Saturday, January 24, 2015

When the Time is Up

Mark 1:14-20
January 25, 2015
William G. Carter

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea - for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

March 1, 1914 was a big day for the city of Scranton. That was the day Billy Sunday came to town to preach the Gospel. Sunday was a traveling evangelist. He had been ordained a minister by the Presbyterians, although that had always been an awkward fit. After all, he’s the guy who first said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”

His sermons were full of dramatic antics. You never knew what he was going to do or say. A former professional baseball player, he would run and slide on stage like he was stealing home plate. Then he would holler, “The devil says I’m out, but God says I’m safe.”

Another time he was introduced by a stately preacher in a town, who thanked him for coming to increase the number of church members. Billy Sunday stood up, looked at the preacher, and said, “Churches don’t need new members half so much as they need the old bunch made over.”

His passion was conversion, preaching a Gospel of changed lives. That’s why he came to Scranton. He was here for seven weeks. Sunday set up shop in a massive wooden tabernacle that was built just for that campaign. It was down on the corner of Washington and Walnut, down the block from where the AAA offices are today. And on the very first night he preached, Scranton got fourteen inches of snow, making it impossible for thousands of sinners in the tabernacle to escape the fire and brimstone of his preaching.

The reports of the seven week campaign are dramatic, even bigger than a similar event held the previous year in Wilkes Barre. 960,000 people attended the Scranton revival, which stretched from the second Sunday of Lent through the Sunday after Easter. It concluded with a huge parade down Wyoming Avenue, led by a 60-piece marching band playing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Everybody cheered when Billy Sunday came around the corner. For the moment, the city belonged to the Kingdom of God.

It is worth exploring how long that holy affiliation lasted. When he went to Wilkes Barre in 1913, Billy Sunday had railed against alcohol in his sermons. As a result, two hundred taverns in that city permanently went out of business.[1] The next year in Scranton, the crowd for the parade got so enthusiastic that they overturned a beer truck that cut in line.[2] Now, can you imagine if that happened in a modern-day parade in Scranton?

These moments come along through church history. Billy Sunday was a major player in a movement, often called the Third Great Awakening. It was a time of great religious energy, especially among the American Protestants. Society was changing rapidly: the cities were growing, there were waves of immigration from Europe, poverty was on the increase, and people as a whole were anxious. A couple of months after Billy Sunday’s Scranton revival, World War 1 broke out in Europe.

Sunday and his bunch came with tent meetings and exciting speeches. They tapped the prevailing anxiety and pointed people to Jesus. Even the editorial cartoons of the Scranton Times depicted the revival as a really good show.

But then what happened? World War I happened, and then the Roaring Twenties happened. Preachers like Sunday would push through a constitutional prohibition on alcohol, but that simply encouraged the mobsters to traffic in booze and speakeasies, often gunning down the illegal competition until alcohol became legal again. So much for the Kingdom of God in Scranton. In fact, my wife says those two hundred bars that closed in Wilkes Barre may have moved to Nanticoke, and Shickshinny, where she’s from.

I tell this story to lay it down alongside the evangelistic call of Jesus at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. It’s a story that informed what Billy Sunday and many other preachers have tries to do. But it’s not a direct fit. When we hear the word “evangelism,” we quickly think of the big tent revivals, the supercharged emotional appeals, the endless development of more effective sales techniques.

As one of my friends once wrote, “For many people, evangelism is a nose-wrinkling word, a term they hold in approximately the same regard as the phrase ‘professional wrestling.’ Both are considered to be activities that draw large, uncritical crowds, involve a measure of sham, work on irrational emotions, and could end up hurting somebody.”[3]

That’s an unfortunate description of what was, from the beginning, intended as the sharing of God’s good news. “Evangel” is from a Greek word that literally means “good news.” Jesus came preaching “the good news of God.” According to Mark, he was the original evangelist. I’ll say a bit more about that in just a minute.

But for the moment, we have to untangle what has passed as “evangelism” for the past 150 years in the American church. It’s been an approach I would characterize as a pep rally. Ever been to a pep rally? They can be a lot of fun - until enthusiasm fades, old habits re-emerge, and life slinks back to normal.

I recall a rally on the night before a high school football game. A dozen cheerleaders in red sweaters shouted as  people in the stands ignored them. They were twirling and cheering, but nobody was paying much attention. Finally the captain of the squad yelled at the crowd, “What’s wrong with you people? Why aren’t you listening? Don’t you know how important this is?” Well, the rally was for a team that wasn’t very good at all. In the grand scheme of things, it was not very important. Some of us were there because we had nothing else to do on a Thursday night.

Today we hear how Jesus gathers his first disciples. Let’s reflect on the contrast. There wasn’t a lot of yelling or flips in the air or slides into home plate. Jesus doesn’t stand before a large crowd and try to get their attention. No, he walks by a lakeshore, stops to observe a couple of the working fishermen, and then says, “Come, follow me.”

He never says where he is going – in fact, he goes down the shoreline to the next boat, where he sees a couple more of the fishermen, and says, “Come, follow me.” They leave their father in the boat, along with the hired workers – just as Simon and Andrew had probably abandoned their own hired workers. Two by two. Certainly not 960,000 onlookers in a big wooden pavilion, just two at a time.

It’s a striking contrast. I read through all of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus spoke to a lot of large crowds in his day, but I can’t find one instance where he says openly to the crowd, “Come, follow me.” He saved that invitation for a solitary tax collector, or a couple of fishermen, or a rich man who really wanted to come. To the anonymous crowds, Jesus spoke about God and his kingdom, a new dominion. But the invitation or the healing was always for one or two people at a time. It was a personal word, and never broadcast through a bullhorn.

What this suggests is that everybody is welcome to hear the broad news about God, to hear how the kingdom grows like a mustard seed, or how it’s like stumbling across hidden treasure and doing everything to acquire it. Everybody can hear these things. But we can only respond, one of us at a time, and that’s when it makes all the difference.

In our text, take notice of what Jesus the Evangelist does: he invites. He declares and he invites. He declares that the time is up, that the time is full, that the time has changed. Regardless of what you thought before, God is ruling over all things – including you. The ages have turned on a hinge, and this ruling – this kingship, as he calls it – now rules over you.  

God is right here, close at hand. So give up the yoke of all the false authorities and come home to God. That’s what “repent and believe” means in this context. Turn away from the powers and principalities of this world, turn away from the tyranny of addiction, the lure of power, the grip of wealth, the indifference toward others. Turn away from all the things that make us sick – and let God rule over your heart, your mind, your soul.

This is what God is doing in Jesus -- coming close: close enough to heal, close enough to forgive, close enough to empower us to make a difference in a hurting world. This is how the Gospel of Mark sees Jesus. He is the Strong Man of God who steps over every human boundary to set people free from the dominions of evil. That’s the announcement, the declaration.

It comes with the invitation: follow me, come with me, journey with me, live with me. Should you ask, “Where are we going,” Jesus doesn’t answer. He just keeps moving. Faith is always an invitation, not an obligation but an invitation. We are invited to travel with Jesus, to keep moving and growing, and to see and believe that God has come very close.

I think of the best kingdom invitations that I have ever heard. They go like this:

·         Would you go with me to the homeless shelter to serve a meal?
·         Would you teach the elementary school kids a Bible story?
·         Would you visit a man who is dying of cancer?
·         Would you drop by after he dies to spend time with his angry son?
·         Would you come with the pastor to serve communion in the nursing home?
·         Would you tell the story of how you knew you were forgiven?
·         Would you speak up for the teenager who is humiliated by his classmates?
·         Would you speak to your co-workers of how the Bible gives you comfort?

Each one is an invitation. Each one is a declaration that God has come to rule with love and justice. Never does it say that we have to be experts. Read the Gospel of Mark; those twelve people hardly ever get it right. In this Gospel, they are complete knuckleheads. But they keep following Jesus in a journey of growth.

They stay with him. They go where he goes. And when he departs in his death and resurrection, they are ready to keep the movement going deeper and wider.  In the process, they are changed. That’s how Jesus does the work of evangelism, one or two people at a time.

Anybody know what I’m talking about? I think you might. If you’re tired of living in a world full of lies and destruction and darkness and fear, the news that God comes near to rule over us is really good news. And it makes all the difference in the world.

One of the privileges of my work is that I see stories like this all the time. All of the stories are still in progress, please understand. But this new dominion, this kingship of God, continues to advance – for it is the work of heaven on earth.

One of my favorite stories is about a young woman who went on a mission trip some time back. It was surprising; she could have spent the summer any number of ways. Most of her travels took her to resorts or spas. But when she heard the announcement one Sunday in church, it was if something was tugging at her.

Soon she found herself at a clinic run by the Sisters of Charity in a third world country. She held children whose legs were as skinny as a pencil. She washed their withered skin and tried to calm their crying. She heard a noise at the gate, and went with the nuns to see what it was. A mother stood holding a limp child who looked very sick.

The mother had walked for three days to bring her child to that clinic. If she stayed out in the country, her baby was sure to die. If she took him to the clinic, he might still die, but at least there was some slim chance he’d make it. The nun promised the mother she would do what she could, and the mother turned away and walked three days back to her home.

Meanwhile this woman of privilege stood there with her heart in her throat. She fought back the tears and thought, “If it weren’t for Jesus, this clinic wouldn’t be here. If this clinic wasn’t here, these children wouldn’t be loved.” That day she resolved that she could not live her life only for herself any more. She went there to help out in some way, and she herself was set free. Ever since, she has continued that journey with the Risen Christ. I can’t think of a better evangelism story outside of the Bible.

Sometimes after dark, I sit in my chair at home and reflect on the discipleship stories that so many of you tell me. Some are heroic, some are every day moments. And it occurs to me that this is what it means to be the people of God. Not so much to sponsor pep rallies for 960,000 people who may forget in a few years why we called them together, but to invite one person after another to live  as if Jesus Christ rules over brokenness, destruction, and the power of death. For he does rule. He rules over a world that refuses him, and he rules over all who will crown him. 

And he stops long enough to ask each of us, “Will you follow me?”

When he finds you, what will you say?

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

[3] Thomas G. Long, “Preaching About Evangelism: Faith Finding Its Voice,” in Preaching In and Out of Season (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990) 77.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table
Mark 7:24-30
January 18, 2015
William G. Carter

From there (Jesus) set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Two weeks ago, my daughter and I took the 7:20 bus to New York City. It was the morning yawn with a handful of other tourists. There was just one stop on the way to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. We rolled into Marshalls Creek, and the bus filled up. From the fourth row, we watched as the United Nations got on.

The newcomers were nicely dressed. They were commuters with jobs, not tourists. I recall somebody telling me there are over forty commuter buses every day from Stroudsburg to New York. Many of us have also seen how the city, in all its diversity, has moved out into the hills. It was certainly obvious on the bus. We saw people whose roots come from Ghana, the Philippines, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and a lot of other places that I can’t identify. Clearly Katie and I were the minority on that bus, just as we white folks from Europe are a minority in the world.

The population keeps shifting in our nation. The pale-skinned people like me have been on the continent for only a few hundred years. These days, people are nudged to make room for those who don’t look like them. Some will say, “We were here first.”  The Native Americans will respond, “Not so fast.” The United States census bureau predicts that white folks will be a minority in 2043, that we will be a nation of minorities where no race vastly outnumbers the others.[1]  

The signs are already around us. When our church housed a homeless man in a hotel in December, I settled up the bill with a delightful Indian lady. I gave her the church credit card. She looked at the name and said, “What’s a Presbyterian?” I replied, “They are Christians who believe everybody should have a warm place to stay the night.” She smiled, looked back at the card, saw the church name, and said, “Do Presbyterians believe they are first?” I said, “They used to, but hopefully not anymore.”

America is changing. Evolving, as it has since the beginning. If this is hard for you, I can understand how you might grumble, kick, or scream. The world is knocking at our door. Some will lock their door and install a security system. But see it for what it is: other people want a place at the table.

For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead.[2]

This morning we heard an awkward, unlikeable text from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus resists the healing of a young girl. The reason seems to be that her mother was a Gentile. These days, we would call her a Syrian. In ancient days, she would have been labeled a Phoenician. She lived up near the Mediterranean coast, across the border of Jesus’ homeland. Why he went there, we will never know. Maybe he wanted to slip away for a couple of days of rest. The text says he wanted to keep his visit quiet, to maintain a low profile – something that never works out in the Gospel of Mark. Everybody hears about Jesus. Everybody seeks him out.

Mark portrays Jesus as the Strong Man of God. He has the power to cast out destructive spirits. He should have expected that word about his power would spread to those in need, even in a foreign land. And if you travel to somebody else’s country, it is inevitable that you will have to interact with them.

So this mother approaches him. Obviously she wasn’t a Jew; Jewish women of that time did not approach men, especially men they had never met. And she comes and bows by his feet, in a posture of worship, an odd thing for a Gentile to do.  And then she begins to make her request: “My daughter has a demon. Please cast it out.”

He responds with something that sounds like an insult. He alludes to her and her people as “dogs.” It is something that a Jew of the first century might have said regularly to the Gentiles, provided they bothered to speak to one another. “It’s not fair to take children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. But this mother pushes back, “Yes sir, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall to the table.”

She pushes back, and Jesus the Jew is pushed past Jewish boundaries. He was already there geographically, now he extends his power. So he heals the daughter of a SyroPhoenecian mother. She pushed him to do it, and do you know why? Because she wanted a place at the table.

For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding the share,
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that's fair.

Wendell Berry is a farmer and poet in Kentucky. Some years ago, he wrote that the hidden wound of American life is racism. The European settlers came and pushed away the people who were living here. Workers were imported and enslaved from Africa. Berry says he can trace both branches of his family tree back to slave owners. It has shaped who he is, even 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, or 50 years after the Civil Rights movement. Here is what he says:

If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.[3]

And what is he talking about? I believe he is talking about the wound of believing you are superior. It’s the belief that the color of skin makes you better than somebody else. And this same notion of superiority is extended to anybody who claims the upper hand: men against women, rich against poor, one group of people against another group. Should we believe that some are inherently better than others, we have ceased to regard one another as neighbors. That is a denial from the primal words of Genesis, that every person is created in the image of God.

And if we deny our equality, we create ways to put others down, to deny them of the same opportunities, to degrade them as something less than what God created them to be. And the wound never heals, even when the only thing our neighbors want is a place at the table.

For just and unjust, a place at the table,
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
for just and unjust, a new way to live.

Fifty-one years ago, Dr. King stood at the Lincoln Monument. And in his rich baritone voice, he intoned the words that guided him as a Christian and as a preacher:  

  • I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
  • I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
  • I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.[4]
Dr. King received that dream from his Lord, Jesus Christ, the same Lord who did not restrict his healing work to those who looked like him. Jesus comes with the healing power of God – readily to release those who are afflicted in body or soul, ready to heal those who believe they are better or worse than their neighbors.

When the Bible speaks of justice, we are directed to connect our love of God to active love of neighbor. They cannot be separated, for the neighbor – the stranger – the other person – is made in the image of God, just like us. She or he is worthy of the same respect as any of us. Justice is the practice of living that out.

I began by telling you about my bus trip. That took place on January 6, the Day of Epiphany, the day when the Christian church the coming of the Wise Men. It is likely they came from the land we now call Iran. Yet they were drawn to the light of God when they saw it. And they believed God was doing a new thing by sending a new king upon the earth. This new thing, this fresh work of justice, was to invite every child of God to a place at the table.

For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
for everyone born, the right to be free,
            and God will delight when we are creators
            of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
            yes, God will delight when we are creators
            of justice, justice and joy!

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

[2] Shirley Erena Murray, “For Everyone Born,” in Glory to God (Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing, 2013). Copied for convenience.
[3] Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound (San Francisco: Counterpoint Press, 2010) 4.
[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” A Testament of Hope (New York: HarperCollins, 1991) 219.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Life Begins in the Water

Genesis 1:1-5 / Mark 1:4-11
Baptism of the Lord
January 11, 2015
William G. Carter

We will spend a lot of time in the Gospel of Mark this year. Mark has no time for Christmas. He speaks of no manger, no shepherds, no angels singing the Christmas tidings. The little town of Bethlehem is never mentioned in the Gospel of Mark. No, Mark is in a hurry. Immediately he wants to get to the work of Jesus in the world.

I realize this is abrupt for a lot of people, especially if they have not yet taken down the Christmas tree. Ours went out on Friday. The ornaments went in their boxes for another year. Truth be told, the electric candles are still in the windows and there are two crèche scenes that we keep out all year around.

But Mark will have none of it. For him, the story of Jesus begins in the Jordan River, as the Lord comes forward to be baptized. We don’t know what Jesus has been doing before then. Mark doesn’t say very much. He says Jesus comes from Nazareth, a town up in the hill country. In chapter three, he tells us Jesus had a mother and some brothers. In chapter six, Jesus goes back to preach in his home town and the people say, “Where did this woodcutter get all of this?” That’s all that Mark tells us about the back story of Jesus. As far as Mark is concerned, the life of Jesus begins in the water.

There is a strange prophet out there. You will remember his name was John. He worked along the river, probably just a few miles north of the Dead Sea. It’s the lowest point on the earth, 1407 feet below sea level. The desert is extreme. The air is as dry as a bone, and John was working by a stream in the desert. He yelled at the snakes and welcomed the sinners.

Everybody who came to John had the past purged away with the offer of a new beginning. “The Powerful One is coming,” John promises. On the very first day of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus comes to put John out of business. There will be no further need to announce the Messiah is coming some day, when it is the day when he shows up.

Mark portrays a dramatic scene. He doesn’t say Jesus had any sins to confess, but he does make it clear there is a new beginning. As Jesus stands up again in the river, the sky is ripped apart like an old cloth. The Spirit comes down on him like a pure white dove. And a Voice booms out with a couple of quotes from the Bible. Psalm 2: “You are my Son.” Isaiah 42: “I am pleased with you.” Just as quickly, the whole thing is over.

There is no lingering by the river. It’s time for Jesus to get to work. For the next fifteen chapters, Jesus will hardly sit down. There are broken people out there who need to be healed. There are hungry souls who must be fed. There are those out there who believe themselves to be so privileged that they has stopped listening for God, and Jesus will speak generously to them, like a sower hurling seed all around a rocky field.

Mark has it right: Jesus begins in the water. And he keeps at it.

One of the difficulties of being the kind of church that baptizes babies is that some of those babies never grow up in their faith. I tried to think of a nicer way to say it, but I will leave it like that. The reasons for infant baptism are based in scripture. Just as the Jewish baby boy has no say in being circumcised as a member of God’s Tribe, parents of the Christian flock can declare their children will be raised in the covenant of Christ. Baptism is when the journey begins. But it doesn’t stop there. A simple drive-by splash and dash won’t do the trick. We have a God who grabs us by the shoulders and says, “Grow up! You’ve been baptized. Start paying attention and grow up.”

It’s like the story Will Willimon tells. When he was a United Methodist pastor in South Carolina, he says he got tired of long-time Methodists who sneaked off to neighborhood revival services and suddenly came back saved. He had a hunch some of them were merely falling for old-time showmanship and emotional manipulation. That’s not real faith, he said. It has no root system. It has no real depth. It will not last.

But his real scorn was for the guy who said to him, “I was a faithful Methodist for thirty-eight years. I showed up every week, sang in the choir, wrote a lot of generous donations, went to Bible study. But then I found Jesus and nothing else mattered.” Pastor Will said, “Henry, what do you think we were trying to get through your thick skull for those thirty-eight years?”

The Christian life doesn’t always neatly divide into “before” and “after.” Not if we have a God who rips open the heavens, comes down in the Spirit, and keeps speaking in the words of scripture. Certainly there is a beginning point in every person’s faith, but God is so sneaky that we might not notice when faith actually begins. And remember, too, that God is involved in the whole journey, not only in the moments when we wake up to see his hand, but in the long years of preparation and waiting, and in the long years of confirming our faith by the way we live our lives.

I’ve told some of you about my baptism. I hope you do the research to learn something about your own. I was baptized at thirteen months of age. I have always been a late bloomer. My parents had moved into a new town, Mom was three months pregnant with my sister, and they phone up the minister at North Springfield Presbyterian Church in Akron, Ohio. It was close to the trailer park where they were living. The minister said, “Come and meet with me about thirty minutes before the worship service.”

When they got there, three other couples were there, each with a little baby boy. The minister handed out an information form to each. That’s when my dad realized he had never actually been baptized, so the preacher went to the restroom, got some water in a small bowl, and baptized him in the church office before the service. “First things first,” he said. That’s how my father and I came to be baptized on the same day.

Neither one of us knew what would come after that. Certainly it continues to be quite a ride. I was raised in a family that went to church every Sunday. Faith didn’t all click right away, because it never does. I fidgeted through worship services, and endured church school classes led by good-hearted people who read the lessons off the page. I went to youth group gatherings to see pretty girls, and stayed up so late on teenager retreats that I fell asleep in those emotionally charged moments when the leaders gave the sales pitch for Jesus. Yet the Lord got through. I must have sat through a few thousand sermons as a kid, and I started to understand a couple of them. See, that’s my promise to you. Just keep showing up!

A lot of us have been on the long trail. For others, it's still awkward and new. When I survey my Christian life, I see it began in the water of baptism. That was when my conversion began, a conversion that is pretty much still going on. I mean nothing spooky by that. For me, conversion is nothing less, and nothing more, than the clear and growing certainty that we belong to God and we are doing what he is doing in the world. Jesus began by teaching, healing, feeding, serving, and inviting others like us to join him. As we join him, we have the growing conviction that we belong to him, that we are part of something really big.

This “something” is what Mark calls “the kingdom.” God’s kingdom is not a single geographic place. It’s a condition of the heart and mind of those who call him King. In the baptism of Jesus, God has somehow torn open the heavens and come down here. Jesus, the Christ, is offering all of us something different, something new – and God is ruling over all of it.  

It’s something like the annual invitation at New Year’s Day: cast off the old, embrace the new. We’ve had enough of the tired old destructions of the world. Let’s try it as God wants it to be.

Or as my very first middle school teacher addressed our new class, “No one in your new school needs to know you were a horrible kid when you were in elementary school; now you can behave like a brand new kid.” It was a liberating invitation. A new beginning. Christ is the Beloved Son of heaven, right down here. In time, there will be a whole new dominion over earth, and all of it will belong to God.

For the Christian, life begins in the water, the shocking yet comforting water of baptism. We baptize because God has come to us in Jesus Christ. Everything is different because of him. It is God’s turn to rule over earth as he does in heaven. We have had enough of the old ways of evil. God’s kingdom says it’s time for something new. It’s time for something so holy that it makes a difference in  the world.

I will long remember what one of the crazy uncles said at a baptism party that I attended one Sunday afternoon. He got it right. The pews had been full that morning. People buzzed about the baby’s dress. Now all the romantic members of the family were in the living room, opening her presents, and gushing over the gifts. The guest of honor, the little girl who had been baptized, was tuckered out. She fell asleep in the high chair.

There are yellow balloons and the remnants of a big cake. It’s a big social occasion. The neighbors are there. Among the sandwich platters and the sherbet punch, the little girl’s crazy uncle wanders up for another piece of salami. He hears some relatives cooing over the gifts, sees the little girl snoozing in her chair with chocolate icing on her chin.

So he goes up to the child and says in a loud enough voice: “Don’t ever forget what we did to you today. We commissioned you to fight the Devil.”

Conversation came to an immediate halt. The socialites looked like they were splashed with ice cold water.

With that, the uncle punctured their silence and spoke again to the little baptizee: “And when you fight the Devil, don’t be afraid. Jesus is on your side. He was baptized before you.”

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

Saturday, January 3, 2015


Jeremiah 31:7-14
John 1:1-18
Christmas 2
January 4, 2014

For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

The book of Jeremiah is a very complex book. It is a collection of the prophet's speeches, some of them written by a scribe, others of them remembered by Israel. The book doesn’t always read in a straight line. Scholars bicker with one another regarding the dating of this passage or that. Our text is one of those passages. We don’t know if it comes from the beginning of his ministry, the middle, or the end. And it probably doesn’t matter anyway, because he is speaking something we know. He's talking about going home.

We have just endured a season of snowmen and red-nosed reindeer. We deck the halls, offer tidings of comfort and joy, and sing about angels. These are festive songs, and rightfully so, at such a bleak time of year. But the tunes that cause us to sniff and wipe away a tear are the songs about the experience we know so well. "I'll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me."  "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays.” That's the experience that Jeremiah talks about: going home. All of us know how it feels.

I remember the Christmas week when we buried my father's mother. Margaret Carter, my younger daughter’s namesake. She lived to the abundant age of 92. Grandma Carter was a prolific woman: she had eleven children, 29 grandchildren, 57 great-grandchildren, and seven great-great grandchildren. According to the family legend, she never lived more than ten miles away from the house where she was born. She grew up there, fell in love with a farm boy named Norris, raised their children there. It was her home.

Home is the place we remember. It is the one place where we are anchored. Regardless of where we roam, where is it for you? Where are you from? My grandmother would have said, "Dempseytown, Pennsylvania." And curiously enough, even though I was born in Angola, Indiana, and have now lived in this town longer than I have lived anywhere else, my quickest answer would be, "Owego, New York." That’s where I am from.

If we remember a home, it’s the place where we felt like we belonged. It stirs up all kinds of feelings and affiliations. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, you recall the voices and the events that anchor that place within your heart.

But home can be a slippery memory. A couple of weeks ago I spent a night with my parents and took my younger daughter along. After getting my folks settled, we went out for a late-night ice cream, really an excuse for escaping for a bit and driving around the old haunts. Soon I was boring her with legends, and abruptly she said, “You really grew up in the sticks. It’s so different from the city where I now live.” Then she paused and said, “You don’t think you could ever actually move back here?”

It was a loaded question. I’m not sure I could, and neither do I think she will. Sometimes the place we remember is not the place we left behind.

A friend named Laura wrote about going home for the holidays. Her family met her at the airport with broad smiles and chatter. Her parent's house was bigger than she remembered, especially after the squalor of her little place. They exchanged Christmas gifts that night, and Laura kept trying to convince everyone that she hadn't spent much money. Then they had a banquet of wine and rich food.

Laura writes,

When I got up next morning, craving soda water, as I always do after a long night's sleep, I realized with dismay that my parents' refrigerator had never encountered such a thing. There were no croissants, and the only jam was full of sugar. The coffee was in the cupboard, not the refrigerator, and it was decaffeinated. With a sigh, I set about making some tea.

My mother walked in as I was singing along to a pop song on the radio. She looked surprised. "You used to listen to such nice music," she said, mildly enough. We curled up with the paper in the living room. We laughed and told stories, catching up with one another after months of absence. I let slip that I had been out to eat the Sunday before, in a restaurant. There was no comment, but the banter stopped for a moment. I watched the lips compress.

When I again flew home two days later, this time going the other way, I wondered: what did the prodigal son feel like the morning after the party? What would I feel like after years of freedom, having to move back home? Was that place even home to me anymore?

Then she says,

Home is attractive for many of us precisely because it is irretrievable. If we, like Dorothy, were given a magic pair of ruby slippers to transport us back home at the click of our heels, how many of us would go?[1]

The older I get, the more I think she's right: "Home is attractive, because it is irretrievable." We remember how home used to be, yet when we return, it never quite fits the familiar picture.

I recall a scene in a novel where there is a homecoming. A man has been away for some weeks. His young son gets some friends together and paints a sign that reads WELCOME HONE; it should have been spelled H-O-M-E, but the last leg of the M is missing, so it becomes an N. "It seemed oddly fitting," the man reflects. "It was good to get home, but it was home with something missing or out of whack about it. It wasn't much . . . just some minor stroke . . . but even a minor stroke can make a major difference."[2]

I wonder if Jeremiah got it right. In chapter 31, he proclaims the promise of the Lord: the faithful remnant of Israel will be gathered from the ends of the earth, and they'll return to a hometown called Zion. There will be singing and laughter. There will be dancing and abundance. Most of all, there will be comfort and consolation. "Everybody will be glad to go home," says Jeremiah.

But do you suppose he got it right? If Jeremiah is talking about life after the exile, then some seventy years have passed since those people have been home. A whole generation has come and gone. Any memories of the way it used to be must be tempered by the way it really is. Just imagine traveling back to that same address, and the whole town is different. And even if that homecoming gives you some consolation, a little child may pipe up and say, "Daddy, can't we stay in Babylon? This place has become my home."

Frederick Buechner makes a helpful distinction. When we talk about home, says Buechner, we mean one of two different things. The first is the home we remember, and the second is the home we hope for. All of us can remember a home where the hallways are familiar and the voices are known. When we make homes of our own, much of what we make is rooted in the memories of the homes which were provided for us. We use the same recipes. We talk the same dialects. We treat our children the way we were treated. And yet, try as we might, when we return to our homes, they are probably not everything we remember them to be.

But then there is the home for which we hope. And that's what Jeremiah is singing about. He remembers his hometown, but he hopes for a renewed Zion. He remembers the people who walked the familiar streets, but he hopes their spirits will be lifted and their lives will be given a surprising abundance. He remembers the familiar voices, and all the whining that people have taken on as a habit; but he hopes for a new song that shall cause all people to dance.

"I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow." That, my friends, is our dream home. The good news of Christmas is that a home like this is not only possible; it's available. In the midst of all our comings and goings, God comes to make a home with us.

The Gospel of John explains the mystery of Christmas this way: that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us -- that the eternal wisdom in which all things were created came down here and made a home among us. In Greek, it says quite literally that the Word became flesh and pitched its tent in our midst. Imagine that: the Eternal God whose Spirit blows as fierce as the winter wind took upon our flesh, put up a canvas tarp, and drove some stakes into the ground to live among us. Wherever we wander, Christ camps with us.

This is really the Christmas mystery. God has come down here. It’s the answer to the home that Jeremiah dreams of returning to. In the middle of our recurring homesickness, in the thick of dashed expectations of what home ought to feel like, God comes to us in the person of Jesus. Our everyday business is sanctified because he is among us. Our lingering disappointments can be filled with his presence.

This is indeed a holy mystery. We don’t have to wait for some far-off time in the future before we can flourish and rejoice. It can happen today. Right here. All we need to do is to stop running long enough to discover that he has never left us. And the emptiness we felt is actually the manger to welcome the radiance of the goodness of God. We remember that. We hope for that. And we are met this day by Jesus Christ, who comes to us in bread and cup and spoken word. He is the One who left his eternal home so that the life of God’s eternity would make its home in us.  

There is a Christmas carol that says it well:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

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

[1] Laura Smit, "The Image of Home," Theology Today (October 1988): 306-7.
[2] Frederick Buechner, Treasure Hunt, in The Book of Bebb, p. 529.