Sunday, April 26, 2015

How Big Is Your Flock?

John 10:11-18
Easter 4
April 26, 2015
William G. Carter

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep...I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd." 

How big is your flock? It’s the question that seems to come up whenever I go to a conference with other ministers. A few of us will go out for a bite to eat. After ordering off the menu, somebody will say, “Where is Clarks Summit, anyway?” And then, “How big is your flock?”

They are talking about you, of course. And I like to brag about all of you. My friends may not know where Clarks Summit is, but they would love to be part of a church like this. This is a rare congregation. There is a lot of positive energy here. Something is always perking. Believe me, there’s more going on than any one person can capture or describe. That’s why I tell my friends – and then they ask, “How big is your flock?”

That’s a good question. How would I answer it? Forty years ago, we numbered a congregation by counting all the names on the list. Back then, it was fashionable to belong to a church. Somebody would move into the neighborhood, and you might lean over the fence and ask, “Would you like to go to church with us?” More likely than not, they might say yes, because everybody went to church. At least, that’s what they said to the Gallup Poll.

But it didn’t always work that way. We had a pastor here years ago. Everybody liked him. He would walk up and down State Street shaking hands. I don’t think he ever let go of those hands, just tugged those folks up the hill and made them Presbyterians. They were glad to be here – apparently when Bob was here, there were almost 900 people on the list. That’s what they tell me. And when he left for another church, we took about 300 hundred people off the list. Didn’t know who they were or where they were hiding.

Twenty years ago, they told us to count another way. Don’t worry about how many people are on the list. Rather, count those who show up. It made a lot more sense. And by that time, there was a lot more to do on a Sunday morning.  PeeWee football, travel soccer, dance recitals, cheerleading, ski slopes, yard work --- on a nice day, you were lucky if anybody came. On a cold, blustery day, nobody went out. So we found ourselves praying for 45 degrees and overcast, somewhere between the sports seasons. Those were the big attendance days. We know, because the ushers keep track.

Ten years ago, we discovered that people don’t even have to be here in order to tune in. They could check us out on our website before they ever walked in the door. How many of you did that? The gurus of church life say, “Count the number of hits on your website. Keep track of how many people look at your blog.” Every week, we have about 250 people who read my sermons online. About seven percent of them read it on an iPhone. Three percent of them are in Russia. Who would have thought?

How big is your flock? The best answer now is probably, “Bigger than we thought.” There are people outside our comfortable circle who are touched by the Gospel we proclaim. There are folks tuning in that we do not yet know. There is the kid who takes piano lessons in this building during the week while her dad slips upstairs to take a couple of the helpful brochures that our Deacons put on the information rack. This building itself is the meeting ground for recovering alcoholics, the gathering place for community committees, and the launch pad to send folks like you back into the world to make a difference for God in the places where you live and work.

Can anybody number all of this? No. And that’s OK, because today we hear the Risen Christ say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

This is a very curious thing that he says. Who’s he talking about? Methodists? We really can’t be sure. The context doesn’t help. In the Gospel of John, Jesus has just given sight to a man born blind. It was an unexpected healing, and it caused a whole lot of trouble. The man didn’t ask to be healed, Jesus simply did it. This is the Gospel of John, where nobody tells Jesus what to do – he takes the initiative. He heals the blind man and then goes on his way.

Meanwhile the man doesn’t know where he went, didn’t ask for this, and after a series of religious interrogations, he is cast out of the synagogue.  I think that means the religious officials decide that he is no longer a Jew. He was born a Jew, circumcised a Jew, his parents were Jews, so he’s a Jew. But he was healed on the Sabbath, on the wrong day of the week, so the synagogue rulers throw him out. Essentially he is no longer a Jew. And in the end of the story, Jesus goes back for him. He speaks to the man who was blind, and the man recognizes his voice . . . and worships him.

So let’s ask Jesus the same question: how big is your flock? It’s big enough to include those who are thrown out of the synagogue, big enough to welcome those who don’t fit in anywhere else. For he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

I have to wonder if this was a reality for John the Gospel writer, whoever he was. A lot of scholars think these pages were written down in Ephesus, the grand city in what would now be called western Turkey. And many believe this is a late document, written some sixty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In western Turkey, sixty years later, the Christian church was no longer a tight little circle of Galilean Jews.

There were all kinds of sheep in that flock – Jews and Gentiles, it didn’t matter. Women and men were there, on equal ground. One tradition says this was the congregation where Mary, the mother of Jesus, had landed; we don’t know if that’s true, but if it was, she was no more a celebrity than anybody else in that church. For it was one flock around one shepherd, one expansive flock with Jesus at the center of it all.

It’s the word “expansive” that is so difficult. To think that he has sheep who are not here, who are not like us – that’s a hard piece of gristle for a lot of church people to chew.

I get around the countryside a bit. Most of you know that. One of my volunteer tasks is to visit some of the churches here and there, mostly the churches somewhere out there. Some of them are in the hills. I went looking for one place, called one of the elders and said, “Where are you?” He said, “You go up the hill from Milk Can Corners.” I said, “Where?” Milk Can Corners… can’t miss it. That’s a real place. It’s around the bend from Funston’s Barn, not far from the old oak tree that they cut down forty years ago.

There’s not a lot of traffic through Milk Can Corners. You can probably imagine that. Not a lot of people passing through, not much exchange of new ideas, same people gather at the same place at the same time every week. I like going to visit places like that. The people are usually nice. It’s stable, even predictable.

I went to visit one church one time. Well, I was from somewhere else. That made me suspicious. I was an outsider. And a few of the church people were already pretty upset. They wanted to talk about what “those people had done.” What people? “You know, those people.” Which people? One of them said, “The General Assembly.” Oh, those people.

The lady who went to visit them with me nodded and listened. Then she said, “You know who goes to a General Assembly?” They looked at her, silent. “Christians,” she said. “Presbyterian Christians. They are volunteers, elected by the people in churches like yours.” One man muttered, “Those people aren’t like us.”

“Well,” she said, “how can you be so sure? In fact, any one of you could be elected and you could go as our representative. And do you know what you would discover if you went?” Again, silence. She waited, then she said, “You would discover that there is no ‘we’ and ‘they’ – not in the church of Jesus Christ. There is only ‘us’ and it’s a really big ‘us’.”

At this, the muttering man spoke up. He sputtered, in fact, and said, “Well, I have to say that I disagree, I fundamentally disagree, and I have to say . . .” With that, the woman next to him interrupted and said, “Oh George, put a sock in it. These nice people have given up an evening at home to drive up here and remind us that Jesus loves a lot more people than you do.”

It got kind of quiet. And then a young man who hadn’t made eye contact all evening said, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. First letter of John, chapter 3.”

You what I like about Christian people? Sooner or later, they start talking like Jesus. Sometimes they even act like him.

I was telling a few of you this week about Lesslie Newbigin. He was a Presbyterian from Scotland, and did a lot of missionary work. When you are out on the frontier, far from the safe confines of home, something you find yourself doing things you never thought you would do. Newbigin went to India, to the South of India, and he gathered a lot of Christians there. They got organized and decided to start  an official church, which they called the church of South India.

To his shock, the South Indian leaders of the church elected him as the first bishop. He was a Presbyterian, from Scotland, where they want nothing to do with bishops or popes or anything else. But he accepted the assignment and served as bishop. They asked him back home, “Why in the world did you let them make you a bishop?” And he smiled and said, “In Christ, there is no ‘them’.” Sometimes you have to go with the flow of the Holy Spirit.

When he went back to Britain to teach, he explained: every organization can be defined either by its boundaries or its center. The church, he notes, is sent to every nation, which means it can never be bounded by local limits or national interests. But the church is defined by its center. As he puts it,

It is impossible to define exactly the boundaries of the church, and the attempt to do so always ends in an unevangelical legalism. But it is always possible and necessary to define the centre. The church is its proper self, and is a sign of the kingdom, only insofar as it continually points men and women beyond itself to Jesus and invites them to conversion and commitment to him.[1]

There is never a “we” and a “they” – not in the flock of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. There is only one flock with one Shepherd. And it’s a lot bigger than we thought it was. Like it or not, there isn’t a single one of us who gets to decide who else gets in – that’s the sole decision of the Shepherd. He knows who belongs to him, he knows who listens to him (especially when talks about loving one another), and he has the same affection for the flock as the Heavenly Father has for the Earthly Son.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd; know what that means? It means he lays down his life for them all - even the ones that he has to chase after and heal - and then he takes up his life again, and he speaks to anybody who will listen.

He is still speaking now. Can you hear him? He says, “I am going to bring other sheep into my fold.”

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

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Sign of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980) 68.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Disbelieving for Joy

Luke 24:36-48
Easter 3
April 19, 2015
William G. Carter

Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you - that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 

One year, Easter came on a beautiful spring day. The snow had long been melted, the flowers were blooming, and the sun was shining bright. After a long Lent, everybody was feeling lifted up. The crowd was enthusiastic, the music had been spectacular. It was a really good celebration.

As I finished greeting people, I noticed one of our part-time attendees out on the corner. He was having a smoke. I went out and we chatted a bit. “Thanks for the service today,” he said, “it was glorious.”

“Yes,” I replied, “it’s always a great day when the Presbyterians are on their best behavior.”

“Sure is,” he said. “On a day like this, you can almost feel like it’s all true.” Now what do you think about that? Easter was the biggest day of our year and a doubter had sneaked in among us.

I suppose we could train our ushers to be more careful. Perhaps there should be a short entrance exam for those who show up: do you believe the Resurrection really happened, yes or no? Then you can have a really good seat, somewhere in the back. Those who aren’t so sure will be brought right down front, where they can feel the heat from the preacher’s nostrils.

After all, Easter lies at the heart of everything that the church has to say – and to think there would be some here who doubted? Can you believe it? Why, that would be just like the early church!

Perhaps the most unbelievable thing about the Easter story is that many who first heard it found it unbelievable. All the Gospels report the doubts. In the Gospel of John, there is a lot of confusion around the empty tomb. Simon Peter looks in and scratches his head, Mary Magdalene is sure the body was stolen, Doubting Thomas says, “I won’t believe until I put my finger in the nail holes.” Not a lot of faith there.

Mark says the women who went to the tomb of Jesus ran away in fear, and didn’t say anything to anybody. Matthew said that, even in the presence of the Risen Lord, “some doubted.”

And then there’s this final chapter of Luke. The women go to the tomb of Jesus and find it empty. They hear the witness of the angels and return to tell the eleven disciples – who doubt them, who dismiss it as an “idle tale.” Later that day, two disciples are walking to Emmaus when Jesus joins up with them. They don’t recognize him as they talk. Suddenly they perceive him when he breaks the bread but then he vanishes.

The group reconvenes that night in Jerusalem. The stories are flying around the room. Nobody knows what to think – and suddenly, Jesus is right there, with all of them too. They couldn’t believe it. They thought they were seeing a ghost, and he confronts them: “Why are you scared? Why do you doubt? A ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like me.” And Luke says, “They disbelieved for joy.”

What does it take to believe?

What I like about Luke’s story is that it doesn’t prove anything. I like that; that’s the way it is. You can tell somebody something, and it’s your word against theirs. You can show them scars and nail prints, but it may not convince them of anything. In fact, you can go to a whopping big Easter service, with a big crowd and a lot of brassy singing, then step outside for a smoke and say, “It almost feels like it’s true.”

I like Luke’s story because there’s a little bit of comedy in it. Jesus comes and says, “You got anything to eat?” He’s like a hungry teenager coming home from soccer practice, looking to raid the refrigerator. He is hungry. He wants some food.  

I imagine what the disciples do not say: “Well, Jesus, we were just listening to how you were up in the little town of Emmaus. You were talking to two of us on the road, and you were giving them heartburn as you explained the scriptures. They invited you into their home for something to eat, and you took the bread and broke it, and they saw you, but then you left before you had any bread. Of course you’re hungry.”

It’s an unusual little touch. He says, “Do you have anything to eat?” What a surreal thing to say! Apart from the Last Supper, it is about the only time we hear of Jesus having something to eat. Obviously the ghost is not a ghost. They put a piece of grilled fish in his wounded hands. They watch carefully to make sure he can chew, to make sure they can’t see the bite of fish go down his esophagus into his stomach.

It reminds me of that bad joke that Jimmy Connors used to tell when he was the mayor of Scranton. The mayor told a lot of bad jokes as he made his rounds at the banquet circuit. Here is one that I remember: A skeleton goes into a bar and says, “Give me a beer and a mop.”

I don’t know what is more frightening: that Jesus could appear after his death like a ghost, or that he is alive again and munching on a piece of tilapia. No, this is not a ghost. He has an appetite. He hasn’t had anything to eat since that big Passover meal on Thursday night. But still, what in the world is this? He appears and disappears at will, and in between, he’s hungry? No wonder the disciples don’t know what to think.

They are hidden away in a borrowed room. They are hearing reports how Jesus was not in his tomb, that he appeared seven miles away, and now he stands among them and says he’s hungry? What in the world is all this about?

And that’s when he tells them: “Remember what we talked about when I was with you before? I’ve told you ahead of time that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead. Remember? Remember how I told you that parable about the wayward son who goes home, or the lost sheep who is brought back to the fold, or the woman who celebrates when she finds the lost nickel under the sofa? Each one is a celebration of returning to God – that’s the joyful journey of repentance, remember that?”

“And remember how I spoke over and over about forgiveness – you must forgive seven times if somebody apologize seven times? Remember what I said on the cross? ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ Remember how I have shown you what forgiveness looks like?” The Risen Christ comes to them and reminds them of what he has said before.

And if that isn’t enough, he opens their minds to understand the scriptures. Now, that is a tall order in itself.

The Bible is a thick book. How many of you understand everything that you read there? It is an enormous book, for us a library of sixty-six different documents of history, law, prophetic speech, poetry, parable, and letters. Some of the documents overlap with one another, some of the documents are not obvious and clear, some of the writers refer to things long ago, and matters quite distant from us.

  • “If your ox falls into a pit…” How many have had that happen to you? It’s in the book.[1]
  • “If your house has leprosy on the walls…” Bummer for you. The prescription is in the Bible.[2]
  • “If your neighbor is deaf, don’t curse him.” Why? He can’t hear you anyway. But it’s in the book.[3]
  • “It’s better to live with a dripping faucet than with a bickering wife.” That verse is in the Bible.[4] It doesn’t say anything, though, about a husband who refuses to do lawn work.

It takes a lifetime to study the Bible, to truly live in the pages of the book. There aren’t a lot of people who want to work that hard, and the Easter Christ opens the book to his disciples. That’s a remarkable claim.

The fact is, since the Bible was written centuries ago, a lot of people will poke around until they find something weird and then they will obsess about that. In fact, that’s the surest way to become a millionaire: find an obscure verse, take it out of context, write a scary book about it (the scarier the better), and claim that you have the hidden code that nobody else has. Those books sell so fast they fly off the shelves – and did you ever notice that none of them – none of them! – have to do with loving God or loving neighbor. They just want to frighten you, scare you, spook you.

But Jesus is not a spooky ghost. He has spoken before about knowing the scripture, especially in the Gospel of Luke. And he has said if you understand the scriptures, you will understand God.

There’s that story he tells in chapter sixteen. There was a rich man and a poor man. There always is, isn’t there? The rich man ate, the poor man at his gate didn’t eat. That’s all we know about them. The rich man died and was buried. The poor man died, and we don’t know if he was buried. And the rich man went to hell, and the poor man went to heaven, leaning on the chest of Father Abraham.

The rich man said, “Father Abraham, send that poor man back to warn my brothers.” He still thinks he’s in charge. Abraham says, “It’s too late, and they have the scriptures.” The rich man says, “But no, if you send him to back from the dead, my brothers will repent.” And Father Abraham said, “They already have the scriptures; and if they don’t listen to the scriptures, neither will they be convinced if somebody rises from the dead/” (Luke 16:19-31).

What scripture is he talking about? Deuteronomy 15:7 – “If anyone is poor among you, do not be hard-hearted.” That’s Moses.  Isaiah 58:7 – “Share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house; clothe the naked, and do not hide yourself from your own kin.” That’s the prophet. If you have the scriptures, listen to them. Learn of God’s values and listen for God’s call.

The Risen Christ opened their minds to understand the scriptures. What does that mean? I think it means understanding not the whole book, but the heart of the book. The Bible is substantial enough that we can get distracted by matters that are not central. Like the minister back in the 1960’s who published a doctoral dissertation about flying saucers in the book of Ezekiel, or the dear soul who fiercely believed that a whale could swallow a man like Jonah and survive for three days in its belly. Or in the Gospel of Matthew, where it says Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the back of two farm animals, a donkey and its colt – that’s what it says (Matt. 21:7). You can obsess about all these little things – but none of them are the One Thing that matters.

And he opened their mind to understand the scriptures. The whole book? No, the things in the book that had to do with himself. Because the death and resurrection of Jesus turned everything they expected upside down. They expected the Messiah would come and he would not die. Jesus comes and he is crucified. And he comes back from the dead to help understand some parts of their own Bible that they had not really noticed.

For instance, Isaiah 53 and 54: The Servant of God “was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; as one from whom others hide their faces; he was despised and we held him of no account…He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (53:3-5). It was there in the Book all along, and he opened their minds to understand this is what God is like: rejected but self-giving, vulnerable but powerful, wounded but able to make us whole. Then he showed him the wounds in his hands and his feet.

We will be distracted by the edges of the Bible unless we look to the heart of the Bible, for the Bible speaks of God. The Bible tells the truth of about what kind of people we really are, but the Bible focuses on what kind of God has made us, what kind of God stays with us, what kind of God can heal us.

And he opened their minds to understand the scriptures… for an opened mind is a serving mind. If we comprehend the God who comes to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we will want to be part of the movement that God has started in the sending of his Son. What is the shape of that movement? Again it’s there in his words: “Let repentance and forgiveness be proclaimed to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem,” the city that crucified him, the city where he was raised from the dead.

We have the freedom to doubt Easter. We have the freedom to speculate about all kinds of matters that really have no bearing on us or anybody else. But when we invite others to return to the God who forgives us and offers to heal all of us, we are pretty close to everything the Bible says about Jesus.

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

[1] Luke 14:5-6
[2] Leviticus 14:33-42
[3] Leviticus 19:14
[4] Proverbs 27:15

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Complete Joy

1 John 1:1-2:2
Easter 2
April 12, 2015
William G. Carter

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us - we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

When I was a teenager, I think the strangest thing I ever did see was in our church. It happened in a funeral. I was old enough to attend with my parents. In fact, I had recently been ordained as a deacon, and it was one of our fellow deacons who had died. His name was Don Marshall and he was a very pleasant man. Everybody liked him. He was easy to talk with, always in a good mood, and it tore us up when he became sick and died.

I had not attended a lot of funerals at that point in my life. My folks had to instruct me in the proper protocols. “Wear your dark suit from J.C. Penney,” they said, “with one of your dark clip-on ties.” Keep your voice down and lower your eyes. Put a few tissues in your pocket in case you have to wipe your eyes or blow your nose. We will sing a hymn or two, but the music will be muted. And when you see Don’s widow, say, “I’m so very sorry” and not much else. I nodded in understanding; I figured that’s how you handled funerals.

So imagine our surprise when we got to church, took seat in the regular pew, and the organ cranked up with some music that sounded happy. The front of the church was decorated with a mountain of bright flowers, some of them heaped on top of the casket. Suddenly there was a burst of energy, the back door burst open, and the widow came down the aisle in a bright print dress and a big, floppy red hat.

I can’t say if it was the first time a widow showed up so adorned, but it might as well have been. A hundred austere Presbyterians gasped in unison. Clearly she had not received the same memo as the rest of us. Then we were surprised by upbeat hymns, which she sang exuberantly. And when the preacher told a story about Don, she was the first one to laugh.

At fifteen years old, it was a startling experience. I thought that funerals were supposed to be sad, and in my limited experience, I understood why they would be sad: somebody has died, somebody isn’t here anymore, the loss and the grief are real and they cannot be denied. But clearly something else was afoot.

Last Sunday we survived another Easter. We heard about the death of Jesus, and then the unusual announcement that he is alive and on the loose. The entire New Testament is written from the perspective.

There’s no question that Jesus died. He was not faking it. There were witnesses who saw him take his last breath. There was a burial in a donated tomb. There is no question that he died. Human sin conspired to nail him to the cross. He was innocent yet falsely accused. He did nothing wrong yet he was executed by people who didn’t want him around. The force of the world’s self-destructive tendencies put him on the cross and weighted him down into the grave.

And now he is alive again. Death was not the final word.  Some of those who loved him saw him again. Jesus showed up in rooms that had been locked out of fear. Frightened friends heard him speak of peace and forgiveness. They saw the nail prints in his hands and feet. They watched him eat a piece of broiled fish. They knew he could come and go with the freedom of God. Clearly something else was – and still is – afoot. These are the accounts of Easter.

Easter is remarkably open-ended. John concludes his Gospel (20:30-31) by saying Jesus did a lot of things which never gotten written down. Imagine that – the Bible is not complete! The Book isn’t finished! Because the Risen Christ did a lot of things – and still does a lot of things – which are off the page. No single author can tell the whole story or capture the main character, especially if He is bigger that whatever you imagined him to be.

That reminds me of the story I was recounting to some of you this week. Back in 1998, we were coming back from our first mission trip to Haiti, eight days in Port au Prince and the countryside. We had two wood carvings to bring home, statues really. One of them was a carving of Jesus with his arms around the disciples. His arms were shaped like the side of a fishing boat. The message was clear: the disciples are in the same boat with Jesus. My friend Nancy carried it through customs in Kennedy Airport. The agent looked at the statue, looked at the paperwork, and said, “Go on through.”

I had the second wood-carving, which now sits out there in our narthex. It is Jesus like a tree, with the disciples coming off of him like branches. I had the statue covered in a large white bath towel and a little duct tape. It was mostly covered, I think his eye was peeking through. The customs agent looked at me, looked at Nancy, looked at her statue, looked back at mine. Here is the Lord with one eye peeking through. And he said to me, in a Flatbush accent, “OK, how big is your Jesus?”

I can’t tell that story without still chuckling. The literal answer would be “about three feet tall and about twenty five pounds.” But the Risen Christ is a lot bigger than that. We honor him by speaking of him with some size. He is bigger than a statue. He is bigger than a young first century peasant. He is bigger than a single book. He is certainly a lot bigger than death.

I think that’s why the lady wore a red hat at her husband’s funeral. It wasn’t a fashion statement, it was a faith statement. Whatever loss she felt was not the whole story. There was something more, something greater – would it be too small to say there was Someone who was stronger than death? And she was entrusting her beloved husband into his arms.

One of our scripture texts today was a letter that circulated in the early church. There is no recipient, so we think it was written to everybody. There is no address, so we believe it is aimed everywhere. And the writer – or writers, since the most common word in the first chapter is the word “we” – the writers are testifying to what they know:  

in a world of death, there is an abundance of life
in a world of division, there is the possibility of fellowship
in a world of darkness, there is the presence of light
in a world of self-deception, there is the power of truth
in a world of despair, there is the reality of joy

And life, fellowship, light, truth, and joy are available because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Thanks to God on Easter, there is something more afoot.

Today we spend a little time with joy. Joy is our witness that Christ is risen, God is great, and Easter is true. If life is difficult, and quite often it is, there is still, at the heart of it, the possibility of joy. Sometimes there is even a great clash between life and death, side by side, and something funny blurts. That’s how a lot of Jewish humor works. The Jews have a profound trust in the greatness of God, yet they see the irony and inconsistency of everyday life. For instance…

Maybe you’ve heard about the elderly Jewish grandmother who took her young grandson to the beach. She sat on a beach chair beneath an umbrella. She did her knitting while her grandson played with a small pail and shovel near the shore. He was wearing a sun hat.

There were many people at the beach - some frolicking in the water, some sunbathing, and some just enjoying the day. Suddenly, without any warning, a tsunami crashed ashore. It destroyed everything in its path! As the waters retreated to the ocean, all left behind was chaos and destruction.

Only one survived - the godly elderly lady. She was still sitting on her beach chair beneath her umbrella. Her unfinished knitting was on her lap. She was miraculously unscathed. She looked about, and then at the place where her young grandson had been just moments ago. She looked up to the heavens. With tears streaming from her eyes, she called out to God: "Why, Lord? Why? Why did you take away my beautiful grandson, who had his whole life before him, and yet left me, a pitiful old woman at the end of her life? Oh Lord, I would rather that You take me instead of him!"

Moments later, apparently in response to her petition, a second tsunami washed ashore. For a few brief minutes, all was chaotic as the wave pummeled the shore. But as its waters retreated back to the ocean, the elderly lady found herself sitting as before. To her amazement, near her was her grandson. He was still playing with his small pail and shovel, as if nothing had happened. The elderly lady looked up to the heavens, shook her fist, and exclaimed, "Lord, he had a hat!"

Some would claim a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence. That is, you can see contradictory things holding together. You see the irony, but you see through it. I believe a sense of humor is the evidence of faith. Even through the tears, you know there is something else. At the grave of somebody you love, you turst there is something more. The theologian Karl Barth said it this way:

If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of a [person] who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would not look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not a Christian seriousness. It may be burning behind - and truly it is burning – but we have to look, not at it, but at the other fact, that we are invited and summoned to take seriously the victory of God’s glory in this man Jesus and to be joyful in him.[1]

Joy is the work of the Holy Spirit. Joy is what the Spirit of the Risen Christ does in us by releasing us from the power of death, the destruction of sin, the emptiness of despair. Joy is the inner assurance that God is greater than all the ambiguities and difficulties of this life. Joy is the sign that we are free – free from fretting and worrying, free from obsessing about the stuff we cannot control, free from taking ourselves too seriously. Free for welcoming the power of Christ to raise us above all sadness and small-mindedness.

So did you hear about the minister who parked his car in a no-parking zone in a large city? He was short on time and couldn't find a space with a meter. So he put his business card with a note under the windshield wiper that read: "I have circled the block ten times. If I don't park here, I'll miss my appointment. FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES."  When he returned, he found a citation from a police officer along with this note: "I've circled this block for ten years. If I don't give you a ticket, I'll lose my job. LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION."

Did you hear about the man, who after agonizing for decades, decided to pray to God. Kneeling down beside his bed he said "Dear Lord, you must know how much I have always wanted to sing and dance, but I have no pitch or rhythm. Were I so blessed I would gladly trade my pleasing personality and my good looks". After a pause, a sympathetic voice said, "My son, if it ever saw the water, that ship has sailed.”

Or perhaps my favorite for today:

During an extremely long sermon, a man got up and began to walk out of the church. The pastor called out to him, "Where are you going?" The man replied, "To get a haircut." The preacher asked, "Why didn't you get your hair cut before church?" The man replied, "I didn't need one then."

Perhaps it is true what they say about sermons: “a good sermon has a good beginning, a good ending, and not much in between.”

May the joy of the Risen Christ be completed in all of you. Happy Second Sunday of Easter.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved for that material which is original.

[1] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper and Row, 1959) 123.

Note: All jokes shamelessly lifted from other sources. Thanks, especially, to the Prairie Home Companion website at

Saturday, April 4, 2015

He is Going Ahead of You

Mark 16:1-8
Easter Sunday
April 5, 2015
William G. Carter

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

This is our big day. The music is big. The flowers are beautiful. The energy is palpable. The announcement is exciting. But I am sure you have just heard it in our scripture text: there is also something awkward about Easter. The women go to the tomb of Jesus – and he’s not there.

Three women get up early when the Sabbath is over. They go to Jesus’ tomb to embalm the body, which was not done due to nightfall on a high holy weekend. They have spent considerable money on spices, and expect to treat his corpse with this final act of dignity. Because of the rush, because of the hour, they haven’t worked out the details for how to get into the tomb. Perhaps their intentions are impulsive.

But nothing could prepare them for what they see. The large stone has been rolled off to the side. It was the very last thing they expected. Somebody had cracked open the tomb. Somebody had gotten in.

Their curiosity pushes them to look inside – and indeed he’s not there. In his place, sitting calmly, is a young man in white. He gives them the most confusing news. So they run out of there in shock, unable to speak. They don't say anything to anybody. Happy Easter.

This is Mark’s Easter story. The tomb is broken into and Jesus isn’t in it. There is no body, crucified or risen. The Lord doesn’t appear to those women and say, “Here I am.” He doesn’t come to them as he does in the Gospel of John, saying, “See the nail prints and the wound in my side.” All we have are the words from the young man in white: He is risen, he is not here, he is going ahead of you.

Risen? They cannot understand everything that means, not then, not now. Not here? Well, that fact is crystal clear. Jesus is not he is supposed to be. And then he is going ahead of you. What does that mean? That may be the most awkward announcement of all.

All of us will lose somebody we love. If you are young and fortunate, maybe you have not lost someone not yet, but you will. One of the terrible facts of life is that it is terminal. It comes to an end. This is one of the most difficult things any of us have to deal with.

Death is hard, hard as nails. Last Tuesday at 7:15 in the morning, I got the phone call that my friend Louie had died. I didn’t expect it. For the rest of the day, I stumbled around in a fog. I bumped into the furniture. Everything slowed to a crawl. Before the hard work of grief, there comes the confusion, the raw questions. How can this be? Why did this happen? And underneath is the really big question of grief:  How are we going to make a way through the world without this person we loved?

Certainly three women were already chewing on the charcoal taste of these questions. They had watched Jesus on the cross. They were there (15:40), they saw him die. They had loved him. Mark says they had provided for him (15:41). They had followed him from Galilee where he had done so much of his work.

It was in Galilee that he had fed the multitudes, cured the sick, and drove out the psychotic spirits. It was in Galilee that he taught about God’s rule over all of life. It was in Galilee where he cleansed a leper, lifted a paralytic back onto his legs, and created a movement to announce that God was right here. They had been with him in Galilee – and when he came to Jerusalem, they watched him die. They were sure everything he had done was now over.

That is hard. The finality is so difficult. The poet W.H. Auden knew death is so final:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come . . .
(He was . . .) My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.  ("Funeral Blues")

The Gospel writer knows we can’t talk about Easter until we start here. We start with the loss of all our hopes. We begin with the conclusion of what we thought would happen. There is no question for me why the women ran away from the tomb of Jesus confused, afraid, not knowing what to say.

And there’s no question why the early church in its awkwardness was not satisfied with that ending. If you read along, you saw the footnotes. There are a few extra versions of how early Christians added to the original story. They took a piece from the Gospel of Matthew (16:14-15), they inserted a story from the Gospel of Luke (16:12-13), they lifted a line from the Gospel of John (16:9) or the book of Acts (16:19). They knew from their experience the story doesn’t end with death or fear or silence.

So let’s pause to say what the story does not say – but what we know to be true. Sooner or later it dawned on those three women to listen to what the young man in white had told them in the tomb. They had run away in fear, but the moment came when they stopped running. They were too scared to talk, but the moment came when they needed to talk. And with nobody chasing them, they stopped and considered if what the man said really is true.

What if Jesus is alive? What if he is really is going ahead of us? What if he is in Galilee, returning to the place where he did his work, the place where people trusted in him? This is Mark’s profound invitation for Easter. What if resurrection happens, not just in the tomb – but in the places where Christ continues to show compassion and build faith? What if the Risen Lord is ahead of us, beckoning us to join him in his work and share in his life? What if there are places we can go where we can discover life is stronger than death, where we can trust that this is the way of the kingdom?

One of the extraordinary things about my job is that I get to spend time with people who are doing remarkable things with their lives. A college student told me how she spends time at a hotline for women who have been abused. Every Friday night, she answers the phone whenever it rings. “The fraternity party scene was really lame,” she said, “and this is a lot more important.” I asked if she was doing this for college credit or as a part-time job. “Oh no,” she said, “I think Jesus wants me to help anybody who is in trouble. He says to all of us, ‘Don’t be afraid.’” That is what she said. She speaks of Jesus in the present tense.

Or there’s that couple who retired a couple years ago. Every Thursday night, they volunteer in their local food pantry. She said, “At first we did it because there was nothing on TV, and a man from the church’s mission committee asked us to fill in.” Her husband pipes up: “I know that probably sounds shallow, but when we kept going back, we started talking with the people who come to the pantry. And we discovered they are hungry for something more than food. They need some human contact, and they feel alone.” She interrupted him and said, “You know something else? When we go to church on Sunday, we are paying a lot more attention to the sermons than we ever did.” Hear that? They sense the connection between the living Word of Christ and human compassion.

Or there’s that woman who used to work all the time. She hated her job, but never quit because it paid so well. And then a friend asked her to volunteer for an agency. “I help senior citizens get the health care that they need. Some of them feel shut out, or vulnerable, or they are afraid to stand up for what they need. So I stand them up with them and together we find the answers.” She paused and said, “I always zoned out when I heard a sermon about justice; now I understand exactly why it is so important.”

Helping the abused, feeding the hungry, standing up for the vulnerable -- do you know where these people live? Galilee. Galilee, Pennsylvania. All of them are testifying in their words and deeds that love is stronger than death, that God is stronger than evil, and that the Risen Christ is ahead of us, inviting us to join in the life and work of God’s new dominion.

Today is Easter Sunday. According to the angel in the tomb, when Easter comes, Jesus does not go up into heaven. He does not go back into Pontius Pilate’s palace to extract his revenge. He does not return to the inner chambers of the Temple and straighten out the clergy. No, Christ goes to Galilee – ahead of the women, ahead of the disciples, ahead of the rest of us. The Easter promise is that we will see him when we go to the places where he continues his work.

If you came today looking for proof of the resurrection, I don’t have any. But if we engage in the life of the kingdom, the evidence of resurrection will be all around us. For Jesus Christ is risen from the grave. He's right there, ahead of us, in the place of greatest need. Do you see him yet? Well, get busy...

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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Dark Power of Secrets

Mark 14:10-21
Maundy Thursday
April 2, 2015
William G. Carter

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

In a counseling course, the professor walked in and shut the door. She waited until everybody was quiet, then she lowered her voice and announced the topic of the class. “Today we are going to talk about secrets,” she said. “Everybody has a secret. Every family has a secret. There is some fact or some knowledge that some people know, but nobody talks about.” The classroom became unusually still, because all of us were reflecting on the secrets we held, and the silences that had shaped us.

Of all the hours spent in a graduate school classroom, that is the one I remember most, because over the course of my ministry, I have found that to be true. There are all kinds of private matters that are held tightly: the miscarriage that nobody talks about, the quick remarriage that failed, or the suspicious illness that has locked the door to the outside world.

Sometimes there a discovery at death, like the daughter who learned her father was addicted to gambling. She said, “That explains why suddenly there had been no money for my prom dress, and my mother went weeping in the bedroom.”

Perhaps it is the child who died too soon or the gay uncle who moved out of town. Or there has been a problem with finances or a run-in with the law. A secret is something that somebody knows but nobody talks about.

Tonight we hear a Bible story about secrets. Judas Iscariot and the religious leaders had a secret. Earlier in this chapter, we learned the religious leaders wanted to arrest and eliminate Jesus. They wanted to do it quietly. For some unknown reason, Judas went to them and said, “I’ll turn him in.” They offered to pay him something, although Mark never says he did it for the money. We can speculate all night long about the reason; all Mark says is Judas was “one of the twelve.”

And Jesus had a secret too. He knew the place where the Passover meal would be held. It sounds like he set it up when nobody was looking. “Go into the city,” he said to two of his disciples. “Look for a man carrying a jug of water.” That’s unusual, since carrying the water was done by the women of that time. “Follow the man, and ask his master the location of the guest room. That’s where we will be.”

Why the cloak and dagger arrangements? At least a couple of scholars claim that Jesus didn’t want Judas to know where they were going until the very last minute.[1]This Passover meal will be too important, too significant, too revealing, so Jesus wanted to keep its location a secret so Judas would not interrupt it by tipping off the authorities.

Judas Iscariot had a secret. Jesus had a secret.

Sometimes the secret is a matter best not known, something potentially embarrassing. So out of fear of exposure, we keep it to ourselves. Just take a look at the news of the day, and whatever the investigative journalists uncover about our public figures. Everybody has a secret. Some secrets are held very tightly.

But quite often the secret is about power: “I know something you don’t know.” How many times has the secret holder said, “People are talking.” Who? “Well, I can’t say.” Why? “Because I would rather know something that you don’t know.” You can’t address that kind of unbalanced power. All you can do is ignore it, as if it is an unsigned hate letter which belongs only in the garbage, or you can expose it and bring it into the light.

Jesus exposes it. “One of you will betray me,” he says, “one of you around this table.” He names the secret. He pulls off the lid. He exposes what has been lurking in the shadows and what wants to hide there. He refuses to keep it hidden any longer.

What’s so amazing is the response. Every one of them says, “It isn’t me, is it?” “You’re not talking about me, are you?” “Jesus, are you looking at me?” Every one of them knows the deep capacity within their souls to betray Jesus. Every one of them! There isn’t a smug, self-satisfied Christian in the room.

Oh no, this is the Gospel of Mark, the gospel where none of the disciples smell very well. Three times in this gospel, Jesus has told them openly he is going to the cross. Three times he tells them, three times they don’t get it. “I am going to the cross,” and Simon Peter says, “No, not you.” A second time, “I am going to the cross,” but they don’t him because they are bickering over which one of them is superior to all the others. A third time he says, “I am going to the cross,” and James and John say, “When you go into glory, can we have good seats?” And the other ten get annoyed with James and John because they got to him first.

This is Mark, the Gospel where the disciples never get it. They never understand. In the end, they all run away in Gethsemane. That is Mark’s way of saying none of us ever live up to the promise of following Jesus completely. And if you think you do, get over yourself. Because there is probably some secret that we don’t want others to know, and we certainly don’t want the Lord to know, so we will expend extraordinary energy to hide whatever we do not want disclosed. In fact, we will expend so much energy hiding a secret that we will make ourselves sick.

Jesus rips off the lid to say, “One of you will betray me. Someone right here. Not out there, in here.”

Fred Craddock once said there is a difference between a disciple and a crusader. The crusader says, “Who is it? Who is it?” Looks behind the door and under the bed. Gets out the searchlight and looks in the shadows. “Who is it? Is it you – or you – or you?” But the disciple asks the question that the crusader never asks. The crusader says, “Who is it?” The disciple says, “Is it I?”

The best antidote for sin is telling the truth. It’s ‘fessing up. God can’t do a thing to heal our secrets if we don’t bring them into the light. Like Adam and Eve, eating the forbidden fruit and then hiding behind the tree, and God says, “Where are you?” And they say, “We’re not here. You can’t see us. It wasn’t us, we didn’t do anything wrong.” Really now. Are you going to speak that way to the One who sees everything? To the One who knows everything? The truth is our medicine and it can make us well.

Tonight is Maundy Thursday. In past generations, church members joined their churches on Maundy Thursday. I believe my mother’s confirmation class joined the church on Maundy Thursday. That always seemed so grim. It is such a dark night, full of shadows and secrets. But the more I think about it, if you can handle betrayal and honest confession, you are ready to be a Christian. After all, our friends will disappoint us. We will disappoint them. All of us are a disappointment to Jesus. And how does he respond? He says, “One of you will betray me,” and while we are fussing about that, he breaks the bread, pours the wine, and offers them to us all.

Sometimes people will say, "I am looking for a perfect church." What they mean is a church where the doctrine is agreeable, the behavior is acceptable, and everything is in line with how they think a church ought to function. As if any one of us is the arbiter of all things ecclesial. “I want a perfect church.” Good luck with that. The only perfect church is the one in heaven, and all the people in that church have been forgiven. There is no such thing as a perfect church on earth. Just a circle of failed disciples around their merciful Savior.

Did you come to church tonight with any secrets?

If you did, I have the desire to pray. It is an old prayer and therefore a good one. So let us pray:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid:
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name;
through Christ our Lord.[2] Amen.

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

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2006) p. 111
[2] Episcopal Church, 1979 Book of Common Prayer.