Saturday, May 24, 2014

What To Do When You're Grateful

Deuteronomy 5:6-22
May 25, 2014
William G. Carter 

On occasion, I spend time with people who are not Presbyterians. They are pleasant and kind, for the most part, but sometimes they have a few questions.

Last Thursday, for instance, I was surrounded by a room full of Roman Catholics. One of them asked, “What’s your religion like?” Just like yours, was my reply.  Both of us are Christians. We worship the God we meet in Jesus Christ, just like you. She looked at me as if she had never considered that I might be a Christian too.

The man next to her said, “But you don’t have a Pope in your religion. If you don’t have a Pope, who tells you what to do?” I smiled at him and said God. It was his turn to look a bit confused.

The first lady jumped back in. She wanted to know, “Does your religion have a lot of rules?” Ah, she was still struggling with this. For clarification, she added, “Our religion has a lot of rules.” I thought about this for a minute, reflected on where this sermon was probably headed, and took a moment to sum up what I wanted to say.

And then I said, “A religion always seems to have a lot of rules, but Christian faith has the gift of guidance.”

From the somewhat horrified look on her face, I’m not sure she was following me at all, but I told her I was going to put together this sermon and invited her to come hear it. It was her turn to smile. She replied, “Well, that’s against the rules.”

Now I bring this up because a lot of people reduce religion to a list of rules. This is exactly how many people perceive the Ten Commandments. They are heavy. They are difficult to pick up and bulky to carry. For all practical purposes, they are unmovable and they do not budge.

“Thou shalt not…” Eight of the Ten Commandments begin that way. They prohibit behavior. They instruct by telling us what not to do. Sometimes, just the burden of being told “no” has the opposite effect.

I told our puppy, “Pippa, don’t play in the mud.” She said, “Mud? Where’s the mud?” She didn’t know there was mud. Next thing you know, she’s up to her elbows in it.

Rules can have an opposite effect. I remember a painful thing that happened right before a wedding. After the rehearsal, where the minister had bride and groom practice their vows, the groom decided to have one last fling. Next morning, when the bride found out about it, she gave him a left hook, knocked him on his tail, and called the whole thing off. The ushers said to him, “What were you thinking?” And he said, “I guess I got really scared when I heard the minister ask, ‘Will you forsake all others?’”

There’s something very heavy about being told “no.” No idolatry – let me set up something else to worship. No stealing – nobody’s going to see me take this. No false witness – well, don’t let the truth stand in the way of a good story. There’s something very human about the heavy weight of being told “no.”

Even the apostle Paul could admit this. In one of his letters, he says, “I find myself doing the very thing I don’t want to do, and the law indicts me. I would never have learned how to covet, except the Ten Commandments say, ‘thou shalt not covet.’” Don’t covet? Gee, never occurred to me until you said it. Thanks for bringing it up, Moses. Paul says, “The law of God is holy, just, and good...and it kills me.”[1] It kills me.

That was how Martin Luther came to understand the law: it is a huge weight that fell on him. It was a heavy burden that crushed the life out of him. Luther said a good sermon should begin by telling people how bad they are (that’s the law), and then the sermon should conclude by telling people how good God is (that’s the Gospel). First the law crushes us, and then the Gospel announces God’s forgiveness.

And so, one Lutheran theologian, Martin Marty, said, “Nobody should put the Ten Commandments in a public place without putting beside it the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’” Of course, said Marty, somebody is going to say those words sound too religious; as in “we can remember the commandments, but Jesus makes it a bit too Christian.”

In the middle of this conversation, the weight of the is heavy text comes to us. We should take a moment and remember how we felt when we heard the Ten Words of Moses. Anybody feel guilty, remembering past failures? Can you recall the most recent time that you broke one of the commandments?

Or maybe you felt relieved? In a culture where more and more people do their own things, it is comforting to know God has a standard, that God has expectations. In a rather famous commencement speech at Duke University, Ted Koppel declared, “What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions, they are Commandments…the sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is they codify, in a handful of words, acceptable human behavior.”[2] So, maybe you felt relieved to hear the commandments today.

And yet, I remember that conversation from Thursday night. Popular opinion is that religion is mostly rules, and rules are heavy, and therefore the whole thing should be resisted without getting caught at it. But that is not how the Commandments were first given. Do you remember how the Bible text begins? God says, “I brought you out of Egypt. I brought you out of slavery. I brought you out of the burdens of Pharoah’s brick factory. I brought you out into freedom.” In that freedom, God gives the Ten Commandments.

Here’s what I wanted to tell that woman on Thursday night: when religion is reduced to a list of rules, it begins to die. When faith is merely a heavy burden, it crushes us. The Ten Commandments were never intended to have that effect. No, these are Ten Words of Guidance, given to direct the life of people who know that they are free. God sets us free – and so the Heidelberg Catechism sets them in the context of gratitude. Since God has set you free, therefore . . .

The first reality of Christian faith is that God sets us free in Christ, so the Commandments come as a “therefore.” Work with me for a minute, and let’s see if we can understand how this works.

  • God brought you out of slavery. Therefore you don’t need any other gods.
  • God brought you out of Egypt with power and might. Therefore you don’t need to worship anybody smaller.
  • God set you free in the power of his holy name. Therefore you don’t need to misuse or diminish that name.
  • God relieved you from the burdens of Pharoah’s brick factory. Therefore you don’t need to work seven days a week; you can rest from work and pay attention to God.
  • God created you through your mom and your dad. Therefore, respect those who gave you birth.
  • God gave life to everybody as a gift. Therefore don’t take life from anybody.
  • God gives lifelong companions to those who are called to be married. Therefore they don’t have to dismiss the gift.
  • God gives you everything you need. Therefore you are free from stealing what isn’t yours.
  • God set you free from other people’s opinions of you. Therefore, you are free from distorting the truth about somebody else.
  • God provides for every need. Therefore you are free from wanting what other people have.
When it comes to the Ten Commandments, don’t let anybody ever take away that quiet little “therefore.” God gives the commandments to the very people that God brought out of slavery and bondage. Ted Koppel can call them “the summary of acceptable human behavior,” and at the very least, they are.

But according to the Bible, the commandments are not given to everybody, even if everybody would benefit from them. Rather, the commandments of God are given to the people that God sets free. When God first gives the Commandments to the Jews, God says, “You are my treasures; I have brought you out. Therefore, I am giving you the Law, so that you might do the things that Covenant People do.” Don’t let anybody ever take away the “therefore.” That’s what keeps the commandments from becoming a dead religion.

And maybe I should define a dead religion: a dead religion is religion without a God. It’s all the rules without the relationship. Or in the words of one of my teachers, it’s when somebody boils it all down, and all that’s left of a life-giving faith is the stain in the bottom of the cup. Ugh – who wants that?

“You are mine,” says God Almighty. “I brought you out.” God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt – that is Israel’s covenant. And God brought us out of slavery to sin and death, through the work of Jesus Christ – that is the new covenant (or as the page in your Bible puts it, the New Testament).

A covenant is a covenant. God brings Israel out – and now God calls on them to act as free people are to act. God’s freedom belongs together with God’s expectation. belong together. And I think the evidence of human sin is that we make the life of faith more of a burden than it needs to be.

When it comes to the commandments, let me suggest we take out cue from Jesus. For us, he is the foremost interpreter of all the rules that God has given. Maybe you remember the story. Some legalist came and asked him a question about the commandments. “Teacher, which of God’s commandments is the greatest?” This was a question that came up continually. And if you remember, Jesus answered by saying there are two primary commandments, not one. The first is to love God. The second is to love neighbor.

Now, he didn’t say anything new. In the time of Jesus, every Jew already knew it. There were, after all, two stone tablets in Moses’ hands. One tablet taught us to love God. The other tablet taught us to love neighbor.

The first table focused on loving God: no other gods, no other idols, no abuse of God’s name, keep Sabbath to worship God and welcome God into your life. This is how we love God.

The second tablet was clear about loving neighbor: love mom and dad (who are your very first neighbors), don’t take your neighbor’s life, don’t take your neighbor’s property, don’t take your neighbor’s spouse, don’t take your neighbor’s reputation, don’t even desire the neighbor’s stuff. This is how we love our neighbor.

For instance, when we run through a week and stuff it so full that we have no time to enjoy the One who made us, Sabbath-breaking is a violation against love – our love for God. When we spin the truth so that we look good and others look bad, it gets in the way of our love of neighbor. You can go through all the commandments this way, and they begin to offer us some real direction.

Therefore – and please remember the “therefore” – therefore the Ten Commandments are all about love. That’s what they teach us to do. Love God, love neighbor. Remember this first: God’s commandments teach us to love. The God who brought us out in love is the God who expects us to love. And therefore, every gift of life-giving instruction comes from the God who loved us first.

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

[1] See the discussion in Romans 7:1-25

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Under New Management

Galatians 5:22-26
May 21, 2014
William G. Carter 

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

If you are driving down the street, you might notice the sign that says, “Under New Management.” I suppose it is meant to announce a brand new start, a fresh new approach. “Come and visit it us,” the sign outside a restaurant may declare. “We are under new management.”

I don’t know about you, but when I see such a sign, I flinch a little bit: “Under New Management”? I suspect the old management wasn’t working so well. I wonder: will the waiters be better trained this time” Will the chef has stopped dropping cigarette ashes in my omelet? Has somebody told the teenager at the cash register to look up from her iPhone when it’s time to take my credit card?

New management usually takes over for a number of very good reasons. Whoever used to run the place has stepped aside. Someone has determined it is still a viable opportunity. And the new person in charge has made the necessary changes to start over again.

Now, I’m not talking only about a restaurant or a business or any of that. I’m also about our lives. In our scripture passage, Paul is discussing the “new management” that takes over our lives as Christians. There is a shift from being self-directed to Spirit-filled. It is a move from belonging only to ourselves, or belonging to the devil, to belonging to God and all that God loves.

Paul says this is the power of the Gospel. It frees us. Faith comes with liberation. We don’t have to be the person we were, captive to our natural whims, a slave to our own compulsions. Faith in Jesus sets us free. Paul says our old self is “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). In its place there is a New Creation. The Risen Christ lives in us.

Every once in a while, we meet a person who has changed dramatically, for the good. Something has happened in them, perhaps quickly, perhaps over a long period of time. We knew what they were like, but now they are different.

I think of a woman from my high school class. Around the time of graduation, she didn’t have any plans. Penny seemed to coast along, doing whatever her friends suggested that she do. She was nice enough, but not particularly focused. When we met again some thirty years later, she was transformed. There was a sparkle in her eye. She bubbled confidence. She was clear about her life and her values. “What are you doing?” I asked. She is a hospice counselor. She gives her life every day to people who need her, and it never wears her down.

I wondered out loud, how is that possible? And she began to speak of how she prays, how she reads the scripture slowly every day, how her walk with God opens her to fresh insight and deeper hope. I told her she wasn’t the same person that I remembered from years ago in school. She said, “I certainly hope not.”

This is a glimpse of what faith in Jesus Christ can do to us. It replaces the old management with something new. In this letter to the Galatians, Paul’s word for the old management is “sarx.” It’s a word that means “the flesh.” What he’s talking about are the natural inclinations of every wild animal, the tendency to do whatever we want, to take what others have, to stir up fights, to live without any boundaries. Paul has already given a grim recital of what this looks like: jealousy, quarreling, breaking into factions, giving into our impulses, and so forth and so on. That’s what he calls “the flesh” (5:19-21). It was the old management that was running the place into the ground. And there is another way. Thanks be to God, there is another way.

When Paul writes to these Gentile Christians in Turkey, he gives them a few lists. Here is how to treat people in your household, he says. Then he gives them a list of what destructive behavior looks like. And then, in the text for today, he presents a list of how you know someone is under the New Management of God’s Spirit.

So Paul gives us a list. When he writes to these Gentile people in Turkey, he loves to make his lists. Here is how the Christian people in your household ought to treat one another, he will say. Or here are the destructive behaviors that get us in trouble, and then he presents his list. In our text, he gives another kind of list, a list of how you know someone is under the New Management of God’s Spirit.

One day this week, a volunteer by the name of Jack stood in the door frame of my study. We were chatting about the Joyful Noise program that he is co-leading with our children right now. Jack said, “You know, Paul’s letter to the Galatians is difficult to teach to little kids.” I smiled and thought of a couple texts that I hope they don’t have time to cover.[1]

But it occurred to me that every child can perceive when a person has God at the center of their lives. How do you know God got “into” somebody? By what they are full of . . . and so Paul gives his list:

            Love, joy, peace;
            Patience, kindness, generosity;
            Faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Do you notice? We know what each word means. There is no need to look them up – love, patience, gentleness, we know what they are. And we know they are not specifically Christian words. When the Buddhist knocks on my door and speaks of peace, I resonate with her. When the Jew speaks of kindness, I nod in agreement. Anybody can be filled with peace or act with kindness, for God creates all of us with that potential.

What makes this a specifically Christian package is that these attributes are all embodied in Jesus. Everything we know about him suggests love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is how he is, and what he models for us. The true Christians are Christ-like. It is a supernatural transformation. I am talking about the people who are so full of the same Spirit that fills the Christ that they begin to resemble the Lord that they serve.

How remarkable that we should consider such character traits on the day we ordain our elders and deacons! Those who lead the Lord’s people should resemble the Lord they serve. And how will we recognize them?

  • Love is the ability to act for the benefit of others
  • Joy is the engine that never runs out of fuel.
  • Peace is the harmony that creates harmony, within and between.
  • Patience takes the long view of God’s eternal kingdom.
  • Kindness confronts the human tendency to be cruel.
  • Generosity counters the natural inclination to be selfish.
  • Faithfulness is the commitment to endure no matter what.
  • Gentleness is the velvet glove on the iron hand.
  • Self-control is the discipline to make room for God’s direction.
This is what comes if we welcome God to fill our hearts and guide our lives. The world doesn’t need any more heartless bureaucrats, hostile managers, or passive-aggressive waitresses. We don’t need any more church leaders that are full of themselves, much less full of their own opinions. What God’s people need are servants who are full of God, ordinary people who are so full of God’s Spirit that they begin to resemble Jesus. They open us to the possibility that there is another way to live. Their lives reveal that God’s dominion is at hand.

The weary old world can’t always understand this. To use the apostle Paul’s word, the world runs by “sarx” – that is, the natural inclinations of the flesh. It is evident in so many ways, but perhaps the most profound way is how we compete with one another. We interrupt others when they talk. We scoot around a slowpoke to beat him to the checkout line. I think of that lady in Texas who planned to bump off a middle school cheerleader so her daughter could make the squad. That’s as worldly as a tiger ripping apart a wounded zebra. That’s the way of the world. But there is another way, the way of God.

Years ago, the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen took a teaching job at Notre Dame. He was hired as a professor in a brand-new psychology department. He enjoyed the work, loved the students, but there was one thing that caused him to grumble: it was the university’s obsession with football. He didn’t have a problem with the sport, but he noticed that, in South Bend, at least, the obsession could be more important than everything else. What’s that all about? And how does it square with living a holy and compassionate life in the world?

If we live in Christ, he said, “It is not excelling but serving that makes us most human. It is not proving ourselves to be better than others but confessing to be just like others that is the way to healing and reconciliation. Compassion - to be with others when and where they suffer - is God’s way to justice and peace among people. Is this possible? Yes, it is, but only when we dare to live with the radical faith that we do not have to compete for love, but that love is freely given to us by the One who calls us to compassion.”[2]

Do you remember the list?

            Love, joy, peace;
            Patience, kindness, generosity;
            Faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

These are the signs that God is at work in our lives. These are the gifts that increase in our souls as the Spirit of God directs our lives. And needless to say, these are the blessings that you might offer to the world.

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

[1] Galatians 1:6-9, 3:1, 5:12, to name a few.
[2] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison. Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (New York: Image Books – Doubleday, 1983).

Saturday, May 10, 2014

He Bore Our Sins

1 Peter 2:19-25
Easter 4
May 11, 2014
William G. Carter

For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Tuesday was a beautiful morning at Antietam National Battlefield. The sky was bright blue, the rolling farmland was a carpet of spring green. John Conklin suggested I should stop by, if ever in the area. Tuesday morning, I realized I was very close. With a little time on my hands, I stopped by.

Most of our Civil War battlefields are now quiet spaces. Well preserved, hauntingly quiet. Standing at the ridge by the visitor’s center, I looked toward the old German church, imagining McClellan’s army coming up on Robert E. Lee. I recalled Matthew Brady’s early photographs of dying soldiers on the fields of Antietam. 23,000 people died in the one-day Battle of Antietam. September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest single day in United States history.

If you have visited these battlefields as I have, you wonder about the blood and the massacre. On a beautiful spring day, you wonder what the violence accomplished. In 1862, Antietam did not end the war. The leaders of both sides did not recoil from the horror and say, “That’s it. All of us have had enough. No more violence ever again.” Oh no. The Civil War went on for two and a half more years. Violence does not end all violence.

I was thinking about this sermon as I wandered around the battlefield. Our text reminds us of Good Friday and the death of Jesus. That was another brutal day. Sometimes I think we have spruced up the crucifixion, much like we have tidied up a Civil War battlefield.

Holy Week was not that long ago. I recall the grim faces at our last men’s Bible study. We were studying the account in the Gospel of John, where the Jewish religious leaders asked the Roman soldiers to speed up the executions so they could get on with their Passover celebrations. The men in our group turned pale as we read of soldiers breaking the legs of the crucified men so they could suffocate sooner. The cross was a horrible way to die, brutal and violent.

In today’s text, an early church leader turns to the cross for a moral lesson. “Look to the cross,” he says. “Jesus did not return abuse for the abuse he suffered. When the Lord suffered, he could have retaliated but he did not. Instead he trusted himself to the God who judges every person.” All the time, in the words of the African American spiritual, “He never said a mumbalin’ word.”

Peter was speaking to a congregation of Christians who are suffering. They knew first-hand that those who follow Jesus have a tough time in the world. They can be mistreated for doing the right thing, maligned for setting God’s ways as their highest pursuit. This was especially true for the primary audience addressed by Peter. They were house servants, many of them domestic slaves. They were bound to serve earthly masters, but as Christians they had a higher Master. And it is God in Christ who determines the Christian’s behavior; it is not our situation in life.

It is difficult to stay clear about that. With my hands shading my eyes, I looked toward Antietam Creek. The water ran thick red on that day in 1862. Sharpshooters stood on the ridges above, picking off scores of enemies trying to forge the stream. 23,000 men died in a single day. We remember three men dying on crosses outside of Jerusalem. One was more than enough.

The writer of our Bible text is reflecting on that single death. What does it mean? For a group of downtrodden Christians, the violent death of Jesus means that we must refrain from perpetuating the violence. Jesus taught as much: “You are not,” he said, “to love the neighbor and hate the enemy, speak to the friendly but not the unfriendly, be generous to the generous but withhold from the selfish. No, God acts out of God’s own nature, never reacting, but sending sun and rain to both the just and unjust.”[1] God loves all, even if they do not deserve it.

Here is one of the many things that the New Testament says about on the death of Jesus. What does this mean? “Christ suffered for you,” he declares. There is something freeing about this, something profoundly liberating. Peter says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.” Then he reaches back into the Jewish scriptures to find an affirmation from the prophet Isaiah, “By his wounds you have been healed.”

It is intriguing that after President Lincoln heard about the violence at Antietam, he regarded the Civil War differently. It was about more than states rights, and whether or not the southern states could do whatever they wanted. It was also about freeing those who were enslaved. Four days after the gunfire stopped in Antietam, Lincoln announced he would issue his Emancipation Proclamation as of January 1863. All slaves in rebellious states would be forever free.

So I’ve been thinking about how all of this holds together. What amount of self-sacrifice is necessary to provide freedom for others? Not merely to exert control over the rebellious tribes but to create freedom – and finally reconciliation? These are more than Civil War questions from 152 years ago. They are matters of the greater gospel, begun on a cross in 30 A.D.

We say a lot of things about the cross – “Jesus died for our sins,” for instance, even though our sins continue. Or another New Testament writer declares, “Christ has broken down the wall of hostility between us . . . through the cross.”[2] But there is still great hostility in the air among a lot of people; I observe, in some corners, we could make the case that the Civil War may not be over yet, and it’s still Blue against Gray.

So in these days after Easter, when we reflect on the cross, we see how far God will go to bring violent people into peace. God cannot compel warring people to stop their war, not without obliterating all of them. But here is what God will do: with all vulnerability, God will step onto the middle of the battlefield and take all the bullets – all the anger, all the hostility – into his own body. God takes all of it on the cross, in order to take it all away . . . provided we let it all go.

That’s the human struggle, isn’t it? I saw war in the eyes of the lady who cut me off on the highway yesterday, then she glared at me as if it was my fault. Sorry, not that time. But I have to let it go.

I saw it on the sign outside the visitor’s center at Antietam. In official lettering, it declared that guns and firearms are not welcome at a battlefield memorial. Just let the irony of that sink in. Then ask: why would anybody take guns and firearms to a battle that is already over?

But my favorite glimpse came when I pulled off to a little spot to write a few notes about Antietam, and I discovered where I was. There it was - a monument to Clara Barton. I didn’t know for what she did on that battlefield. A forty-year old clerk in Washington’s patent office, she collected medical supplies and food to deliver to the soldiers. Her father had taught her that Christians care for those in need. She persisted with army officials until she received permission in August 1862 to take humanitarian supplies to the front lines.

One month later on the field of Antietam, she got busy, bandaging the wounded, feeding the hungry, showing compassion regardless of what side of the line anybody fought. They called her “the Angel of the Battlefield.” A few years after that, she organized the American Red Cross.

She did this willingly: she went to the battlefield to bind up wounds. She offered compassion to all soldiers regardless of whether they wore blue or gray. She is still remembered for her mercy at a level far beyond the soldiers or their generals. Through her deeds, she pointed us beyond the war to another way of living. And just to score the point: we would never have known about her if she hadn't entered the war.

These are clues to the work accomplished by Jesus on the cross. He entered the battle between heaven and earth, putting himself squarely on the battlefield of rebellious Confederates and warlike Yankees. And he gave himself that all people ultimately might be healed.

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

[1] Fred B. Craddock, 1 Peter, Westminster Bible Commentary, p. 50
[2] Ephesians 2:14-16

Saturday, May 3, 2014

What a Mess!

Psalm 14
May 4, 2014
William G. Carter

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, 
who seek after God.
They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?
There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

One night last week, I was feeling pretty restless. So I picked up the television remote and began flipping through the channels. To my delight, there was the end of a movie that I had seen in a theater. It’s a movie that some of you saw, and it’s called “The Help.” It’s the story of African-American house maids in Jackson, Mississippi, sometime in early 1960’s. Through a variety of circumstances, they tell the stories of their lives to an Ole Miss graduate who publishes them anonymously in a book.

Aibileen is one of these truth-telling maids. She has friends who get fired for using the wrong toilet. Her own son is killed in a factory accident and she’s not given time off to grieve. One of her jobs is to raise white children in Jackson, Mississippi -- children who love her, children who are an inconvenience to their socialite mothers, children who will grow up to become as racist as their parents. For this, she is paid a pitiful salary and treated as if she is invisible.

But Aibileen tells her story. The story goes in a book that sells extremely well. The wealthy people of Jackson are shaken at a time when the Civil Rights movement is rolling into town. And one of the angriest is Hilly Holbrook, a privileged socialite who represents all the white people who put down and demean their hired help.

Hilly knows that Aibileen is in on this project. But she can’t say so publicly because it expose and embarrass her in way that if you haven’t seen the movie, you can’t quite imagine. So what does Hilly do? She falsely accuses Aibileen of stealing some family silver. She threatens to call the police, and demands that Aibileen’s pliable boss should fire her immediately.

But Aibileen has had it. She has become accustomed to telling the truth. She says, “Miss Hilly, all you do is scare and lie to try to get what you want.” Hilly bursts into a shrieking rage. And then Aibileen says it: “You are a godless woman. Ain’t you tired, Miss Hilly? Ain’t you tired?”

You know, it is a daring move to call a white Baptist socialite in Jackson, Mississippi, a “godless woman.” But it sure does explain an awful lot.

Psalm 14 declares that people do terrible things when they act as if there is no God, when they behave as if they are not accountable to the One who has given them their lives. They go astray, says the Psalmist. They do corrupt and abominable deeds. They might declare with their lips that they believe in God, but in their hearts, in the center of their souls, they act as if they are an end in themselves. “Miss Hilly, all you do is scare and lie to try to get what you want…you are a godless woman. Ain’t you tired?”

In just a few verses, the psalm diagnoses what is wrong with the whole human family. The people who are made in the image of God behave as if God is of no consequence. Psalm 14 declares that chaos rules when people are godless. They mistreat one another, they enslave one another, they falsely accuse one another, they are predators of the weakest and most vulnerable . . . and human life becomes a big sloppy mess.

If we took the time, we could pull out the daily newspaper and circle every article where somebody acts selfishly, or violently, or uniquely in their own self-interest. Perhaps there would be a couple items on the cartoon page that would remain unmarked, the crossword puzzle perhaps. If we took the time . . . but I’m certain you have stories of your own, stories where family members stop speaking to one another, or people carry grudges long past the expiration date, or employers gobble up and discard the people who work so hard to make them rich, or lazy workers take advantage of the employers who treat them with grace.

Anybody here think the human race is in good shape? Or that it has ever been in good shape? We don’t have to read the Bible to see this; the Bible has already read us. You don’t have to read the old story of Adam and Eve as a scientific document to know that it is spiritually true. God says, “You can eat all the fruit that you want, except from that tree over there.” Gee, Lord, it hadn’t occurred to us until you said that.

Like saying to the kids, “Shelby and Jake, don’t play in the mud.” Mud? Is there mud? Thanks, Mom, I didn’t realize there was mud.”

Adam and Eve ignored God and took matters into their own hands. And as somebody said so delightfully, “they “spent the rest of their days convincing themselves that it all worked out for the best.”[1]

The word is godless. Not that there is no God; there is. But acting as if there is not. Ever get tired of that?

The psalm suggests this impulse infects all of us. “All have gone astray,” says the poet. All alike are perverse. No one does good, not one of us. The Lord looks down from heaven to see if anybody is actually searching for God. Anybody, anybody at all?

Do you think this a harsh indictment? Look around. Look carefully and widely. See if anybody is looking for God. Or if they are merely imprisoned in themselves. Some time ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called Who Needs God? In the concluding pages, he writes:

Atlas was condemned to carry the weight of the entire world on his shoulders.  That was as harsh a punishment as the ancient Greek mind could conjure up.  Today, it seems, we have volunteered to play the role of Atlas . . . We have not offended God, we have dismissed him, told him we were grown up enough not to need his help any more, and offered to carry the weight of the entire world on our shoulders.  The question is, when it gets too heavy for us, when there are questions too hard for human knowledge to answer and problems that take more time to solve than any of us have, will we be too proud to admit that we have made a mistake in wanting to carry this world alone?[2]

Maybe you don’t like the word “godless.” I don’t particularly like it. But something in my soul is drawn to Aibilene’s invitation: “Ain’t you tired? Miss Hilly, ain’t you tired?”

Of course I’m tired. I will bet you’re tired. Tired of carrying it all by myself and not handing it over to God. Tired of keeping up appearances when we are weary and still pretending we are something we are not. Tired of trying to finish the race on our own steam when it is God who carries us every day. Tired of acting like we are in charge of everything when the plain truth is that it has all come to us as a gift. Tired of trying to influence other people of our point of view, rather than study how God teaches us to walk in peace, justice, and self-giving love. Aren’t you tired of flipping through the channels in late-night restlessness, looking for something to ground your soul, or at least bide your time? Aren’t you tired of a life without God?

Then you are in the right place. We celebrate two sacraments today; one’s not enough. We baptize a child and say, “You don’t have to make it on your own, because you are God’s child just like the rest of us.” Then we seal the deal at God’s Table when we taste again that we are welcomed, wanted, and fed with a mercy and wisdom far beyond our own. Here is where life begins again, in the presence of Jesus Christ, our redeemer.

Writing about the Heidelberg Catechism, Craig Barnes writes of the misery, the godless misery that comes to the human race when we try to carry everything and complete it all on our own limited power. He says something provocative about this: “People usually prefer the misery they know to the mystery they do not.”

And then he adds: “I have been a pastor long enough to know that just because people are miserable, that does not mean that they want to change. They may change jobs, move to a new town, buy another car, or find another relationship, but essentially they’re just rearranging the furniture of their lives when what they really need is a new life.”[3]

New life is the currency of God’s kingdom. We don’t have to be tired anymore. God is right here, inviting us to put our weary, sin-sick souls into the mysterious hands of New Creation, lifting us out of the "miseries to which we have grown accustomed." Our lives are defined by Christ crucified and risen. And if you trust him with that, no difficulty, no disease, no loss, no tragedy, no misery will ever win over you. You belong to him, body and soul. Jesus Christ is our true home.

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

[1] Frederick Buechner,
[2] Harold Kushner, Who Needs God? (New York: Touchstone, 2002) p. 210.
[3] M. Craig Barnes, Body & Soul: Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism (Louisville, KY, Congregational Ministries Publishing, 2012) p. 47.  Thanks for his wisdom which infuses this sermon.