoever does not love abides in death (3:14).
  • Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (4:9).
  • Little children, keep yourselves from idols (5:21).
It’s just so striking. John speaks to the congregation around him and refers to them as little children. Perhaps he is late in his life offering a final speech, perhaps he is in the great Roman city of Ephesus surrounded by wealth and opulence. John knows the world out there can be a dangerous place, a tempting place. And he knows that little children, despite their innocence, can go off the rails and be twisted out of shape.

Last Friday, there was a steady stream of little children coming to our door. We had a big bag of candy, and sometime between 6:00 and 8:30, they traipsed up our driveway and knocked on the door. “Trick or treat!” I took the first shift, handing out the candy, beginning with the candy I was never going to eat. When my daughter Katie got home from work, she took over for a while.

At one point she comes back to where my wife and I are sitting, and grumbles, “Some of those kids are awfully greedy!” Apparently every blue princess jammed her hand in our candy bowl and grabbed as much as she could. I said, “The goblins and ghosts have been fairly polite.” Katie replied, “Well, these suburban princesses think they are entitled to a lot more.”

I thought about that. I thought a lot about that. In a land of plenty, there seems to be a great deal of corruption, even in our little kids.

My colleague Tina recently recommended a book for me to read. I am chewing on it slowly because it is a hard book. The title is The Price of Privilege,[1] and the subtitle: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. It is a wonderful book – and it is a difficult book – for the same reason: because it’s honest.

Apparently a lot of psychologists are discovering what they already know, what first-century John already knew, that the world is toxic. More stuff doesn’t make anybody happy. Working longer hours to get more stuff is no good for family life. Pushing your kids to get into a Triple A college can nudge them toward greatness or push them over a cliff. That’s frightening. On the first page, psychologist Madeline Levine tells of a kid who has been given everything by her parents and then she takes a blade to carve the word EMPTY on her left forearm.

I was thinking about that on Friday night. I felt the need to take a stand. When it was my turn again to answer the front door with the candy dish, I gave everybody one piece of candy. When a blue princess reached into the bowl to snare a handful, I gently took her hand and said, “I’ll give you one piece.”

Why did I do that? Because of this scripture text. Yes, it affirms you are God’s children now; that is what you are. It is an affirmation of grace. God loves you and claims you. There is no way you could have earned that extraordinary love. It is a complete gift. But if you are ever going to see God, you’re going to have to grow up. That is going to take some discipline.

John’s word for discipline is “purify.” He uses it only once, in verse three of chapter three. He speaks of seeing God, finally, at the last human moment, when our lives are finished and glory is revealed. “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as [God] is pure.” It sounds like something Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:12). That’s the destination; what John mentions is the process: the true children of God “purify themselves.” They know and trust they belong to God, and they continue to work at what that means.

So what does it mean to be pure? To move in the direction of purity?

A lot of people will tell you what they think that means and they are wrong. My great-grandmother was alive when I figured out that God was calling me to be a preacher. This was the mother of my grandmother who is now a hundred years old, and even all those years ago, my great-grandmother was ancient. I went with my parents to tell her the news. “Great-Grandma, I’m going to be a minister.” She looked at me, and then raised a bony finger at my father to say, “Glenn, you’re going to have to shape up.”

That’s what a lot of people think purity is: shaping up. Tending to the outward behaviors. Looking the part. When people say this, they mean well, but they’re wrong. John has already reminded us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” We never outrun our capacity for sin. Sin is always with us. Some of the morally shaped-up people I know are absolutely obnoxious. They preen around and act superior, as if they are putting themselves on display. That’s not purity.

No, purity is a matter of the heart. Jesus was right about that; imagine that! In the context of this letter, purity is honesty; we tell the truth about we are and what we know, never distorting or bending it in our own direction. We know we cannot make it on our own, so we reach for God’s cleansing power every single day. That’s purity.

What’s more, in this letter, purity of the heart is a matter of love. As we love, we show ourselves as offspring of God. God’s character is complete love, self-giving love. When we love the brother and sister around us, our love is perfected in practice. John says, “How can anybody say they love, if they have the world’s goods but refuse to help somebody in need? Little children, love is in truth and action.” (3:17-18)

Purity is a matter of honesty, it’s a matter of generous love, and it’s also a matter of restraint. We don’t chase after everything the world offers. We restrain ourselves from that, as a way of chasing after God.

John’s example is Jesus himself. “The world doesn’t know him,” says John (3:2). Why is that? Because Jesus shows restraint. He doesn’t reveal it all. At least, not yet.

Recall the story of his life: for over thirty years, Jesus blended in. He spent plenty of time in the family carpenter show, cutting lumber to size, catching the occasional splinter. To the neighbors around him, there was no halo over his head; that was painted in hundreds of years later. Even after the day he gave himself to be baptized – and the heavens were torn open, and the big Voice spoke, and the Spirit fluttered down like a dove – a number of people missed who Jesus was, in the same way that many people still miss him – they are looking for the flash and the sparkle and the dazzling light, not for the obscure Carpenter who quietly heals, calmly teaches, and rarely reveals more than a quick glimpse of his glory.

The real Jesus is largely hidden from the world, and in the same way, he will seen only by those who have a hiddenness to their purity. Let’s call them “saints.” They know the truth of who they are, and they know the mercy they need from God, and they know the love they are called to show abundantly to others. But it’s never stated in an attempt to impress or be superior.

That’s why saints will never succeed as television evangelists. That’s why saints will never tell you that bigger is always better. That’s why saints may be really quirky but never flashy. They are too busy purifying their hearts with truth, mercy, and love. They encourage others to do the same.

I sing a song of the saints of God. I have known many. So have you.

·         There’s the school teacher who prays through the list of neighbors in her diary and the retired cop who tutors stuttering kids in math.
·         There’s the widow who wore a yellow dress to her husband’s funeral after nursing him for three years, and the thrift store volunteer who never misses his shift.
·         There’s the single mom who works hard when her kids are at school and does what she can to be with them when they are home.
·         There’s the recovering alcoholic who goes whenever somebody else falls off the wagon, sometimes staying late in the night.
·         There’s the teen who stands up for anybody who is being put down.
·         And there’s the princess in the blue dress who says to her little brother, “I know you were sick and couldn’t go trick or treating; would you like some of my candy?” And then she gives it all to him.

Truth, mercy, love, restraint – these are the real pursuits of purity. Biblically speaking, this is how saints are made. We keep purifying ourselves through truth, mercy, love, and restraint. And the clear promise of scripture is that when Christ is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

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

[1] Madeline Levine, Ph.D., The Price of Privilege (New York: Harper, 2006)